Can the European Parliament call a halt to prostitution as we know it?

Today a report has been voted through by MEPs propounding the view that prostitution is a fundamental violation of women’s rights. Now it will go to a full European Parliament vote next month. Mary Honeyball, MEP and writer Joan Smith explain all

Daily Telegraph, 23 January 2014

Will MEPs vote to end the age-old practice of men paying to use women’s bodies for sex? A ground-breaking report has today been accepted by one of the Parliament’s more influential bodies. Just a few hours ago, the committee on women’s rights and gender equality voted through a report arguing that prostitution is a fundamental violation of women’s rights. This means it will go to a full Parliament vote in Feburary.

The report is couched in the formal language used by legislators, but what it is proposing is a massive cultural change. For centuries, supporters of prostitution have argued that it’s the oldest profession and has to be tolerated, if not legalised. We believe that this is patently untrue – selling sex isn’t a profession and agriculture came first – but it has been an effective part of the propaganda of the commercial sex trade. Now we’re seeing it challenged across Europe, as one country after another comes to the conclusion that allowing the sale of women’s bodies isn’t compatible with modern notions of equality between the sexes.

In December, we were delighted to see French MPs vote to outlaw paying for sex, and Ireland is now thinking about following suit. The French vote has to be ratified by the Senate but three European countries – Sweden, Norway and Iceland – have already made buying sex a criminal offence while decriminalising women who sell it. Legislators in those countries have learned from what’s happened in Germany, which legalised prostitution in 2002; the country now has so many women in the commercial sex trade that it’s been called ‘Europe’s biggest brothel’.

According to a documentary shown on German TV last year, more than one million men pay for sex in the country every single day. Since the law was relaxed, the number of women selling sex in Germany is believed to have risen to around 400,000, and two-thirds of them are foreign. It’s becoming clear that the German experiment has failed, producing the opposite effect of what was intended; there’s been a huge expansion in the commercial sex trade and no reduction in the crime associated with it. On the contrary, a third of German prosecutors say that legalising prostitution has made it harder for them to go after pimps and traffickers.

There are similar misgivings about what has happened in the Netherlands, where a relaxation of the law has been linked to a big rise in trafficking; the country is now listed by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as one of the top destinations for victims of sex trafficking. Indeed the report argues that legalising prostitution actually encourages trafficking in women and girls, as the legal trade acts as a cover for pimps who offer cheaper sex with trafficked women and girls.

Supporters of the commercial sex trade furiously contest the idea that there’s a link between ‘voluntary’ prostitution and sex trafficking. But a study published last year looked at 116 countries and found that states where prostitution is legal tend to experience higher levels of trafficking, and that legalisation appears to ‘boost the market for this fast-growing global criminal industry’. The notion of a link is logical, because legalising prostitution reduces stigma, encouraging demand from men who might otherwise think twice about paying for sex.

At the same time, selling your body is such a horrible way of life that there will never be enough women to meet demand. The report highlights the involvement of organised crime, pointing out that it is ‘a major player’ wherever procuring is legal. Denmark, which decriminalised prostitution in 1999, has four times as many trafficking victims as Sweden, where buying sex became a criminal offence in the same year.

For us, as feminists and passionate believers in equality, the true nature of prostitution is exposed by the gender imbalance at its heart. The vast majority of people who sell sex are women and girls, and almost all of those who buy it are men. If it’s just another job, why aren’t millions of men and boys rushing to do it? Why isn’t the ring road in Madrid or Milan packed by young men in hot pants, waving down cars to offer sex?

If selling your body were a free choice, the current situation would make no sense, but of course it isn’t. Study after study shows that most girls who go into prostitution have been abused in childhood, and are often victims of domestic violence, incest and paedophilia. They also show that more than half of prostituted women have been raped, while more than two-thirds display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In books, films and popular culture, prostitution is routinely glamourised. Popular accounts of prostitution focus on a tiny minority who insist they’ve chosen the lifestyle and find it empowering, and ‘sex workers’ respond with vicious personal attacks when we point out that they aren’t typical. But Catherine Deneuve volunteering to work in an upmarket brothel in Bunuel’s Belle de Jour is a far cry from the lives of the young women murdered by Steve Wright in Ipswich.

Verbal and physical abuse isn’t confined to street prostitution, with one academic study concluding that women who work indoors still face ‘physical, economic and sexual violence from their clients, including serious assaults’. That’s not surprising, given that research on men who pay for sex show that they tend to have a ‘degrading image’ of women.

