This diary of a year in a thirty-something Londoner’s sex-life is collated from postings at the hugely popular sex blog of the same name. The book and the blog has gained so much publicity over the past 6 months that perhaps you’ve heard about it already. The book was bound to be popular enough due to the nature of its subject matter, but when the author was publicly outed (i.e. her real name was revealed) in the Sunday Times, the whole thing hit the stratosphere.
Why is this book interesting from a feminist perspective? For one thing, Abby is a self-described feminist and her blog is certainly popular with women and some feminists alike, as well as men too, of course. She’s supportive of feminism and has spoken at at least one feminist conference in the last 6 months. Having now read the book I think there’s quite a few things to say about how the book relates to feminism.
there is a temptation to judge the book in terms of whether it is representative of women
First of all, there is a danger that due to the fact that there is so little out there representing women’s varied and true experiences of sex, there is a temptation to judge the book in terms of whether it is representative of “women” in general or womens experiences of sex in this society in general. I couldn’t help myself slipping into that frame of mind from time to time, thinking “well I don’t think that’s what most people I know do”, or “well that’s all right for you, but what about other women?”
To take the most obvious example, there is the fact that she, by all accounts, finds it very easy to orgasm and frequently describes effortlessly having multiple orgasms during her encounters – on one occasion I think she mentions having twenty in one session (after reading this its hard not to have a little strop and throw the book across the room in disgust!). Abby herself even falls into this trap, bemoaning her “sex obsession” which seems to dominate her daily life to an extreme extent, asking herself why can’t she be like a “normal woman”.
But I think it’s best to try to avoid contemplating whether Abby represents “the average woman”. Its completely unfair to think of the book this way. Firstly, it is a diary of individual woman’s personal experiences, it does not claim to represent all women, and there’s no reason why it should have to. Secondly, who on earth can say what “average” or “normal” is? None of us really know what anyone does or experiences in their private life. There could be many, many other women out there with similar experiences to Abby. It’s only that she has been brave enough to talk about it that we know about it. Thirdly, even if Abby’s experiences are statistically unusual, so what? It doesn’t invalidate them, it’s probably what makes it so interesting to read about.
With that in mind, I think this book can be a very positive read for heterosexual feminists. As feminists it’s no surprise to us that a woman can be as sexually voracious as a man, so it’s not shocking from that point of view. Nevertheless, feminist discussions about heterosexual sex can be incredibly depressing, as inevitably (and rightly) feminists do need to highlight inequalities and problems with the way men and women are often treated differently when it comes to sex. Being bogged down by (admittedly necessary) feminist debates and news about rape and sexual violence all the time means that to read a book like this is rather shocking (in a good way) – for the simple reason that Abby has sexual adventures with many different men, and the vast majority of the men are nice, do not take advantage of her or are abusive, she isn’t attacked or harassed, and they respect her wishes when she asks them to stop or tells them she doesn’t want to do something (and she of course returns the same favour to them).
feminist discussions about heterosexual sex can be incredibly depressing
For sure, she describes some unsatisfying sexual experiences and inadequate or crappy lovers in her past, but she is never physically endangered or seriously threatened, even when they are total strangers. Considering the amount of bad news about sexual violence we hear all the time, and living in a culture that emphasises the risks women supposedly “bring on themselves” by simply leaving the house – never mind proactively looking for sex – because apparently men are “natural predators”, it sometimes feels that heterosexual sex is a lost cause. Yet this doesn’t reflect Abby’s experiences in the book at all. Except for a couple of times when she gets involved with a stranger and weighs up the options of where to go, rejecting his place in case he is a “psycho” and her place in case he is a “stalker”, she has no reason to fear the men she gets involved with and her adventures are remarkably (and fantastically) positive. And that’s got to be a good thing.
Whilst some feminists might think this represents a rose-tinted, unrealistic view of the current state of affairs, I think it represents something very positive. She and most of the men she sleeps with are open and confident about what they want sexually, and respectful and considerate of each other. The men are all pretty much lovely people and everything is consensual. Which is of course, as it should be! Ok, so perhaps most women aren’t lucky enough to experience that, but this is what we should surely be aiming towards. In this respect there is a strong part of me that feels that Abby represents a very hopeful future for sexually adventurous women and men.
One wonders how she managed to develop into this amazing, confident, sexually adventurous woman when living in a culture which says women deserve to be raped even if they have a few drinks or are out late at night. Maybe it’s because she was lucky enough to have a very positive experience of losing her virginity (well, as far as can be expected), a story in which she relates that her male partner “was the sweetest, gentlest person on the planet, thinking of everything”. If only all women were so lucky.
