Caitlin Moran: ‘Masturbating is a political act’

The British writer praises self-pleasure, talks about future pornography and argues that asking for consent can ‘be sexy’

Caitlin Moran at the 2022 Hay Festival in Querétaro, Mexico.
Caitlin Moran at the 2022 Hay Festival in Querétaro, Mexico.Daniel Mordzinski

British author Caitlin Moran’s writing has become a Bible of sorts for many women around the world. Over the past decade, thousands of women have approached Moran to tell her that they didn’t know that they were feminists until they read her book How to Be a Woman. That and her later work have become gospel for those who needed to understand the 21st century’s gender challenges. “I was so sad when I wrote that book that people didn’t like feminism…and that people thought that feminists were just angry women who hated men,” Moran, who is visiting Mexico for Querétaro’s Hay Festival, said in a telephone interview with this newspaper. “And sometimes we saw angry women who hate men…But there’s so much more to feminism than that.” For 10 years, Moran has advocated for the right to choose abortion. The 47-year-old author criticizes the beauty standards imposed on women, jokes about motherhood (“Children ruin everything”), argues that asking for consent can “be sexy” and talks about the pornography of the future.

Question: Why was (or is) there such a stigma around feminism?

Answer: Because people weren’t using it. It wasn’t in popular culture anymore. It had become just an academic word that was used by people who’d read all the books on feminism. And they made it sound like a science that only special, clever women could understand that you could really get wrong if you said the wrong word or [wore] the wrong clothes or had sex with the wrong man… I wanted to make feminism something that was pop culture again. Any girl could read it and understand it. She didn’t need to read any of the books...And she would realize that feminism isn’t like a set of rules that you can either get right or wrong. It’s a set of tools for understanding why you are sad, why your life is difficult, and how [by] using those tools of feminism you can make it better.

Q: Your work sort of anticipated the MeToo movement. And it wasn’t obvious that something like that would happen.

A: Well, as soon as social media took off…in England, the first people who started using Twitter were women, and they were feminists…And the power of women being the main people using social media was that it was the first time ever in history that women could talk to each other and spread news around the world without being a journalist or broadcaster or being famous… People were so surprised when women started telling their stories, all the men I know were so surprised…You went to [your] workplace where your boss was sexually assaulting you or harassing you. Why didn’t you tell us? And the women realized that it’s something that women only talk about to each other. We had never told the men; we had never told the world. These are secrets that we kept. And now I think women have got tired of keeping secrets. Keeping secrets and not complaining has not changed the world. And it turns out that telling the truth and not keeping secrets and complaining is changing things.

Q: When MeToo took off, and even today, many men said they didn’t understand the line between what they could and couldn’t do. Do they really not know, or are they just pretending?

A: Some are pretending; like, if you can remember making a woman cry, then you know that you did a bad thing. But a lot of it is [real]. The next book I’m writing is about men, and it’s about kind of basic feminism for men, because over the last hundred years, so many women have become role models and stood up and tried to help other women and younger girls, that they’re giving advice, they’re writing books, they’re making movies, they’re on social media…Women look after each other. But men don’t have that. The older men are not telling younger men, don’t sexually assault people, don’t rape people …don’t make women cry. Don’t talk to women like this. Treat women with respect… So, I was like, Well, I’ll do it. I’ve tried to solve all the problems of women. Now, I will solve the problems of men. I’m going to tell them what women wish they knew. I’m going to tell men all the secrets, everything their wives, their girlfriends, my sisters, their colleagues want them to know.

Q: Consent is part of that discussion. Many people, including women, came out and said that asking for consent kills the mood. What do you think about that?

A: Well, it’s a skill that needs to be taught… And that’s where popular culture is so useful. Because I can see for a lot of people, if they have not been taught to ask for consent and they have to try and work it out themselves, they’ll say it in a way that isn’t sexy and does kill the mood. So, we need to see people in movies asking for consent in a way that’s really sexy and hot.

We need to read [it] in books. What would you say? How do you say it?...At the moment, we can’t see in a movie or TV show or in a book how a human being can ask another human being for consent in a way that’s fun and sexy. So, that’s what popular culture needs to do.

Q: Should that be included in pornography in the future?

A: Yes…The film that I’m writing at the moment is about pornography. It’s about a group of mothers who are horrified by the pornography that their children are watching, and they decide they’re going to make…a good porn film, such a good one, about consent…And they make a terrible film. But it starts the conversation about how…we talk to our children about pornography…how we talk about consent.

