Sarah Ditum posted this charming press release from a company hoping to garner some publicity for their website which arranges affairs between older, richer men and young women. Given the sort of releases which find their way onto the desks of friends who’re journalists, I genuinely don’t know whether this is simply scatter-shot marketing or whether they figure that being criticised by a well-known feminist writer will be useful exposure as well. Sarah pointed out the remarkable aspect of their service that this firm has decided to lead with when producing this document: that the sort of men who sign up to their website apparently regard women as a collection of customizable attributes rather than people.
They didn’t go for some warmed-over and misunderstood evolutionary psychology about how younger women find older men with disposable income naturally attractive, or a pseudo-straight talking line about the rising costs of a college education and the variety of work which students are undertaking to pay for it. These would both have provided the topical hook and the “everyone’s got an opinion” factor which press releases seem to aim at. No, they decided that the opinion which every reasonable person holds, and which they could tap into to kick-start conversations in the media which would get their name in front of people, was what list of physical details women should possess to appeal effectively to rich men.
It shouldn’t be surprising, but it just about is, that a company thinks this is the sort of topic that will get attention at coffee breaks and on twitter. Up there with the Ashes, the Spice Girls’ possible comeback tour with Victoria, and whether it’s worth gambling on another couple weeks of sunshine by buying the heavily discounted barbecue stuff in the Tesco seasonal aisle. What search terms men type into Google when they want to find a woman for sex who has less money than they do. What are the optimal features of a woman who will be economically dependent upon you in exchange for a sexual relationship. I say “you” because – as ever – the default perspective here is male. Men are the ones imagined as selecting, demanding and comparing, so the press release offers all readers their point of view.
As ever, I wanted to explore the particular words that the press release chose to focus on, though. Beyond the physical descriptions, the piece claims that men searched for women who were “open-minded”, “sensual” and “energetic”. All of these are admirable traits in a person, and at times I’m sure many of us wish we exemplified them rather more than we do. But I suspect we also all know that these words don’t mean what they claim. These keywords are codewords for women who embody certain male fantasies. They don’t describe a woman’s character or approach to life, but rather the way she responds to men’s demands.
“Open-minded” is a remarkable compliment, but here it doesn’t refer to a broad reading life, a readiness to have her assumptions about politics challenged, and a desire to understand the lives of people from other cultures. It means she’ll be willing to try about three sexual acts which have been defined as “open-minded” by the male-dominated vocabulary about sex which saturates our culture. You can probably name them immediately yourselves. “Open-minded” in this sense reduces a woman’s intellectual and ethical horizons to her acceptance of a sexual programme selected from the tropes of male fantasy. It’s the opposite of open-minded. I’m fairly sure it doesn’t mean that the man using this search term hopes she will explore her own sexual personality in ways which challenge or question his desires. I don’t imagine he intends to be “open-minded”.
“Sensual” is another term which has a broad range of reference, which this document is fairly obviously shrinking. Being attuned to the senses is an effective way to truly experience the world around us; many people would say it is the only way to genuinely enter into the richness of reality. It can lead us to the physical disciplines of art in dance, music and theatre; to an exploration of the natural world and our place in it; to cooking and its combination of craft, cultural understanding and immediate enjoyment. But of course I’m being satirical. “Sensual” here refers to only one use of the senses, and only one expression of that. It means a parody of sexual self-expression which Friends memorably summed up caught in that flashback episode: “Just act like everything around you turns you on.” It means a woman being sexually available in a way that implies her entire world is arranged around her sexuality. Like “open-minded” it compresses her personality and her potential into her suitability for male fantasies and their acting out.
“Energetic” follows the same pattern. This is not about the sports she played at university level, or her habit of getting up early to work on her novel. It’s not about the community activism she lavishes her weekends and spare evenings on, or her long hikes across the hills whilst she shrugs off the stress of the working week. It’s code for “sex on demand”. The force that drives the human body is reduced to a single activity at the behest of another person. This – like all three adjectives – is a precise demonstration of the feminist critique of society’s attitude to women. It treats them as “the sex class”, redefining their personality, potential and individual existence according to heterosexual norms and men’s desires.
Reading this list I was reminded of my wife’s frustration at the gym when she saw a man nearby smirking whilst the instructor advised her and a friend of the increase in “flexibility” which a workout programme would deliver for them. It was a literal account of certain muscular changes which would occur, but to him it was an adjective which, when applied to women, could only mean “sex”. I’m not complaining that these words *really* don’t mean what these men are using them for. Words are dependent upon context and usage. I’m complaining that when applied to young women being selected for affairs by older men, this is exactly what they do mean. There is a corruption of our language taking place in this sort of usage. Language is what we think and talk with, and the patterns which we jointly make in it make some ideas and feelings easier to articulate, and other more difficult. The more our public culture accepts these meanings, the more we go along with it, the more it obscures the full humanity of half our population.