Sex blogger Abby Lee saw her anonymity stripped away by the media. Her latest book explores the personal consequences in a society that has yet to come to terms with female sexual desire, says Abby O’Reilly
In 2006, Girl With a One Track Mind was published. The blog of the same name had a huge following, and more and more users were surfing onto the site everyday in the hope of reading the latest instalment from the sexy and insightful anonymous author Abby Lee.
The writing was witty and candid, and anyone scrolling back to read Lee’s earlier posts will see that it was only a matter of time before she was offered a book deal. Of course, today it is almost impossible to navigate cyberspace without stumbling across a virtual cock or reading about an exciting, perfectly executed quickie someone had last Friday night. But while a lot of bloggers can churn out explicit reviews of their sex lives, few are able to sustain an audience beyond superficial arousal and very few are distinguishable from the mass of sweaty writhing cyber bodies gesticulating never more than just a mouse click away. While there may be nothing especially original about a sex diarist as such, the talent needed to write about sex is perhaps not appreciated; anyone can write about making the beast with two backs but very few people can do it well – and even less can delve below the physical to offer a pertinent analysis. This is what continues to distinguish Lee.
From the outset it was clear that she was not writing to titillate. And unlike the many blogs that followed, she was not writing in pursuit of a book deal. Lee was a happy woman working hard to rise through the ranks in the film industry; a woman who enjoyed sex and who decided to articulate her desires to understand her own sexuality. The ordinariness of her circumstances resonated with most women, those of us who felt the same way but who lacked the confidence to speak about our penchant for masturbation or our rich and varied fantasy lives, for fear of being branded morally depraved or, worse still, not ‘normal’. Women could identify with Lee. Her introspective musings invested female fans with the confidence to begin an open discourse about their own experiences in a bid for freedom from the socially constructed shackles of shame and embarrassment we have been taught are synonymous with female sexual desire. Men enjoyed the insight into the female psyche, and her erotic, delicious and, most significantly, honest writing was like literary crack leaving readers desperate for more.
However, the freedom Lee’s anonymity accorded her was to be violently stripped away shortly following the book’s publication, something which would alter her life forever. Nobody knows why the Sunday Times considered it necessary to reveal her real-identity, a change in name that would make little difference to the reader, no difference to the content of the book, and all the difference to Lee. It was a sense of entitlement that had no foundation, and it’s not impossible to imagine Nicholas Hellen, the then acting news editor, reclining back on a chair, feet on the desk, puffing on a fat cigar and, in response to the question why? arrogantly grumbling “because I could”. But identification wasn’t the only problem. The journalist, Anna Mikhailovich, using the ‘expose’ as a springboard to launch her fledgling career, described Lee in denigrating terms that cast aspersions on her morality and implied that her way of life was wrong. The story was unnecessary, and confirmed all the archaic and outdated prejudices that Lee’s writing had valiantly challenged. Her fans, and those who sympathised with her story, rallied around cyberspace to offer their support, but how, when you can no-longer detach yourself from the private thoughts and feelings you shared under a pseudonym, do you continue your everyday life? Is it possible to return to ‘normality’, or does the concept lose all meaning?
Four years after her initial ‘outing’, Lee has endeavoured to answer this question through her latest offering which displays the same erudite wit and humour that made her first book a bestseller. Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed provides an insight into Lee’s life as she found herself “stuck in a kind of nightmare”, dragged from behind the headlines as Zoe Margolis, tentatively having to navigate and redefine relationships with the people closest to her. Margolis’ account begins prior to the publication of her first book. However, it is not necessary to have read this in order to follow or understand what is happening in Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed, because here we are taken beyond her persona, Abby Lee, and the clear writing and recounting of events indicates there is no assumption the reader has any prior knowledge. She has already written and spoken about being outed, but this is the first time we are given an acute and emotive insight into her thoughts and feelings from the moment she realises her identity has been uncovered, and the line between Abby Lee and Zoe Margolis is blurred forever.
Margolis was hounded out of her home by journalists, finding refuge with her parents who, until that point, did not know about the blog or the book. Even those of us who can boast the most liberal of upbringings would find the prospect of our mothers and fathers discovering exactly how we like to perform oral sex terrifying, and while at times it is almost possible to feel the heat from Margolis’ blushes, her parents offered unwavering support.
