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Caitlin Moran: Female sexuality is much more than a bit of spanking

Bestselling author Caitlin Moran talks to Hannah Stephenson about sex, class, what feminism really means to her and why she's not waiting for a millionaire with a helicopter.

Caitlin Moran can talk for Britain. No sooner has the first question been posed, she's off – expletives at every turn, striding out in the upbeat, confident, self-assured manner of a writer who has won a clutch of awards and been a hugely successful columnist since the age of 18.

There's still a twang of Wolverhampton in the voice – she grew up on a council estate there – but the emphasis, intonation and the clever use of words are the Moran she is today; bestselling author, broadcaster, Times columnist, wife and mother-of-two, feminist and social commentator.

Three years ago, she wrote her humorous memoir and feminist polemic How To Be A Woman, which she expected to sell a reasonable 60,000 copies and be reviewed in the Guardian. It actually sold 400,000, has been translated into 25 languages and won Galaxy Book of the Year in 2011. It's also being turned into a film.

"We are still writing the script at the moment. I'd cast Dustin Hoffman as me," says Moran wryly. "Most of the problems with being a modern woman are that we are drag queens, with the make-up, the hair, the fretting.

"In Tootsie, Dustin goes through the process of basically becoming a drag queen so brilliantly. He's an amazing actor. Even when he turns 80, he could play the 16-year-old me."

She's currently on her How To Build A Girl stand-up UK tour, talking about men, women, Sherlock, David Bowie, big hair, feminism and welfare, reading excerpts from her books, which she hopes will make people laugh.

Some of the material is taken from her debut novel of the same title, the first of a trilogy, a coming-of-age tale set in the Nineties about fat, loud-mouthed 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan, who lives on a Wolverhampton council estate with her four siblings, permanently exhausted mother and rock musician father, who is still chasing stardom.

Johanna soon reinvents herself to become Dolly Wilde, an edgy music journalist hanging out at cool gigs, falling in love with a rock star – and coming a bit unstuck along the way.

There's a lot of swearing and a lot of sex in this novel, as the teenager's first sexual awakenings are explored in graphic detail in a painfully honest but often hilarious way. Moran's take on it was partly in response to the blockbuster Fifty Shades Of Grey by EL James, who is married to Newry-born writer Niall Leonard.

"When Fifty Shades Of Grey came out, it sparked a huge global debate about female sexuality. Reading about it, I thought, 'Hey, this book's going to be great. It's going to be a dirty book about what ladies like to do in bed'.

"Then I started reading it and realised it's about if this rich and powerful man repeatedly gets to spank his lover intimately with a hairbrush, then he'll give her an iPad.

"That's not what female sexuality is about. What a weird dynamic this is, that this guy is rich and powerful and she's a virgin and she's not interested in this kind of sex but he basically bribes her into it.

"I wanted to write about teenage sexuality, you know, the idea of being a bit 'slaggy' and going off and being a lady sex pirate and having some fun, not waiting for a millionaire to knock on your door and say, 'Come in my helicopter and I'll make you do rude things'."

Moran (39) wasn't a total lady sex pirate in her younger days. She had met her husband, Times rock critic Peter Paphides, by the age of 19 (they married when she was 24).

Brought up in a family who relied on benefits, Moran, the eldest of eight children, was home-schooled from the age of 11, although she has said that she didn't learn much there. But she always had dreams of better things.

"I thought everybody I knew would end up being famous and that we'd all be on TV. I was watching Victoria Wood on television and I'd think, 'I can do that, I can write funny songs and tell funny stories,' and I genuinely thought the BBC would come and find me."

At 13, she applied for the job of managing director of Comic Relief. Lenny Henry, who is from Dudley, sent her a letter back saying, 'You wouldn't want to be MD of Comic Relief, it's really boring, but I'm sure you will fly like a comet through British society' – and that blew my mind.

"I became a massive pest for the next few years, sending letters to famous people trying to be funny and make them be my friend. In the end I realised that writing letters to Clive Anderson wasn't going to get me a career and that I needed to write a book instead. So I started writing properly."