Most women working as prostitutes would like to stop but find it difficult to get out because of drug dependency, lack of other ways of making a living and threats from pimps. If you accept the harm it does, the notion of ‘regulating’ prostitution, which became popular in Europe after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, reveals itself in its true guise: regulating the exploitation of women. Laws are meant to protect vulnerable people, not ensure that they are damaged in slightly pleasanter circumstances. And that’s why there’s been a move away from the failed legalisation experiment to one which tackles demand, instead of women who are victims of poverty, violence and coercion

Under the ‘Swedish model’ of dealing with prostitution, the person breaking the law isn’t the person selling sex but the client. It’s a dramatic re-appraisal of the burden of harm, which traditionally assumed that men were the ones who needed to be protected from disease and ‘corruption’; in the 19th century, British MPs actually passed laws allowing women suspected of working as prostitutes in garrison towns to be forcibly examined for sexually transmitted diseases. In the 21st century, buying women’s bodies is rightly being seen as one of the ways in which men exploit their greater economic and social power.

Equality is at the heart of this argument. If you accept that all human beings are entitled to be treated with dignity, it’s impossible to support a trade which treats women’s bodies as disposable. That’s why we’re thrilled that the MEPs on the European Parliament’s women’s committee have accepted this report on today, and support the extension of the ‘Swedish model’ across Europe.

If the vote is passed in February, the view that prostitution is a fundamental violation of women’s rights, will become the formal European Parliament position. It won’t have any legal impact on the UK but it will put pressure on the member states to reassess their prostitution policies. Prostitution is a symptom of deep-seated misogyny, and totally incompatible with the principles enshrined in the EU’s charter of fundamental rights.

Mary Honeyball is MEP for London since 2000, and Labour spokesperson for women in Europe. She sits on the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality committee and is the author of the report approved today regarding prostitution

Joan Smith is a novelist, columnist and the author of Misogynies. Her latest book is The Public Woman. She is co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel, although she writes in a personal capacity

Why do homosexuals worry you so much, Mr Putin?

Independent on Sunday, 19 January 2014

Gay people will not be harassed at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he declared, as long as they stay away from children

In his annual state of the nation speech last month, Vladimir Putin talked about defending traditional values. One phrase stood out, revealing the deep-seated fear and prejudice which lie behind the country’s anti-gay legislation. Family values, said the Russian President, are the foundation of the country’s greatness and a bulwark against “genderless and infertile” Western tolerance. He didn’t mention homosexuality but it was clearly what he had in mind, and he added another slur a couple of days ago. Gay people will not be harassed at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he declared, as long as they stay away from children.

The conflation of adult homosexual love and paedophilia has long been used as a tactic against gay people. Putin claimed he was merely clarifying Russia’s law in advance of the Olympics, pointing out that “the propaganda of  homosexuality and paedophilia” is banned, not gay relationships. But his phrasing – “Leave children alone, please” – will inflame  anti-gay sentiment in Russia, where a poll carried out last year suggested almost half the population believe homosexuality is a consequence of “being subjected to perversion”. Three-quarters support the law banning gay “propaganda” and Moscow has outlawed gay pride marches for 100 years.

Putin’s sneering homophobia is shared by the Russian Orthodox church. His friend and confidant, the Patriarch Kirill, has said that recognising gay relationships would be “a sign of the Apocalypse”. The church is believed to have encouraged the prosecution of members of the punk band Pussy Riot, who support equal rights for gay people. At their trial, witnesses described the group’s performance as “demonic”. When I spoke to Pussy Riot last summer, they talked about homophobia in Russia and linked it to the government’s support for “traditional” gender roles. “The atmosphere in Moscow is very conservative. People don’t understand the LGBT community,” one of them told me.

She added that the idea of “Russian motherhood” is very important under Putin’s presidency. “In former times women were active and followed careers. Now a woman has to give birth to a child before the age of 23. She needs her husband’s permission to use contraception.”

Her words were prescient in view of Putin’s recent attack on blurred gender boundaries. In a dreadful confluence of interests, the Orthodox Church’s conservative outlook has found a match in the President’s identity crisis. Putin is mocked abroad for his Action Man stunts, staged events in which he rides bareback. They do not suggest a man at ease with himself.

Weak egos and repressive states require scapegoats and, tragically, gay people in Russia have been chosen as targets. The Olympic Games, which celebrate human achievement, are being used as a rabble-rousing tool by a leader who hankers after an imaginary past when men were straight – and women were mothers.