As a result, even at the most stressful moments immediately following her exposure there is an underlying sense of optimism that permeates her writing, although she did have to overcome a lot of needless vitriol. “So many people are spreading vicious rumours about me,” she writes, reiterating her sense of isolation from her familiar world. The cynical began to speculate that her ‘outing’ was part of a publicity stunt which was crushing for Margolis when, in actual fact, she felt her life was folding in on itself like wet cardboard. But it was not only the insensitivity of anonymous critics that hurt. She did, unfortunately, lose her job, her career, and everything she had worked hard to achieve.
Having toiled away for 10 years in the male-dominated world of the film industry, becoming an assistant director and producer, Margolis had an awkward telephone conversation with her boss following her exposure that heralded the end to her directing career.
It seems while politicians and high-profile figures can be involved in the most depraved sexual scandals and still retain their professional positions, Margolis, a woman who simply enjoyed sex and wrote about her experiences, was seen to have flounced convention to such an extent that her personal life, which is perfectly normal and healthy, was considered too damaging.
It is ludicrous really, and Margolis’ disappointment and upset is obvious as the media circle her like hungry marauders. But she was strong. She did not decide to buy a secluded cottage in a town nobody has heard of, running away and hiding for the next 20 years. Nor did she delete the blog: “it would suggest I am ashamed or embarrassed by my writing or my life – I’m not.” Margolis had the strength to face her critics head on, and emerged from the chrysalis of Abby Lee as a strong and inspiring woman who remains true to her beliefs. She has become a celebrity in her own right, a spokeswoman for female sexuality and liberation, something which seems to have taken her by surprise. As she waits to appear on the The Sharon Osbourne Show and prepares to speak on radio she seems slightly disbelieving of her own success, and this modesty is part of her continuing appeal.
The book contains some genuinely humorous moments, such as when Margolis, keen to see a copy of her book in print, adorns a pair of dark glasses and makes a clandestine trip to a local book store to quiz the sales assistant about the author. It is these passages of reflection that let you know that the bastards didn’t grind “the girl” down. And furthermore, those who criticised the blog for losing its sexy allure following Margolis’ exposure will have little of which to complain.
While she navigates TV interviews and comes to terms with her newfound celebrity, Margolis still manages to find time to indulge her great passion, sex, something which she writes about with the trademark flair for insightful observation and attention to detail that made her initially so readable. Only now her writing is more pertinent because she is still openly sharing with us, the reader, even though we know who she is, we can Google her, read her articles, see her picture, which is probably one of her most important feminist messages; she is letting women know everywhere that enjoying sex is not shameful, and is indeed something which we should feel comfortable talking about openly. By refuting speculation that her blog had been penned by a man, a proposition based on the frequency with which Margolis is able to orgasm, she addresses the stigma still attached to female masturbation, and the outdated idea that a women’s sexual gratification is directly proportionate to a man’s sexual prowess: “The fact I can orgasm frequently and easily is little to do with how good a lover a man might be and ALL to do with the fact I know my body well.” And BOOM, yes, we know Margolis is always in charge, and in this way she begins to redefine the ways in which we understand female sexual pleasure.
The journey for Margolis has not been easy, and this extends beyond her exposure. She has received hugely offensive emails and has, unfortunately, found that as a women writing about sex her body has become public property. Individuals – men in particular – think it is perfectly acceptable to make comments about her physical appearance. “Right now it seems that it’s a free-for-all,” she says. “Just because I’ve written about my enjoyment of sex, I somehow deserve to have my sexual attractiveness judged, as if that’s the fundamental component of assessing my worth as a person.”
This says a lot about society and general attitudes towards women and sex, since a woman who writes about sex who does not conform to the silicon-breasted, peroxide blonde, generic straight male fantasy perpetuated by the traditional porn industry is considered an anomaly. Margolis is very attractive – long dark wavy hair, curvaceous, very successful and articulate – and while her appearance should not matter, it is only because her dissenters struggle to understand that a woman can like sex for her own benefit, that they resort to a base form of objectification, rooted in the belief that all sexual discourse emanates from a need to stimulate men.
We have been conditioned to think a woman only explores her sexuality openly for a man’s pleasure. Therefore when a woman deviates from the outdated generic-male-masturbatory-fantasy-women she is denigrated by a large proportion of men who struggle to reconcile their desires and appreciation with her appearance, simply because she is not directly trying to arouse male readers. It is assumed that she should be a clichéd ‘pornographic’ figure when this is exactly the stereotype Margolis has challenged and undone to show that a woman can embrace her sexuality for her own sake. A woman who displays sexual confidence and the yearning to come is often denigrated for her openness; she is believed to be offering male titillation under the guise of liberation, deluded by her subversive conformity to old stereotypes, but Margolis doesn’t have sex to please men.
