Interview: Paris Lees

I’m saying goodbye to Paris Lees after a long phone call. She replies, “Oh God, don’t get me in trouble with all the other feminists! Make sure I sound reasonable!” It’s a lighthearted remark, but actually it reveals a lot about why Lees has been so successful as a writer, an activist, an advocate, and, indeed, a feminist.
Paris Lees scrutinises feminism from a whole range of perspectives: she’s different from “all the other feminists” in the public eye. She’s been in prison, she’s transgender, she’s from a working class background, she’s open about having been a sex worker. “My thoughts on, and my space in, feminism is informed by the fact I am transgender,” she tells me. “But it’s also very much informed by the fact that I’m common. I’m from a really run down and working class part of Nottingham, I was born and raised on a council estate.” More recently, she’s produced programmes for Radio One, writes for VICE, and has led campaigns for better trans representation in the media. Her struggle for justice for trans people led to her being crowned ‘Most Influential LGBT Person of the Year’ in 2013’s Pink List.

I start our conversation about feminism by asking her about ‘sex positivity’. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, it’s a reaction to feminists who object to porn, to sex work, to BDSM, to whatever they consider involves women “objectifying themselves”. Sex-positive feminism, on the contrary, says that your body is yours to celebrate. If you want to model topless on Page 3, great – the only person who is in control of your sexuality is you.

Lees talks a lot about sex. Her writing is a joyful celebration of the mess, the heat and the smell of sex: one article for VICE is entitled, ‘Why I’m So Proud to Be A ‘Promiscuous’ Slag’.

“I’ve always been a very sexual person,” Paris tells me. “I’ve always been pro-sex without really articulating it in that way. So it was really empowering and refreshing for me that there was a political framework or a movement which did articulate that. For me, sex-positivity means rejecting shame.

“This is why celebrating sex is an integral part of my feminism. It’s about completely owning your body, conceding to no one the power to regulate or police it. It’s about autonomy, saying this is my body and I’ll do what I want with it.”

The conversation naturally moves on to sex-positivity in relation to more mainstream, middle class feminism. I ask Lees about her thoughts on the No More Page Three campaign, which, whilst enjoying massive popular support, is also divisive in feminist communities due to its sometimes slut-shaming tone, and the unfortunate implication that women who choose to model cannot do so of their own free will being seen as alienating.

This undermining of choice is clearly something that troubles Lees. “Basically, I don’t like attacking other women. Feminists shouldn’t knock people down.” However, despite this discomfort, she’s also understanding of the campaign’s position, saying, “I think ultimately we’re all just trying to do what we think is right. And I don’t completely disagree with some of the thinking behind the range of campaigns that I would call prudish which have taken off recently. My solution to the concerns people have about Page 3, however, would be to have a Page 5 with a naked guy on it.”

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In general, it seems she’s in favour of more nakedness, rather than less. “Personally I’m much more into the #freethenipple campaign. There’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t pose naked in The Sun – if anything we should be campaigning for more diversity, and more people being allowed to express their sexuality.”

The ‘prudish’ campaigns Lees talks about are led by middle class white women: feminism is, quite rightly, often criticized for being exclusionary to those who don’t fit this mould. She provoked the wrath of many feminists in one article, informed by a working class perspective, entitled ‘I Love Wolf-Whistles and Cat-Calls: Am I a Bad Feminist?’

She’s keen to explain that she wasn’t trying to justifying cat-calling as a practice in general. “People were saying that I was excusing rape culture and condoning street harassment. And I absolutely wasn’t!” she insists.

“I was saying: this is how I feel about something, this is my experience and how do I square that with being a feminist?” Here Lees returns to her working class background as the reason for such violent reactions to her article, saying, “I’m not claiming to speak on behalf of all working class people. But before writing the piece, I called up a lot of the working class women that I know: my sister, my mum, my friends from Nottingham. And I asked them how they felt. And the language that they used wasn’t the kind of sophisticated language that you read in the New Statesman or whatever. It was more, ‘Sometimes it annoys me but it’s a compliment, innit.’”

This is where, for Lees, feminist campaigning and activism falls short. Sometimes, feminists who claim to be concerned for the oppression of working class women simply forget to consult or listen to them. “And actually,” she says, “if you do speak to these women, some are going to say [cat-calling] annoys them and some are going to say they like it. And their opinions are just as valid as somebody who went to Oxford and has developed a kind of theoretical, academic opposition to something. In today’s feminist movement, we’re just not hearing working class women’s voices.”

Lees wants to make feminists more selfcritical, more aware of their prejudices and privileges, more inclusive. “Sometimes, I read some of the things that these middle class feminists are writing, the things they’re getting mad about, and I just think ‘Are you for fucking real? Seriously, this is what you’re bothered about?’”

I ask her for an example, and she refers to an article by Caroline Criado-Perez which objected to the current application of the term ‘cisgender’ (identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth). “When I see [her] writing about the use of the word ‘cis’, I think, just get over yourself! It’s just a word – is that the most important thing you’ve got to sit down and write about today?”

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We’ve talked a lot about the way in which class informs Lees’ theory of feminism. I now ask her more about her own personal experience. I pick up on a comment she made earlier, describing herself as “upwardly mobile”. Does she think she’s stayed true to her working class principles? Has she felt any pressure to mould herself to the new environments she’s found herself in?

“Certainly, it’s been a real journey for me,” she says, “it’s been such an abrupt change. I’m doing things like Radio 4, I’m being invited to write for The Guardian and stuff.’”

Now, of course, Lees is pushing the boundaries of the kind of voices we hear on television, directly, through her own work, and in her advocacy for better representation of other voices which have traditionally been silenced. I ask her if there’s been any assimilation, if she’s felt any pressure to conform to the parameters of her new public, middle class role. “It’s weird, certainly. I’ll always be working g class in my roots but it would be ridiculous to say that the world I live in now doesn’t impact on who I am. It’s a complex identity because, to all intents and purposes, I am a middle class person now. I shop in Waitrose and John Lewis. I read books, I have a role in intellectual life, I have a role in public life.I don’t have to move in working class circles.”

And yet despite the need to conform, to speak in a certain way, Lees says that she still fights to assert her identity within middle class institutions.
She tells me about her appearance on Question Time, saying, “I initially thought that I should wear something posh. But then I thought, you know what, fuck it, it’s Halloween and I want to wear my skeleton top! And I did, and it was great. So it’s about balancing who you’re talking to with staying true to yourself. And I like to think I’ve done okay with that.”

Our interview concludes neatly where we started, with a critique of contemporary Western feminism. Lees is talking about TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, those who do not accept that transgender women are women and who often actively campaign against access to healthcare for trans people.

“To be honest, I try to ignore them. They’re bigots. It really sickens me and it’s really disappointing to see it in the feminist movement. Because actually, there is no such thing as a conflict between the push for equal rights for women and the push for equal rights for transgender people. It really upsets me when feminists engage with people who have abhorrent views, like Julie Bindel, for example, who supports reparative care for trans people. To be honest, I hope that kind of feminism is dying out.”

Listening to Lees, I’m also inclined to be optimistic. Germaine Greer might still be invited to spout hatred at the Cambridge Union and other such venues, but Lees is the face of a new kind of feminism, an intersectional philosophy which struggles relentlessly for the liberation of all oppressed genders, races, orientations, and classes.