Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body - Sara Pascoe (2016)

Too Many Introductions

Meet the Book

Writing a book is an arrogant thing to do.

I do stand-up for my main job, and that’s pretty arrogant too. At work, I’m the only person in the room who is allowed to talk, I’m the only one who gets to have a microphone and essentially I make everyone sit there and listen to me going on about myself and my thoughts and ideas. A book is an even longer version of that, but I have so much to say that a gig wouldn’t be long enough to fit it all in.

For a while I’ve been researching various theories of female sexuality. I thought that if I could learn to understand hormones and desire and brain functions then maybe I could make better life decisions, maybe I wouldn’t be so confused by myself. I had this idea that just like dogs and pigs and dolphins, human beings are animals. And so, like other animals, we should have a programmed set of instinctual behaviours, but no one seems to agree what they are. I wondered if perhaps our cultures, religions and societal pressures had concealed our animal natures, even from ourselves. I kept visualising the modern human as a battleground with inherited instinct pulling us one way and learned propriety pulling us another and all of us struggling to understand or like ourselves.

I wanted to unravel us.

When I researched more around this topic, I realised there are two distinct investigations currently going on. There are the excellent scientists who are deciphering the codification of behaviour written in our genes, the physical shaping of our bodies by evolution and the emotional capacity of our brains. And separately, there are the cultural commentators; the sociologists, philosophers and feminists who write about society and media and modern reality, who discuss how women’s bodies are treated, fetishised, worshipped, denigrated or controlled.

I wanted to bring these two separate conversations together. To highlight some of the aspects of womanhood I am struggling with, to discuss what science can teach us and how culture can hurt us. I want to tell you fascinating things about our ancient ancestry and the terrors of recent civilisation, and to ponder the relevance for us alive guys, us now-timers. I want to show you that for every woman in the world, knowledge* and communication are the finest form of self-defence. That empowerment lies in comprehending ourselves as beasts and in accepting ourselves as we were built.

* I’ll be suggesting lots of further reading for you at the end.

Meet Me

Hello! My name is Sara* and I am thirty-four. I am English, Caucasian. I live in London in a flat that doesn’t allow pets. I have no religion but a lot of faith. I have always wanted to write a book.

When I was eighteen years old I decided to apply for Cambridge University. I’d read somewhere that being part of the Footlights drama society was a great way to become a famous actor, which had been my ambition since realising I did not want a proper job. I put Cambridge as the top choice on my UCAS form. My predicted grades weren’t good enough, so I had a chat with my kindly teachers and begged them to predict me As rather than Cs. Geoffrey, my psychology tutor, said I wouldn’t be properly prepared for the interview without coaching. I explained that my aunty Juliet had seen a news programme saying that there was pressure on Oxbridge to admit more students from working-class families and so I reckoned I’d be alright, then I worked my class right out of there.

AND I GOT AN INTERVIEW! They have to interview everyone who applies, and I was thrilled to be one of those lucky ‘everyone’. My mum decided to take the day off work and come with me. I borrowed some of her clothes to wear. My sisters had no one to drop them at school so they came too. The four of us went for breakfast in Cambridge city centre. My mum talked about how we’d all move there to live some day, while I ate egg muffins. We got lost on the way to the college. It was called Corpus Christi, which like all Latin means ‘you don’t belong here’. I was fifteen minutes late for a twenty-minute interview, but I didn’t let that upset me. I was from a working-class family, raised in Dagenham then Romford. I had an Essex accent and my mum’s suit on. I was exactly what they were looking for.

I was interviewed by the Oldest Man in the World. His office was full of piled-up books. ‘This is just like my bedroom,’ I told him, ‘except in my bedroom it’s clothes.’ He creaked a question: ‘Why do you want to study philosophy at Cambridge?’

SARA
I want to come to Cambridge so I can be in Footlights.

OMITW
Why philosophy?

SARA
I think it’s really really good.

OMITW
Who have you read?

SARA
Jostein Gaarder. Sophie’s World?

OLDEST MAN IN THE WORLD shakes head and speaks very slowly as if recalling an awful war.

OMITW
I was concerned this would happen, but so far you are the first one.

Then I pronounced Plato and Socrates exactly as you do if you’ve only ever seen them written down: ‘Plateau is mega good. As was So-crates.’ Then I left.

It took me a decade to realise what the old man’s comment about Sophie’s World had meant. I’d loved that book because it introduced me to some really complicated concepts, because it summarised philosophers and their ideas so simply. And of course that was the Cambridge don’s problem: it gave Essex girls in their mum’s clothes the audacity to think they might understand anything.

But I didn’t know that yet. I was so exhilarated being in that ancient churchy building, and I had another interview that I wasn’t late for. I told this much more Normally Aged Man that I wanted to be in Footlights and then famous and, hopefully, friends with Stephen Fry.

NAM 
Anything else? Apart from acting?

SARA
I’m going to write a book about sex and my generation.

NAM
Why?

SARA
I just think it’s really interesting.

NAM
Why?

SARA
It’s really interesting.

In the back of the car on the way home I tried to read a book about Wittgenstein, but I kept getting distracted by my own excitement at how well I’d nailed the interviews and how much fun I was going to have being in Footlights. And it would be scary to move away from home, but I would expand my mind and learn to ride a bike and have a little bed in a little room and fall in love with an intellectual boy who was homosexual and I was VERY surprised to receive a rejection letter two weeks later. Clearly they weren’t as hungry for commoners as Aunty Juliet had led me to believe.

‘At least you got an interview,’ my mum kept telling me.

That was half my lifetime ago and look at me now, curled up with you and Stephen Fry, reading a book I wrote about sex and my generation. I think it’s really interesting and I hope you find lots to think about too.

Dream big, kids. May all your rejections quickly become laughable, because anyone who says no to you is an idiot. Xxxxx

Important question before we start …

* My name doesn’t have an ‘h’ on it, but it’s pronounced Sarah not Sah-rah. Make sure you are pronouncing it correctly in your head.

Are You a Woman?

When I do my job, I’m referred to as a ‘female comedian’. With most occupations, being a doctor or teacher or chef or whatever, you are defined by the type of work you do. But my job title also includes my gender. I don’t do it any differently to the non-females, I stand there speaking words, sometimes walking from side to side or throwing a hand in the air. My boobs don’t get in the way or make me fall off the stage or anything, yet ‘female’ pre-empts my ‘comedian’. Like a disclaimer. I don’t hate this and I’m not angry, but it’s made me notice gender more than I would have otherwise.

Lots of jobs have feminised titles: waitress or mermaid. There are women who work under a male title, firemen or postmen, a lazy catch-all that maybe they get annoyed about? Sometimes I am called a comedienne, which I like, because it makes me sound French and cooked. The thing that’s odd about people noticing or commenting or presuming as to my gender is that they do; notice and comment and presume. I never told anyone. I didn’t ring up for my first gig and announce, ‘Hello there, I’m a woman, could I possibly have five minutes of your stand-up comedy next Tuesday?’

I was twenty-six when I started doing gigs and I’d been female all of my life. I’d been dimly aware of that from pregnancy scares and the difficulty of urinating standing up but it’d never been commented upon when I entered a room. I’d always identified as a person. Human being. Ordinary. But when I began to perform at stand-up nights, bookers would say, ‘It’s always nice to have a woman on.’ They might warn the audience, ‘The next act is a woman,’ so they wouldn’t be shocked and topple their chairs. People might wait afterwards to tell me that I was ‘good for a girl’ or that they ‘usually hated female comedians’. Or they would give me helpful advice like ‘You shouldn’t talk so much about lady stuff.’ No one was cruel or nasty. No one explicitly told me, ‘This is a man’s job, you are not welcome.’ But I was baffled. Why did my being a woman seem so noticeable to everyone else? Why was it the first thing that they saw?