She sees it as mutually gratifying, but first and foremost she has sex because she enjoys it. She is not afraid to say what she wants but, more importantly, she is not afraid to say what she does not want. She does not allow herself to be used as a sexual commodity, and at one point, when a partner – an unnamed minor celebrity – arrogantly and forcefully insists on ejaculating on her face despite her objections, she warns him that there will be repercussions if he proceeds, twisting her knuckles into his testicles, and hopefully teaching him that people should, at all times, respect a partner’s wishes in the bedroom.
The most intriguing and assuring aspect of Margolis’ book is the extent to which she reiterates everything should be a question of choice. So much writing by women seems to either champion the single life above all else, or bemoan the horrors of the single life, but Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed occupies neither of these positions.
Margolis is content, and while she makes reference to Potential Boyfriend Material (and finally Potential Husband Material) and is receptive to the idea of a relationship, her writing neither digresses to a Bridget Jones-eque diatribe about the need to get a man to validate her existence, nor promotes the idea that all men are intrinsically evil.
She, like most of us, would be happy if she met someone she liked, but is also happy to wait for that to happen without feeling the need to settle for just anyone, or sacrificing her want to feel sexually gratified. Margolis is refreshingly balanced, normal and a strong role model. However, sadly she continues to be subject to latent criticism and prejudices that have become enmeshed in our social fabric.
Shortly following publication of Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed Margolis wrote an article for the Independent on Sunday. Unfortunately, poor subediting led to an unforgiveable mistake, and the article was headlined “I was a hooker who became an agony aunt”. The URL reflected the title, and could be accessed for many hours before the mistake was rectified. Clearly, the editorial team had confused Margolis with Brooke Magnanti, author of the blog Belle du Jour: Diaries of a London call-girl which, likewise, led to a book deal and also spawned a TV series.
However, anyone who is familiar with their work will realise that, while they both write about sex, they are extremely different. Margolis writes about her experiences as a sexually liberated woman; Magnanti writes about her experiences working as a prostitute. However, the ease with which the Independent on Sunday made that mistake, considering these women to be almost interchangeable, indicates that it is still only acceptable for a woman to write openly about sex if she is already considered to be overtly transgressive in some way.
There is almost a prevailing need to see Margolis as having profited in a more tangible way from her sexual experiences, because social conditioning means women are traditionally seen as not enjoying sex, and not being allowed to have frequent sex, unless that have a legitimate reason or they have a male partner to please. The mistake was inexcusable and hugely libellous, and while the title referred to Margolis as a “good-time girl” in a later issue, it is unbelievable that this was considered an acceptable amendment.
There is still the suggestion that Margolis occupies a marginal position in the social strata that is not normal. What is a “good-time girl” other than a synonym for less desirable terms that are not flattering for anyone? That this was printed in a national newspaper indicates the institutional prejudices women need to overcome in order for their sexual desires and needs to be legitimised, and while the Independent on Sunday later printed a correction and apology, arguably the damage had already been done. But, more importantly, that this was published in a national newspaper and Margolis has once again continued to write and continued to disseminate her views is testament to her tremendous strength of character. In May 2010 the Independent on Sunday settled out of court and Margolis was rightly awarded libel damages of an undisclosed amount for the distress she suffered as a consequence of publication of these statements. While no award would have adequately compensated Margolis for the effects of the badly edited piece, hopefully this victory will help change the way in which the media portrays female sexuality.
Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed is an encouraging read, which is not only about sex, but is about overcoming your greatest fears, reconnecting with people you love, and realising that there is no shame in being a sexually liberated woman comfortably living in your own skin. Margolis transformed an extremely hard and distressing situation into a positive, and has forged a career as a successful writer and social commentator, refusing to dissolve into the ether following the urban witch hunt initiated all those years ago by the Sunday Times. While she prized her anonymity and, if given the choice, would probably return to the days when she was the unknown sex diarist read by legions of online fans every day, hopefully she can take some comfort in the fact that her writing continues to help a lot of women overcome their fears surrounding sex. But, more than that, her ability to turn a personal negative into such a widespread positive is truly admirable and inspirational.