Lez Miserable: "I'm more Byron Burger than Lord Byron. Is that why I can't get a date?"

Meet our new columnist, Eleanor Margolis, as she takes a frank, funny and cynical tour through life as a twentysomething lesbian. In her second piece, she describes what it's like to fancy women who wouldn’t give you the time of day on their ironic 80s Ca

A bunch of us are round at The Austrian’s, drinking wine. As usual, I’m being boring about my bad luck with women. The Austrian is having none of this:

“Try harder,” she commands.

The others agree. They set me a challenge for the next time we go out: if I say some words to a real life attractive female, they’ll buy my drinks for the rest of the night.

It strikes me that even my best buds have no faith in me. I don’t have to take this hypothetical woman home, I just have to do some talking with her. That is my insurmountable task.

But some lesbians have this really specific way of being aloof. Let me paint you a picture:

Nikki is 25. She’s skinny, gamine and lovely, with a Mia Farrow circa ’68 haircut. She enjoys cups of tea and riding her bike through the ‘queer poetry’ section of bookshops in Hackney. She DJs at a club night called ‘Minge Attack’. She once knitted an entire house and lived in it for a month as an art project. She claims never to have bought a chain store item of clothing in her whole life, although every time she goes into Urban Outfitters on Commercial Street, the staff wave at her.

Yes, I know she’s pretentious, but I still kind of fancy her.

Yet, if she existed, Nikki wouldn’t give me the time of day on her ironic 80s Casio watch. I’m stubby and veering towards moustache-y. And if I took penicillin, I might die.

I run into a lot of Nikkis on the hip ‘n’ happening East London queer scene. They ignore me because I use phrases like “hip ‘n’ happening”. So it goes.

Then again, it’s not like I’ve ever made a real effort to talk to a Nikki. I’m no chatter- upper of women. I’m more Byron Burger than Lord Byron. More of a “watch nervously from a distance” kinda gal. My face even has this special shade of red reserved purely for when a woman catches me checking her out. I call it “Just Go Home And Have A Sad, Quiet Wank Vermillion”. Weirdly, this was rejected by Crayola when I suggested it to them as a new shade. 

So, the night out arrives. We’re going to Club Lesley, a lesbian club night at the tit-achingly cool Dalston Superstore. I put on some Prince and apply red lipstick like war paint.

As we walk into the Superstore, I’m confronted by what looks like a swarm of American Apparel models. I already feel like the complimentary bag of salad that comes with a take-away curry.

And then I clock her, over in the heaving crowd around the bar – it’s Nikki. I find myself veering towards her, leaving my friends behind, looking tense. My feet are moving, while my brain is sending out distress signals:

“What do you think you’re doing, you sad, hairy twit? Do not attempt to engage.”

My feet have other plans and suddenly I’m next to her. I know it’s creepy, but I can’t help noticing how nice she smells – like pencil shavings and CK One. It’s uncanny – she ticks every single Nikki box: the pixie haircut, the Urban Outfitters shirt, the aura of someone who may have once knitted a house. I’ve accepted that my brain isn’t on my side, so I do what I’ve never done before - I listen to my vagina.

“Packed tonight, eh!” I announce, over a remix of some early 00s R&B hit.

She glances over at me. My God, she has pretty eyes.

“Uh-huh!” she replies. We’re both having to shout over the music.

“Ahh, gotta love this song!” I say, while my brain says, “You have absolutely no idea what this song is, you complete and utter wanker.”

“Mmmm. I prefer their earlier stuff, to be honest!”

“Oh yeah, classic!” I reply, while my brain is now screaming the word “arsehat” at me repeatedly.

I spend the next few minutes staring at my feet, while waiting to be served. I order a gin and tonic and flee.

Flustered, I return to my friends.

“There. I did it. I spoke to someone.”

“Yah, and then you ran off like a pussy,” says The Austrian.

I’m not even going to bother fighting her on this one. Technically, I’m owed a night’s supply of drinks, but I know I don’t deserve them.

I spend the rest of the evening dancing limply, while keeping one eye on Nikki and frantically thinking up reasons why I hate her. “Look at her over there with her eyes, and her shoes, and her possible cool job in the media. I loathe her.”

At around two in the morning, I realise that my face hurts from frowning so much. All I want to do is lie in bed, eating a kebab and crying. I head off, leaving the others to enjoy the rest of the night.

The next day, I meet The Austrian for a hung-over brunch.

“You know,” she says, “Zat girl you spoke to last night – she liked you.”

I nearly choke on my eggs Benedict.

“What the..? How? No she didn’t.”

“Yeah, we got talking to her and her friends later on. You know what she said about you.”

“Oh God, what?”

“Your mate is cute. Kind of aloof though.”

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose column "Lez Miserable" will appear weekly on the New Statesman website. She tweets @eleanormargolis

Legs. All the legs. Photo: Getty

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle