Your typical Trollope-loving, Brahms-bothering Spectator reader probably won’t be aware that the most recent winner of Big Brother was a girl called Isabelle Warburton, but her victory was a joy to behold — and a lesson to be learned. The unemployed 21-year-old had a tan so orange it made Oompa-Loompas look pale and interesting, and on her first night in the house she was already wisecracking about how she’d caught an STD in Ibiza from a fellow contestant. Everyone presumed she was an air-headed bimbo, but she went on to display the most extraordinary decency — the only word for it — with her honesty, self-sacrifice and boldness. She took on and saw off the strutting alpha male of the house and volunteered herself for eviction to save a rival. Unlikely as it may sound, Isabelle Warburton is a striking example of how excellent the often sneered-at young women of today really are.
I pity people who confuse chastity with decency; it’s both immature and moribund. Why do so many curtain-twitching prigs still think that girls who aren’t ashamed to have sex are Bad People? Why do tight-lipped hacks write why-o-whiny newspaper pieces about the decline of morality and the end of the world as we know it? If they were nuns, I’d still disagree with them but I’d respect their point of view. The idea of journalists — whose pursuit of sex, drink and money puts a 1970s Aerosmith tour to shame — getting on their high horses never fails to bring a snigger to my sneer.
But it’s not just my lot having a go. Take any elderly actress; when their nipples go south, so the nose goes north. High-profile women who would strip off at the drop of a hat when young and perky suddenly come over all moral once they’ve been mugged by gravity. Helen Mirren said while publicising her The Queen film: ‘A world of duty, sacrifice and honour meeting up with the Walkers crisps generation of consumer celebrity, going to Ibiza, taking your top off and staggering about boasting about how many guys you shagged that night.’ The singer Annie Lennox, who was once more than happy to prance about in her scanties, has said: ‘Nowadays, women are sexually explicit and they use this as a tool to get popular, and I find this very one-dimensional.’
Those who appear to have learned their history from the lid of a Quality Street tin would have us believe that the past was a sexually continent country, but in Restoration London a whopping one in six women was a sex worker, and in Victorian England it was the fourth-largest female occupation. When sex is at its most pathologically private, it is often at its worst. Female sexual modesty is most prized in the most corrupt and oppressive societies. If approached in a spirit of fun and frankness, in the manner of Isabelle Warburton, sex can provide human beings with some of the best moments of their lives. As Sir John Betjeman said when asked towards the end of his life if he had any regrets: ‘Yes — not enough sex.’
As the brilliant young writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge recently said of her sex-crazed heroine in Fleabag: ‘You’re always being told you’re at your peak, you’re the most attractive you’ll ever be, so get out there and use it. But it’s such a weird conflicted message: I must be more promiscuous; I must make the most of this dying, shrivelling shell that I’ve been gifted for this short amount of time. But at the same time, it’s “Don’t be a slut.” I felt really strongly while writing that there was no such thing as a slut, and I was just going to erase that from the equation.’
Forget all the alarmist nagging about the way that young girls today are being encouraged to define themselves solely by their sexuality — if that was so, would female academic achievement be going up as never before? I think it far more likely that they just don’t see why they have to choose between being a slut or a swot, a bookworm or a booty-shaker — they can be both or neither, at once, or now and then, and it really doesn’t matter. Chastity and decency are not the same — and, frankly, anyone who believes they are must be either a prude or a pervert.