The Times

October 17 1999

Women, not men, are driving a collapse in moral values that is undermining the family and ultimately themselves, says Melanie Phillips

Women behaving disgracefully

Melanie Phillips
The Sunday Times

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one of the most significant problems of modern western society is the male of the species. Without a job, without a role, outsmarted and outstripped by women, men are said to be reverting to their natural proclivities for rape and pillage. They truant from schools, abuse alcohol and drugs, commit crime and father children by serial girlfriends. They are innately promiscuous, heartless and unreliable. Women, in contrast, are long-suffering, patient and put-upon victims of men's excesses.

The key point, however, is that while many men and women are now living sexually free lives, it is the change in women's sexual attitudes and behaviour that has made this possible. This is because women are the pivot of sexual relationships. Men compete for their favours; women have the power of selection. So women's freer sexual habits have fundamentally changed the nature of relations between men and women.

The idea that women were repressed until the sexual revolution in the 1960s is absurd. There is no evidence to suggest that women were ever anything other than sensual and passionate; quite the reverse, in fact. While they may not have been repressed, however, they were restrained, a crucially different matter. Social and religious norms and conventions, along with the fear of becoming pregnant and the tactical game of hooking a husband, meant that women used to restrict their sexual activity within marriage.

When women strayed, it was in the knowledge that they were transgressing strong social norms. Now, however, with sex and marriage detached from each other and the collapse of all norms and stigma, women's sexual appetites have been freed from their previous boundaries of restraint. The result is that more and more women are reducing sexual encounters to physical gratification.

The evidence for this can be seen not merely in the popularity among women of male strippers, but the fact that, as George Sik, the psychologist, has claimed, women at strip clubs behave in a far more abandoned manner than male customers. They become frenzied, scream and even storm the stage. In Newcastle, for example, women objected to the "no touching" rule in its strip clubs as "prudish and meddling". Undercover police said at one show they saw several women on stage with a stripper simulating a sexual act. An officer said: "The police officers present thought it was disgusting and many of the staff felt the same way."

The remarkable aspect of such behaviour is that it is far more boorish than the way men behave at strip clubs. If men were regularly to touch up women strippers, storm the stage and simulate sex acts with them, they would be considered a menace. They would also be said to be acting in character, behaving as men are programmed to do. The idea that women may also be "programmed" to behave in this kind of way is resisted, even faced with the evidence of frenzied sexual excitement over male strippers. That is because the idea is deeply ingrained that women and men have completely different attitudes to sex. Current evidence, however, suggests that the truth is rather more complicated.

Women now openly boast about their involvement in adultery. In almost all cultures, including western society until recently, adultery has always been subject to strict social and legal sanctions. This is because it was rightly held to be lethal to a marriage; marriage was the cement that bound families together, and families were the building blocks of a society's values. Sanctions were more severe for women who committed adultery than for men.

This was principally to safeguard the integrity of genetic inheritance. A mother knows beyond doubt that her baby is hers; a man does not know beyond doubt that it is his.

Of course, there have always been women who committed adultery. In the past, however, they felt bad about it - or at least appeared to do so. To betray a husband, or to procure the betrayal of another woman by her husband, is a form of spiritual and emotional dishonesty or thieving, with almost inevitable consequences of injury, damage and destruction for innocent spouses and children.

Men who betray their wives or help to destroy another husband's life generally have the grace to be sheepish about it, even ashamed. Now, however, the woman who commits adultery tends to display no concern for anyone else's interests but her own. Marika Cobbold, the author, seduced her married publisher Patrick Janson-Smith. He walked out on his wife Pamela and their two young sons; she divorced her husband. Cobbold used this experience to publicise her latest novel. "One is a real little tart in this game. I was completely head-over-heels in love for the first time as an adult. I hurt other people. Absolutely selfishly, what happened was a wonderful thing for me," she said.

Men who leave their wives are regarded, quite rightly, as cheats and creeps. Women who leave their husbands, however, or break up other families mysteriously escape censure in the media. Anthea Turner left her husband Peter Powell after eight years for Grant Bovey. A newspaper interview admired her "coping strategies" during her "annus horribilis" when Bovey went back to Della, his wife,and sympathised with the emotional cost to Turner even though "she's got her man back".