The Lib Dems’ trouble with women will not go away

The report into the behaviour of Lord Rennard has left a question mark over the party’s commitment to gender equality

The Guardian, 15 January 2014

Once again, the Liberal Democrats are having trouble with women. The party has decided not to take disciplinary action against its former chief executive, Lord Rennard, who has always denied allegations that he sexually harassed female colleagues. But the findings of Alistair Webster QC, who looked at the evidence as part of a disciplinary process, make uncomfortable reading for senior Lib Dems. To outsiders, the episode appears to confirm the impression that the party remains a boys’ club, and one that doesn’t know where to draw boundaries in questions relating to power and gender.

Senior Lib Dems are without exception male, and they’ve been accused of failing to act promptly when female members bring allegations of sexual misconduct to their attention. Now they have to deal with the fallout from an investigation that makes highly critical observations about someone who was one of the party’s most senior employees, yet stops short of recommending any formal sanction. How will the complainants feel after being told that their evidence was not unreliable, yet no action is to be taken against Rennard?

Webster accepts that the peer’s behaviour may have caused distress to the women who made the allegations. He found “broadly credible” evidence of “behaviour which violated the personal space and autonomy of the complainants”. He thinks that Rennard should apologise and commit to changing his behaviour.

But then he offers the peer a get-out: because he could not establish beyond reasonable doubt that Rennard intended to act in an indecent or sexually inappropriate manner, Webster does not think he should face a disciplinary charge of bringing the party into disrepute. That decision seems more appropriate to a criminal court, which has the power to deprive someone of their liberty, than a disciplinary procedure.

These events are all the more damaging because the Lib Dems are perceived to have a wider problem with women. After almost four years in coalition with the Conservatives, Nick Clegg hasn’t put a single Lib Dem woman in the cabinet. Only seven of the party’s MPs are female, and the Labour MP Angela Eagle pointed out last summer that it has as many knights on its benches as women. Few of its female MPs are household names and one of them, Sarah Teather, has already said she won’t fight the next general election.

Now the outcome of the Rennard investigation has left a question mark over the party’s commitment to gender equality. A previous report by a businesswoman, Helena Morrissey, found that the deputy prime minister was wrong not to launch a formal inquiry in 2008. Similar complaints have been made about the way the party has handled allegations of indecent assault against one of its MPs, Mike Hancock, who denies the accusations but has resigned the parliamentary whip while he faces a civil action.

The party’s president, Tim Farron, has embarked on a damage limitation exercise, saying that it will look again at its disciplinary procedures. He has also acknowledged that Rennard did not behave in an appropriate way for a chief executive. But senior Lib Dems cannot shrug off the impression that they acted too late, and have ended up with a report that raises as many questions as it answers.

It’s not difficult. Sick people need doctors

Independent on Sunday, 12 January 2014

All my 87-year-old aunt needed was a doctor to visit and adjust her medication. Instead she had an expensive four-hour wait in A&E

I keep hearing about people making “unnecessary” visits to A&E departments. Over Christmas, some NHS trusts even issued pleas to patients, reminding them that they could use out-of-hours services and walk-in centres. Apparently a parallel universe exists, where teams of cheerful medics are waiting to treat people who fall ill in the evening or at weekends. According to a recent survey, some GPs are so fed up with patients turning up at A&E “at the drop of a hat” that almost a third would like to impose a basic fee of up to £10.

Sick people don’t seem to be listening. On Wednesday evening, so many turned up at the A&E department of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast that it declared a “major incident”. Staff described the situation as “horrendous” and booed the Northern Ireland health minister, Edwin Poots, when he visited the hospital. His critics pointed out that the Royal Victoria has been struggling to cope since the closure of the A&E department in another hospital in the city. But Poots put the blame on patients, talking about an “unreasonable spike” in people requiring treatment.

I bridle when I hear words like “unreasonable”. In December, I was staying with my 87-year-old aunt on South Tyneside. Charlotte has several chronic health conditions, including angina, and was suffering from a chest infection. She lives in one of the most deprived areas of South Shields, a town which is in the bottom quarter of the country for early deaths from heart disease, stroke and cancer. She was taking antibiotics, but, on the Saturday before Christmas she got worse: she was feverish, shaky and breathless. I was worried that she might be developing pneumonia, so I called her GP’s surgery. I got a recorded message which said it was closed and advised patients to call the 111 helpline which has replaced NHS Direct.

