“That girl knew exactly what she was doing.”

I can’t tell you how sick I am of hearing those words. This week they came from so-called journalist Katie Hopkins who has decided to feel all sorry for footballer Adam Johnson, as he is imprisoned for sexual activity with a 15-year-old. Ever the victim-blamer, she describes the girl as “a hormonal teen stalking someone famous for attention, desperate for a chance to have something her friends do not.”

I think back to when I was fifteen and developing major crushes on older, unattainable men wherever I went. I never acted on them, but I think the targets of my devotion must have been only too aware that there was a young girl mooning around after them, hanging on their every word.

I remember being in a pantomime with ‘Brian’, who played Buttons in Snow White. (I know… Buttons appears in Cinderella but this was a low-budget thing in the north-west). Brian must have been in his twenties when he had me waiting to catch his eye at every turn. Even while I was dressed as a dwarf and saying, “Oh you ARE lovely, Snow White!” – my only line in the whole thing (I got paid £10 – my first pay check, spent on tukka boots in Top Shop).

But Brian was kind. He dropped his girlfriend into the conversation now and then, just to make sure I was aware, and continued to be nice and brotherly to me. He didn’t take advantage of me and made me feel comfortable around him. I loved Brian.

This happened a few times during those years. I, like many teenage girls, was testing out my new-found sexuality and powers of attraction. I didn’t quite know what would happen, and I was a little bit scared. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I relied on the adult men I was testing it out on to be responsible and to not take advantage. I remember a guy called Paul taking a kind and brotherly stance with me and how I found it intensely annoying that he didn’t ‘see’ me. But oh boy, he definitely saw me. And he acted like every responsible adult should.

Because to my mind, you can say all you like about Adam Johnson’s victim but when all is said and done, he is the adult and she is the child. She may have looked and acted like a sexually experienced young woman, but she was probably in wild ‘testing’ mode and couldn’t believe that the object of her crush was reciprocating. It was up to him to stop the 834 WhatsApp messages or not even start them in the first place. It was up to him not to pick her up in his car. Up to him to stop the sexting. Up. To. Him.

There are some men who can’t believe it when a younger woman or teenager appears to find them attractive. They think they are singled out for their unique animal magnetism, seemingly unaware that young women test out their sexuality like this all the time. We look to see who’s looking, and find these guys staring back. I remember going on weekend day trips with my family as a teenager and without fail, the guys staring back at me in the places we visited were the dads, not the sons I was scanning the room for. It was like that for a very long time until the roles switched, and I found the sons of the guys I was checking out staring back at me. Weird, that.

At fifteen, I mostly had crushes on guys in bands, and I now realise how safe that kind of crushing was, with only a Patches magazine poster to moon over in my bedroom. Coming into contact with real-life men was something that presented more challenges. I shudder to think what trouble I might have got into now, with the convenience of social media and smartphones.

I thank my lucky stars that the guys I encountered at fifteen were so kind to me. Brian, lovely Brian, with your mullet hairdo. I salute you for being a responsible adult with a clear-eyed perception of the situation I put you into.

Thank you.














Because I Cannes

All the furore over the Cannes Film Festival this week about red-carpet heel-wearing reminded me that I was lucky enough to attend once.

A party I went to, in 2007 courtesy of New Line Cinema, was at the Villa Rothschild and all the ladies received a note saying we should avoid wearing heels because the party would take place in the gardens. (The VIPs were in the Villa itself, so they were probably made to wear heels…). I went for a low kitten-heeled sandal which seemed to do the trick.

Anyway, what was important about that night wasn’t the height of the heel I was wearing. It was my watershed moment. My game-changer. My world turned on its axis that night and it wasn’t the same ever again.

I’d turned forty a couple of months before and was in the midst of a boom-time for me, career-wise. I was married, but spending most of my time at work or in the pub afterwards, celebrating the achievements of the team I was working with. Increasingly, I’d started to feel that my husband didn’t want to celebrate any of my success so I’d started to stay out night after night, to get it out of my system before I went home. Looking back, I was cruising for a divorce right then (it would take three years to happen).