Yet "her man" was someone else's husband and her annus horribilis occurred because he had briefly remembered his responsibilities to his family. Nevertheless, Turner spoke as if she was the injured party: "I kept thinking: I can't believe this is happening to me. In a minute I'll wake up from this nightmare." She seemed to put herself beyond responsibility: "What has happened between Grant and me," she said, "has been beyond the control of either of us."

Of course, the male lovers in these affairs behaved badly, too. But what is ignored is the part played by the women, which draws little criticism. The real problem, surely, is that both men and women feel they can be irresponsible with impunity and a total absence of shame.

The key figure in this situation is the woman who has become openly sexually available. In doing so she has shattered the delicate equilibrium between the sexes on which stable relationships depend. The conventions of commitment, fidelity and duty which once restrained the sexual appetites of women have broken down. Women feel licensed to behave with the sexual opportunism that was once considered the particular characteristic of men. The family gamekeeper has turned poacher.

The problem is not a collapse of the male role, but a collapse of conduct which has brought about a new sexual order or, rather, disorder. Driven by women, it is a process which is loaded against men. Women, however, are ultimately losers, too, with children the worst casualties of all.

There are three key characteristics of the new sexual order. The first is the spread of sexual relationships outside marriage, free from social disapproval. The second is the erosion of stable marriages, both as cause and result of the new spread of sexual relationships. The third is the widespread toleration of illegitimacy and the exclusion of the father from the family unit, now defined as the mother and child alone.

These three developments taken together have fundamentally altered the relationship between the sexes and the mating games that are played. They have also had the momentous effect of marginalising men within family life, or even driving them away altogether. Fathers have turned into a bolt-on optional extra. Instead of being seen as an integral part of the family unit, men are now permitted merely to bring - in certain circumstances defined by women - additional value to it.

It is said repeatedly that there is nothing wrong with being a single parent and what is important is not the type of family but the quality of the relationship. The very term "single-parent family" implies that there has been no loss but that this is a type of family complete in itself. It normalises what is abnormal and redefines the family as a unit without a man.

About one child in every four experiences the divorce of its parents. Such children generally lose their fathers from the family. Even worse, studies suggest a large number lose contact with their fathers altogether, with one third of children losing touch with one parent immediately after separation and another third losing touch five years after their parents' divorce.

It is because the mother and child unit by itself does not constitute an adequate kinship unit that every society has in the past regarded illegitimacy as a social taboo. Yet Britain has now departed from this universal pattern. The proportion of never-married lone mothers began to increase quite sharply around 1986, when the incidence of births outside marriage started to rise at a faster rate. In 1991 never-married mothers started to eclipse the numbers of divorced mothers in the lone parent population. In 1996 the proportion of births outside marriage was 36%, compared with 9% in 1976, featuring a six-fold increase for women in their twenties. Half of all conceptions now take place outside marriage, compared with one third in 1986.

The implications of this change are considerable. Unmarried motherhood and births out of wedlock once aroused social disapproval. Stigma, however, is now taboo; there is an absolute prohibition against hurting people's feelings by implying there is anything to be disapproved of in their chosen way of life. This has caused a moral paralysis. Fear of giving offence has left people so reluctant to criticise irresponsibility that irresponsible behaviour has itself been redefined as blameless, even heroic. There is no doubt that many lone mothers perform valiantly in successfully bringing up their children against all the odds. However, the idea that lone motherhood is a misfortune best avoided has been banished. More and more women are choosing it, or are relatively indifferent to the probability that they will find themselves in it.

No doubt many never-married mothers have their babies in the belief that their relationship with the baby's father is more than a passing affair. Nevertheless, the fact that they choose not to marry means they do not regard the father as an integral part of the family furniture. Their "independence" is of greater importance to them than the guarantee of a permanent relationship.

This is the crucial change. The mother, after all, takes much more of a risk in these informal relationships than the father. Of course, he, too, has chosen to enter an insecure relationship. The pivotal partner, however, is the mother, who bears most of the burden of care for her offspring and who until now has been concerned to build in guarantees of protection for herself and her children.

Even more remarkable is the increasing trend for women to use men deliberately and instrumentally as the means to have a baby, but with no intention of living with the father as a family. Celebrities and other public figures have bestowed upon this strategy of elective fatherlessness a patina of glamour.

