The Essay: Why do women who dare to write about their sexual life still face the pillory?
Monique Roffey, whose own erotic memoir was attacked, calls for a change
Saturday 15 September 2012
So Naomi Wolf's book Vagina: a new biography has come and gone. Everybody in the media seems to have hated it. What is also clear is that they hated Wolf. For weeks before Vagina was launched, I watched and read, with much unease, the derision and contempt for Wolf mounting on Facebook. Men and women were posting such hate-filled insults that I was utterly dismayed. I registered my unease in a closed Facebook group called After Pandora which supports a private kink-community (those who practice bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sado-masochism).
My Facebook life is split. There are the experienced kinksters, tantrikas (those who pursue a more conscious life, including sexuality), those generally living and following an alternative sexual life – and then there is everyone else. The "everyone else" include family and friends, many writers and poets, and some mainstream media activists and commentators. It is common for my daily newsfeed to contain status updates from the tantra, kink and sex-positive world in the form of photos which include nudity, burlesque stripping, accounts of being flogged, various other outré sexual practices, posts from sexual practitioners, and frank and celebratory comments about people's sexual lives. These posts don't upset anyone in the Facebook threads because they are posted by people who are out about their sexuality and sharing with the like-minded.
What is frustrating is that many (bar one or two notable exceptions) of those living a sexually alternative existence are not connected to those writing and commenting in the mainstream media. These two worlds, in effect, talk only to themselves. They co-exist back-to-back, never meeting, never exchanging ideas, let alone challenging each other over books or newspaper columns.
Initially, the contempt for Wolf felt very blurred, very close to another kind of hatred which is so common: misogyny. Hatred for Wolf and hatred for her chosen subject, the vagina, felt conflated. Sex is a shadow-subject and, in my experience, pursuing a sexual path outside of monogamy, let alone writing about it, can trigger a strong negative reaction in others.
My unease stemmed from the intuition that the Wolf-hatred revealed this shadowy unconscious reaction to sex, not just to her. And most of this hatred, though not all, was coming from other women.
In the midst of her blanket coverage, the contempt went on and on, in the print press, on radio and also Facebook and Twitter. I heard Jenny Murray speak with the same edge, the same contempt in her voice, to Wolf on Woman's Hour. I also heard the crawly Naomi-voice. Wolf was dreadful. She was unable to say anything coherent and or stand up for herself. She came across badly. The things she said clanged and clattered and felt flat. She seemed to be defending Julian Assange: not good. Wolf, squeaky voiced, over-earnest and repeating factoids, got it in the neck.
I went to see her talk and failed to be engaged. As an experienced tantrika, I wasn't impressed by her tantric research: one Charles and Caroline Muir workshop in which she opted out of a "sacred spot" massage, a micro-session with somatic therapist Mike Lousada where she kept her clothes on. I also didn't care to hear about the research done on rats, and the neuroscience she talked about seemed anything but cutting-edge. However, the room was filled with at least 200 fans and she was very well-received by women who fully appreciated the book. The signing queue went round the corner and down the corridor.
I was conflicted. I didn't take to Wolf; I agreed with some of the things being said by prominent commentators, but something wasn't right. The hatred was disproportionate. She was over-mocked, over-hated. This strongly resonated with me.
In June 2011 I was also on the receiving end of such hatred, and female misogyny, for my memoir With the Kisses of his Mouth. A young female writer for the Sunday Times attacked me with such ferocity that I was in a top personal injury lawyer's office the next day. But I found there was no way for me legally to fight back; the review, while shaming and intensely negative, had not libelled me. Worse still, months later, she almost won a press award for her attack. It was seen as something to be applauded; as fun. It was fair sport to some. For me, it was a sanctioned slut-shaming that had almost won a prize.
Generally, women who write about sex are trashed by the mainstream press. No male journalist would dare do this trashing; it is usually done by female journalists. Women who write about sex are outed, named, shamed, hatcheted and held in contempt, often by other women. Wolf got a bad duffing-up from the sisterhood who see her as humourless, self-obsessed, privileged and, worse still, Californian.
But the mainstream press have hated others too. Consider the recent evidence: in 2003 the Australian literary author Nikki Gemmell published The Bride Stripped Bare, a frank and erotically charged novel about a young wife on a journey of sexual self-discovery. She tried to publish it anonymously but was soon "identified" in the media and dragged out to be shamed. "It took me about three years to climb out of the brouhaha of the whole thing," she said on Australian television. In August 2006, Zoe Margolis, originally the anonymous author of the blog and the memoir Girl With a One Track Mind, lost her anonymity when she was outed by a female journalist; her follow-up book, Girl With a One Track Mind Exposed, describes what this felt like. In November 2009 Belle du Jour finally named herself as Dr Brooke Magnanti, fearing that she was about to be outed by an ex. In June 2011, I am hatcheted down to my dental records by a younger woman. In September 2012, Naomi Wolf is shredded by the media, and mostly by females.
It's hard to write well about sex. Sex is a clouded, unknown subject carrying much social taboo and misinformation. Yet again and again I have encountered the opposite, a snarky "know it all" attitude, especially from female journalists. It is harder still to successfully publish a book about sex, especially if it includes personal experience.
My decision to write, publish and put my name on the cover of my erotic memoir was not a reckless decision, but rather a conscious political act. I decided to publish after a series of smaller "shall I, shan't I" conversations with myself. I had diaries. Would I wait until my seventies, like Marguerite Duras, who wrote The Lover late in life, or should I go forward as a fortysomething and write about my sexual life now? I decided to go forward because I had things to share which felt contemporary and valid. I decided to name myself in sympathy and support of others who have been outed.
I suspect the other women writing about sex have likewise deliberated long and hard and come to the same leaping-off point. While I don't see myself as a professional feminist, both to write a book about my sexual life and to name myself were acts of solidarity towards other women. I don't expect everyone to like my memoir, but to be on the receiving end of savage mockery feels like something else: bullying.
Yet women who write about their sexual experiences continue to be either ignored or mocked. This mockery needs attention because we are now, like it or not, abreast of the era of the Sex Book. In one year we have had my memoir, The 52 Seductions by Betty Herbert, The Sex Myth by Brooke Magnanti, and the massive EL James phenomenon in fiction. More sex books by women arrive thick and fast. After Wolf's have come Unmastered, a book about desire by Katherine Angel of Warwick University, and The New Rules by Catherine Hakim, a social scientist at the LSE and author of Honey Money.
Finally, all in a rush, this new wave of sex writing by women is upon us. Women of all kinds are risking their neck: fellow-authors, researchers, psychologists, academics, wives and mothers, single women. They are writing memoirs, fiction, non–fiction: a substantial and varied body of work. "A social phenomenon is happening," says Mike Lousada. "Women, both tantric and academic, are writing about the empowerment of female sexuality. There's momentum here."
I agree. Rather than mock and deride each book, rather that slut-shame and over-react, the mainstream press and others could sit back and let this new wave of writing wash through them. At some point this wave needs to be critically evaluated as something of note. Many different types of women are, finally, liberated enough to make a contribution to the subject of sex. Can't we just celebrate this?
Monique Roffey's new novel 'Archipelago', and her memoir 'With the Kisses of his Mouth', are published by Simon & Schuster
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