Today's women and yesterday's men

Female pornography is supposed to mark a new chapter in gender relations. So why does Mr Darcy keep

"She arched up her hips and he glided into her, filling her up and stretching her out. Clarissa looked up at him in the darkness, his face only partially illuminated by the amber streetlights and wondered what the drivers of the cars on the road saw."

This steamy quote is embedded deep in The Name of an Angel, the 100th novel published by Black Lace Books. It's five years since Virgin Publishing launched its sexually charged imprint, marketed as "erotic fiction written by women for women". Since then, the first mass-market pornography for women has sold over two and a half million copies. Its success has spurred several other mainstream publishers, including Headline and Little, Brown, to thrust themselves into the market in an attempt to woo the same audience of middle-class, middle-aged, often professional women.

The history of pornography for women has had a slow, drawn-out build-up to its present orgy. From the 1930s onwards AnaIs Nin pioneered the genre, though it has its antecedents as far back as the sixth century BC and the lesbian poet Sappho. Feminists, though, found pornography unacceptable, believing, in Andrea Dworkin's famous phrase, that "if rape is the practice then pornography is the theory".

When the Black Lace series first appeared, it met with condemnation from both feminists and the moral right, the uneasy alliance that makes up the anti-pornography lobby. Virgin, and its erotic literature series editor, Kerri Sharp, felt the problem with pornography wasn't necessarily its content, but that its means of production and audience had been almost exclusively male. Black Lace was a way of redressing the balance.

"There was this idea that women were being forced to betray their gender to write this 'filth'," Sharp recalls. "It's the belief that women don't have an active sexual imagination I found insulting - the worst kind of paternalising about 'nice girls don't'."

The sales of Black Lace novels show that nice girls do - they like reading about it, and they like writing about it: the author of The Name of an Angel is Laura Thornton, a lecturer in English literature at De Montfort University in Leicester who got her DPhil at Oxford University.

As an ultra-literate feminist writer, Thornton feels she is turning some sexual conventions on their head in The Name of an Angel. Her heroine, Clarissa Cornwall, is a sexually experienced college professor who becomes consumed with desire for one of her students, Nicholas St Clair.

But a study of St Clair - and other heroes in the series - shows that the young men bear a remarkable similarity to that old-fashioned Jane Austen hero, Mr Darcy. When the heroine first sees St Clair, she describes him as having: "Reddish-brown hair . . . flipped over a broad forehead overhanging arched, fringed brows, narrowed eyes, long, strong nose and wide, sensual and eminently kissable mouth." The boom in pornography for women may mark a new chapter in gender relations, but beneath the cloak of revolution, it would seem, women readers still want a traditional man. Sharp explains: "Most of our female readers want sexually dominant males - they don't want shy retiring types. It's the whole Mr Darcy thing really."

Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, believes that the driving force behind our behaviour is buried deep in our genes, which evolved to cope with a very different environment. "In evolutionary terms a human female is seeking two things, good genetic material and someone to protect and help her with the parental burden. In romantic fiction they are combined in the young M'Lord with a huge estate."

This reductionist explanation doesn't suit everyone. Rowan Pelling, the editor of the Erotic Review, a high-brow magazine which is now selling 25,000 copies, thinks that traditional images of masculinity and femininity have survived into the 1990s because powerful women feel the same need for a change of scenery as their male counterparts. "The old stereotype of the company director tied up by some dominatrix who's walking all over them is applying to women as well, who are in powerful jobs," she says. "Out of work they want to be dominated."

The heroines of Black Lace novels are portrayed as feisty women who are not intellectually dominated by anyone, but are assertive and in control - good professional women, in other words. However, they are still conventionally feminine: they like wearing make-up, skirts and plunging necklines. The Name of an Angel's heroine is no exception: "Stepping into her black strappy high-heeled shoes, [Clarissa] considered her reflection in the mirror, smiling a little at the image of expensive, elegant temptress . . ."

Thornton is well aware that though her books are breaking some social conventions, they respect others: "I've given my first book to a couple of lecturers and they've hated it. They thought it was very anti-feminist, which really bit me deeply. But I want to write books that a lot of women will find accessible, and applicable to their own experiences." She pauses: "And yes, I am wearing nail polish right now."

For Desmond Morris, the unabashed femininity of Black Lace heroines, like the he-man masculinity of their lust objects, is explained in terms of genes. But if sexual relations can be reduced to natural instincts, why is it that so much that makes up masculinity and femininity is culture-specific? In other cultures, a man wearing a skirt is not regarded as any less masculine; and in the west, a woman with child-bearing hips is no longer hailed as the epitome of femininity.

Other sociologists blame the gender divide exclusively on the bombardment of images of dominant men and female babes who people our newspapers and TV - from Wonderbra to Diet Coke, advertisers trust traditional gender models of masculinity and femininity to sell their products. Yet increasingly, people seem capable of rejecting images projected by the media - as Bill Clinton and the Democrats gratefully discovered this month.

Perhaps, then, the use of Mr Darcy clones in feminine pornography is best explained in old-fashioned Freudian terms. Wendy Hollway, a psychologist and lecturer at Leeds University, believes in the Freudian thesis that much of the way people interact with the world is affected by childhood development. She explains: "Cultural images engage people only if there is something else that's going on at an unconscious level."

The theory is that all children begin life desiring their mother's body, but girls (if they tread the heterosexual path) transfer this attention to father figures at a crucial stage of their development. Hollway continues: "The idea of being held in a man's strong arms echoes back to the parental arms. For the girl, the notion of strong arms are often gendered around muscle because of her relationship with the father figure."

Which all boils down to some simple advice to all those new men suffering post-feminist angst: don't be a wimp.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times