At 15, she won the Observer's Young Reporter of the Year and at 16 was working for Melody Maker and had written her first book, The Chronicles Of Narmo.

"Now I don't worry about my own kids and their education at all, because I know that I didn't do anything apart from sit around watching musicals and eating huge amounts of cheese – and it's worked out all right.

"Some of my brothers and sisters couldn't read and write at the age of 12, but a few years later they'd done their A-levels early and were going off to Cambridge.

"It's very reassuring for me as a parent to know that your kids can do nothing for years, apart from climb trees and watch telly, and suddenly, when they get the urge to become curious about the world and educate themselves, they'll go off and do it."

Moran's two daughters, Dora (13) and Eavie (11) don't go to state school – she says she couldn't get them into one where they live in North London – but instead attend a school which she describes as a "hippy parents' collective, where they spend all their time climbing trees".

"The reason most people send their children to a private school is to get them an advantage, to hang out with a clique and become the elite. That idea wholly repulses me."

At 18, Moran became a columnist for The Times. "I was scared, I thought, 'How can I do this?', but then I just pretended to be Courtney Love, pretended to be someone confident. That's the advice I'd give to any unconfident person out there. If you're standing there going, 'I can't do this', just pretend to be someone who can. Fake it till you make it."

She met her husband when they both worked at Melody Maker. She missed her train home and he asked if she wanted to sleep at his house.

"As he's a very blinky, bespectacled boy who wears cardigans, he wanted to make it very clear that he was not going to try to sexually assault me, and that he was literally being a friend.

"I don't think anyone would have put their money on this gobby red-haired goth from Wolvo getting it on with the boy who was just wearing lovely colourful cardigans and writing about reggae, but we really liked each other straight away. I still get excited when he walks in the room."

She'll soon start work on the second novel in the trilogy, How To Be Famous, and the third, How To Change The World, following the same characters over two decades, dealing with fame and politics respectively. So, what does she think she's brought to the table as a feminist?

"An endearing and cheerful simplicity to the whole thing," she asserts. "All feminism means is women being equal to men. The rest of it is down to you to make it up.

"Feminism shouldn't be a set of rules, it should be a set of tools."

  • How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran, Ebury, £14.99

Women's writes

There has been a fine tradition of feminist writers and commentators over the last two centuries:

Arguably, the first was American writer Kate Chopin, whose 1899 short story The Awakening scandalised the genteel New Orleans society where she lived.

The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, wife of a wealthy Creole gentlemen, shuns the conventions of being a wife and mother, to have a sexual affair with another man and chooses to end her life, refusing to live the one expected of her

Irish revolutionary, actress and muse to WB Yeats, Maud Gonne McBride was a colourful feminist who shocked conservative Dublin when she left her husband, Major John McBride, due to his alleged ill-treatment of her and her child.

She published her autobiography in 1938, entitled A Servant of the Queen, and served time in an English prison for her part in the 1916 Easter Uprising

French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir came to have significant influence on feminist women in the early 20th century with her views and writings, particularly her 1949 treatise, The Second Sex.

She became only the ninth woman to receive a degree from the Sorbonne in the 1920s as women had only recently been allowed to join higher education

Australian writer, academic and journalist Germaine Greer became the voice of feminism for women in the UK from the 1970s onwards with her outspoken views.

Her most notable work was The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, which immediately became an international bestseller, fuelling many TV appearances on talk shows.

She famously appeared in the reality show Celebrity Big Brother in 2005 and once mocked Donegal singer Daniel O'Donnell when she appeared alongside him in a chat show in 2006

American writer Erica Jong was hailed as an outstanding feminist in the post 'flower-power' era for her novel Fear of Flying which explored one woman's need for sex without being in a relationship.

The controversial book, which was first published in 1972, sold over 20m copies, reportedly to women dissatisfied in their marriages.

The book – along with developments in contraception such as the Pill – helped to give voice to a generation of women who viewed enjoying themselves sexually without fear of pregnancy as their naturally-entitled right.

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