By Stephen Fry
November 4th, 2010
The whole stilly stick…
I suppose the keenest disappointment I feel about the past week and the almost incredible weirdnesses its has brought in its train is the idea that there are people out there who actually swallow the notion that I am so stupid as to believe that women don’t enjoy sex. That I not only believe it but that I am dense, dotty and suicidally deluded enough to make a public declaration of such a crazed belief.
Let me now come out and say before we go any further that I entertain no such notion. Much as you may wish to think me a compound of the most misogynistic, ignorant, sexist and antediluvian pig who ever trod the planet I can truly report that I know and love enough women to be quite assured of the fact the women do indeed enjoy sex. I would have to ignore evolution, precedent, personal experience and the empirical observation of vibrator sales and teenage pregnancies and all kinds of obvious and unavoidable facts in between to believe anything else. And yet the public perception appears to be that I have made a statement that proves I think otherwise. Any number of self-righteous, indignant and contemptuous figures have (if I have understood aright) come out to condemn me for opinions that I have never ever held. I say “if I have understood aright” because I have not read a single newspaper article on this whole issue and I may well have got hold of the wrong end of the whole silly stick. I am going by the maddeningly well-meaning but wholly unwanted information given to me by others.
But I repeat: it is not the fury, the insult, the hysteria, the tut-tutting, the head-shaking or indeed the intemperate abuse that has apparently come from some quarters, none of those have astonished me so much as the disappointingly wholesale acceptance by so many individuals that I might genuinely have been such a twatty prune as ever to have meant such a bizarre thing. Many people have by turns condemned me or sympathised with me or even agreed with me, but very few have had the perception or necessary understanding of the British press and its ways to get the obvious point that, guilty of all kinds of crimes as I may be, I am happily guiltless of the mad crime of thinking that women don’t enjoy sex. But I dare say I shall now go to my grave being thought of as someone who does hold such a belief, much as I will go to that grave being thought of someone who “attacked” the Pope prior to his UK visit, although I never did any such thing – indeed I went out of my way to avoid attacking him.
How can we unpick this whole sorry business? It may be that you haven’t the faintest idea what I’m talking about. So we should begin by telling the story of Stephen and Women and Sex, such as I understand it. Here goes.
How it happened
For reasons that should be obvious now if they weren’t before, I don’t give print interviews. I never consent to them any more than you, dear reader, would voluntarily consent to being mugged, raped or burgled, but when under pressure I will compromise by agreeing to do a profile for some small magazine or other. I say “under pressure” because as an actor, writer and presenter, publicity duties routinely go with my profession. It is written into contracts that if I accept a TV, film or writing job that I must agree to a “reasonable” number of press requests. Because I am fortunate enough to be a busy soul there will be periods when three, four, five or six different projects will come to fruition all at the same time and I will have to sit down with the publicity people from each project and barter. I will agree to radio, online and TV interviews and then, heart in mouth, consent to one or two local or specialised print organs.
You may not believe this from my hideous omnipresence but my preferred number of publicity assignments is exactly zero. If I could get away with NO radio interviews, NO magazine profiles, NO television chat shows, NO bookshop signings, NO stage events then I would. All those who know me and work with me will confirm this. I am a very very reluctant mule when it comes to these awful moments of necessary negotiation with the publicity people attached to books and films and TV series. “Must I?”, “Oh god please let me off…”, “Surely I’m don’t need to do this?” I am as aware as you and as aware as the battalions of people who clearly loathe the sight and sound of me that my media presence can appear to be ubiquitous, overexposed and entirely de trop.
This year has been one where, whether I like or not, I have been hugely in the public gaze. A big book, goodness knows how many TV programmes and a slew of concatenating public appearances have combined to make me look like a publicity hungry media whore of the worst kind. My god have I been aware of that. Well I shan’t overdo it. If you combine the lecturing and appearing and speaking and chat-showing and launches and lunches and award ceremonies and everything else you get a severe case of Too Much Fry. I have a strong suspicion that even my mother thinks there’s a superfluity of Stephen. And who can blame anyone for wishing I wouldn’t pop up quite so much?