I knew then that I’d only ever get one invitation to Cannes so I went for it. I’d bought a beautiful mediterranean-blue maxi dress and took time to get ready. I have two pictures of that night – both taken pre-smartphone so they’re just of me standing awkwardly in my hotel room. I look back and see someone preparing to take on the world, with a serious face. I’d dieted too much so you can see my bones, I’d applied too much fake tan so I didn’t really look like me. But I was where I needed to be to get out there and shake things up.

I attended the party with my then boss, and we ended up with a group of guys who we’d been working with on a related film project. She left early, which then left me to party on with the boys, feeling like Julia Roberts in Ocean’s Eleven.

And boy, was I ready to party.

The DJ that night was Mark Ronson, who was then very new to the scene. He swaggered to the open-air stage and nonchalantly played ‘Valerie’ with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I danced energetically and happily with a guy we shall call ‘Nick’ for most of the night. He was from my part of the country and we got on well. It felt so good to be with a guy I could be openly celebratory with, there in the balmy Cannes night, in the gardens of a beautiful villa.

At about 2am the whole group headed back to our hotel in Juan Les Pins and there was an aborted attempt to go skinny-dipping in the pool. (Good job, because I can’t actually swim.) The others drifted back to their rooms and I drifted back to Nick’s, to continue the evening. I was still high on the experience and couldn’t face going to bed.

You’re going to think, ‘oh she slept with him’ at this point. Reader, I didn’t. We went out on his balcony and looked at the night sky and talked. I’ve always loved that song, ‘Strangers in the Night’ and now I know why. Nick lived in America so there was no real chance of meeting again. It was a one-off encounter.

I now know what Nick did for me. Nick told me everything I’d needed to hear from my husband, who didn’t enjoy complimenting me ‘in case my head got too big’. Nick told me I appeared to him as someone who was between girlhood and womanhood (despite being forty) – I think he picked up on the fact that I was on the verge of emerging from my life chrysalis. He told me I was beautiful and sexy, that he didn’t usually go for older women (only a four-year difference, mate) but there I was in front of him. I didn’t know what to say. No one had ever said those words so clearly and directly to me.

It was around 4.30am when I decided to return to my room. We hugged each other at his door and agreed that it had been one of the best nights we’d ever spent. It still is, to me, one of the best nights of my life, if not THE best. As I went to pull away, Nick moved his hand from the small of my back and began to draw his fingers softly up my shoulder blade. It was the tenderest, most erotic touch I’d ever felt. A brief kiss followed and I left.

Nothing more than that kiss happened, but it was as seismic as full sex as far as my life was concerned. More so. I returned to the UK and he to the US, but there was a crackling line of electricity between us that lasted for months, even years, after. I felt as though I’d been jolted awake after years of sexual slumber. When I returned from Cannes, my husband joked that he thought I was having an affair. I wasn’t, but he could see that something in me had shifted.

So thank you, Cannes, and thank you, Nick. You are both very important to my story. And as hackneyed as it may sound, my life really did begin at forty.

The Female Gaze

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the female gaze and why it is so unarticulated in our society. I’ve been thinking about how our lives, as women, are so dominated by the male gaze that it is almost beyond articulation. It is so pervasive that we almost forget that we have the ability to gaze right back.

It is starting to edge its way into our consciousness, as the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is framed with a woman’s gaze in mind. Allegedly, it is made for her viewing pleasure, and the conversation is extending into female-friendly porn, in which the focus of attention is not only on the pleasure the woman is receiving, but on the beauty of the man who is delivering it.

But from the onset of puberty – and let’s face it, some time before that, if we’re honest – women are raised to be aware of the eyes of men upon them. It starts with a gentle commentary on your appearance from both women and men in the family and their friends, and becomes a way of life. We must look a certain way to please men, we are told, and we find ourselves actively pursuing it, even if we are just on the way to the gym. We run marathons in makeup, we wear heels to go to Homebase and we stop ourselves from having a nice dessert in case our thighs make us into undesirable objects.

No one appears to be actively setting these rules. They’re just there. And everyone buys into them and passes them on. Women and men, boys and girls. The fashion designer Oscar de la Renta once gave this advice to women: “walk like you have three men walking behind you.” When I first heard it I smiled, and thought, “yeah, I’d sashay away.” Recently, though, I’ve thought, “what happens if I’m the one walking behind three men?” And I’ve discovered an unusual thing.

