It has been said that Stephen Fry, a gay man who has spent around fifteen years celibate, does not know enough about women to make the comments about gender differences that he did this weekend. (Neither do I of course, but here goes.) There is a misogynistic myth that men are chained to the raving idiot while the fair sex is above such base desires and dreams only of marriage and carriage. This idea has filtered into the culture pretty much unchallenged. Men promise commitment to get sex, women promise sex to get commitment – that’s what everyone says, and you see it in portrayals of heterosexual relationships in books, sitcoms, adverts: everywhere that relationships are represented. There has been a recent vogue in contemporary feminist writing to attack ideas of female sexual liberation – I’m thinking of Natasha Walter and Laurie Penny – so it’s a little rich for feminists now to turn and attack Fry for repeating what is essentially received and commonplace conventional wisdom.
Men certainly have different attitudes to casual sex. We invest so much of our self-worth in the ability to pull and are searching for the fact of the experience rather the experience itself. As an acquaintance of mine said years and years ago: ‘The best part of sex is telling your friends about it.’ Sex for the contemporary male is poisoned by the male fetish of mindless competition. We have reduced the art of seduction to league tables and post-match analysis.
The point that Laurie Penny does get is that women are prescribed in how they express sexuality in ways that men aren’t. I was at a crime writing event at the tail end of the Manchester litfest, and the conversation turned to gender differences in crime writing. The author Val McDermid talked about the fear of violence that has to be factored into every female decision. The risk of getting into a cab, of accepting a drink from a man, of meeting a man for a drink. The paranoia that has become common sense. Violence is something that women have to think about all the time. Support and redress is not guaranteed. The UK court’s approach to sentencing of rapists is inconsistent, to put it kindly. And after everything you will get the blame anyway. Shouldn’t have been walking in that particular area. Shouldn’t have been walking at that particular time. Shouldn’t have been walking alone. Shouldn’t have been drinking. Shouldn’t have been dressed in that particular way. Shouldn’t have adopted that particular body language. Shouldn’t have made that flirty joke. It’s not just the tabloid readers who will say these things. It’s the nice, liberal-creative Guardian readers, the men you know and date, men who would qualify to serve on the jury in the unlikely event your attacker ever faces trial.
Even as someone with a history of anxiety disorders I can walk the evening streets without feeling afraid. Even at this time of long nights that feel fresh and dread no matter how many years you watch them come around. I realised listening to McDermid that I’d never really understood the female fear of violence any more than I’d understood what it is like to walk down a street feeling the weight of the objectifying and evaluating eternal male gaze. And even if you get through the fear there is the shame. The stud/slut hypocrisy still holds. I can walk into a bar alone, get a drink and watch the band that’s playing; a single woman in the same situation has to deal with weird looks and unwanted propositions. The idea that honour rests between a woman’s thighs is nowhere near as ingrained in the West as in the theocratic world, but it exists, all the same. Just as women still face pay inequalities and career ceilings in the liberated rich world, so they have to deal with silent prescriptions that inhibit the search for pleasure, the search for romance, the search for good times, the urge to be loved, the desire to love: the human quest and the human mystery.