October 3, 2015

Why I’m sick of people asking about my virginity

This article was published on Telegraph Wonder Women on 26 July 2015.

I used to think that having a novel published would be the best thing that could ever happen to me; that every time I’d pick up a book in a store with my name emblazoned across the spine, I’d glow with pride; that every time someone asked me about my book, I’d be thrilled to answer their questions.

That, really, everything would be perfect.

Only then it actually happened. Last year my debut novel Virgin was published – a story about a 21-year-old student on a journey to shed her cumbersome cherry so she can fit in with her mates and start having casual sex all over London.

I’ll never forget how happy I was when my agent told me I had a book deal (I cried in the loos). But as soon as my book gathered momentum and hit the stores, everything changed. After about 10 minutes of joy, I realised that all those shiny dreams I’d had about author life proved themselves to be just that – dreams.

The fascinating conservations I’d envisaged about the themes and messages of my novel never really materialised. Instead, I found myself answering the same question over and over again from friends, family, interviewers and strangers on Twitter.

 

Radhika’s debut novel Virgin

What did they want to know about? My virginity – or lack thereof.

The problem was that I’d dared to become a female author who had written a book with a female protagonist. Worse, the protagonist was roughly my age, shared some basic details with me, and sometimes – shock horror – spoke like me.

So obviously everyone naturally assumed that my leading lady – a Greek, short, chubby girl called Ellie Kolstakis – was me. It didn’t matter that we look nothing alike, and don’t have similar life stories in any way. The fact that I’d written a novel with a female character was enough to seal my fate as a slightly annoying 21-year-old virgin.

I am not the only author to have dealt with this assumption.

Rachel Johnson, the journalist and author, has recently published a novel with a raunchy lesbian scene. She initially joked that it was her way of coming out as gay, but this week told The Times she’d had to insist othereise to loved ones.

“I had to assure my parents that it wasn’t,” she said. “The problem with being a lady novelist is that everyone thinks you’re writing from personal experience.”

Reading that made me want to punch with air with an Ed Miliband-style ‘hell yeah’, because Johnson has summed it up perfectly. If you’re a woman who has written a book with a female character – especially one that has sex or does anything a tiny bit ‘taboo’ – people will think it is you.

It doesn’t matter how hard the lady doth protest because their minds will never change. Trust me, I’ve tried.

My colleague Rebecca Reid – a Telegraph Wonder Women sex writer – has had a similar experience.

This week, she wrote in a piece for this section: “I write about sex. I understand sex and I respect the important role that sex plays in our lives – but it is apparently inconceivable to other people that I could do those things without having a sexual history worthy of Russell Brand.”

Male writers just don’t get this treatment.

When they write about disillusioned young men, critics congratulate them on their insight into a generation (I’m talking to you Jonathan Franzen, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Coe). When a woman does the same, newspaper headlines question just how much of it is based on her life (Helen Fielding’s character Bridget Jones, E L James of Fifty Shades fame).

• Men aren’t better writers than women. Literary mags need to close the book on gender bias

• Sex and judgement: Welcome to the murky world of book covers (mine included…)

It all stems from the general sexism around literature, where a novel featuring any kind of romance is labelled as ‘chick lit’ if the author is female, or ‘contemporary fiction’ if the writer is male. Little wonder that many women hide behind pseudonyms.

Just like George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) and other wonderful female writers of the past, modern women often hesitate in using their own name, like J. K. Rowling adopting the male pen name Robert Galbraith.

Those of us who write as ourselves are subjected to tiresome, patronising scrutiny. It’s essentially like being told that you’re not smart enough to use your imagination – and that you must have mined your own life to create that of your leading female character.

No, we women can only write about romance, sex and Brazilian waxing (another big theme in my book) if it’s all based directly on our personal experiences. Right?

Quite frankly, I find it insulting.

I didn’t always. At first, it was just a slightly annoying situation I had to keep dealing with. But as time went on, it got worse. At one point I actually regretted writing my novel (at least under my own name).

Its juicy subject matter meant that people started to see it as a memoir of me losing my virginity – to the point where my loved ones felt quite upset about it, and people I barely knew would call me up asking if certain characters were based on them.

They weren’t, and even though I’ve always laughed it all off, it is upsetting and totally gratuitous. I didn’t write a non-fiction book about my sex life. I wrote a made-up novel and I did it to help young women, make people laugh, and break pointless social taboos. That’s what I want people to take away from it – not a false assumption that it’s all about me.

As I’m sure Johnson already knows, the more people who refuse to accept your heroine really isn’t you, the worse you feel.

So, just like her, I’m setting the record straight. After all, no one ever asked J. R. R. Tolkein if he was secretly a hairy-legged hobbit.

 

February 13, 2015

It’s time to be more honest about women’s orgasms in literature

josh-hartnett-josh-hartnett-19336121-500-250

Josh Hartnett in THAT scene

 

 

Women are seriously underrepresented in Hollywood. But what’s even more underrepresented is a woman’s orgasm.

Think about it – every time an orgasm is shown in a film, it’s shown as amazing, powerful, fun and intense – everything an orgasm should be. What’s not portrayed is how bloody difficult it can be to have one in the first place.

It’s the same with a lot of fiction. When you read about a woman having sex with a character she fancies/loves/marries, she will inevitably orgasm. If the book you’re reading is particularly erotic, it will often be discussed in lots of juicy detail.