Both she and most of the men she sleeps with are open and confident about what they want sexually, and respectful of each other
In terms of safe sex by the way – yes, she always mentions using condoms. In fact there is a whole diary entry all about the fact she has so many of them in her bedroom. Thinking about this, it’s refreshing that unlike many fictional representations of women and sex (especially in TV shows), there are no serious “consequences” of her actions; probably because this is based on a true experience rather than a morality tale which aims to punish the fictional character for having sex. Usually, with a few exceptions (e.g. Sex and the City) it works this way: “female character has sex – therefore something bad must happen to female character”. This book makes a nice change to that cliché – although admittedly Abby’s experiences of being harassed and outed by journalists and emailed by abusive idiots as a result of her writing does undermine my point a bit. I guess society still wants to “punish” sexually liberated women to a certain extent.
I believe Abby’s writing might also help do feminism a useful service by chipping away at the myth that women’s sexuality is somehow massively different from men’s. The frankly stupid notion that men are more “visual” than women (a lazy argument trotted out to excuse why pornography is so male-focussed and the media in general is saturated with women’s naked bodies) is taken to task by Abby’s enthusiastic descriptions of the visual appeal of the male body; something many heterosexual women would relate to.
Whether it’s subtly checking out her “colleagues arses”, watching her neighbour get a blow job from his boyfriend, or the “glorious” sight of “being able to see the shape of an erect cock pressed up against the material of a guy’s trousers” (something she describes as “one of the sexiest things in the world”); by the end of the book hopefully any reader who believed the myth will have changed their mind. It’s promoting a feminist point of view in a very appealing and unthreatening way to those readers who might normally be put off from feminism (especially men). I also think it’s great that she describes lusting after those men who don’t necessarily fit the waxed chest, boy-band model of male attractiveness, for example in her ode to “male cleavage” (that’s chest hair by the way, not builder’s bums).
chipping away at the myth that women’s sexuality is different from men’s
On occassions she does fall into traditionally stereotypical preferences, for example when she describes being attracted more to taller men or to men with larger feet than hers because she too has large feet and she wants to feel “dainty and feminine”. Generally however, she’s accepting of all types of male bodies; there is even has a checklist describing the pros and cons of small verses large penises, with neither coming out as preferable; showing that it doesn’t really matter what you have, it’s what you do with it that counts.
Abby’s passion for men and men’s bodies is expressed in a much healthier and positive way than the way that men are supposed to demonstrate their “love” for women, by objectifying them with derogatory language and imagery in lad mags and most porn. Unfortunately heterosexual men do not seem to have any other role model for expressing their sexuality than that presented by Nuts, Zoo, the Sport, et al, which are mags for men who want to shag women but actually hate and despise them. If only there was a male version of Abby as a role model for men; someone who truly adores every bit of women’s bodies, loves women themselves, enjoys fun, consensual rampant sex with them, and who behaves towards them in a respectful, honest, unexploitative way.
I think perhaps some heterosexual feminists will really enjoy the way she revels in, celebrates and wholeheartedly embraces the differences of the male body and how her female body responds to these; yet at the same time does not think men and women are from different planets; or that because she craves “a good hard fuck” that this means that she believes women are submissive or inferior or that men are dominating or agressive. She’s just enjoying the physicality of sex. (Incidentally The Male Body by feminist writer Susan Bordo is another interesting book for feminists who love men).
A positive message of this book then, is that as a heterosexual feminst you can still crave having sex with men, love, celebrate and admire the male body, scream for your partner to “fuck me harder!”, be fascinated with penises and adore everything about them, and still be a feminist (although admittedly not a seperatist one!). This may seem obvious to some but it has been a subject of debate amongst some feminists over the past few months. This book says that you can enjoy to the full being physically different from your sexual partner and all that that entails, but still not believe that “Men are from Mars or Women are from Venus”.
women and men are not two seperate species
Abby certainly does not subscribe to the Mars/Venus view. There’s no biological determinism or implication that any differences in male/female behaviour are due to genetic differences between the sexes. Her two lists “guide to one night stands – for women” and “guide to one night stands – for men” are an excellent example, in that the tips given are practically identical for each gender, e.g. “relax for goodness sake: it’s just sex”. This is a really effective (and funny) way of making the point that women and men are not two seperate species and actually have similar desires and fears.