Getting a doctor’s appointment within working hours is hard enough. When I call my local surgery in London, it’s far from unusual to have to wait a week, and I was once told I’d have to wait three weeks if I wanted to see a named doctor. Even more astonishing – and relevant to the discussion about why so many people go to A&E – is the fact that since 2004, GPs have been able to opt out of providing an out-of-hours service for their patients altogether. I can’t imagine how a Labour government ever agreed to that, especially at a time when annual salaries of GPs who are partners in an NHS practice have risen to an average of £103,000.

What are you supposed to do when you’re looking after an elderly woman who might be developing pneumonia and you can’t reach a doctor? I called 111 and got an “adviser” – I’m amazed they don’t call them “customer service operatives” – who appeared to be reading from a script. After going through a checklist which included questions about whether my aunt had ingested poisonous substances in the past 24 hours, he called an ambulance. So Charlotte and I joined the ranks of those annoying people who turn up at A&E at one of the busiest times of the year.

I think we spent about four hours at the hospital, including a lengthy wait for a taxi back to her house. The staff were nice but rushed off their feet; Charlotte huddled in her dressing-gown, plaintively asking if she couldn’t just go home. Another elderly woman came and sat next to me, pulling a huge suitcase on wheels. “I’m 91 and I’ve had the worst day of my life,” she confided, and launched into a rambling story about being held hostage at knife-point for seven hours. She appeared to be on her own, suffering from dementia, and couldn’t tell me how she had got to A&E.

In the end, the duty doctor said Charlotte probably needed stronger antibiotics and sent us home. I don’t know how much it cost the NHS to send an ambulance and two paramedics, and transport her to A&E, but the whole thing could have been avoided if I’d been able to speak to a doctor on the phone. In some parts of the country, what should be a last resort has become the only source of medical care for sick and vulnerable people.

Later this year, a new contract will come into force which is supposed to address the problem by providing a dedicated GP, personally accountable for their treatment, for four million patients over the age of 75. There’s also a review of urgent and emergency care in England, conducted by Sir Bruce Keogh, who says it should be delivered in or as close to people’s homes as possible. I’m all in favour of that but it’s the underlying principle that really needs to change. The A&E crisis will be solved only when patients’ needs, rather than the convenience of health-care professionals, are put back at the heart of the NHS.

After Michael Schumacher’s ski crash, the no-news avalanche

Independent on Sunday, 5 January 2014

The media-enhanced appetite for updates on the health of the former F1 champion creates a problem when there is no news

Until last weekend, I knew almost nothing about Michael Schumacher. Then he had an accident and I discovered that he is, apparently, the most important person in the world. Dozens of unknown Russians killed and injured in terrorist bombings in Volgograd simply could not compete: at my gym on Monday, television news channels showed a press conference given by Schumacher’s doctors so many times I could have answered the questions myself. Later in the day I even caught myself wondering “how is Michael Schumacher?” Such is the subliminal effect of seeing reports about one event to the exclusion of just about everything else.

I know lots of people are genuinely interested in motor racing and its stars. They don’t come much bigger than Schumacher, who was world champion seven times before he retired. Towards the end of his career, “Schu” – as I’ve learned to call him – seems to have been regarded as reckless by some of his rivals, but there’s nothing like a bad accident to shave the rough edges off someone’s reputation. People who work in the media understand the power of “human interest” stories, which existed centuries before modern communications; they feed the same appetite as Greek myths, displaying similar themes of passion, rivalry and retribution. But the arrival of 24-hour rolling news has multiplied the craving many times over, creating what sometimes seems to me to be like an addiction.

Schumacher’s doctors looked exhausted after treating him through the night following his accident last Sunday, and quickly reached the point where they had nothing left to say. On some channels, the story was billed as “breaking news” for hours, even though there were no new developments. Reporters were left frustrated, desperate for something they could talk or write about. Schumacher’s manager, Sabine Kehm, complained about “constant” attempts by journalists to get access to him; she even confirmed that a man posing as a priest had been stopped by security as he tried to enter Schumacher’s room.

Stories where someone’s life hangs in the balance create a particularly uncomfortable guessing game. Seasoned reporters are usually reluctant to say publicly that death is a likely outcome but among themselves they refer to these assignments as “the death watch”. I know that sounds callous, especially if you’re a friend or relative of the person who’s critically ill, but it’s one of the ways journalists cope with a story which drags on for days or weeks with nothing to report. The most protracted example I can think of is the final illness of Nelson Mandela, which lasted the best part of a year; some reporters were despatched to South Africa several months before he finally expired. That, I suspect, is one of the reasons for the exhaustive coverage of his death; journalists finally got to use the material they’d been collecting while they waited for it to happen.