So, to return to the business of Women and Sex. I kept to my rule and consented to no print interviews earlier this year when my book came out. I did however agree to do one profile for a small gay glossy called Attitude. I thought it was a harmless way of supporting a specialist periodical. The fact is, and there are witnesses to it, I only agreed out of kindness. What an idiot I am. A misplaced sense of community spirit that went ludicrously awry…
The Hippo with Attitude
Anyway, I did a photo-shoot for the magazine, during which and after which I conversed with a profiler. I can’t remember his name and I haven’t actually read the article he wrote as a result. They sent me three copies of the magazine and I looked at the photo on the front cover and now the magazines lie piled up somewhere. However vain, smug and self-worshipping you may think me, and I’m aware that many think me a revolting compound of all those things, I can promise you that I almost never watch the programmes I make nor do I read articles about me or interviews that I’ve given. Nor would you if you were me. Well, I chatted to this fellow on the day; he seemed very nice and very charming and we had a pleasant, relaxed and easy conversation. That’s the word, a conversation. I remember very little of it, but I can picture the narrow little room in which the latter part of it took place. At some point we chatted about gay sexuality – well, you would wouldn’t you, for a gay magazine? – and as part of that conversation I repeated the old canard about how men, unlike women, were cursed with their uniquely pressing and annoying libidos. Straight men I have known have often (of course mostly in a kind of bitter jest) said how much they envied gay people the simplicity of their erotic lifestyles (cottaging and cruising and so on) and I vamped for a while on that theme. I do not believe it as some kind of eternal gender truth, I was simply taking a thought for a walk, I was “playing gracefully with ideas” to repeat Oscar’s great phrase, or at least attempting to do so. But the important thing to remember is that the subject was not straight female sexuality, but gay male sexuality. It’s the only sexuality of which I have direct experience and how could I presume to speak of any other?
Was it naïve in me that it never for a second crossed my mind that this conversation would be sold on to other papers? That it would be “picked up” and make a disastrous move from being a conversation to some kind of public “declaration”? “Stephen Fry declares that women don’t enjoy sex.” It was as if I had called a press conference in order to give the world the benefit of my wisdom. For heaven’s arsing sake. Aside from anything else, the whole exchange was a steal from a book I wrote almost twenty years ago called The Hippopotamus in which a rancid, cantankerous old poet called Ted Wallace (loosely based on a compendium of Simon Gray, Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and others) bewails his inability to get his end away as easily as his gay friends appear to and so goes on about how women don’t really have the same urges as men. That was the whole point, it was a comic silliness aimed at a gay readership.
At a time when morale is low in the gay community (a chronic rise in homophobia, teenage suicides, gay bashing and religious intolerance) I thought it worth making the light enough point that in some ways you could see the male gay life as a lot easier than the male straight life. But to read anything more into it than that is either wilful or stupid. I know that women enjoy sex. If women also say (and I’m in no position to agree or disagree with them) that they have as equally insistent and urgent libidos as men then I have no doubt that must be true also. It is perhaps sad to think that they are as pathetically in the grip of a base and humiliating need to get their rocks off as men are, but if that is the case then that is the case and god knows I’m no expert on the subject and have no right either to confirm or deny the proposition. It simply isn’t my business to pronounce on something that I know nothing of and I’m sorry if the very idea of my even touching on the topic is deemed offensive, inappropriate and outrageous by authorities on gender issues, if such authorities exist. As a gay man, female sexuality is patently a closed book to me. I had fondly imagined that in a free and open society one might be allowed to play with such ideas in a reasonable spirit of debate, but it seems not. It seems that such a conversation was offensive, ignorant, arrogant … god knows what else. Ill-judged it most certainly was.
Spank me with a fly-whisk
You will perhaps say that after nearly 30 years in the public realm I should have known better than to allow myself to have a free-wheeling happy, explorative and silly conversation with any journalist. Maybe I should have guessed that the interviewer wanted not an interview but a story. I should have known that comic exaggeration, so much the chief mode of a humorist, can easily be made to look bad when wrenched from context and nailed up as a proclamation. I admit that I do have a sometimes disastrous tendency, when asked a question, to answer it, often jokingly, or in the interests of ventilating a new thought that has struck, or more or less as the mood takes me but certainly too much without any consideration of the possible consequences. I am not, after all, a politician who has to weigh every syllable and its chances of giving offence. Maybe I should be more aware that those who wish me ill are always likely to seize on such instances and use them as a fly-whisk with which to spank me.
