Entry from July 31, 2014

In the British media at this time of high international tension and the imminent prospective break-up of the United Kingdom, it sometimes seems as if female sensitivities and resentments are the only topic of conversation. I confess to a certain thrill of pleasure to see that Richard Dawkins has stepped in deep doo-doo by purporting to classify rape by the degree of severity with which it should be regarded, according as it is committed by a stranger or an acquaintance. As Sian Norris put it in The Independent, in the course of rehearsing well-worn feminist arguments against any counsel of sexual prudence,"it’s not up to men to try and define women’s experiences of violence for them." And who could disagree with that? Meanwhile, Eleanor Robertson in The Guardian was taking the occasion for a more general assault on Professor Dawkins’s arrogance, in the course of which she quotes Professor Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology."

Nor was he the only male Briton lately to have blotted his copybook with those they used to call the ladies. The recently appointed Minister of Defense in the Liberal-Conservative Coalition government was outed by Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon — who, until her also recent venture into marriage and motherhood, used to delight that paper’s readers with accounts of her sexual adventures — as having once called her a slut. Actually, it was more amusing than that. The minister in question, one Michael Fallon, had met Miss Gordon at a party and, being told only that she worked for the Telegraph, asked her ""Do you know that slut who writes that column at the back of the magazine?" By her own account, she answered, "Yes, I know her very well, because that slut is me" — though Mr Fallon denies that he used the s-word.

She herself used the less offensive word "slattern" in originally reporting the incident, though she says this is only because her editors, thinking that even quoting the word "slut" would give offense, made her change it. Carol Midgley in The Times then weighed in on the semantic parallels and differences between the two words, though she appears not to know that "slut" is a regional (Northern) dialect term for "slattern" and does not (or at least did not until recently) have a sexual connotation, apart from the fact that it is a word only ever used of women. That in itself, however, must be enough to damn it in Ms Midgley’s eyes, as she professes to be outraged at the double standard — perhaps you’ve heard of it? — by which sexual promiscuity in women is treated differently (and spoken of in different terms) from promiscuity in men.

In my book, Honor, A History, I quote the 18th century philosopher Bernard Mandeville as having written of honor that it is "very whimsical, and the Difference in the Signification so prodigious, according as the Attribute was either applied to a Man, or to a Woman, that neither shall forfeit their Honour, tho’ each should be guilty, and openly boast of what be the other’s greatest Shame." The "greatest Shame" for a woman, that is, was what he gallantly calls "Gallantry" — that is, promiscuity — in a man, while a man’s greatest shame is cowardice, the imputation of which to a woman is equally no shame to her. It all seems fairly equitable to me, and at any rate it seems undeniable that this cultural difference between the sexes and hence the double standard goes back at least to the dawn of human history. Or at least I should say so if I weren’t too cowardly.


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