Image by lululemon athletica via Flickr
When I first heard someone say: "No publicity is bad publicity", my instant response was: "Yeah, I bet that's right!" It sounded so clever and cynical. "Life's all about grabbing people's attention and keeping it," I thought. The squeaky hinge gets the oil, the country that threatens nuclear proliferation gets the aid, the most-papped glamour model gets the book deal.
It's an old saw that seems horrible enough to be true and whoever's running the Cambridge Union Society clearly subscribes to it. Last week, the debating society announced that it was offering pole dancing lessons to female students. They're to be held in the Blue Room, which, I assume, someone thinks is humorously apt – unless it was chosen over the "Boobs Library" or "Legs Akimbo Lounge and Conference Suite".
A spokeswoman said: "We are of the opinion that classes like these are a way of empowering women… if an intelligent, independent woman wishes to learn a particular form of dance in respectable surroundings –" I'd be very surprised? No: "…we see nothing degrading in that." And I suppose if some stupid or impressionable women want to join in, that's fine as well.
So far, so undergraduate. They've correctly identified that received wisdoms, such as the view that pole dancing is degrading, shouldn't be taken as read. But they've confused being contrarian with forming a reasoned opinion. Having stumbled upon the word "empowering", which can be deployed under so many circumstances – I use it about charging my phone – they've let it trick them into thinking that they've framed an argument.
I expect they're feeling a bit smug that it made the papers. When I was a student, I made up a story about a cat crapping on the script of a play I was trying to publicise. This duly appeared in the gossip column of the student newspaper and was subsequently picked up by the Times diary. I thought this basically made me Max Clifford. And more people would be aware of the show, I reasoned. True. And they'd associate it with cat shit. If it made anyone buy a ticket, I don't want to meet them. But I'm sure that Juan de Francisco, the union entertainments officer who's organising the classes, thinks he's done himself and the society good by getting this mischievous idea some coverage.
He hasn't but that's all right. Being dickishly flippant is one of the joys of student life. The Union Society, in particular, is an institution where persuasively advocating things you disagree with or don't care about is all part of the game. It may be idiotic, but no more so than stealing road signs, guzzling so many Creme Eggs that you throw up or crawling around the floor dribbling and eating from the dog's bowl. It's all part of growing up. Or, in my case, a Friday night out.
And it's understandable that if you're, say, a 20-year-old woman at Cambridge and a committee member of the Union Society, you may not think that the world is quite the sexist place people say. It probably doesn't feel like it. So why not use your looks, surely as eternal as your intellect, to further "empower" yourself by making men ogle you as well as admire your keen grasp of tort law? That's not a policy with a shelf-life, is it?
Pole dancing is grim and I don't see anything empowering about learning it. Even if you say that it's just dancing and good exercise, surely it would be more empowering to learn a dance that can be employed in contexts other than strip clubs? And if, as Francisco claims, it's "not intended to be sexual", why is it only for women? Shouldn't men get the chance to be empowered too? I told you it was sexist!
People talk about sexism against men quite a lot. Everything from being officially excluded from MP selection shortlists to getting turned away from nightclubs is cited as if it demonstrated the utter hypocrisy of all feminist aims. The reactionary view is that it's all gone so ridiculously far – political correctness has gone so distressingly, dangerously and self-harmingly insane – that occasionally, would you believe it, things are now unfair on men! This doesn't seem to take into account that, if situations weren't sometimes unfair on men too, it wouldn't be fair.
But, as this election campaign is demonstrating, when it comes to sexism, "PC gone mad" is a long way from power – it's still a minority party compared to "chauvinism gone senile". Just look at the horrible way that the leaders' wives are treated. To go with our medieval monarchy, we have politicians and news media whose attitudes to marriage are stuck in the 1950s. Those poor women should have nothing to do with this election beyond voting – they're not employees of the state or political parties and they should be getting on with their own lives.
I refuse to accept the argument that we need to know about the personal circumstances of potential leaders in order to trust them. There is no evidence that being "a good family man" is a necessary precursor to competent government or precludes incompetence and tyranny. Yet we insist they present a bland and dated image of family life,and complain when it looks affected.
Beyond that, we treat these women, who are paid nothing for their time, with an insolence we wouldn't adopt with a drunk tramp pissing in a bus shelter. There were whole articles last week devoted to the apparently unacceptable condition of Sarah Brown's bare feet, which were revealed when she took her shoes off in a Hindu temple.
In what way is a critique of the Labour leader's wife's toes in the public interest? How is that any different from the journalists who wrote about it tapping a stranger on the shoulder at a party in order to crow to fellow guests that she has "minging hooves"?
Just as stupid and sad was the spectacle of the new female parliamentary candidates from the main parties all posing for a magazine shoot. I don't blame them for agreeing to it, but their male equivalents would never be asked – or only as the sort of ironic and tokenistic objectification of men currently in vogue as a gesture towards redressing sexism.
These normal-looking women, wearing their best clothes and smiling politely, never wanted to be in magazines. They're standing for Parliament – they want to be empowered. I doubt they started with pole dancing.