What the Papals Say
The whole Pope business, you might argue, should have warned me plainly. I was one of dozens, scores almost, of signatories to a letter sent to the editor of a low-circulation serious newspaper which suggested (mildly enough I thought) that the pontiff, while welcome (the letter, which I had no hand in writing, used that word) to Britain should not perhaps have his visit paid for out of the public purse. Instead of letting such a letter drop like a flat cowpat onto an uncaring field of public indifference, the press decided to publicise it widely and shriekingly to turn it into a great scandal. For some reason they singled me out as the figure most responsible for it and before long I was Fry the anti-catholic, Fry the Pope-basher, Fry the atheistic hate-monger. Weird, worrying and barely sane.
Am I that important? Should a letter to the Guardian in which I was a fractional part have been talked up into a cause célèbre for which I was judged almost uniquely responsible? Should a gamesome conversation in Attitude magazine be blown up into a major controversy that occupies acres of print? Surely I’m just a writer and actor? Just a nobody whose opinion is worth no more than anyone else’s? Indeed isn’t that the whole thrust of the articles written deploring my sillinesses? Bloody luvvie, who does he think he is? Well, then, why publicise and bring my worthless opinions so sharply front and centre? They can’t have it both ways. They pick up otherwise ignored articles, fulminate against them and in doing so accuse me of pushing myself forward! If the mainstream media ignored the frankly insignificant articles in which I appear almost no one would hear of them. All they have to do is ignore me, instead of which they big up everything they can find which involves me and then follow up their irritation with outraged expressions of annoyance at how prevalent I am. Well they are the ones who make me prevalent. It’s all rather potty and in the end all one can do is giggle at such farcical nonsense.
Having said all this I have to repeat my confession. I have literally no idea what has been said about me over the past week. When I say that I do not read papers I mean it. For 12 years I have assiduously avoided them, the British ones at any rate. Occasionally I will see an article online, and during the Pope debacle I was sent jpeg images of a front page which alerted me to the besotted and obsessional problems that the Daily Mail in particular has with me and my existence.
I was made aware by wild flutterings in the Twitter dovecots and incessant sympathetic tweets earlier this week (before I hastily disengaged from the service in order to save myself from more unwelcome details), that the press had picked up on the Attitude article and that all kinds of figures had then expatiated on my lunacy and folly in different newspapers over the next few days. And that this was followed by other papers taking the opportunity to give me the damned good kicking that a swine like me so richly deserves.
You may wonder why I duck out of Twitter at such times: well it may seem pusillanimous but it’s really, as I have said, just to avoid being sympathised with or told about an article I would otherwise never have got wind of. I soon enough slink back and before long it’s as if nothing happened. Clears the air. Does good on all sides.
So how do I feel about it all? Well, these hullabaloos tend to follow an established pattern. First outrage, then hurt, next amusement and finally the whole thing is forgotten.
And what do I learn from it? Hm. That’s harder.
- Never ever read any tweets or direct messages sent to you the moment you get wind of a media shit storm brewing
- No more print interviews, Stephen. No matter how small and worthy the publication you can’t be trusted not to say something that will make you look a tit when reproduced elsewhere.
- Pretend you’re a politician and only say things after weighing all the consequences and potential offence caused.
Let’s be honest, I’ll never stick to point 3. I’m probably doomed to lurch from embarrassing moment to embarrassing moment for the rest of my life. Heigh ho.
I write this on an aeroplane bearing me to Los Angeles for my annual date with the Britannias, BAFTA’s American award ceremony, an evening I’ve intermittently hosted over the last decade or so. I suppose there might be British print journalists on the BAFTA red carpet tonight and I suppose I might have to find a way to not to say something monumentally stupid that finds its way back to Britain. If that’s the case … don’t let me know. Agreed? Hurrah. We have a deal.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself. I am sitting on an aeroplane writing a blog which tries to reassure the world that I am quite aware that women enjoy sex. No one can say my life isn’t unpredictable, interesting and … well, Fryish…