The fallacy of the "easy girl" generation

Reading the newspapers - almost always, let's face it, a bitter-sweet experience - can sometimes be especially demoralising. This past week, as usual, there were plenty of depressing stories, from carnage in the Middle East to Heather Mills McCartney's "abandonment", which seemed to add up to her looking miserable at a Madonna concert.

But sometimes it's the very smallest stories (yes, even smaller than the Mills McCartney one) that really get you down. So, for instance, the widely reported magazine survey of 3,000 women (average age: 28) which found that many would prefer not to work, one in ten would sleep with the boss for a guaranteed promotion, and almost half would pose topless for page three made me bang my head against my desk while gouging my thigh with a compass. On lifting my head briefly to read on, I found that these results were being used to dub this demographic - the one that I fall neatly into - the "easy girl" generation, a coinage that skilfully blends laziness with sluttishness. Excellent!

And yet, through a haze of self-harm, I realised I was approaching the results quite wrongly. These surveys that ask women whether we're happy (who is, when they really consider it?) or whether we've done/would like to do naughty, irresponsible things (yep, that's all of us, too) appear weekly, their results often garnering masses of attention and purveying the message that women are unhappy, feckless and immoral, and that feminism has therefore failed. Said results are extremely popular with newspapers, being a great excuse to run a picture of a very pretty woman alongside an editorial suggesting that emancipation has clearly been A VERY BAD THING. All of which - the conclusion that we women are letting ourselves down and the publicising of such - is supremely frustrating and disheartening, hence my bloodied thigh.

But the fact is that, in most cases, you would get similar answers if you asked the same leading questions of men. So, for instance, when it comes to New Woman's "easy girl" survey, I'm quite sure that just as many men would rather not work, would sleep with their female boss to gain promotion, and, if offered £10,000 to strip off (the amount mooted in the survey), would jump at the moolah. You can criticise the survey's respondents for wanting an easy life, but, realistically, that is exactly what most folk, regardless of age, gender or background, are after. Hence the incredulity and dark laughter when any Lottery winner suggests that they'll return to their job.

That only 13 per cent of these young women still want to be working at 40 is a bit depressing, but probably more a reflection of the jobs market, especially for women's work (at least 87 per cent of jobs just aren't all that interesting/lucrative), than it is of anything else. OK, you say, but if a men's magazine asked its readers whether they liked their bodies, as Grazia did this year, more than 2 per cent would say yes.

That is probably true, but male confidence arises partly from men not being being asked constantly to analyse their looks, personalities and behaviour in search of glaring flaws. Women's magazine surveys are one of many reminders to women that we should continually be picking ourselves apart like a monkey hunting fleas. And the media reaction, when it turns out that women aren't perfect, emphasises that we are held to a much higher moral standard than men: that while it may be socially reprehensible when men turn out to be unambitious binge drinkers who have one-night stands and use their sexuality to get ahead, if women do the same thing it's a sign, not of equality, but of feminism's failure and impending cultural doom (which can, thankfully, be illustrated with a photograph of a girl passed out in her scanties).

The world would probably be a better place if we all ignored such surveys. Because the real story is that young women today are more successful than ever. Sure, many would prefer not to work, but faced with the reality that we do have to, we are one of the most ambitious demographics in history. As the TUC spokesperson Kay Carberry noted in response to the survey: "Girls are outperforming boys in school . . . make up half of all graduates and are leaving university more, not less, ambitious."

The only snag is that when this story is actually reported it's usually in terms of "the boy crisis", and as proof that the education system is skewed in favour of girls. As Tammy Wynette sang then, and Heather Mills McCartney no doubt knows now, sometimes it's hard to be a woman . . .

Kira Cochrane is the Guardian women's editor