Another day, another depressing reminder that gender parity has some way to go. One episode after Love Island’s female contestants were made to wear skimpy Playboy Bunny outfits for a challenge, a woman is seen as ‘fair game’ by a male counterpart for having the confidence to talk openly about sex.
Maura was a latecomer to the house, and she’s shown herself since to be confident, open and opinionated. It was because of her willingness to talk about sex that the ‘revelation’ she had ‘only’ slept with five people surprised the other Islanders. But, as she rightly pointed out, being comfortable talking about sex (as plenty of men are) says nothing about sexual attitudes or preferences.
But that wasn’t how Tom saw it, and the disparity between the two was clear to see as they prepared for their private night in the Hideaway. While Maura was telling the other girls she was unlikely to sleep with Tom, he was busy posturing and – courtesy of Tommy Fury – putting a condom in his pocket. The excruciating moment arrived when she came to get him: “It’ll be interesting to see if she was all mouth,” he told the others.
Maura couldn’t have handled it better – one Twitter user said their kids would one day ‘learn in history how Maura Higgins ended toxic masculinity’ – and it was heartening to see the solidarity between the women in the villa. The rest of the girls rushed to the defence of Maura and agreed that she had done the right thing in consigning Tom to a night on the sofa. This year’s crop are, on the whole, a great group of female role models.
But the exchange points to a far wider and more pervasive problem. Though gender equality has improved in recent years, the idea that women who talk about sex are ‘easy’ is one that stubbornly refuses to go away. That Tom felt comfortable enough to say what he said to the other men in the house at best suggests he was delusional. At worst, it shows that men don’t call each other out for making comments of this kind, and so long as the woman in question isn’t in earshot, they can say pretty much what they like about her.
The belief that women comfortable with their sexuality are fair game is reflected in so many of our conversations around gender. And women continue to be branded ’sluts’ for a wide variety of supposed crimes, from wearing the ‘wrong’ amount of makeup to the ‘wrong’ type of clothes. A May study found that women who drink alcohol in social settings are seen as more ‘sexually available’ and – alarmingly – ‘less human’.
For Leora Tanenbaum, author of SLUT! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, the only crime is deviating from the norms of perceived femininity. Promiscuity and choice of clothing are still sometimes seen as relevant in trials of rape and sexual assault. And a study carried out by the Independent earlier this year found that 55% of men believed that “the more revealing the clothes a woman wears, the more likely it is that she will be harassed or assaulted.”
It sometimes seems as the destigmatisation of sex for women has mutated, and become a perceived male right to sex with women. Growing sexual liberation has been interpreted – perhaps deliberately – as sexual availability. Love Island viewers are right to herald ‘queen’ Maura for reminding Tom that she won’t be treated as “a piece of garbage” and for calling him out on his feeble claims of ‘miscommunication’.
Yes, he apologised, and that Maura accepted his apology is her prerogative. But what Tom put down to ‘immaturity’ was nothing of the sort. It was simply a reminder that in 2019, there are at least some men who think that women are at their beck and call – simply because they speak, or dress, or act in a particular way.
Angelica Malin is editor-in-chief of About Time magazine, and host of the She Started It podcast