Why today's woman really is saving herself

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YOU would think, wouldn't you, that, when it comes to sex, women have never had it so frequently or so good.

Yet, according to a survey presented to the British Psychological Society's annual conference last week, this is a far from accurate portrayal of women's attitudes towards sex today. Indeed, more than 30 years after Erica Jong wrote Fear of Flying, and more than a decade after Zoe Ball led the rise of the ladette, our views on casual liaisons are, apparently, closer to those held by our 'repressed' grandparents.

After interviewing a cross-section of women, researchers at Sheffield University discovered many of them actively disapproved of one night-stands, regarding them not as proof of liberation, but a sign of low self-esteem. Even those who had casual sex themselves viewed it in a negative light, associating it with "a lack of something" or a "loss of control".

So what on earth is happening here? Are women still constricted by sexual stereotypes or is this just another example of the Saffy Syndrome (Edina's staid daughter in Absolutely Fabulous): that in a world where anything goes, conservatism is the only form of rebellion?

Certainly, there is growing evidence that, disillusioned by feminism, women are jettisoning the radical ideals of their forebears for a more conventional lifestyle. Whether it be choosing commitment over one-night-stands or children over careers they are opting for more traditional roles (though that they have a choice at all shows they are empowered in a way that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago). Even Ball, the epitome of the hard-drinking, sexually-liberated 90s girl, chose marriage to Norman Cook over the life of a sexually active singleton.

Of course, there are women who genuinely enjoy sex with no strings attached; women who wake up with a succession of partners and no sense of regret. And good luck to them.

In a sense, they have it made. Not only can they sleep around without attracting too much disapproval, they have a degree of control over their sexual destiny unavailable to most of their male counterparts. Where men often return from a night on the pull alone and disappointed, women more or less have sex on tap. So long as they don't drink too much and use condoms - what harm are they doing?

Unfortunately, most of the casual sex had by women in Britain does not fall into this carefree category. Previous studies have shown that up to half of those aged 18-40 have had one-night-stands they regretted after drunken partying. Then there are the teenagers pressurised into having sex by their peers and by boys anxious to prove their masculinity. And the women who have sex because they believe (wrongly) that a relationship will follow.

Despite this, the response of sex therapists to last week's survey has been to dismiss these women's take on one-night stands as limited and a symptom of their failure to throw off their shackles. "It is a wonderful thing to have sex with someone you have just met and so exciting," says Dr Tuppy Owens, authoress of the Sex Maniac's Diary and co-ordinator of the Sexual Freedom Coalition, dismissively. "If all the sex you are going to have is in a long-term relationship, you are missing out on another aspect of sex that is really wonderful."

Sex researcher Dr Petra Boynton describes the survey as "depressing" and argues: "Women continue to feel incredibly conflicted."

This attitude is typical of a certain type of feminist, so caught up in ideology that they sneer at those who disagree for betraying the cause. But isn't it possible that the rise of the ladette and the celebration of female promiscuity in shows such as Footballers' Wives and Sex in the City drives women to behave in a way that runs counter to their nature? People like Owens contribute to a culture that pressurises women to match their male counterparts shag for shag, without considering the emotional consequences for the less robust.

They seem unwilling to accept the evidence all around them that the fashion for multiple meaningless sexual encounters is leaving them depressed and unfulfilled.

Like so many other aspects of the feminist dream (having-it-all, smashing the glass ceiling, equal pay for equal work), sexual liberation has failed to live up to our expectations. It promised excitement, adventure, a deviation in the traditional route from schoolgirl to housewife and mother. And to a certain degree, it delivered: it allowed women to explore their own physical needs at a time when the female orgasm was an unknown concept to many people of both sexes; it removed the stigma surrounding sex outside marriage, and changed society's attitude towards rape.

Most importantly, it empowered women so they were no longer expected to stay in miserable marriages with men who abused them.

But it brought a rise in unwanted pregnancies, an epidemic of Chlamydia and other STDs, and a culture where the pressure not to have sex has been replaced by the pressure to have it younger and more often.

It brought with it women like Titmuss and Marsh - who flash their breasts, pepper their conversations with innuendo and boast of their sexual exploits, then complain when they are portrayed as nymphos. When women look at them, they don't think: "What fine examples of sexually-uninhibited 21st century girls", but rather, as the survey suggests: "What is missing in these people's lives that they have to behave in such a debased, attention-seeking way?"

"It looks like freedom, but it feels like death," Leonard Cohen once sang about the debauchery that surrounds closing time in bars. Thankfully, it seems that - despite society's apparent obsession with sex - most modern women can still tell the difference between liberation and degradation.