But the one thing that’s always missing about the orgasm is the reality for millions of women. As many as one in three women have trouble reaching orgasm when having sex, according to Planned Parenthood, and as many as 80 per cent of women struggle to orgasm from penetrative sex.

These figures are huge, but you wouldn’t know it from flicking through the nearest chick lit or romcom. Even though so many of these movies and books are targeted at women, I feel like they’re presenting a reality that just isn’t true. More than that, it can sometimes make women feel as though they’re doing it wrong, that they’re alone in their struggles.

It’s why I decided to focus my upcoming novel around this search for the perfectorgasm. In it, my protagonist Ellie (from my debut novel Virgin – she’s no longer a virgin) is trying to up her sex numbers. She’s only ever slept with one guy, but she’s 22 years old, a magazine intern in London, and she’s got access to Tinder and OKCupid, so things are going to change.

In other words, she wants to get into the dating game, have more sex and find out what all the fuss is about. Her previous sexual experiences have never resulted in orgasms – they tend to only take place when she’s alone in her bedroom – and she wants some real context for Meg Ryan’s orgasm face in When Harry Met Sally.

Meg Ryan faking an orgasm

Meg Ryan faking an orgasm

Only when Ellie does start sleeping with someone, she finds that orgasming with him is harder than she thought. In fact, the more she tries to make it happen, the more the big O eludes her. It’s like a losing battle.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the reason I wanted to make this such a strong part of the storyline is because not every woman can open her legs with a guy and suddenly reach ecstasy. Some of you may have seen the teen movie 40 Days and 40 Nights where the female lead orgasms simply by Josh Hartnett rubbing a flower across her body.

Disclaimer: I have never, ever known of this to happen in real life.

But a generation of young women who watched that movie grew up thinking sex would be like that; easy and satisfying. Only what so many people find is that it’s not that easy. Sex can be hard (no pun intended) and that’s not something we need to hide from.

It shouldn’t be so taboo or unusual to discuss the difficulties of sex and trying toorgasm. It’s all very well and good having Anastasia Steele climax all over the pages of 50 Shades of Grey, but isn’t it time we saw more of the orgasm’s downsides in fiction too?

June 18, 2014

Should anything be taboo in women’s literature?

Bridget and her pants

There’s a scene in Bridget Jones’ Diary where Bridge realises she’s wearing her granny pants, just before she’s about to shag Mark Darcy. Cue a rushed bedroom trip where she swaps into some sexier knickers, and ta-da, she’s ready for sex.

Only… Is she?

In the real world, I can’t imagine so. Surely, for a woman who hasn’t had sex in a while, worrying about her underwear choice is only half of what’s going through her mind. Isn’t she also freaking out about her unshaved legs and the fact that her knickers are an inch away from her skin because she hasn’t waxed/shaved/trimmed her pubes in months? Or that she’s on her period and has to figure out whether to broach the period sex chat, and has no idea if that staple condom in her purse has gone out of date yet.

These are the panicked thoughts that I think a real Bridget Jones would be thinking. As much as I do love Helen Fielding’s version, I think she’s missed out the gory, X-rated female thoughts that would make the nearest man drop the novel in horror.

She’s not the only women’s author to do this either – I’ve spent my entire teenage years and early twenties searching for a novel that went into this level of detail. I couldn’t find one so I ended up writing my own – Virgin – a comedy about Ellie Kolstakis, a 21-year-old student trying to lose her virginity and figure out how to tame her pubes.

My goal was to write something funny, but also relevant. I wanted every girl and woman to be able to relate to Ellie’s panics and to encourage more people to ditch the fear we have of talking about taboos like this.

Because I think that in women’s fiction, taboos have traditionally been ignored. In the average chick lit novel, you will have the occasional detailed sex scene, but there’ll be no mention of what the genitalia really looks like, or – don’t stop reading now – smells like. You won’t hear about sexual insecurities or the awkward mishaps that affect every single young woman I know.

If we do hear about periods, it’s never the details about stained knickers  – it’s just a nod to PMT or stomach cramps. With hair removal, we might hear about Brazilian waxes, but the author will rarely tackle the ‘G-string’ zone or talk about what it feels like when the hair grows back. [FYI it feels awful, hence my novel is dedicated to anyone who has ever gone through the pain of having a Brazilian wax].

Meanwhile, in novels written by men, we do hear about similar topics. Male masturbation is practically an established theme, as are insecurities about penises, and men shave their beards in a way that menopausal women never get a chance to wax theirs in print. Likewise female masturbation is a rarely broached topic, and most female protagonists rarely worry about the way their vaginas look. Sadly, in the real world, women do.

It feels like women’s novels constantly try to present the perfect woman who never has to hide in the loos at work after doing an unexpected poo. This ‘romance heroine’ that everyone rehashes might worry about her weight, her love life or her career – which are accepted topics – but not the lack of men she’s slept with, or even something as ordinary as a period which affects half the population once a month.

Obviously, some novels do break away from this, and other authors might not consciously avoid taboos – it may just not fit into their creative visions. But I do think that women’s fiction shies away from these gritty areas because that’s what our society does too. It reflects a wider gender inequality where, on some level, women are expected to be these airbrushed glamazons we see in magazines.

But, newsflash, we’re not. And I think that now, more than ever, women don’t want to read about perfect women. The reason that Bridget Jones did so well was because she was an ordinary woman that women of all ages could relate. But that came out in the 90s, and now I think it’s time we had more Bridge-esque heroines who go that extra mile and don’t just tell us about their pants – they tell us about the pubes coming out beneath them.