Men get really freaked out when you turn the tables on them and gaze back. Try it. Walk directly behind a guy (not too stalkerishly close), or stand behind him quietly on an escalator or in a lift. He’ll slow down to let you pass, he’ll turn round to check who’s there, he’ll manoeuvre round so his back isn’t to you any more. I see it happen almost every day. If I sense a guy is running too close behind me in the park, gazing at my behind, I slow down to let him pass. He sprints away or stops, unable to have my eyes on him. Because, you know, I might be critiquing him in the way that he’s just done to me. Unthinkable.

This week, on one single trip up and down the street I live on, I saw two men empty the contents of their nostrils onto the pavement and one who spat in front of me and then again just behind me. This followed an extraordinary scene where I’d witnessed a neighbour of mine picking his nose in full view of everyone on the tube. I’ve always been fascinated by these acts of public indecency – especially men who pick their noses in cars, oblivious to who may be watching. Then it occurred to me. They do it because they think no one is watching. They’re not used to being watched so they assume it’s not happening.

Believe me, there is always someone watching, and it is usually a woman. Just because we’re not loudly commenting on what men are doing, it doesn’t mean we haven’t noticed. Theirs is a shouty spectator sport, ours is a quietly watchful game of chess.

As I’ve got older, I’ve had to adjust to the ‘cloak of invisibility’ slowly descending around me, as the male gaze opts for a younger, fresher target. At first, I felt really sad about it, but as the months have gone on, I’ve realised that it is one of the most liberating things that has ever happened to me. I’ve realised that I don’t need that approval and I don’t need to seek out the validation, as I used to do. What has happened is that my own gaze has been fully activated and I’m suddenly seeing the world outside myself differently. And it’s good.

Far from being invisible, I am achieving another level of eye contact with all sorts of people. I make a choice about the objects of my own gaze and often find a woman of the same age with whom I’ll exchange a smile, or a younger man, having a sneaky peek. There are people out there who see you in different ways, and not just as a sexual object. I find myself looking beyond the hot guys on the tube (if there are any not picking their noses) to the full range of people sitting around me. It’s almost as if not being gazed at as much has allowed me to look outside myself more confidently and find connections that I may well have missed before.

Of course I’m well aware that this could all be just a huge coping mechanism that my brain is initiating to allow me to experience ageing without knifing myself. And do you know what? It might be. My brain never fails to astound me with its ability to take each supposedly devastatingly awful birthday milestone and turn it into something unexpected and rather wonderful. I don’t have to make eye contact with the guy who is trying to attract my attention by shouting as I run round the park, or smile when he says, ‘cheer up, love.’ I can choose to look ahead, and smile at a young woman who is running the other way, or watch a dog fetching a ball.

My gaze is the one that matters, and my eyes have never been so focused on the road ahead.

The Enlightenment

Yesterday was a day that featured both the demise of Page Three in The Sun (unconfirmed) and a celebrity reality TV show featuring at least two former glamour models. Four of the female houseguests have had cosmetic surgery (five if you count the one that left earlier in the week) and one of them has had eighteen boob jobs and umpteen attempts to make herself look like Barbie with cosmetic surgery.

Call me a genius, but it doesn’t take much to see that there’s a connecting story here. I watched with horror as Alicia Douvall – she of the eighteen boob jobs – recounted that she’d only just learned ‘letters and shapes’ with her three-year-old daughter and that all that mattered to her was having great ‘tits’ and to be ‘fuckable’ to men. Oh dear god.

A male Twitter follower seemed surprised when he observed that Alicia’s self-esteem was clearly tied to being desirable to men. Well, yeah. Don’t men know that most straight women tie their self-esteem to being desirable to men from an early age and that we are encouraged to do so for the rest of our lives? It seems they don’t, and I am surrounded by well-meaning men of all ages who tell me that this sort of thing doesn’t exist. They genuinely don’t see it. They’re not in a world where it matters how fuckable they are but they constantly rate women on how desirable they are. It’s the Way Things Are.

I grew up in a household where The Sun and Titbits were the main sources of reading material. A typical ’70s upbringing involved watching Miss World with your dad, and all voting on the ones you thought were the prettiest ladies, commenting on their hips, their boobs, their hair. I loved it. I thought about which one of dance troupe Legs & Co I’d like to be when I grew up (Cherry Gillespie) and I looked at the Page 3 girls and hoped I’d look like Linda Lusardi when I was older. I blushed when various family members and friends would comment on my body – no part of it was left unscrutinised by the people that surrounded me, male and female. I’d say that started around the age of eight.

Even before her death in her 70s, my mum would still comment on my clothes, body, hair or face whenever I saw her. It was like a default setting and it is still a really common first point of conversation between women. You often get ‘nice hair’ or ‘did you lose weight?’ before you’re asked about your Actual Life. I now make a point of only saying stuff like that once all the important things are out of the way, but I still say it, mainly because I know it will boost the confidence of the woman hearing it.

In my twenties and thirties, once my crippling body-image problems had left me (go figure) I just got used to the running commentary on my appearance and I enjoyed the ‘game’ of being attractive to men. Like many young women, I looked for constant affirmation and got it from friends and passing strangers. I got a kick out of looking good and being sexually attractive. It was fun. It is fun. Losing a significant amount of weight in my late thirties gave me another confidence boost and the attention I got rocketed. I thrived on it for years.

It’s only recently, having done all the man-pleasing sexy dresses, heels and lingerie things, that I’ve realised what I was doing. And why I so don’t need to do it now. I don’t need male attention, approval or commentary to exist. Much of the commentary is designed to objectify you and confirm a sense of entitlement to your body, and it’s no longer something I would seek out.

I wonder if this sort of enlightenment only happens when you hit a certain age, and this is the reason why there is often a tension between younger and older women on the subject. Hearing Katie Hopkins and Michelle Visage suggest to Alicia Douvall in the Big Brother house that she could try just being herself, without the tits, seemed to demonstrate that nicely.

Often, young women (and men) hit back and accuse older women of being ugly, undesirable and just plain jealous of them. What if we can see what you’re doing and just want you to make you aware of what’s happening to you? In their desire to become sexually desirable both Alicia and Katie Price wrecked perfectly beautiful young faces and bodies. That, in my view, is a damn shame.

I think young women aspire to be Page Three models because it empowers them in a world where their primary currency is sexual desirability. I really am all for women owning their sexuality – god knows I do – and having the right to take an active part in the free expression of it, but I’d just like them to know the context in which they are doing it. Their bodies are the primary expression of womanhood in a national newspaper that is being viewed by eight-year-old Lisas who aspire to be them, and learn that their only currency is youth, beauty (in a narrowly defined sense) and sex. They should know that in the same newspaper, women are vilified for being as sexually active as men. The only acceptable face of womanhood is a meek, static, exposed one on Page Three.

By all means, be part of a world where female sexuality is celebrated in all its diversity – be part of the tribe of women who make money from their bodies in webcam accounts, table dancing, erotic imagery and female-friendly porn. Just know that this is a world where we are objectified and forced to fit a stereotype from an early age. Ask yourself if what you are doing is a free expression of your sexuality and the body you were born with.

Just ask the question.



Bond Woman

I’m rather proud of the fact that the very first movie I ever saw at the cinema was the Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me. I’ve got older siblings and they often took me with them to see movies that were at the top end of the age range, me being only ten when that came out in 1977.

I loved the glamour and the adventure of it all. The exotic Egyptian location made me yearn for far-off places and while at the time I couldn’t see the point of the ‘sexy time’ between Bond and Russian agent Anya Amasova, I can now see that Barbara Bach’s intelligent, dynamic glamour became the blueprint for femininity for me and throughout my life, I’ve always fantasised about becoming a Bond girl.

Having retrospectively discovered that Bond isn’t exactly the most liberated of franchises, I’ve thought long and hard about my ultimate feminine fantasy and why I long to be Anya Amasova. It turns out that the movie was released during those turbulent years of the ‘second wave’ of feminism and it formed a bit of a watershed in terms of how Bond women were portrayed. In 1974, Britt Ekland had starred in The Man with the Golden Gun and by her own admission, the role she played was not based on intelligence or dynamism: “…we were all sex kittens … We are never called ‘Bond Women’ mind you, it’s still ‘Bond Girls’ but today they are much more sophisticated.”