When she does make comments about what is good and bad behaviour from men in bed, I hope that her advice will seep into the brains of male readers who might be drawn in initially by her “I need cock!” talk. The book is dotted with her humorously written advice lists applicable to men as well as women, e.g. “how to respond to the sight of a single female in a sex shop when you are a male customer” and she often comments on what makes men good lovers and bad ones. Men with a sexist, exploitative, uncaring attiude are taken to task, and men who try to pressure women into sex are described as arseholes. In a guide for women on how to chat people up, she advises women “do not pretend to be less intelligent” and to avoid “sexist pigs” as potential lovers. Hooray!
The book doesn’t directly touch on feminism explicitly (although I believe it does indirectly as I’ve explained above), but there are times when she does touch on feminist debates. For example, she angrily talks about street harassment, a perennial feminist complaint. “When I walk along the road, it does not, as you may presume, give me pleasure to be shouted at just because you have spotted by breasts and approve of them… It seems that as a man you’re free to say what you like about women’s bodies when you like, and more often than not it’s offensive.”
she advises women to avoid ‘sexist pigs’
In another short piece, she describes her huge lingerie collection and how she never used to wear it in the past because, “for years I wasn’t into wearing anything saucy, because I thought I would be perpetuating the same sexist, objectified view of femaleness that was shoved down my throat by the cover of every magazine… that wearing lingerie represented the male fantasy of female availabilty, so how could a feminist like me wear something that seemed to exist just to turn a man on?” However, she then describes how after some years, she tried on a particular piece and found it felt nice against the skin, making her “feel seductive” – so choosing to wear lingerie again was about how she felt, not about a man’s view of how it looked on her. I think this tiny episode of only a couple of paragraphs higlights the difficulty of feminist debates about women’s choices and whether they are ‘choices’ actually dictated by a male dominated society, or true genuine choices for the woman concerned. In other words, it’s not always as simple as “wear a thong and you’re a handmaiden of the patriarchy”.
And of course inevitably, she often discusses the double standard, especially with regard to the different way men who have been with many sexual partners are viewed compared to women. In a blog entry, she writes:
Just because a woman enjoys sex, it seems that she must be seen as pathological in some way; that she must be abnormal, or bad, or – as in my case – an addict. Why can’t women just like sex? Why can’t we be seen to enjoy it, without being called ‘sluts’ or ‘whores’ or ‘addicts’? Why must something be wrong with us, just because we openly express our needs, desires and wants?
The main controversy around the book and the blog is essentially that she is female AND she likes sex (goodness gracious!), has a lot of sex with people, and thinks about sex a lot. A lot. No, more than that; I mean a LOT. We’re talking a serious amount of time spent on thinking about sex and having sex, to the extent of having to masturbate twice a day or more, masturbating whilst driving on the motorway, masturbating in a department store toilet, describing herself as having a “sex obsession”, walking down the street thinking about and looking at men’s crotches, obessing about sex whilst jogging round the park, and so on, and so on.
Apart from the eye-opening factor of “wow, do some people really think about sex this much?” this does become a tad tiresome at times, when almost every diary entry ends or begins with “I’m gagging for a shag!”. It isn’t that there is anything wrong with being desperate for a shag, it’s just that, well, repeating this every page or two is a little boring to read. But, it is a sex diary so to a certain extent it’s not that surprising really and it’s a bit silly to begrudge it for that reason.
there are some hilarious experiences related
Apart from the sex stories, the book is held together by a storyline about her growing romantic feelings for one particular man, who says he wants to be friends but seems to keep changing his mind. It seems that although it is all based on truth, this element was made into useful hook to give the book a consistent thread and add a “will they, won’t they” element of suspense to keep people reading.
Of course I’ve neglected to mention that the book is very funny. There are some hilarious experiences she relates, such the practicalities of masturbating in a department store toilet e.g. removing jumpers, thermal tights and so on; having an excruciatingly embarrasing conversation with her mother in which she had to explain BDSM; instructing a man in great detail on how to stop ogling women’s breasts and look her in the eye; accidentally going on a date with an evangelical Christian who wanted to talk about his prayer group, and many more.
Abby’s view of sex seems to me to be very mature, sensible and positive. All sex should be consensual; she does not get involved with people if she thinks the sex might affect them emotionally (e.g. a rebound shag); she never knowingly sleeps with a man who has a girlfriend (if the girlfriend happens to be in the same room and fully consenting and actively involved, that’s a different matter), and is respectful of her partners’ feelings. All in all, a fun, thought-provoking read.
Catherine Redfern is Editor and Founder of the F Word. She is proud to have resisted the urge to mention Sex and the City more than once in the above review.