Empowering just one person: An interview with Zoe Margolis

The outspoken feminist and author of Girl With a One Track Mind and Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed spoke to Catherine Redfern about feminism, sex, activism and writing

Catherine Redfern, 16 September 2010

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What are your hopes for your new book Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed, apart from being an entertaining read?

I wanted a right to reply to what happened to me, the turmoil in my life [she was outed by The Sunday Times after publication of her first book]; I wanted a place to set the record straight. I also wanted to make people think. My experience was a microcosm of what happens to women generally in society and women in the public eye especially: being outed, threatened and blackmailed. That type of shit goes on every single day in celebrity magazines and women's magazines. Women should be questioning that when they buy into it - they're buying into someone else's misfortune and a very misogynistic view of women. I wanted to show that's the reality. Women need to stop literally buying into it and supporting it. We need to question 'why are we always talking about what women look like, what they wear and their sex lives?'

People say, "well, women buy these magazines so it's what women want to read".

But that's what women are being given, there's no fucking alternative. You'll find the same stories in them all: they're all dumbed down, patronising and very similar in style. Sometimes you'll find something really radical and intelligent, but that's not enough when 95% of the magazine is sexist conditioning. I do think women want more - the average woman who wouldn't call herself a feminist, likes Heat and isn't particularly political. But with no alternative provided, you have to take what there is: it's that, or reading nothing at all.

If you were a man writing about his sex life it would have been different. Like: "revealed: the love god who bedded women all across the capital..." and "please tell us your secrets", not trying to get a photo of him opening the door in his pyjamas on a bad hair day!

When it comes to being a woman in the media, it's all about cutting them down to size. And in my new book I am trying to show that it's not just about women in the public eye: all women are criticised and judged for their appearance, behaviour and lifestyle.

Most authors generally have no influence over their book covers, but did you take a conscious decision with this one to try to change the imagery?

The cover of my first book has been complimented by many, but it was still the book buyer looking at a picture of a woman who is sexually objectified. That is a default position for most publishers to take: the story is about sex and it's about a woman, so let's have a woman on the cover. With my latest book, my publishers and I got into quite a few debates about what "empowerment" means in terms of this imagery. What is empowering to me, in this context, is looking at things that I enjoy and that I desire - which as a heterosexual woman is men - from a female gaze. So the cover of my new book [which features a man and a woman in an embrace] is very different: it's about female desire, not about how desirable a woman might be.

I think the detail in the picture we used is very important - her toes are clenched, she's pulling up his t-shirt and pulling down his jeans: she's the active sex partner and it's about her pleasure, not his. Plus, I'm really pleased and proud that my editors decided to feature a man's arse as the central focus on the cover: that's quite a big step for publishers to take, and I hope that it will influence others to do something different now.

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Women's sexuality is presumed to be about being desired, but never about actively desiring.

It's frustrating; it's a really simple concept, it's so obvious. But we're conditioned from age zero to be pretty and to be wanted. And you're rewarded for being pretty; in society you get ahead if you're considered 'beautiful' by Western standards.

You've written for the The Atheist's Guide to Christmas. Do you see a connection between atheism and feminism? We've had some discussions on The F Word about feminism and religion, and sexism in both religions and atheist communities.

I'm a 'Distinguished Supporter' of the British Humanist Association and very proud of that: the work they do is admirable.

My mum is an atheist feminist so that had a big impact on my personal politics... I find it quite hard to imagine how one could balance having faith and being political in a feminist way, and although I know there are lots of feminists who are, I find it contradictory; I've seen too much hatred towards women from religion. Personally, I think religion is bollocks, but then feminism should be about embracing all aspects of things, so if there are religious feminists who want female priests as well as equal rights for women, then that's great: they're changing things from within rather than standing outside saying "I reject it", and it will never change otherwise. Feminism should be a big umbrella, I think: we're all here to achieve the same thing...

Have you always described yourself as a feminist, because of your upbringing?

Yeah. And it really isolated me when I was younger, being 12/13. The only time I felt validated politically was - ironically - by a male teacher... it was a pivotal point for me realising that that I didn't need peer-group validation to give me confidence. It happened during an English class where we had to write about the news story where Claire Short was attacking Page 3. I was outraged by it and I wrote an essay supporting her, but the entire class opposed me - apart from my teacher. Privately, I asked him why, and he talked me through it and explained about the politics behind it and social conditioning. He described himself as a pro-feminist man...

Pro-feminist? That's impressive!

Yeah! ....He explained to me about the boys; he said "I'm pro-feminist now, but at their age I was a complete prick, and it's taken me 25 years to realise the truth, it'll get better as you get older."

Just wait 25 years for the boys to grow up! (laughs)

It was a profound moment for me: I realised that there could be feminist men; it gave me confidence to believe in my opinions; and that just because I felt alone in my views, it didn't mean I was wrong.

You talk a bit in the book about New York. Do you think people are more open-minded over there, and more sexist in the UK?

New York is like London but it's faster, busier, harder, sharper, smarter, friendlier... it's very intense. It's much more of a melting pot than London and it has a much more open attitude towards relationships, sex and dating. My approach to things is more in tune with New York: they talk more freely, they openly date lots of people.

