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

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

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit