Abby Lee - girl with (not just) a one-track mind
Sex-blogger Abby Lee faces down the double standard that would label her a slut on a regular basis. She speaks to Abby O'Reilly about being 'outed' in the press, fan mail and her new role as spokesperson for the next sexual revolution
The idea that men use love to get sex and women use sex to get love is a
myth. In my experience, men want and need love as much as women and women
seek sexual pleasure just as much as men do. The difference is that it's
still unacceptable for men to admit that emotional need, in case they are
labelled weak or feminine, and if a woman is open about her sexual
desires, she's instantly labelled a slut. Still, labels aren't going to
stop me from having fun.
- Abby Lee, Girl With a One-Track Mind
Sex stories of the serial shagging sister. Such a title likely to find a tough audience in a society that brands a woman a dirty slut for doing nothing more than claiming that she loves to give head. The proliferation of so-called 'chick-lit', littered with insipid, insecure and essentially sexless Bridget Jones types, hankering for one suited, smug bastard after another whilst munching on celery sticks and dribbling a carton of cottage cheese, has perpetuated the idea that a woman is at risk of becoming emotionally attached to a chair if she sits on it for too long (and, naturally, if it's good, hard 'wood' she'll want marriage).
With soap operas and romantic comedies propagating the myth that all women crave cosy nights in and long walks on the beach, arm-in-arm with a bumbling Hugh Grant-wannabe, sporting a sensible haircut and wearing a pair of brown brogues, it's not surprising that women are increasingly reluctant to admit that they enjoy sex for sex's sake. To do so is considered a rejection of one's femininity, a violation of the cardinal rule dictating what constitutes 'lady-like' behaviour: thou must not talk about your sexual encounters in a manner which might suggest that you enjoyed that good, hard fuck more so than the company of the useless appendage unfortunately attached to the cock that enthusiastically defiled you beyond the point of exquisite delight.
Author and sex-blogger Abby Lee is one of those who publicly resists being typecast as a 'slut' for enjoying sex. Since bursting onto the blogosphere in 2004 with her anonymous blog Girl With a One-Track Mind, Lee has been questioning and eradicating the underpinning reasoning behind these redundant belief systems. With a dildo in one hand and a vibrator in the other, Lee has adopted a metaphorical stance not entirely dissimilar to Lady Liberty, although with her legs spread and a post-coital glow.
Through her blog, which was published in book form by Ebury Press in August 2006 under the same title, Lee provides a frank, open and graphic exposition of her innermost sexual desires. The accounts of her most debauched and lurid erotic imaginings leave her unsuspecting readers parched and thirsty for more. An estimated 250,000 sexually-frustrated readers log on every month to read the results of Abby's latest foray into the crotchless wilderness. She reminisces about past shags, provides detailed descriptions of present conquests and yearns for fantastic future fucks, while at the same time promoting the need for women to achieve sexual gratification through masturbation. In short, she challenges the double-standard that has permeated the national consciousness with regards to male and female sexual experience.
A strong, female sexual discourse was, of course, a welcome change for those of us who were becoming disconcerted with the regurgitation of the sugar-and-spice-and-all-things-nice plots of popular women's fiction. The loyal readership would be offended at the mere insinuation of a stiff cock, apparently, whereas the Abby Lee readership cannot help but crave it. Plus, unlike the latest offerings from Helen Fielding, Lauren Weisenberg and Sophie Kinsella, Abby's book and blog is completely and utterly factual.
When the paperback edition of Girl With a One-Track Mind was released last year, it catapulted to the top of the bestseller lists. But the reading community was divided. On the one hand, women around the country began flicking the bean and attaching nipple clamps in solidarity with this insightful, well-written and astutely observant sexual 'temptress'. On the other hand, cynics and old traditionalists were eager to see her flagellated to the point of exhaustion with her own dildo before mercilessly stringing her up with anal beads and tattooing the word slag across her ass.
I never expected to be a 'spokesperson' on sex or female sexuality, under the media spotlight
Consequently, the Sunday Times (taking some perverse moral high-ground) decided it would be appropriate to strip Girl of her anonymity, publishing details of her personal life alongside extracts from her book, in a poorly-disguised attempt to 'name and shame' her for doing nothing more than articulating the wants and beliefs of a large proportion of the female population in the 21st century.
The media furore surrounding the release of Girl With a One-Track Mind forced Lee to leave her home address. So would she have still, with 12 months hindsight, started the blog that has completely transformed her life? "I would have still written the blog, yes," remarks Abby, "but I would have been much more careful about my privacy and lied a little more to protect my identity. I wrote my blog and book anonymously. I never expected to be a 'spokesperson' on sex or female sexuality, under the media spotlight. Because of that, I have decided that if I continue to write about my personal sex life, I will still use the Abby Lee pseudonym. I find this helps to separate the private me, from the one who is on display to the world and still dealing with the continued media interest. My everyday life has changed, in that 11 months on, I am still permanently busy dealing with book-related promotion. It's great, and I am not complaining, but it has been pretty exhausting, both professionally and personally, dealing with press and publicity-related matters on a daily basis."
Like the women who write to me, I felt isolated in my opinions and how I expressed myself both sexually and emotionally
The book was released in the United States at the beginning of 2007 under the title Diary of a Sex Fiend: Girl With a One-Track Mind. With a reputation that now extends beyond the British Isles and across the pond, it's understandable that in retrospect Abby would have attempted to guard her identity and private life more closely. Barely more than a year ago, Lee (real name Zoe Margolis) was just another 30-something singleton living in London with an active social life and a penchant for fine wine and good sex, who had forged a pretty lucrative career for herself as an assistant director and producer in the film industry. These days, however, the name Abby Lee is rapidly becoming synonymous with sexual liberation and expression.
Lee doesn't have an academic background in gender studies: she writes what she knows and what she lives, in order to try and understand her personal preoccupation with sex. But in the process she has successfully exposed the lustful, carnal, sexually adventurous facet of the female mind that society would much rather us suppress. It's not surprising that this approach has proved infinitely more successful than redundant empty theorising by crusty old boffins, whose only attempts at liberation extend little further than drinking a cup of tea without a saucer. "I hope that by doing this," continues Abby, "more women will be able to state their needs; will be able to express their wants; will be able to take a more active role in their own enjoyment; and as a result, both women and men will have better sex. That's a great outcome, to my mind, and from the emails I've been sent, I suspect many others think this way too."
Indeed, the support and encouragement Lee has received from female readers has provided her with the impetus to continue to spread the word. Lee spoke publicly about her experiences and her values at the Feminists Fightback conference in October 2006, and more recently in July 2007 on a panel at the Southbank as part of London Literature Festival's 'Say the Unsayable' season. She is rapidly becoming an authority on female sexual expression in the contemporary feminist domain.
"What has struck me the most from writing the blog and the book," she adds, "is the sheer number of women who have responded telling me, 'Thank God you've written this - I thought I was the only one!' Like them, I felt isolated in my opinions and how I expressed myself both sexually and emotionally, so finding out that other women connected with my experiences helped me to realise that I was not alone in my thoughts. The empathy other women have expressed has been amazing. If my writing resonates with other women that makes me very proud."
But what is it about Abby's writing that strikes a particularly poignant cord with the modern woman? Firstly, you'd be mistaken for thinking that she regards sexual intercourse exclusively as a mechanical process. Yes, she does promote the idea that any sexual tryst should end with one completely conquering Mount Orgasm, but at the same time she appreciates that under certain circumstances physical intimacy can precipitate an emotional attachment, an observation that is applicable to both sexes and something that she has experienced. She does not shy away from these feelings, or suggest that to embrace them is a weakness, but rather appreciates that this process is part of the human condition: something that can be both enjoyed and overcome. She does, however, also just enjoy a good fast fuck, and it is her ambivalent attitude towards sex that is, for the vast majority, something with which we can identify.
As a self-defined feminist, Lee has helped illustrate that the pursuit of gender equality and women's rights is not something only available to those old enough to remember lazy Sunday's sat around the wireless. Feminism is a malleable ideology, accessible to young and old women. Of course, it helps that her writing is entertaining and easily accessible.