When I became more successful, after a few years on the circuit, I would do interviews for radio stations or local papers. They would ask me, ‘What’s it like being a female comedian?’ and I never knew how to answer. Did they want logistics? I travel to shows on a train, I write words down in a pad. ‘It’s such a male industry,’ they might helpfully clarify. ‘What’s it like to be a woman?’ When I really think about it, I have no idea what it is like to be a woman. I’ve no experience of gender or species apart from my own. I’ve nothing to compare it to. I cannot fathom anything other than being inside my mind and body. That question is asking me to extend my subjective experience to all women, to speak universally and comparatively of a gendered condition, and that’s an existential ask for someone promoting a Wednesday night ‘Chucklefest’ above a pub in Norwich.

Whenever someone wants a gender comparison, I remember the Greek myth about Tiresias. He was a man, but then he got turned female for seven years after hitting some snakes. And because he had experienced shagging as both sexes, Zeus asked him whether men got more pleasure from sex, or did women enjoy it more? Tiresias said women got ten times as much pleasure as men. But of course this is MYTH not science. You cannot compare the genders in any quantifiable way. You just can’t. We can’t understand the world from anyone’s perspective but our own.

So I’ve become hyper-aware of my womanhood and that’s made me think a lot about what gender even is. I have daydreams where I wonder: what if I woke up with a penis? Would I still be a woman? Imagine someone as a horrible prank has sewn a penis on me, and I have to walk about with it in my trousers, but – I’d still feel like a woman, I’d just be a woman with a penis. So it’s not my genitals that define me … so what then? Ovaries, womb. If they were removed, I’d still be a woman. I’d be a wombless woman. With a penis. If I took lots of testosterone, had my breasts removed, had a deep voice and a beard and short hair … at what point would I drop the ‘female’ and become a comedian? I have decided it’s my mind that’s woman. It’s my narrator. It’s my relationship to myself, and oddly, nothing at all to do with my body.

To return to my question ‘Are you a woman?’, the only person who can answer that is you. You define for yourself what gender means and how you fit within it, if at all. For a long, boring time, gender has been a binary with sweeping fictional stereotypes. ‘Men are physically stronger than women,’ an idiot shouts. No they’re not. If you took all the strongest women and pitted them against the weakest men, the women would thrash them. All men are not stronger than all women, there’s about a hundred million exceptions, and if there are that many exceptions then it’s not a rule. Ditto boys don’t cry, girls are nurturing, women aren’t hairy, blah blah blah, it’s a prison. An invisible trap we’ve unknowingly lived in while wondering why the boys are so frustrated and aggressive and the women spend so much of their energy hating themselves and we’re all so needlessly unhappy. Every time you hear someone say ‘men are like this’ – or ‘women are like that’ – they’re wrong and you should stop listening. There is no statement that is irrevocably and absolutely true across an entire gender through culture and time and geography. Except male toilets always smell worse, but apart from that—

A lot of negative things have been allowed to happen because we believe our gender defines us, or that there is a correct way of being male or female. If you are reading this book it means you are one of the luckiest people in the world – I can presume that you live in the first world. You are educated to a high reading standard; you have leisure time and a little money and live under a government that allows you to think your own thoughts.

We can free ourselves from invisible prisons. We escape from old ideas by replacing them with new ones.

The book I have written is about the experience of growing up in a female body and with the physiology of a female body, and this excludes the experiences of many women. But gender is a mere idea. It’s a spectrum, you can slide up and down on it or stay solidly placed – what I’m trying to say is that it’s likely your way of being a woman is completely different from mine. I identify as female and I’m heterosexual. And I’ll always be white. My subjective world-view cannot speak for all women’s experience or reality. I forgive myself for this, and hope that you will too. I’m not attempting to be the last word in a conversation, I just want to be part of it, and then I’ll sit back and listen some more.