June 21, 2023 - 10:30am

Paris Lees has no idea what it feels like to be a girl. Of course not: Lees’s experience as a teenage boy, selling sex to predatory older men, tells us nothing about how girls feel about anything. Now the BBC has issued a gushing press release about its decision to turn Lees’s memoir, What It Feels Like For A Girl, into an eight-part drama series. It promises to deliver “a journey of love and danger, self-discovery and self-destruction”, without acknowledging that literally half the population is better qualified than Lees to say anything about the subject. 

Just to be clear, Lees is a transwoman. His biological sex is very much the issue here, so I’m not going to pretend he is a woman, any more than I do when writing about Eddie Izzard. The memoir is a fictionalised account of growing up in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, where Lees suffered horrendous homophobic abuse. It is a legitimate subject for a book but its premise, that Lees always “knew” he was really a girl, repeats a highly controversial tenet of gender ideology. 

One of the most striking things about Lees is his attachment to a very outdated, sexist view of what it means to be a woman. “Last summer I went to Ibiza, where I was catcalled, sexually objectified and treated like a piece of meat by men the entire week. And it was absolutely awesome,” he once wrote. Lees’s selling point is that he supposedly says things women secretly think but don’t want to admit, such as liking the most demeaning forms of male attention. It’s hard not to see the influence of pornography, a multi-million-dollar industry that sells the idea that women enjoy being reduced to their body parts.

Worse, however, is that Lees claims a right to representation: “So yeah, I’m a bit of a slut. I also used to be a prostitute. And before that, well, a boy. Uh-huh. And I’m a total attention junkie. So I may — may — not represent all women. Who does, though?” I’ve never met a woman who claims to represent all women, but we do have some things in common, such as growing up as girls who have to learn to deal with street harassment.

In one of the most disturbing passages of his memoir, Lees writes about being taken to some woods by one of the “dirty old men” who paid him for sex, where around 15 men vied to touch him sexually — and he “loved it”. I can’t imagine a teenage girl being anything but terrified in this situation, and I’m not surprised that Lees subsequently had to deal with all sorts of destructive emotions, including shame and self-hatred. 

But what the BBC describes as “a rollercoaster ride of hedonism at the heart of the UK’s early 2000s club scene” ended in Lees robbing a “client”, stealing his bank card and emptying his bank account. At the age of 18, he served eight months of a two-year sentence in a young offenders’ institution. 

Being a girl — the biological kind, I mean — has seldom been more problematic. Eating disorders and gender dysphoria are expressions of extreme anxiety about having a female body and the changes that come with puberty. Detransitioners have plenty to say about that, but the BBC has an apparently endless appetite for making programmes that recycle the claims of trans activists. If the corporation is really interested in what it means to be a girl, maybe it could ask one?

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.