I don't want to preach that women 'should' have to be become some kind of 'tiger' in the bedroom. But I seriously question the view of female sexuality in the media (given that women are almost exclusively either 'pure virginal' types, or 'naughty slut' types). I also think that women do need to get more active in bed and take charge of their sexuality - regardless of how society views them
What is refreshing, and differentiates Abby's writing from the usual lamentations on sex and relationships, is that she does not attempt to present a completely heterosexual narrative discourse. Like the poet and feminist Adrienne Rich who promoted the concept of the "lesbian continuum", she considers sexuality to be a fluid attribute and promotes the idea that one can be attracted to a person irrespective of gender or tit-size, with her tastes completely and utterly non-discriminatory on the basis of age, race or sex. She promotes the democratic attitude that potential partners should be rated on their ability to give her sexual pleasure.
However, with society still struggling to digest the idea that a woman can be as cock-crazed in the kitchen as she is in the bedroom, it's going to be a long, hard fight to gain support for the idea that the majority may occasionally like to sup from the furry cup.
Abby has not been completely deterred by this. "I hope that ideas about sex and sexuality are always evolving in a progressive way," she remarks enthusiastically before reflecting on the reality of the situation. "I'm not sure that we can expect, or even hope for, a new 'sexual revolution' though: sadly women's position in society will not change overnight, so our ability to have freedom of expression in terms of our sexuality is perhaps a slower process than we might like. However, I think and hope that we are slowly moving in the right direction - opposing gender stereotyping and challenging society's attitude on female sexuality. In detail this means I do, of course, support the view that women are not passive creatures who have sex 'done' to them: we have wants and needs and desires, just as men do and we should flat out refuse to conform to the idea that our sexuality is solely connected to emotional involvement or romance. However, I don't want to preach that women 'should' have to be become some kind of 'tiger' in the bedroom, because I think that gives off the wrong message to young women and men: sex should be about equality, about two people sharing something, about having fun, not about one person fulfilling a fantasy representation of what their sexuality 'should' be. Saying that, while I do seriously question the view of female sexuality in the media (given that women are almost exclusively either 'pure virginal' types, or 'naughty slut' types), I also think that women do need to get more active in bed and take charge of their sexuality - regardless of how society views them. We need to move beyond the stereotypes and create a new version of our sexuality; one that will encompass our desires and wants - from our viewpoint. In its own way, I guess this is 'revolutionary:' to have equality in sex across every sphere."
Her quest to promote gender equality in the bedroom has proved as popular with the gents as it has with the ladies, and this is not just because they think they can beat one off reading about her sexual exploits. Abby herself provides an insight into the multi-faceted reasons behind her popularity with a male-readership: "Initially some probably surf into the blog with the hope to obtain erotic stimulation, but some are just intrigued to read about a woman talking honestly about sex. The feedback I've had from men informs me that the majority of men who repeatedly return to read the blog do so because besides enjoying the content, they found they got an emotional and intellectual insight into women and sex - one that wasn't really reflected elsewhere. It's been amazingly refreshing to discover that there are many, many men out there who share the same perspectives on sex that women do and for whom the blog and book perhaps offers an alternative to the sexist dross that makes up a lot of the mainstream media's representation of sex and sexuality. From the emails men send me, it does appear that they are keen to know what women want, and how they feel about sex, not just so they can please women, but so they can enjoy sex more themselves. If just one couple have better sex as a result of a guy reading my blog, then I think that's an achievement and something to be applauded. But even more significant perhaps, is that some of the most poignant responses to the blog that I have had, come from men, who have told me that my writing has changed their views on sex and sexuality and as a result, they're attempting to change the way they behave towards women. This to me is what it, the 'sexual revolution,' is all about: feminism is far more likely to be implemented in society if men are included in the process alongside women."
It's about time that a non-sexist, non-passive, progressive, female perspective on sexuality broke through into the mainstream
The only nomenclature we have to describe sexually vociferous women is distinctly derogatory, and is more often than not levied against us as an insult rather than as praise and acceptance of our healthy sexual appetites: slag, slut, whore, harlot, strumpet, slapper. By contrast a man who jumps from one woman to the next displaying a level of ball control that would put trained professionals at the Cirque du Soleil to shame is virtually mythologised as a modern-day legend, given a pat on the back and as many free pints as his bladder can hold. Popular culture, along with a burgeoning lads' mags industry, promotes the idea that a young man needs to have a rich, varied and casual sex life to confirm his virility and overbearing heterosexuality, and ensure that he remains healthy. After all, no man wants to go without for so long that he's forced to carry his balls around in a wheelbarrow, does he? But for a woman is never expected to demonstrate the same avid desire for an orgasm.
Lee is the total antithesis to the traditional image of the 'slut' as a morally deficit, ill-educated, bubble-headed, ambition-less bimbo. She works hard, she fucks hard, she writes well, she's strongly opposed to becoming 'the other woman', and in her musings on the politics of the bedroom, she has shown herself to be quite the thinker.
The publication of Girl With a One-Track Mind, along with Abby's appearance on the popular afternoon TV programme The Sharon Osbourne Show in September 2006 shows that it is possible to push the concept of female sexual independence into the mainstream - even if the media adopts a cynical and judgemental stance. Whether women are criticised for taking several lovers and fuck-buddies or not, the very fact that it is now under discussion shows that it is beginning to be identified as a way many of us choose to live our lives. "I hope," remarks Lee, "that I might be part of the movement affecting that change. Perhaps because I have refused to be apologetic about my experiences, views and opinions, other women might feel empowered to challenge the gender stereotyping and hypocrisy too: the more of us and the louder our voices are, the better platform we have to make a difference in society." What Lee has done is provide a positive example of how sex can be enjoyed outside of a relationship. It would not be surprising if, in the not too distant future, the name Abby Lee is appropriated as an optimistic term to describe women who feel likewise, replacing the harmful terminology currently in circulation.
Blogging has played an important role in Lee's success. Without this outlet, would she have been unable to communicate with women (and men) who share her empowered attitudes towards sex and sexuality? Admittedly, Abby's blog was not intentionally didactic, as it began as a personal outlet, but the support she has received has demonstrated that feminist blogging has become an effective way of connecting women with similar beliefs and promoting female empowerment around the globe. But what does Abby think about the proliferation of sex blogs over the last five years? And considering her success, and status as a dynamic thinker, is the blog a currency of expression that will be quickly devalued by its frequent use? "I think there's room for everyone to write sex blogs," says Abby, "not just women. I am overjoyed that there seem to be so many female voices out there though: it's about time that a different - non-sexist, non-passive, progressive female-perspective on sexuality broke through into the mainstream, so the more of us doing it, the better. Blogging allows people the space to communicate and interact in an egalitarian way. Unlike other mediums, it also offers readers the chance to connect with the writer. So being able to read about, for example, sex online, allows people the chance to view a different perspective that might not be available in other forms of media, which may then help them feel part of an intellectual and emotional support network. This support may help them feel more confident, and thus, as a result, actually assist them to be able to connect on a more intimate level in their private lives."
Girl With a One-Track Mind followed in the footsteps of Belle du Jour's controversial blog and book The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. Both Lee and Belle du Jour provide female readers with liberal, explicit and at times arousing alternatives to the recycled, hum-drum articles discussing weight, celebrity couples and make-up that dominate women's magazines and the popular press.
But both writers have their critics. Some are concerned that they propagate an online community of young girls who believe that sexualised images of women in the media are actually empowering, rather than an example of how the female form is used as a commodity to raise magazine sales and provide cheap titillation for the lads. The journalist and feminist Ariel Levy labels women who support this idea as 'female chauvinist pigs', and although the writing of both Lee and Belle has been interpreted in similar terms, the arguments they articulate are considerably more sophisticated. Belle openly discusses the physical attributes of men, their genitals and how she can receive gratification even while being paid for a fuck. Similarly, Lee says she cannot help but ogle a man's crotch in the hope of catching a glimpse of the outline and shape of the hardening cock that lies beneath. Instead of expressing anxiety and bitterness at the thought of being the object of the 'male gaze', both women imply that objectification is part of the human condition. Men and women are both gazers and gazees. It is only relatively recently, however, that women have been permitted the freedom of expression to say how much they like to visually enjoy the male form in all its glory.
Traditionally women are only supposed to have sex to gratify their male partners, which is why the concept of a woman riding a rampant-rabbit and pursuing a partner with the hopes of getting into their underpants is considered so unnerving. Does this explains the press circus that set up camp outside Lee's home shortly after the publication of her book? And had she been a man, offering nothing more that a dominant male sexual discourse, would the press have been so determined to expose her?