But the British way of dealing with dating is: you go out, get as drunk as possible and then hope for a snog at the end of the night; we have a particular social awkwardness that exists in all situations. For example, if the waitress had brought me a cold coffee, I'd ask her for a new one, but most British people would just drink it and grumble about it afterwards. It's very passive aggressive, and I think that relates to how we approach relationships and dating and especially sex: a lot of British men can't handle a woman being open about what she wants - they find it intimidating.

People have made millions pretending the male sex is mysterious and unfathomable.

It's like those dating advice books that advise people to follow rules, put on an act and send 'signals' to communicate instead of just being honest and open.

These people have made millions out of people's (mainly women's) insecurities, pretending the male sex is mysterious and unfathomable. But it's really simple: they're a human being with a brain. It's one thing having an air of mystery around you, but if communication is blocked you've never going to know what they need. I could write a book about this: it'd be 300 pages of blank paper, and at the end, on the final page, it'd say "just talk to them" (laughs).

Do you think people are surprised when they find out that you are a feminist, because you're a woman who writes about sex, you enjoy sex and people automatically assume you won't be a feminist?

I wonder if that's the automatic assumption about me, by feminists: she's written about sex therefore she's pandering to the male gaze and not a feminist.

People might assume that without having read your work. It's good that you're out there as someone who is an outspoken feminist and likes sex as it disproves the myth that feminists are anti-sex; but it's pathetic that's even an issue.

Well, this sort of leads onto how women who are anti- the sex industry are described as 'anti sex', and then you get into this infighting. It makes me livid when I've been accused of being things I'm not... people say to me "oh you're 'sex-positive' therefore you must think stripping is empowering", and the other side will say I'm anti-sex because I actually say stripping isn't empowering.

But we still haven't figured out as feminists, as a group, how we stand about these things. We can be pro-sex, but question the sex industry; question the commodification of female sexuality being sold back to us as a 'feminist statement'. I want to support sex workers, I want to ensure they're safe and protected; but I absolutely fucking reject the commodification of my sexuality for profit. It's capitalist, let's be honest about it... there's nothing empowering about selling sex for men's pleasure. It makes you richer - good for you - but it's not feminist; it does nothing to enable society to be more equal.

Using female sexuality to sell products? Fuck no. If there's an ad featuring a woman lying on a car with her tits out, I definitely object to that

What would your ideal situation be with regard to the objectification debate? It seems there's polarised views; either having equal objectification or having no sexual imagery at all.

I don't think equal objectification is the what we should be striving for, but we do have to come up with alternatives that are realistic. The argument that the Chippendales are an answer to female strippers? It's totally not: stripping for humour is so different to stripping for sexual titillation.

So there need to be options for women as well; I think we have to provide something different and reject the sexist one-sidedness of it. I really do loathe seeing breasts on every magazine cover in the newsagents, masquerading as reading material when it's wank material. I've got nothing against wank fodder, but let's be honest about what it is, and reject the insane notion that it is in any way 'empowering'. Using female sexuality to sell products? Fuck no. If there's an ad featuring a woman lying on a car with her tits out, I definitely object to that. Sadly we're still surrounded by this imagery and if anything, it's much worse now than when women of my mum's generation were opposing it in the 1970s.

When it comes to porn, I feel so conflicted. I did a talk with another feminist recently and I found myself thrust (no pun intended) into defending porn because she was so obviously fundamentally opposed to it. But I have major issues with porn, I really do, it's just that I don't believe it is inherently bad in and of itself: using erotic material for sexual pleasure is not a negative thing, it's actually quite enjoyable... So I found myself put in a pro-porn position... explaining that I use porn myself, and I don't hate women ... but that I accept that 95% of it is racist, misogynist shit and we need to change it... however, the other 5% is great!

There's got to be a more complex discussion because a lot of people aren't on one extreme or the other.

Exactly. When I was growing up, my mum advised me to always question who was siding with the feminists on these issues. Cause when you look at some of the debates, and you find right-wing Christians agreeing with you, you get these very censorious ideas about what is the best way forward. This goes hand in hand with all these incredibly misogynistic groups, and they're coming from an incredibly different perspective, arguing that there shouldn't be any sexual material out there. I'm arguing that there should be different sexual material, not none at all. I think that there are a lot of problems with porn but I don't relate to, or agree with, the idea that looking at images of people fucking is inherently bad; there shouldn't be any shame involved in doing that. I thought I was in a minority with this view, but I'm not: I've had thousands of emails from women saying they agree and relate to what I am saying. And that's where I think feminism has gone wrong, because it's the assumption that we all feel - or should feel - the same way. But no - there are thousands of women who feel differently but are completely disenfranchised from the feminist movement and also from society as a whole; because they aren't represented, they don't have a voice.

But I have to say, I get really annoyed with women who are 'pro-sex' but who say they're not feminists. Really? You don't believe in equal pay, equal rights, you're not against rape? Really?!

I'm arguing that there should be different sexual material, not none at all

It struck me as to how the right-wing press interpreted Natasha Walter's Living Dolls, focusing on young women's 'promiscuity'. Surely the amount of sex you have is irrelevant, the point is that it's consensual, informed, safe, desired.

Absolutely; and to be able to do it without fear of judgement: that's what sexual liberation is.

What's your role with Brook [a sexual health charity for young people]?

I'm an ambassador for them. They're a fantastic charity and I guide and steer people towards them as, over the years, I have had so many emails from young people asking for help. I also try to keep Brook in the public eye as much as possible, because many people don't want to talk about sex or safe sex in the media, but I have no embarrassment or shame talking about it. I've written quite a bit on issues like sex education in schools, faith schools, and age appropriate sex education, and I'll continue writing within the field to support Brook's work as much as I can.

What most concerns you about young people and sex?

Quite a lot. Firstly that we don't see them as some sort of 'other', that we give them as much support and information as possible and let them make informed choices. We can't give them no guidance and then dump information about biological reproduction at age 16, and expect that to assist them in their personal lives. This is especially so with the ongoing sexualisation of young people in society, and the need to get them to question that. Brook does work with peer groups: getting young people talking about these things amongst themselves, and helping them make informed decisions about relationships and sex. It's about young people knowing they can say no as much as saying yes; not just learning how their body works but how to relate to others, knowing their boundaries and being respected. Brook does amazing work, the outreach they do is incredible... they go out in a van in estates, chat to 15-year-old boys who would never usually access sexual health services, and give them condoms. Government policy is important but you have to tackle it from a grassroots level too.

The incident with 'Billy' in your book makes me worry about teenagers who don't have as much self-confidence as you, being in similar situations, being forced into things they don't want.

Young men need to be able to learn to interact with women on a better level rather than just objectifying them.

There has to be an alternative; I'd like more of the porn on the market to be made with women in mind and egalitarian

If they're getting their sex education from the media, it's a problem.

It's scary. Probably young boys are getting it from porn more than anything else. It's worrying, given how misogynistic much of it is. Again, I've got no issue with naked bodies; I've got an issue with the underlying hatred of women in a lot of porn. And the racism as well, which is endemic in it. And that's something that many feminists never talk about and I'm really fucking annoyed about that. 'Oh, it's so terrible, we're objectifying women' - hold on, what about the fact that it's so incredibly racist, why are we not questioning that? Why are we not questioning why the assumed viewer is male and white? It's horrible, it's horrific. But yeah, it does scare me that 11/12/13 year old boys are seeing that and they're just taking on the propaganda and social conditioning.

But banning porn... it's not going to do anything; there will be access to it, regardless. There has to be an alternative; I'd like more of the porn on the market to be made with women in mind and egalitarian.

Someone tweeted me to ask you if you think there's a new puritanism in feminism today.

I don't think it's new. But do we want a movement that's 'exclusive'? Or do we want as many women (and men!) in this as possible? Do we want to say "well you don't sign up to that clause, so you're not in our club"? The BBC Four Women: Activists documentary left me feeling really sad because they interviewed two women after they attended a feminist meeting in London and they said, "we don't think we're going to join the group because we don't agree with all their views on sex"... I thought fuck... we're so disenfranchised as it is, we're a minority... we need a way to work together, we should be fighting the common enemy, not each other.

Do we want to say 'well you don't sign up to that clause, so you're not in our club'?

What are your future plans?

I'm not sure I'll be writing another memoir about my sex life! I've said most of what I needed to say, I think. I've vaguely considered doing an exposé of the 'Pick-Up Artist' community in the States, but there are problems with that. (Namely, that I'd have to do a lot of undercover work, which would involve a lot of dating.) Over this next year, I will be working on a film version of Girl With a One Track Mind (a fictionalised version, not a documentary!). And maybe some feminist science fiction too; I'm a proud nerd, me.

I think writing is a form of activism.

I'm not a revolutionary and I don't have lots of power and impact, but there are a few people who've had a big influence on my life, and in my politics. Similarly, some women contact me and say "I don't normally read books, but I've read yours" and yet they've grasped the underlying subtext of my book, which is that you don't have to objectify yourself, and you don't have to feel shame about sex. The women who write to me, they're the women I want to convert to becoming more politicised; it's the women out there who don't even vote, the ones who've never heard of the word feminism: they're the ones I'm interested in talking to. And men as well; I'm proud that I've converted a few blokes through my writing!

We should reject the snobbery about feminist activism, especially those who say you're not a 'good enough' feminist activist because you're not doing this or that. For me, it's about helping change one person and empowering them in their life. If they can have more equal relationships and realise that the struggle for equality isn't elitist, that they can create change in their own lives; that's changing things on a micro level. If we had a socialist revolution tomorrow there'd still be sexism; it's changing the psychology of people that takes a long time. We're all responsible for doing that. If we all alter just one person's opinion to be less sexist, well, that's feminist change, in my opinion - and that's something all of us are capable of achieving.

Zoe Margolis is the author of Girl With a One Track Mind and Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed.Her blog is at girlwithaonetrackmind.co.uk And you can follow her on Twitter @girlonetrack

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