THE BLOG

The M Word - How Sexism Is Still Stifling New Women Writers

30/07/2014 14:43 BST | Updated 28/09/2014 10:59 BST

There's nothing like a 'minge' to focus the mind. I used the word recently in an article about my new book, Pure, and my publisher was concerned that my sexual frankness could be perceived as titillating. I'd already mentioned 'bums and balls' in my opening gambit, so perhaps the 3rd paragraph reference to 'insurgent, swirling mega-minges' was overkill?

Part of me wanted to kick and scream. My book is a memoir about my life with intrusive sexual thoughts, and it's pretty hard to write about that stuff and not drop the M-bomb. Besides, titillation would never be a problem for a young man in my position, with my mental condition. He could titillate till the cows came home a-horny, liberally mingeing as he pleased. He'd be utterly free to write about the complexities of sexuality and mental illness without stepping into a semantic minefield.

But rationally I am deeply grateful for my fantastic publisher's protection, because I am slowly learning just how mercilessly hungry the press is for salacious tales of vulnerable young women, and just how desperate the publishing industry is to pigeonhole women's identities into marketable categories.

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Book covers that might have been

When pitching my book I was initially rejected by several publishers, who, by their own admission, didn't have any qualms with my writing; the problem was 'placement'. I'd come to them with a book about mental health that wasn't a misery memoir; a book about sexuality that had no sex scenes in it; a book about travelling that was cynical about amateur poi. I was neither a victim nor a princess nor a temptress; and, of course, I was new, so placing me on the shelves was tricky. There was no pre-established visual language with which to sell me, and in an industry where publishers need guaranteed bestsellers, ambiguity is risky.

Perhaps more surprisingly, these marketing ruts seem to be influencing the industry's assumptions about what men and women actually want to read. When I asked one prospective editor how she might market my book, she listed several magazines and blogs with exclusively female readerships, to which I protested that I wanted my book to be read by men, too. 'But we do tend to find that memoirs are overwhelmingly read by women,' she replied, suggesting my aims were unrealistic.

It seemed so self-defeating, so cannibalistic. The industry needs to get more people excited about books, but it does so by seldom taking risks on new writers and entrenching binary gender codes with hackneyed 'feminine' design. (Lilac, anyone?) Don't get me wrong, there is dazzling new talent trickling through, and there are scores of wonderful female writers whose work makes me swoon and fist pump and roar. But I wonder how many would-be heartbreakers are now being held at the gates, waiting for a 'place' in their world?

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Book covers that might have been

Going back to 'minge' for a moment. I was recently reminded of why my publishers are wise to express caution when I got an email from a man telling me rather unromantically that he liked my appearance in my book video, adding a 'Grrrr' at the end of it. I should have blocked him, or sent him a finger-waggin' response. But I didn't. I felt my cheeks flush with childlike frustration and sent him a terse but polite reply, like a school girl who smiles with embarrassment when a stranger gropes her arse. As a 28-year-old woman living the high of my first book, which humbly aims to spark thoughtful conversation about the nuances of sexuality and mental health, it's curiously sobering to realise you can still be rendered crestfallen by a strange man's gaze.

When I was 18-years-old and my desperately fragile sense of self was dependent on the affirmation of pimply-faced Loaded readers, then I might have appreciated a grrrr. When the boys in the common room used to sit around openly rating all the girls out of ten while said girls sat anxiously listening nearby, then I might have appreciated a grrrr. But having finally learnt the hard-won lesson that my appearance isn't the most important thing about me, I prefer being complimented on less frivolous attributes, such my Millhouse impression or my vast capacity for pasta consumption.

The fine line trod by women writers is, I realise, a rather privileged problem, and on a scale of the challenges that women face, it's not our most pressing issue. But to brush it off is trivial is dangerous, because it goes right to the heart of another, far more grisly 'M'. When a young woman talks about sex, it is still seen by a minority of men as an invitation, an aperitivo, a hint that she's up-for-it and seeking their approval. She is still defined from without, not from within. And in this I smell the stench of playground misogyny: girls accused of being unfair to boys for leading them on and not 'putting out', as if through their titillation they had signed their body away on the dotted line, and were now in breach of the contract.

I'll know equality has happened when a young woman can shout about balls and boobs and minges at the top of her lungs, and artistically explore the joy of sex in as much funny, filthy detail as she pleases, free from the manacles of marketing. When she can be as sexually frank as the frankest man, and not face the ensuing presumption that her behaviour has got anything to do with anyone's sexuality but her own.

I am currently crowdfunding Pure through Unbound. Please pledge and help me tell my story: unbound.co.uk/books/pure