Would a man have been called 'shameless' or 'sordid' if
he had detailed his sex life as I did? I very much doubt it
Belle's blog is meant to be factual, but requires women to push the limits of their imagination in order to empathise with experiences as a call-girl. But Lee's writing does not require the suspension of disbelief in the same way, and female readers can more readily identify themselves with her thoughts and feelings. Lee was exposed by the Sunday Times on August 6th 2006 (just three days after the release of her book) by female journalist Anna Mikhailova in an article headlined: "By day she worked on Harry Potter. But by night..."
The report provided details of Lee's personal life and her occupation. It also berated her for being a "sexually voracious single woman in the capital", harbouring a "shameless interest in sex" and indulging in a "dozen one-night stands and 'commitment free' romps in seedy bars and restaurant toilets". Presumably the journalist needed to remove her halo before writing about something that obviously offended her angelic sensibilities. Although surely it was already a little tarnished by the lack of integrity displayed when exposing the minutiae of Lee's life.
What this article highlighted was the stigma that continues to be attached to the single woman who attempts to take responsibility for her own sexual pleasure. Lee says: "I'm pretty sure that had I been a man the story would have been entirely different, even down to the language used: would he have been called 'shameless' or 'sordid' if he had detailed his sex life as I did? I very much doubt it. There is still a dreadful double standard when it comes to how men and women are presented in terms of their sexuality: this needs to change."
Just before she was 'outed', Lee was sent a remarkable email by Nicholas Hellen, acting news editor of the Sunday Times, telling her in no uncertain terms that they would be publishing an article revealing her identity that weekend. He continued by inviting her to attend a photoshoot, since the picture they had secretly acquired, in Hellen's own words, was "not particularly flattering and might undermine the image that has been built up around your persona". He warned Lee that the Sunday Times planned to publish personal information about her mother. Hellen ended by remarking that "to avoid any doubt we will of course publish the story as it is if we do not hear from you". Considering that what he was proposing was about to change Lee's life forever, his email was neither sympathetic nor sensitive, and demonstrated the deplorable lengths to which the press are willing to stoop to get a story.
On New Year's day 2007, Lee published the email she received from Hellen on her blog as she reflected on the events of the previous year. Understandably, her readers were appalled at the attempts made by the Sunday Times to essentially force her into giving them what they wanted. "If anything positive can come out of that whole experience," says Lee, "I hope that it's that people will view the media with a bit more cynicism and realise that much of the 'celebrity' news we are fed, is just an artificial construction designed to sell as many papers as possible. People need to stop buying into it. Perhaps seeing the disgraceful tactics that some elements of the press use will help people to choose their media with some more consideration. I hope so anyway." She goes on to explain why she decided to publish the email, remarking that, "Regarding ethics in journalism: I suppose my printing the Sunday Times' email was an effort to highlight just how bullying the media can be. It allowed the readers of my blog a brief insight into the inner workings of the press and it was unsurprising that so many people were shocked and disgusted by that newspaper's behaviour towards me." It is ironic that in attempting to vilify Lee, it is the press itself that was shown to be monstrous and morally deficit. The first five out of 10 results yielded from an internet search for Nicholas Hellen are discussing his involvement in the Abby Lee debacle, and with her popularity soaring this does not look set to change in the foreseeable future.
Despite the support Lee has received, it is understandable that, stripped of the cover of darkness, she is reluctant to continue her blog in the same vein in which she began. "Being outed has admittedly made it hard for me to write on the blog: it seems unethical to be as honest and open as I once was, because everyone I know reads it now and I don't want to hurt or offend any of the people in my private life. That's not to say that I'm not being truthful in what I write about on the blog nowadays, because I am, but since I have been named and am no longer anonymous, disclosing all the most intimate details in my private life is not something I want to do. What has been wonderful is how many people have rallied round me after I got outed. Not only all my blog readers, but friends, family, colleagues and neighbours too. While I don't feel I can write about any of them (without their prior permission), having their continued support - and their refusal to judge me amongst the media fiasco - has meant the world to me. On the personal side of things, I'm still getting used to new people I meet knowing about the book/blog before they have even met me face-to-face. It's a bit strange and disconcerting for me and it can make things a little complicated, re: relationships/intimacy, but I'm coping."
Considering the obstacles Lee has overcome in order to remain faithful to her beliefs, it seems that the girl with a self-confessed one-track mind is thankfully here to stay.