Julie Burchill: female desire from maenads to One Direction fans

Desire makes us feel fully alive, when even love can’t reach those unsafe spaces that make life worth living.

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If lust is a tantalising twinge and love is a po-faced project, desire – deranging, demotivating, delirious – occupies the ground between the two. It has the obsessive properties of love but, like lust, it’s mainly a physical thing – and, like both, it often has more to do with us running from boredom than with the object of our affections, who would probably prefer to be left alone to get on with their own business in peace. From Henry VIII going around spoiling women’s lives by forcing them into doomed marriages to One Direction fans tweeting Liam that the baby’s not his, we can see that desire is a selfish thing – yet we persist in pretending that it is some caring, sharing bicycle made for two, rather than an out-of-control vehicle that allows us to run roughshod over the lives of others as we flee from our ennui.

Not only does our desire justify bad behaviour, but the fear of others may lead us to treat them monstrously, as has historically been true of male panic about the perceived pandemonium of female desire. Many cultures still attempt literally to excise it through the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, which has ruined the lives of more than 200 million girls and women alive today – with a further three million girls going under the knife each year, usually before the age of 15, including more than 5,700 girls in this country in 2015-16. But when not tolerating butchery of girls in the name of diversity, the civilised world has largely abandoned attempts to dampen female desire along with the chastity belt, and now accepts it as a good thing; hence the publication of more academic studies about it than one can shake a vibrator at.

With this book, opening as it does with quotes from both Bonnie Tyler and Sylvia Plath, you instantly know you’re in the company of one of those ’aving-it-large academics who are equally at home reading Jackie and Jacques Derrida. I admit to a reflexive irritation with this type, but that’s probably because these people’s jobs seem even more of a skive than mine. I was dismayed to see that the book opens with Freud’s tired old saw “What do women want?” – far too often used as a starting point for examinations of the female psyche – but within minutes I was cheered by a letter from “Lord X” to the birth control campaigner Marie Stopes, whose book Married Love his wife had recently read:

Once you give women a taste for these things they become vampires, and you have let loose vampires into decent men’s homes . . . You have made my home a hell: I cannot meet the demands of my wife now that she knows.

A great attraction of popademia books is that they provide ammunition against the cavilling Cassandras of the middlebrow media who – despite all evidence to the contrary – insist that modern life is rubbish by showing that nothing is new. I quickly learned here that Greek mythology had the maenads, or “raving ones”, who were as uncontrollable on a drunken night out as any bunch of babes down the Bigg Market on New Year’s Eve; that women collected Liszt’s cigar stubs with all the fervour of Beliebers going after their boy’s used bubblegum; and that even bluestockings can be gold-diggers – apparently, Elizabeth Bennet first falls for Mr Darcy when she sees how big his house is. I despair of my middle-aged generation when I hear yet more censorious rubbish about sexting (usually from ­women who were total goers in their youth and are seeking to become superannuated born-again virgins by slagging off their youngers and yummiers), so it was cheering to read, of boy-band worship,

A sense of bonding with . . . peers over shared enthusiasms is important: the sense of belonging to a youthful community. The digital revolution, rising use of smartphones, and the popularity of social networking sites have expanded and amplified the opportunities for such bonding on a scale which can take the breath away.

Dyhouse has a fresh and mischievous style, with no whiff of the midnight oil, and she can be pleasingly waspish when the occasion demands. “To the relief of many readers, both in the 1920s and today, Tessa dies before the relationship gets physical,” she writes of one May-to-September love story. She also offers original insights into the phenomenon of women being attracted to men of ambiguous sexuality – or those who are flagrantly gay – and wonders why we find William Connor’s 1956 attack on Liberace in the Daily Mirror so amusing, given that it reeks of hysterical, threatened masculinity that’s every bit as comical as what he called this “slag-heap of lilac-covered hokum”.

That an effeminate man who loved his mother could send women into paroxysms of desire seemed to bring out the wounded bull in a china shop in men who, for their own odd reasons, wanted granite-jawed brute force to be the quickest route to the female heart. But this female ideal had form. Long before the “girly-boys” of pop – not “the kind of guy who would jump on you or hurt you”, as Viv Albertine wrote touchingly of Marc Bolan – Scarlett O’Hara preferred the gentle Ashley to the roistering Rhett. And polls of young women in the late 1950s very often put the cardigan-wearing nice guy Perry Como above the pelvis-crazed Elvis Presley as their choice dreamboat.

This narrative contradicts the idea that women invariably prefer “bad boys” – a fiction finessed in order to paint us as keener to be bullied by men than we actually are, unless we have extremely low self-esteem – and is subversive and biology-bashing, suggesting as it does that women relish the thrill of being pursuers and persuaders of reluctant men. Of course, there is no accounting for taste, and even Champion the Wonder Horse shows up in a survey that asks respondents about their first romantic fantasy. Talk about not frightening the horses!

Desire might have started out as a displacement activity (the way that sexual activity declines once it becomes domesticated indicates that the transgression is often more of a thrill than how the act feels), but what happens when the displacement activity begins to feel more authentic than the original instinct it sought to mask?

You can never underestimate the imp of perversity, which – when everything seems tucked-up tidy – upsets apple carts and points out that emperors have no clothes in the sexual arena as much as in politics. That Emma Bovary had a boring marriage and dreamed of demon lovers while Anastasia Steele dreamed of shrinking her demon lover into suitable material for a boring marriage suggests that what many women desire is (just like many men) what they can’t/shouldn’t/won’t have. Desire is – somewhat perplexingly, for the conventionally minded – an end in itself. It’s something that makes us feel fully alive, when even love can’t reach those unsafe spaces that make life worth living.

This article appears in the 09 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine