Wonder Women: Roe McDermott
When you ask someone what their occupation is, a ‘sex columnist’ probably isn’t the usual reply you would expect to hear. It’s certainly an interesting and, well, slightly different conversation starter and it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if some red faces, lowered voices and fidgety feet were exhibited by the non-sexpert side of the discussion at the mention of the word, ‘S-E-X.’
What is it about the harmless three-letter word (or any other sexually related words, for that matter) that has enough power to turn the volume of our voices down?
Sex columnist for The Dublin Inquirer and Hot Press film critic, Roe McDermott, is not one to let these words control her – she controls them. To see Roe shouting about sex from rooftops probably wouldn’t be an unusual sight if it meant her voice, and the voice of women around her, would be heard.
A firm advocate of women’s rights, Roe has had to endure a difficult past to become the strong female that she is today. She was previously involved in an emotionally abusive relationship and was sexually assaulted back in her college days but she has used her distressing experiences as a chance to express her feelings through writing and speak out on behalf of women who have been in similar situations.
After completing a Masters in Journalism, Roe was awarded a Fulbright Award to study a Masters in Sexuality Studies in San Francisco and she is currently busy working on her thesis which explores the experiences of Irish women who have had an abortion.
With conversation in Ireland turning to the topic of abortion recently after journalist Roisin Ingle and comedian/writer Tara Flynn both stepped forward to share their abortion experiences, many Irish women are now fighting to change Ireland’s laws. Roe stands amongst these women, as she demands less judgement from the people around and more opportunities for women to step forward and speak about their experiences without feeling shamed.
In an incredibly honest and thought-provoking interview, Roe talks to me about abortion, feminism and films and while it gets heavy at times as she recalls her past traumas, her positive outlook on life and bubbly character seeps through during our entire chat.
Describe yourself in three words.
Looking to learn.
Tell us something interesting about yourself that not many people would know.
I’m living over in San Francisco studying sexualities. I think the fact that I write a sex column always gets weird reactions from people. If I tell anybody about my job at dinner parties, everyone suddenly goes silent to think of a polite way to respond to it and parents immediately get very nervous so I think that’s usually pretty interesting. I’m trying to think of more interesting things. Now I suddenly feel like the most boring person in the world! At the moment I’m applying for PhDs in America. I’m looking at my Masters thesis at the moment on Irish women’s experiences of travelling for an abortion so I want to look at the idea of travel for women and how it relates to aspects of deviancy – gender and sexual deviancy. I’m also looking at how academia, like women writing about their personal lives, is also seen as academically deviant. I’m trying to speak about how important it is for women to be able to tell their own stories and how that needs to be respected in academia and journalism to a certain extent. It’s a lot of white men saying that they know the objective truth. I think women know that our lives are so subjective, so influenced by outside forces, so I really want that to be respected more.
Personally, I admire how open you are when it comes to speaking about sexualities and sex topics. You mentioned how important it is for women to be able to tell their stories. With journalist Roisin Ingle and writer Tara Flynn stepping forward to share their abortion stories, it has opened the door for many other women to share their own experiences. Do you think the media and the internet have played a part in creating an open space for women to discuss their sexuality and abortion comfortably?
Yes, definitely. One of the great benefits of the internet – and on the flipside, one of the great dangers for women speaking openly on the internet – is that unlike mainstream media, it’s not run by white middle-aged men who are terrified of personal exposure. I think there’s a real attitude that women’s experiences and women’s personal writing is deemed inferior or less important than men’s writing or objective journalism, in which case doesn’t exist. I think that attitude relates to women’s personal experiences, the writing by women. Even these deviant personal experiences or writing about women’s inner lives are deemed chick-lit but if a male writer had done it, it’s the great American novel so I think that attitude towards women’s experiences has not been as supportive to our being. That’s a huge issue and I think even female editors, particularly in Ireland because we don’t have as many outlets as other places because they were brought up in this attitude and with this philosophy of writing, they’ve kind of adopted it.
I remember submitting a travel piece to a big broadsheet paper and the section editor loved it but the editor of the entire paper said it was too emotionally vulnerable and I remember just thinking that it’s so sad that you’re scared of a writer actually having emotions. The internet is so important for women to be able to tell their own personal stories of abortion. I know Tara Flynn and Roisin Ingle and they’re both incredible people and I’ve always admired their work. It’s amazing that they’ve come forward and shared their own stories – it’s gotten people talking. This isn’t to take away from their contribution at all but I think it is also interesting that Roisin and Tara already have a platform so their writing about abortion was always going to be published whereas there are so many women who don’t have a platform and would be eager to talk about their experiences and nobody really cares because they’re just an individual. They’re just one woman but that’s exactly who abortion affects.
For my Masters thesis, I put out a call on Twitter asking women who would share their abortion stories with me and I got so many responses. Women who want to tell their stories are out there but people are only interested in listening to a certain demographic of women and I think that’s something that the internet has been incredible for in making it more demographic, as opposed to just seeking people out with a platform or a certain type of woman who is looking for an abortion.
I think the abortion conversation particularly focuses on this idea of the perfect victim, which is that we care if people have an abortion if they were gonna die from medical complications, if they were raped, if they were underage. Of course, these women have tragic stories and of course, they should be allowed an abortion but so should a woman who is in her thirties, who got pregnant and just didn’t want a kid so the focus on tragic stories kind of reinforces the idea that only some people are entitled to an abortion. I think mainstream media is guilty of perpetuating that by only publishing certain stories so I think Roisin and Tara have started a really interesting conversation that they are women and they didn’t want to have a baby at that time in their lives and that’s a really important narrative to get out there. I would like to see it more mainstream but the internet is so important for stuff like that.
In terms of me being open with talking about sex and sexuality, I think there’s something very interesting about writing about your own life online. I’ve written about being in an abusive relationship and my own experiences of sexual assault. My family have found out stuff through my writing that I had never spoken to them about which I should probably give them a heads up about next time! I think there is an imperative when you’re writing and you want to share your story and even if the thought isn’t explicitly formed in your mind to connect with other people and to say I had this experience and I’ve survived and here’s how I survived, it is to connect with other women particularly. It’s a way of expressing something to people who are so close to you, like your family members.
People have these expectations of you but with your audience, it’s just about your writing, just about your experience and there isn’t this lifetime narrative which you should be dismantling. People find it really threatening so I think again, personal writing on the internet is a really important way of letting women be themselves in a very authentic, open way and kind of getting away from gender expectations and personal expectations that people have of them so I think it’s quite a liberating thing to do.
What would you say to women who are considering having an abortion or travelling for one?
Firstly, I would just like to make it clear that I have never had an abortion. I say this not to distance myself from women who have had abortions in any way, just that I don’t want to be seen as trying to represent them or to appropriate their experiences in any way. My interest in the topic is because I’ve always been pro-choice and I feel people who are anti-choice are trying to control women’s bodily autonomy and women’s freedom. I think from the interviews and research that I’ve done, a big issue that affects women who are going to have an abortion is first of all the silence around it. I’ve spoken to so many women who didn’t tell anybody or told one person and the years afterwards when they felt more comfortable talking about it, they found out their sister or whoever had also had an abortion. I think everyone knows someone who has had an abortion. I think by speaking about it yourself, you’re also giving someone the opportunity to respond and say that was me.
I spoke to one woman who had an abortion and she later realised that a woman in her office, who she didn’t know very well, was also going through the exact same experience at the same time and there was this other idea that if we’d only spoken earlier, we could have supported each other. I don’t want to put pressure on anyone to speak about it because I’m also aware of the stigma that goes with it at the same time but I think if you’re comfortable enough to speak out about it, support is out there and you’re also giving support to other people by speaking about it.
I also think people need to ignore basically every representation of abortion we get in film and pop culture. Apart from the film, ‘Obvious Child‘, which shows a woman going through an abortion and her feeling empowered by it, every representation is about dirty tables and rusty knives and the general representation of abortion is as a horrific experience, nightmarish and unsafe. If you look at ‘Juno’ or ‘Sex and the City’, there is representations of women going into abortion clinics and suddenly having this epiphany that no they’re going to keep the baby or give it up for adoption and all these things suddenly reinforce the idea that if you have an abortion, you’ll suddenly regret it. There is this myth that you’ll have regret for the rest of your life and the experience will be negative or if you don’t do it, your entire life will be fantastic once you have a baby but we know life and emotions are so much more complicated than that.
The most important thing I gathered from speaking to women who had abortions is this narrative of guilt and regret that is placed on them. People saying you will feel guilty and you will regret it and in years to come, this is gonna haunt you. Everyone I spoke to did not have that experience but they felt guilty for not feeling guilty and I think that just speaks about the amount of pressure that is placed on women to feel a certain way. I think having an abortion is an act of choice and an act of empowerment and an act of taking control of something that the Irish government doesn’t think we should have control on.
I think it can be such an important, liberating choice for women. People will always talk about abortion being a traumatic experience and of course it’s not going to be an easy decision but if it’s an easy decision for you, it’s an easy decision and you shouldn’t feel guilty about that. So for Irish women, don’t let anybody make you feel guilty about your decision and be wary of people who try to place a narrative on you.
Being a feminist, what does the title mean to you and who has influenced your thoughts on feminism?
I think what feminism means to me has evolved over the years, thankfully. Growing up in Ireland, we’re not very diverse and so my vision of feminism, particularly when I was a teenager, was based on pop culture feminism. I had a lot of conversations about whether it was feminist to shave my legs. Ariel Leavy has this idea of female chauvinistic pigs – that idea of shaming women for being prudish and buying into the sexualisation of women and trying to be one of the lads about your feminism and being like, no, I’m not one of those girls, I’m like a cool girl and sexually empowered. In doing so, you’re shaming other women and shaming women who don’t share your beliefs and not letting people enjoy their personal choices.
I was definitely very guilty of being a white feminist. Mainstream media in Ireland kind of focus on middle-class white feminism, it’s not inclusive, we don’t address the issues of intersectionality that affect different women like women of colour, women from different social classes or trans women. So I think that’s been the most important evolution of my feminism recently. I’m in San Francisco and it’s meant to be very LGBT-friendly and very good with racial issues but it’s really not, there’s so much micro-aggression. Obviously, the past couple of years in America with the Black Lives Matter movement, race has been so huge but with these movements they don’t address the certain specificities of women of colour. Black trans women are being murdered systematically in America and they don’t make it into the news – it’s terrifying.
Feminism for me as a teenager was about me having the right to do what I want and me flaunting an attitude whereas now my feminism is about everybody. I want to include everybody. I would really like to write more about the issues of people of different races and ethnicities and how they are hypersexualised or how the impact of pornography or the representation of other ethnicities, anybody who is not white, how black and Asian women are represented onscreen with regards to sexuality, how disability and sexuality converge. I think there are so many issues that sadly, white feminism ignores and it’s really disappointing.
So now my feminism is not about me. I’m a middle-class white woman, I have been lucky enough to enjoy an education. In terms of women, I’m not somebody who needs a lot of protection, I think feminism like many other social structures operates on a trickle down philosophy so we think if white feminists get the right to wear what we want and say what we want, and have abortions and these priviledges will trickle down to other members of society that are less privileged and that doesn’t work. We have to look at the people in society who need the most protection and give them rights and help them find empowerment and liberation and then it will trickle up. My frustration with white feminism at the moment is that it’s not looking at people who are more vulnerable.
As a film critic, I’m interested in your thoughts on the reputation of female characters in television and film – who do you think is the best example of a strong-willed female character?
I don’t watch a lot of TV these days, I watch Netflix but I literally don’t have a TV in America and I also have commitment-phobia when it comes to TV shows. Do you remember ‘Lost‘? I stuck with ‘Lost‘ for seven years, it was like a bad relationship that gave me commitment-phobia! But I do think programmes like ‘Orange Is The New Black‘ are really important. It has its own issues but I think it’s really important in representing women of colour and not just reducing them to stereotypes, showing their background stories. It has trans women, women going through mental health issues and I think it’s a good programme in terms of the diversity of people. It still has issues. Laverne Cox is incredible, she’s like squad goals but I think it’s interesting that the one trans woman on the show is the only woman who hasn’t had a sexual relationship on the show – it shows a fear of trans women and sexuality. I think that’s definitely something the show needs to work on. In terms of film, at the moment I’m kind of interested in the representation of women behind the camera because I think again it’s putting women in positions of power and positions of authorship and allowing women to tell their own stories. I think once you have women behind the camera and women in more screenwriting rooms, the representation of women can only be better.
Who would you invite to a dinner party and why?
Rebecca Solnit is one of my favourite writers, she’s an intellectual and philosopher from San Fran. I went to see her at Dublin’s Writers Week a couple of years ago and she blew my mind. She wrote ‘Men Explain Things To Me’ and she’s the most fascinating writer. She’s also prolific. She wrote some incredible books that have become my life philosophy books. She’s created this public role for herself where she speaks about intellectualism and philosophy and feminism and sexuality and I think being a public intellectualist is the dream business card for me.
Roxane Gay. I’ve loved her writing for years. What she did and what she is doing for women’s personal writing is important and she also brought feminism to a generation of women who hadn’t thought about it. Her book ‘Bad Feminist’ speaks about how being a feminist doesn’t mean you’re this one-dimensional character, you’re human and you can mess up and be interested in things that don’t seem incredibly feminist but that’s what humanity is. For me personally, I was very guilty of that. I fell out with one of my best friends in the world for two years because she slut-shamed somebody and now thankfully, we’re back friends and she’s incredible but this is the perfect example of me not letting somebody have a human moment and there’s a way of telling people that they need to be a better version of themselves.
If you use feminism as an excuse to not let women be human, I don’t think that empowers anybody and it creates this ‘us’ versus ‘them’, like ‘I’m a good feminist’ and we all fuck up, and I think that’s important. Her recent interactions with Erica Young were such an important moment for showing the generational difference between white feminism and intellectual feminism and she was so diplomatic about it and so wonderful, so I’d love to pick her brain about that.
My final guest would be Sinead Gleeson. I love that woman so much and for women in Ireland, Sinead Gleeson, apart from just releasing ‘The Long Gaze Back‘ and letting women write and creating this anthology and supporting people’s writing. I don’t know anyone who’s met Sinead and doesn’t feel more empowered, creatively inspired and supported. She writes about the arts and feminism, acts as a supportive mentor and she’s great fun so any time I get to spend with that woman is a time where I can feel more inspired and want to do more work. I think she’s brilliant.
What’s your biggest achievement in your career to date?
I think a lot of people would consider the Fulbright scholarship as my biggest professional achievement and it is. It got me to San Francisco to study sexualities with really incredible people and living in San Fran was always a dream so I’m very grateful. But I think the things that I consider an achievement aren’t necessarily the ones that hold much prestige but the things I think will promote conversation that I think should be happening. I think writing the sex column has been really important for me in terms of opening up dialogue in terms of sex and sexuality. I got a piece published on the website, The Rumpus, and that essay was speaking about rape culture and my own experience of sexual assault and I think for me, that was really important because one of the reasons I wanted to write the sex column in the first place was that I was sexually assaulted in college.
I grew up in a feminist household and I got the good messages you need to get about sexual assault – for example, it’s not your fault and you should tell people. But I grew up in Catholic Ireland and my parents are incredibly feminist people but there was still this implicit idea that if you’re sexually assaulted, it’s to do with sex and so it’s shameful so I didn’t feel comfortable going up to my parents and telling them this happened to me because that involved their youngest daughter being involved in a sex act even though it was non-consensual. If I had been mugged, I would have had no problem telling them but it was the difference between violence and sexual violence – sexual violence is still shrouded in this idea of sexuality and shame and so I thought that starting the sex column and writing about my own experiences would distinguish between consensual empowering sex and what isn’t sex, what is rape, what is assault. And so I hoped – and still hope – that by speaking about sexuality and sex, we build up a difference between what is empowering and liberating and what is violence inflicted on the body and hopefully when people get more comfortable with speaking about sex, they’ll also be able to mentally create that divide and be able to speak about sexual assault more openly and I wanted to break down those boundaries of shame, guilt and taboo and get people talking.
Being able to contribute in any way to that discussion is really big for me. I still feel like one of the most important things I’ve done for me personally is writing about being in an abusive relationship because I had come out of two years being terrified to speak about it. I lost a lot of friends and work because this guy was involved in the media and it was one of those experiences where my view of women was severely shaken because I’d gone through this abusive relationship. When I started speaking out, I kind of assumed people would support me because people online and on Twitter are the feminist community and everyone is supportive of each other but in real life, it’s very hard for people to separate themselves from socially powerful people. He was more professionally successful than I was and every woman who was friends with him or knew him supported him and ostracised me. That really shook my sense of self, my sense of women, my sense of feminism.
I think writing for me was a way of getting empowerment and telling my own side and not shrinking back in fear when I’d really been given a lot of explicit and implicit messages to shut up and cope with it and get on with life. For me, it’s not about getting a phd or winning awards, I really want to be someone who contributes to conversation and hopefully do some good.
Speaking out about an abusive relationship is not easy. How has the overall response been to speaking out about your abusive relationship? Have Irish women got in contact to say you’ve helped them or that they’ve been in similar situations?
I’ve made friends from writing the piece on emotional abuse which sounds bizarre but I got loads of incredible responses on Twitter and people sent me messages to thank me for talking about it or that they’ve recognised those patterns. I ended up meeting with some people and speaking about their experiences. I think that’s really important.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
So I’m in my final year of a two-years Masters and if I continue studying and do a PhD, I can stay in America until I’m finished studying my PhD. I’m really not ready to leave America – being here has opened up my eyes to so many conversations that are very important to me in terms of sexuality, race and intersectionality and I think being out of Ireland has been very empowering for me because, as I mentioned, I went through a couple of traumatic experiences and I needed recovery time from that, I needed space from Ireland. I just lost my community and I really needed to figure out what I needed from people and where I could get it.
I feel inspired by the course I’m taking and it awakened an intellectual curiosity that had been a bit static while I was working on my own personal stuff, so I wanna stay! Hopefully in five years, I’ll be finishing my PhD. I don’t want to be overly optimistic and say I’ll finish it in three years like I’m a fucking crazy genius! So I’d like to be still living in America, still writing for Irish media and finished my PhD.
I’d like to have a book, I’m working on a book of essays at the moment that I was hoping to be finished at the end of the year and that’s totally not going to happen. But I am working on it. It’s about women, feminism, personal essays and how women are silenced in our culture, the messages we receive through fairy tales. So I would love if that was done and dusted – even if two copies were on shelves in a tiny bookstore somewhere!
Ultimately, I want to still be having really deep, challenging conversations – I want to be learning. If you ever get to the stage where you think you’re one of the smartest people in the room, you need to leave immediately and go somewhere that you can be the stupidest and learn from the people around you and force your brain to work harder because we should never stop learning.