Living Dolls

Issue section: 
(344)

Natasha Walters, Virago, £12.99

Subtitled The Return of Sexism, Living Dolls examines the links between mainstream ideas of femininity, the scientific bases for these widely accepted views and their impact on the lives of women and girls. It pays particular attention to the way the rise in raunch culture narrows the view of sex to that of a commodity.

Natasha Walter argues that the sex industry has a constricting and psychologically damaging effect on women and how they see their lives. She also demonstrates that societal stereotypes are played out in the way children are raised, and are accountable for characteristic differences in sexes in adulthood.

Walter argues that the mainstream media take a very selective approach to scientific research. There is a bias towards publishing material that reinforces biological determinism - the idea that sexism is a result of natural and unchangeable differences between men and women.

Ten years ago Walter argued, in the face of critics of Third Wave Feminism, that feminism "should not be there to police women's clothes and sexual behaviour". Her view was that the way in which women could express themselves sexually in our society was a positive and visible mark of the gains of the feminist movement and that sexism in our culture would "wither away". Now, in her own words, she "is ready to admit [she] was wrong".

The first half of the book takes a journalistic approach, with interviewees ranging from women in prostitution and those actively aspiring to be glamour models, to young women still at school and men with pornography addictions.

This method gives a clear insight and resounding condemnation of the psychological impact of the sex commodity culture on individuals as it exposes you to their humanity and how they are personally affected. Due to the thoroughness and honesty of Walter's study, reading this section of the book was not enjoyable. It was, however, extremely engaging, producing a mixed reaction of nausea and rage to the extent that I was forced to slam the book down at points.

This reaction was particularly vivid during her study of how men have rated prostitutes online and the way in which they refer to women as objects of pleasure for use, with a complete detachment from the human engagement of sex. Although brutal, example after example blows apart the notion that there is something liberating about raunch culture.

Walter also explores the way in which parents and adults in general can often reinforce limiting gender roles for their children. One example she uses is a children's party where a girl is being undeniably aggressive towards a boy, but the boy is the one depicted as having a problem socially engaging in the group as this view is typical of supposed gender difference. She underlines how sexism can be reinforced and nurtured even at a subconscious level.

In the last section of the book Walter engages impressively in the scientific debate on whether or not inequality between women and men is determined by their biological make-up. Do girls' brains make them better at socialising and caring for others? Are boys programmed in their genes to be more technically minded, spatially aware and measured? These are fundamental questions for anyone who wants to challenge women's oppression.

Walter looks at a wide range of scientific experiments, including ones used to argue in favour of biological determinism. In this process she proves that its claims are completely unfounded.

She also shows how mainstream media present the science of sexism as though there is a consensus on biological determinism, when clearly there are as many dissenting views and contrary pieces of evidence as there are in favour. This section is valuable for any anti-sexist to read. It will arm you with factual and statistical ammunition to challenge the seemingly weighty evidence that we cannot change inequality because it's in our genes.

The best element of the book overall is that it shows there "is a way beyond such fatalism", and that the polarisation imagined as "nature versus nurture" in the debate on sex inequality is a false dichotomy.

The progressive and optimistic conclusion of the book is that "there is no unchanging biological reality, free from history, just as there is no blank slate on which the finger of experience writes". This argument opens the door for us to actively confront sexism in both women and men, because people's ideas can change, but also to challenge where sexism comes from through opposing the system in which it is rooted and fighting to change it.