Sara Pascoe talks sperm wars, veganism and writing in bed
Your new book, Animal, is wide ranging not only in terms of subject matter but also in its tone. Is it how you originally conceived it?
[Laughs] Oh you mean, is it a massive failure? No, I wanted it to be funny all the way through! Yeah absolutely.
I think the beauty of stand-up comedy, which is my proper job, is that you can be very light, so it was quite enjoyable to then switch it round. Rather than writing on and on about very intense subjects I wanted to lighten the tone afterwards, so it’s been good to be able to do both things.
I enjoyed writing jokes and having silly ideas and silly theories about a serious topic. When I'm doing stand-up, I don't often get to be serious and say ‘this is something we really need to think about, don’t we?’ and just let it sit there. I wanted to keep changing the tempo.
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The book reads as a quite personal biography…
Yes, the introductions are always about me, before the anthropology comes in. I introduce myself to the reader because I’m not assuming that they know anything about me or my job and things like that. I wanted to use very subjective or personal examples to back up the science.
There were a lot of science book that already described evolution, though not necessarily from the female side, but I wanted this one to be easy to read for an absolute lay reader.
I was thinking in my head, ‘if a 14-year-old picked this up, or was bought it by a parent, would they still be able to understand the science?’ I needed to make sure it was attached to something personal so that there was a personal drama going on at the same time.
Sara Pascoe performing her stand-up. Image via Standard Issue
You’re very open and frank, so we get a sense of the life events that shaped Sara Pascoe. Did you have to persuade a lot of people to let you do this?
There were a couple of moments in the book where I acknowledge that my editor was asked, ‘do you really wanna put this in?’ I’ve got a really fantastic agent and she just reminded me that if I put something down on paper or in an interview, then it exists forever.
For example, I’ve never had kids but if you said you’d had post natal depression, then that might then be brought up in every other interview that you do until you might wish you’d never brought it up.
It’s about thinking whether you’d want to stand by what you’d said in five years time, ten years time or when you’re 60. Would I have still wanted this to have existed or will I wish I’d been more private?
I did have to check with myself, which is good to do.
You talk about the history of your relationships; are they all real names?
I had to disguise some people because apparently there’s a law about privacy [laughs]. I had a couple of quite funny stories that I would have liked to put in but the people were too recognisable. Not as in, ‘oh it was Jonathan Ross’, but because anyone who maybe went to the same drama club would have known who the person was. So you do have to be careful, you do have to change things.
"Would I have still wanted this to have existed when I'm 60 or will I wish I’d been more private?"
The situation is always the same, but this way you can’t guess the names.
Do you think we tend to pick the explanations about evolution that suit our prejudices?
Of course. I think we can’t help that. And that’s the problem, even with scientists. I’ve tried to be very open about my subjectivity in the book. If something matches my experience then, of course, I'll think that theory is superior.
Because they’re qualified, scientists will say ‘this is the truth’ and when they write their books they don’t always tend to say ‘but actually there’s also another theory’.
What I’ve tried to do is say, ‘here’s five different perspectives on why women have breasts’ and not say ‘I think it’s this one, let’s move on’. Because I’m not a scientist, I’ve asked lots more questions, because I don’t have to be right about it.
Image via Dulwich On View
Not being a scientist also means you can have a section in your book where your left breast talks to your right breast…
Yes, you don’t get that as much from the people with the PHDs! [She laughs] I remember when I sent that little play script to my editor, he asked, ‘um where um where we you thinking about this going?’
You talk about the destructive Victorian attitudes to female sexuality in Animal
Obviously, they weren’t evil men who wanted to oppress or suppress female sexuality, but they lived in a very restrictive culture that had a certain idea of what women were. That couldn’t help but filter through into their views, and they were setting the groundwork for everyone who came after them.
After evolution was discovered, it was always told from the male perspective and they ignored a lot of the stuff that happens with both female animals and female human beings.
I loved reading the science behind sperm wars…
I’d read a book called Sex at Dawn and that described sperm competition or sperm selection, and lots and lots of different animals have a form of this. In human beings, men have two kinds of sperm. There’s kamikaze sperm, who fight or block and then ‘egg getters’, which as you’d expect, fertilise the egg.
It’s all programmed by the male body before ejaculation. The man’s body will make the decision about what he’ll need in terms of warriors or fertilisers. It’s like Sci-Fi.
They have them because male sperm has always had to compete with other male sperm, which stays alive for between three and five days inside the woman. So that means that in the past, women were having more than one partner. I read that thinking, ‘hang on a minute, I was brought up to believe that women are more interested in the cuddling after sex than the sex itself.’
There were a lot of passive negative messages that I hadn’t even learned to question yet in my late twenties/early thirties. I suddenly realised that this meant that my forbearers would have had sex with more than one man in order to have healthier children and so [mock gasps] women have always had this sexuality that we just haven’t been understanding properly.
Sara answers Twitter's questions on Veganism
Do you find as you get older than you’re less certain about where you stand on everything?
I think that’s part of always wanting to learn more. When you think you’re right you stop looking for information and that happens in whatever area you’re interested in, whether science, politics or literature.
There’s something about telling yourself that you’re stupid or that you’re going to be wrong that keeps you thirsty. Once you’ve changed your mind a few times you realise ‘oh I just didn’t know as much, and now I know this I think something different’.
I flim flam and I try never to say that I’m right. I love being around young people who just instinctually, morally, know right and wrong. I think when I was 15 I was much harder about things, thought more things were non-negotiable. Part of wanting to get on with people as you age is wanting to discover why they think certain ways and came to their opinions on things.
I got the feeling reading the book, that animal welfare is close to your heart
It’s very, very close to my heart because I’m a vegan. It’s very difficult to talk about in comedy because I don’t ever want to tell people what to do. It’s just an empathy thing.
I think some people think of animals like people and so the idea of an animal being scared, or hurt, or farmed in an upsetting way, makes them want to cry. Other people can say ‘no, no, that’s a cow. That’s separate to me, it’s pain doesn’t matter.’
I don’t know that that’s necessarily a choice. Some people think about it and decide they’re okay with it, some people don't.
"It’s very difficult to talk about being a vegan in comedy"
When I was researching the book I learned a lot about animal testing, especially on rats. In one experiment they made female rats have bad sex with male rats and make sure the rats smelled like lemon. So they’d put lemon on the rats and make them very stressed and then essentially force them to have sex in a cage.
Then, the female rat would then be put around lots of male rats, and she would never have sex with ones that smelled like lemon. From this they deduced evidence of conditioning: If you have a bad sexual experience, you try not to go there again. And they decided that was the same for human beings.
I’ve got so many questions. First, why are you being so horrible to rats? This is awful, the whole idea of cages and forced sex. They do it with apes too.
I didn’t mention any animal experiments in the book because I don’t think it’s transferable, and often I don’t think they should be funded. But that’s my opinion so I try to pepper it in without going on a proper rant about it.
Animal is your first book. Has the experience of writing it encouraged you to write more?
Yes. I’ve definitely learned a lot about how much space you need in your life to write a book. With stand-up, you have an idea, you scribble it in a pad, you work it out on stage, try it a few times and it’s always in front of an audience so it’s an on going process. Audiences tell you what they like and what they don’t so they edit for you constantly.
At home, on the computer, you only have your inner monologue and that can be really negative [laughs]. I’ve gotten really obsessed with writer’s routines because you can find a lot of them on the Internet. I heard that Hemmingway always stood up, and started drinking at 11 so I thought ‘ooh I’ll try that’. There’s a lot of people saying you should get up really early in the morning, hit your word count and then the day is yours. If you’re having a good day then you can just carry on.
I found, though, that nothing every applied. If I got up early I felt sick so I ended up just lying down in bed, typing in a really relaxed way. If I couldn’t work out how to write something properly I’d just write ‘something here about bums’ [laughs] and make it red so I knew it wasn’t finished.
I wrote it in a very scrapbook, not author way.