In the meantime, given that it would be in bad taste to speculate about someone’s demise, private cynicism is balanced by public sentimentality. The waiting period is filled by interviewing friends or, in the last resort, reading out tweets from total strangers. Inevitably, these tend to be uninformed, dashed off by people who are responding without much thought to headlines.

A few years ago, I was slightly acquainted with a household name who suffered a massive stroke and was lying in hospital with no hope of recovery. The public didn’t know that her brain had been irrevocably damaged and strangers kept on posting well-meaning thoughts on message boards, wishing her a speedy recovery. They were gruesome to read if you knew the reality of the situation, which ended with her life support machine being switched off.

It’s understandable that anxious acquaintances and colleagues don’t know what to say to journalists, but they often fall back on the irritating habit of describing anyone who’s going through a medical crisis as “a fighter”. It is true that the fitter someone is, the more likely they are to survive, but much of what the human body does in these circumstances is automatic.

If the patient is in a coma, as Schumacher has been after two operations to relieve pressure on his brain, it’s sheer nonsense to talk about him “fighting” to stay alive. He’s lucky to have survived, but strength of character and divine intervention count for a great deal less than a swift transfer to hospital and a bloody good medical team.

As it happens, Schumacher wasn’t the only well-known man whose condition attracted media attention last week. In Israel, where Ariel Sharon has been in a coma since 2006, the former prime minister’s family gathered at his bedside after his condition deteriorated. Doctors acknowledged that Sharon’s situation was critical, which was hardly surprising in the case of an 85-year-old man with multiple organ failure, but refused to speculate further. “I am no prophet”, one of them reminded reporters. It was the unvarnished truth, and I felt like applauding.

In cold blood

Sunday Times, 5 January 2014

Murder in frozen landscapes and an early Harry Hole novle make for chilling reading in Joan Smith round-up

Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels have appeared in English out of chronological order. British readers are still catching up with the earlier books starring the dyspeptic Norwegian detective and Cockroaches (Harvill Secker £18.99), translated by Don Bartlett, brings the series up to date. Actually the second novel in the sequence, its publication means that all ten Hole novels are now available in this country.

Set in Bangkok, the novel was written 15 years ago and isn’t as fluent as the later books. Hole displays the characteristics of a sulky teenage, while the plot – the Norwegian ambassador has been found dead in a cheap hotel used by prostitutes – seems to belong to an earlier era, when the sexual exploitation of women was taken less seriously. But the novel shows Nesbo developing as a writer and fills in gaps in Hole’s biography.

Asa Larsson is a Swedish author whose international reputation is growing fast. Born in the mining town of Kiruna, north of the Arctic circle, she writes lyrically about a sparsely-populated region of the country. Her novel Until Thy Wrath Be Past was judged best Swedish crime novel of 2012 and shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger. The Second Deadly Sin (MacLehose Press £18.99), translated by Laurie Thompson, opens dramatically with a hunt for a hungry bear which has seized and eaten a famer’s dog.

The bear’s stomach contents produce a gruesome surprise, in the shape of the remains of an elderly man. A few months later, his daughter is murdered in a nearby village. A local prosecutor, Rebecka Martinsson, begins to suspect that someone is targeting the entire family but she is taken off the case. Martinsson embarks on an unofficial investigation in a terrific novel about greed, isolation and the deep human need for companionship.

Another frozen landscape dominates The Beast in the Red Forest (Faber 12.99), the latest in Sam Eastland’s series of novels set under Stalin’s dictatorship. In the forests of Ukraine, the Red Army is fighting Hitler’s troops and local partisans. In the Kremlin, Stalin has been told that the charred body of the renowned detective, Inspector Pekkala, has been found at the site of an ambush. Refusing to believe the detective is dead, Stalin sends Pekkala’s assistant to find out what really happened.

Major Kirov arrives just in time for a secret meeting between a Red Army officer and partisan leaders, which ends in a bloodbath. Eastland writes deftly about one of the most confusing battlefields of the Second World War, and conditions so harsh they have turned human beings into feral beasts. Kirov’s mission to find Pekkala exposes an assassination plot – and the disastrous consequences for an American family taken in by Soviet propaganda.