Q: What do young women need to learn from older women?

A: Oh, gosh, that it’s great to be an older woman. I think I noticed that so many young women don’t want to become an adult woman. If you see how many young children…become anorexic. You are depressed and anxious. Anorexic girls don’t want to grow up. They want to stay a little girl because they think it’s horrible to be an adult woman.. .We talk so often about everything that’s bad and scary about being an adult woman... And so the biggest job that adult women have is [to tell] little girls: Yeah, of course there’s problems…But being a woman is the best thing in the world…Come and join us in the women’s world….It [will be] incredible.

Q: But what are they so afraid of?

A: Well, my brother once said something very wise. He just said that whenever you see the word woman in a newspaper, it’s usually about a problem that women have, that they’ve been killed, that they’ve been murdered, that they’ve been raped, that they’re not being paid as much as men, that they can’t have children because they can’t afford them, that abortion has just been banned. So if you read the newspapers, you would just think that being a woman was always awful. And of course, women have these problems…That’s what feminism is addressing. But we never see in newspapers the good things that women did … women all over the world who would have liked to have seen problems and have done something about it.

Q: You’ve written in depth about the beauty standards that are imposed on women’s bodies. Has anything changed in the past few years?

A: In a lot of ways it has…because of social media…the most popular accounts are body positivity accounts where girls and teenagers, [and] women are posting pictures showing like those [big] bottoms and…the[ir] spots and being normal and going, here I am… this is real. And I love myself. I think I’m beautiful. Those accounts, that’s what women want to see now… They want to see something real and beautiful and happy…we didn’t have social media 20 years ago. The only women that you would see… in movies and on TV shows…[were] chosen by men. You know, people like Harvey Weinstein...Now, women can choose the women they want to see…We finally have choice and power, and that’s an incredible thing. We’ve never had anything like that in history before.

Q: In one of your books, How to Be a Woman, you wrote about what it was like to be a teenager and now you have children that age. How has adolescence changed?

A: I think they grow up much quicker. Being a teenager starts much earlier and a lot of that is just due to biology. Like 100 years ago, women would usually get their first period when they were 16, and now the average age in England is ten. So, children are becoming women much earlier, and…that makes them very anxious because they have the bodies of women, but they still have the minds of children… But the good thing about it is there are so many women helping them … you know, they’ve lived all their lives with Beyonce. They’ve got Rihanna. They’ve got Lizzo. If I had seen Lizzo when I was a very depressed teenage girl, my whole life would be different…I would have been happy or a better person.

Q: You wrote about female masturbation at least 10 years ago, when it wasn’t common to read about the subject. Why was it an important topic for you?

A: First of all, it’s just a great hobby to have…it won’t make you fat. It doesn’t cost any money. You don’t have to leave the house. It will relax you…it’s the best hobby. You start masturbating instead of smoking. When you’re a teenage girl, you’ll do well. But secondly…there’s this narrative in movies and in culture and in books that you’re a young teenage girl and you know nothing about sex. And then an older man tells you what sex is… And that’s not correct. That’s not right. And that doesn’t work. And it means that you end up having shit sex. Women need to know what they like sexually before they ever have sex. And the only way to know…is if you have already done that yourself. We need to change sex so that it’s not something that men do to you as a woman, but something you do [yourself]…And unless you have the information of what sex you like, you will never be equal sexually…So you need to masturbate. It’s a political act…The greatest act of feminism is to be a teenage girl lying in your bed late at night and making yourself come.

Q: You’ve said that sometimes being a woman just feels like a series of problems. What are those problems?

A: …For women in general, the biggest problems…are…the same...We’re scared and we’re tired… Like every woman knows what it’s like to walk down the street and think, Oh, my God, is this it? Like, all the footsteps behind me…This is something that men do not have to think about. So, we’re scared and we’re tired because we have to make so many plans to keep ourselves safe before we go out…Women, we are constantly thinking about how we could be in danger and how to keep ourselves safe…And that’s the privilege of a man… they don’t generally have to think about that. So, that’s the biggest problem with women. We need to feel safe. And I don’t know how we will ever change that. But… I am sure that right now somewhere there’s a clever woman or maybe a teenage girl who has come up with a solution to this and is working on it.

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