The rock icon Madonna, for example, became a lone mother by 29-year-old fitness trainer Carlos Leon who she appeared to use as a means to an end. Other women are doing without an identifiable father at all, reducing paternity to an emission in a test tube and dehumanising altogether the men who are used. As one women's magazine encouraged its readers: "So what do you think you need a man for? Babies? Think artificial insemination."

Carol Fox, Labour candidate for the Scottish parliament and a single mother, said she was keen to have a second child fathered by the same anonymous sperm donor who fathered her daughter Natasha. "New Labour has no difficulty with my lifestyle," she said. "Natasha is not some statement I'm making to the world, she's a wee human being. I put a great deal of thought into it before I had her."

Malcolm Chisholm, the former Scottish Office minister who resigned in protest over cuts to single-parent benefit, said: "Carol is a brilliant candidate and a brilliant mother." She had been turned away from fertility clinics because she was single, before a clinic in Eastbourne treated her through 12 attempts at in vitro fertilisation at a cost of £15,000. "Women should be able to choose to have a child or not in whatever circumstances. The important thing is that the child is wanted rather than being born into any recipe or equation of a family," she said.

It often appears that such mothers want the baby to gratify themselves rather than seeing a child as the living embodiment of a spiritual and physical union with a man. The result is that the father is openly used and discarded.

Laura Baker-Graves, 42, conceived her son Matthew during an affair. "When I became pregnant with Matthew, I had no plans to continue a relationship with the father. I wanted a child and I used David as a means to an end - and I don't regret it." They had a three- month affair and continued to share a night every so often. Then, aware that her body clock was ticking, she decided to have David's baby but without telling him. "I didn't want him in my life - he was just baby-making material."

Now, she said, her one regret was that she had contacted David about the baby. "I should have used David just for his sperm and not told him I was pregnant. Although he has wanted to see Matthew, he has proved to be inconsistent to the point of annoyance." Since Matthew became tearful whenever David had not rung, she concluded: "It is better to have one stable parent than a second unpredictable one."

A repeated refrain among women is that, having failed to find a man with whom to settle down they fear they are running out of time to have a child. It does not occur to them that maybe their own sexual behaviour is making it difficult to find a permanent mate. Human beings are more than the sum of their reproductive systems. Men as well as women are driven by the overwhelming need for human attachments and affiliations; women as well as men are prone to the opportunism which dictates that they will behave selfishly if they can get away with it.

The sexual contract is a finely balanced equilibrium. Men always constrained their own sexual appetites because they were required to by women. This suited men because it brought together their two powerful instincts: to have sex and to make permanent attachments and raise their own children. People tend to assume that these are mutually incompatible. They are not. Men have a powerful sex drive, but they also have a strong homing instinct which marriage brings together in harmony.

When men are no longer enticed into a domestic setting, however, the default of promiscuity starts to operate. Women have thrown away the trump card that they used to hold in the mating game: the constraints they once imposed on their sexual activity.

What women failed to grasp was that this new-found freedom would undermine their still powerful need for the settled love and commitment of men, a need that becomes more urgent as they get older and begin to hear the ticking of that body clock. They failed to see that they were driving men away through a misinterpretation of sexual equality.

Many girls adopt a kind of female laddishness because they confuse sexual equality with identical behaviour. The peer pressures to be sexually free are enormous in a society where explicit sex is the currency of the consumer culture. So girls cast aside the constraints which deep down they may still feel are in their own best interests. In addition, the presumption of sexual equality has raised women's expectations of men to new and unrealistic heights. Women now expect an emotional expressiveness and compatibility that many men are unable to deliver. So girls go from relationship to relationship in pursuit of this chimera of perfect sexual symmetry.

While girls are young, they can play the market. In their late twenties, perhaps, or early thirties, they begin to panic as time slips away and they still have not found the perfect mate. They have forgotten that men commit themselves to a woman not in return for sex but for exclusive sex. If it is not exclusive, why should men bother to stick around?

© Melanie Phillips 1999

Extracted from The Sex Change Society: Feminised Britain and the Neutered Male by Melanie Phillips, to be published by Social Market Foundation on November 1, £12.99. Copies can be ordered for £11.99 from The Sunday Times Bookshop on 0870 165 8585

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.