Perhaps Ekland was the last of the ’60s throwback ‘Bond kittens’ before Barbara Bach came along in TSWLM – nothing kittenish about her. Spy‘s theme song, Nobody Does it Better by Carly Simon, did seems to suggest that Bond was still in charge, but Simon’s You’re So Vain history always makes me think that she meant it in a tongue-in-cheek ‘yes, of course you’re still wearing the trousers, darling’ way.

So fast-forward to 2014 and we’ve just heard that fifty-year old Monica Bellucci has been cast in the latest movie, Spectre, to be released next year. In a subsequent interview, she immediately corrects the ‘Bond girl’ moniker to ‘Bond woman’. Taking over where Honor Blackman left off as a 39-year-old ‘Pussy Galore ‘in Goldfinger (1964) she is the oldest Bond girl ever, and has been awarded the accolade of having a non-innuendo name in the movie, Lucia Sciarra. How far we have come.

I’m delighted that the older woman has been recognised as a box-office worthy attraction, even if it is within a film franchise that is notable for its objectification of women, to the point where they are often disposed of halfway through the movie. (I remember going to an office Christmas party where the theme was ‘Bond’, and one of my female colleagues going as the Expendable Blonde’, complete with fake bullet hole in the head. Brilliant.)

Because as a woman only a few years younger than Ms Bellucci I am only too aware of the invisibility of women in mainstream media once they reach a certain age, especially in movies. As Kristin Scott Thomas has said: “I’m still asked to do leading roles in France, never in the UK. Never ever. People will ask me why, and I don’t really know apart from this idea that in France people are less afraid of older women, or getting old … In England, you have the feeling that with women after 50 you don’t have sexuality any more, or if you have sexuality you are a nymphomaniac.”

Women like Madonna, who ‘ostentatiously’ continue to celebrate their sexuality beyond fifty are constantly vilified in the media. She is the oldest trope in the book – the ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ hag who entraps young men into her web of hysterical sexuality. I agree with Kristin that the sexual prime of the older woman is frightening – people don’t know what to do with it and like to label you as a ‘cougar’, a she-wolf predator who needs to sate her freakish desires.

Here’s a thought: maybe we’re at the top of our game and because it’s so damn powerful society has to come up with a range of monstrous myths to keep it on the down low. Can’t have those pesky women being all in our faces when they’ve got no right to be there, sexually, professionally, economically or politically. Let’s make fun of their attempts to present their sexuality, intelligence and authority in public so that they shrink back and don’t bother us again.

And how I love Madonna for never doing that. As Helen Mirren said of her: “I think Madonna got it right. Madonna claimed [her sexuality] for herself, and I’ve always admired her for that. I loved that sex book she did, I thought it was fantastic, because it was a big two fingers up. ‘This is my sexuality, it’s not what you put on me, it’s mine.'” She’s just got her body out again, this time in Interview magazine, and whilst I do have issues around why women are constantly needing to do this to make a point about their sexuality (see my Over-Baring post) I kind of love that she has. Never disappear, Madonna.

My experience of becoming an older woman is one of increasing sexual power, and society’s increasing fear of it. I know that lots of men love it, and want to experience it – many friends my age have reported a recent upsurge in ‘interest’ from younger men – but they are often keen to keep their interest a secret, as though it is something freakish within them they can never admit to. For many men my own age and older, a woman like me is a threat to the power ratio, especially if they happen to come with a good job and a salary. There’s a reason why this is the demographic most prone to vilify older women. Ladies and gentlemen, look no further than AA Gill.

So, go Monica, go. I know you’re in a movie purely because of your astonishing beauty and sexual power, but you are fifty, and never before have those three things been seen as a positive. As someone not far off fifty and fearing the inevitable ‘cloak of invisibility’ descending, I can’t wait to see you up there on screen giving 46-year-old Daniel Craig the runaround.

In reality, he’d be trying to behave as though you didn’t exist.