Entry Island (Quercus £16.99) is Peter May’s first novel after his successful Lewis trilogy. A Canadian detective, Sime Mackenzie, is sent to investigate a murder on an island 850 miles from Montreal. The murder inquiry is interwoven with excerpts from a diary kept by Mackenzie’s Scottish ancestor, describing the brutal Highland clearances. It’s a brave attempt to bring a dark period of Scottish history to life, but May uses clumsy devices to link it with the modern crime investigation.

Long Way Home (Harvill Secker £14.99) is an accomplished first novel by Eva Dolan. A man believed to be a migrant worker burns to death in a garden shed, and the crime lands on the desk of the Peterborough Hate Crime Unit. Two of its officers, DI Zigic and DS Ferreira, come from immigrant backgrounds themselves and are already conscious of tensions between migrant agricultural workers and the local population. The modern scourge of people-trafficking is brilliantly described in this smart and compassionate novel.

Amazing greys

Literary Review, December 2013

Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing

Lynne Segal

The meaning of old age has changed radically in my lifetime. People are living longer and some of us will remain healthy at an age when previous generations would have expected to be infirm or dependent. At the same time, the number of older people with dementia is rising, contributing to a narrative in which age is more than ever something to be feared or denied. Popular culture encourages women to start worrying about the signs of ageing in their 20s, creating a situation in which adults could spend most of their lives fretting over the gradual loss of youth. Wrinkles? Cellulite? It’s never too early to contemplate that first facelift, at least if you happen to be a reader of one of the biggest-selling newspapers in the UK.

This is not a logical response to the prospect of living longer and staying healthier than most of our ancestors. But there are so many paradoxes around the subject of growing older that it is hard to know where to begin. Lynne Segal makes an informed and thoughtful attempt in her latest book, which she has written in her late 60s. Segal is an academic, a professor of psychology and gender studies at Birkbeck College, and she combines her own ideas with the work of other writers and artists to disentangle strands which often seem inextricably woven together.

It would be easy to assume from much of the discourse around age that the final decades of life are a losing battle with disability, dementia, loss and the fear of death. It would be just as easy to assume, given the persistence of stereotyped representations of older people, that ageing is nothing more than a poor lifestyle choice which the young would be well advised to avoid. What this misses, as Segal shows, is that different people experience ageing very differently. If it seems brave to mention the ‘pleasures’ of getting older in her sub-title, it is because she is determined not to give in to the unthinking gerontophobia of our century; some older people are not disabled or even in poor health until the very end of their lives. Segal does not shy away from the realities of physical decline and dementia, writing movingly about couples where one ends up caring for the other, but she is clear that some of the disadvantages associated with old age are economic.

Being poor isn’t much fun at any age and many women are clustered in poorly-paid jobs where they are unable to accumulate generous pensions, This is often forgotten in diatribes against the ‘baby boomers’ who grew up in the prosperous decades after the Fifties and supposedly defrauded later generations of their birth-right. Commentators love this kind of inter-generational warfare but it ignores the fact that ‘pensioners’ make up a substantial number of those living in poverty; single women in their 60s are actually over-represented in this cohort. Segal argues powerfully that growing inequality within, not between, different age groups is a characteristic of the current economic crisis.

She has a rich literature to draw on, from Philip Roth’s depiction of the ‘woes of ageing phallic hubris’ to Alice Walker’s upbeat poem, ‘What do I get for getting old?’ Walker’s cheery affirmations might not suit everyone but they are in striking contrast to the rage and disappointment she expressed as a younger woman. ‘I am in my sixty-seventh year, having lived already a long and fruitful life, one with which I am content,’ she writes, without feeling a need to curtail her lifelong commitment to political activism.

Of course Segal is a feminist and one of the most fascinating elements of her book is the way she interrogates gendered assumptions about age. A horror of older women is one of the least attractive features of popular culture, which makes a habit of subjecting famous women to cruel scrutiny. (Madonna, who is not yet 60, is a favourite target.) Segal points out a biological fact which is often overlooked: some men lose the capacity to have penetrative sex as they age but many older women don’t suffer a loss of either desire or ability. So it’s curious that older women are so often regarded as sexless or ‘post-sex’, telling themselves and friends that they have moved beyond all that messy business. Like Segal, I suspect this may be a way of coping with a fear of rejection, and it seems to me braver to acknowledge that many older women need passion and intimacy just as much as men.

Segal’s book is full of such insights but the most significant lies in a short sentence towards the end: ‘The real question is – how are we to live our lives?’ She means that many of the challenges life throws up remain constant, even at a late point in our existence. As this book suggests, ‘the old’ have more in common with the rest of the population than it is fashionable to admit.

Verso £16.99