Interview with Kate Smurthwaite

Atheist, comedian and feminist, Kate Smurthwaite talks to Divya Khan about religion, sex, humour and feminism. Not necessarily in that order.

ER:   You started your career doing convertible bond research for UBS in Japan. How did you go from that to comedy and activism?

KS:   When I finished university I had no real idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to get well away from my rather miserable childhood. So I took the job that paid the most, and thus gave me the most independence straight off the bat. I didn’t really enjoy the finance industry but I don’t believe in taking a job and then doing it half-heartedly – so many comedians are reluctant to perform if there’s a small audience, but I will, and have, done my whole show with bells and whistles and costume changes to just one person. So I worked hard at the convertible bond research and I was quite successful as a result. But at the same time I was looking out for something I really wanted to do and over a period of time that became comedy and activism, which I love, it feels like the perfect job for me. It doesn’t pay as well but I have absolutely no regrets.

ER:   You’ve been very vocal about your atheism. Who can forget the legendary ‘Atheist Bitchslap‘? Whilst I tend to agree with you on the point you made so candidly on the Big Questions, why can’t atheists stop going on about God?

KS:   Religion destroys millions of lives around the world. Millions of girls are denied an education, married off against their will and forced to spend their lives in effective servitude. Adulteresses are stoned to death, children’s genitals mutilated, dissenting voices imprisoned and beaten. It’s a big deal. Even in the developed, and supposedly enlightened, world people are made to feel guilty about having sex, being gay, masturbating, having a drink or a bacon sandwich. It’s appalling. The basis for many of these things is, of course, cultural, but the obstacle to changing the culture and liberating people is always the same: “It’s my religion”.

People always claim that we should be tolerant of beliefs when they are privately held and do not interfere with the lives of others. But the reality is that religious people don’t keep it to themselves. It affects their families, who are often compelled to go along with it regardless of their actual feelings, and is generally pushed onto their children before they’re old enough to make that sort of choice for themselves.

I’d even go beyond saying I’m an atheist and call myself an anti-theist. The bottom line is that there is no God. And to say, “I know that, but I’m going to let others believe whatever they find comforting” is to really patronise people. Who really wants to live in ignorance? I don’t seek to convert people as such, I just seek to always question things, including religious beliefs. And when you do that they fall apart in seconds.

ER:   What do you think of faith schools? What do you think of religious education in state schools?   

KS:   I think politicians who support faith schools should go take a tour of Northern Ireland where segregation in schools is a driving force behind divergent community identities and decades of bloody violence. Why we would want to recreate that around the rest of the UK is beyond me, and beyond sanity.

I think schools should teach about religion from a perspective of analysing what people believe and how religions have formed, spread and developed. But it should never be presented as a credible theory for anything. School should be a place where kids learn to reason and where kids feel they can trust what their teacher says.

ER:   Can feminism and Islam co-exist? Can feminism co-exist with any religion?

KS:   No ideology can co-exist with a religion. If you really believe in an all-powerful deity you have to accept that deity could show up and tell you to kill people. If you are certain that deity could never show up, you’re an atheist. And if you think that deity would never tell you to kill, then you think you’re smart enough to know the mind of an all-powerful deity, you’re an egomaniac.

I have pretty mixed feelings about people working within religious communities to improve lives. Of course anything that eases the worst suffering is positive but it is a bit like negotiating with hostage-takers, wherever possible we should challenge them directly. My friend the brilliant campaigner Maryam Namazie from One Law For All once said, “pragmatism never changed the world.” I get a lot of anger directed at me for my atheist work but I also get a lot of messages saying, “please keep doing what you’re doing, I want to join you but my own family would ostracise or even kill me if I did, you speak for me.” So I’m not about to stop.

ER:   You’ve spilled a lot of ink over casual sexism in the tabloid press. Isn’t it a bit easy to go after the Daily Mail or the Sun?

KS:   Whatever I do someone is angry. If I criticise the left I am failing to show solidarity and if I criticise the right I am going after easy targets. The Sun is the most read paper in Britain and the Daily Mail is the most read news website in the world. If the problems with them are that obvious, they should have a lot less readers.

And yes it’s easy to find something in the Mail or the Sun to attack, the clever bit is finding an interesting, humorous way to do so. Everything’s easy if you just do a mediocre job, I work hard to create work that’s much more sophisticated than that. My new solo show, The New At Kate: My Professional Opinion is all about how we form and challenge and change opinions and I talk about a lot of media sources, even including a Daily Mail piece that I agree with.

ER:   Do you differentiate between the erotic and the pornographic in text and imagery? If so, what are your criteria? If not, how are individuals meant to celebrate their sexuality?

KS:   I think those words mean different things to different people. So they’re not the most useful way to discuss things. When I was younger ‘porn’ usually meant a bit of nudity and not much else. Nowadays if you type ‘porn’ into a search engine what comes up will include tons of racist and sexist language, graphic violence and a real emphasis on non-consent, for example women being tricked or bribed into co-operating. Of course the sort of pornographers who make this stuff argue that the violence of pornography is acting, but while the rest of the acting in porn is awful, the violence is usually incredibly realistic. Research confirms that the physical impact of appearing in this sort of ‘porn’ can be devastating.

As to the other part of the question, ‘how are individuals meant to celebrate their sexuality?’, I find that a weird question. It implies people have a right to ‘celebrate their sexuality’, but paedophiles don’t have a right to celebrate their sexuality, they have a duty to not harm children. Similarly, no one has a right to be violent, sexist or racist simply because it gives them an erection.

At the same time I’m all in favour of people being open about their sex lives and ‘celebrating’ them however they like, including creating text, images, videos, whatever. So really you could say I’m pro-porn, for a certain definition of the word, I’m just anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-violence and anti-rape. The fact that anyone would ever have to distinguish between those things is sad really, isn’t it?

ER:   You’ve campaigned to ban sex shops, prostitution, Page 3. What do you think of the argument that the reason all these things exist in the first place is because of the guilt society attaches to sex? Wouldn’t banning these things add guilt, and make us more repressed in our attitudes to sex and sexuality?

KS:   Again I think you misrepresent me. Lets go through these things systematically.

I’m keen to see the end of page three, yes. But I’m not suggesting we should ‘ban’ images of naked men or women. I just think naked breasts are not news and that inside the front cover of a newspaper is the wrong place for them. And this is compounded by the fact that they present such a narrow view of what is attractive. The paper shows men of all ages, politicians, businessmen, lawyers and sports stars doing their jobs alongside young, mostly white, mostly blond, slim women stood in their pants. It is a key part of a bigger problem our media has with the way women are represented that I’m trying to change.

When it comes to prostitution the first thing I think we should do is fully decriminalise women, and men, who sell sex. We know that often individuals end up in sex work because of either a lack of choice or because the other choices open to them are so poor. Of course we hear a lot about people “choosing” to become prostitutes. Personally when I’ve met such people (and I’ve met a lot, every TV and radio show wants me to debate with ‘happy hookers’) I’ve never been all that convinced. For example one woman told me she chose to become a prostitute when she was 12. I find it difficult to accept that her ‘choice’ to remain in the industry after she passed the age of consent represented a real, freely made choice. I’ve also worked with a lot of industry survivors who have described being trafficked, being gang-raped as a punishment for non-compliance, being violently attacked by punters and being coerced into taking drugs. Clearly telling these women that what they’re doing is against the law isn’t going to solve any problems.

I do also support the ‘Nordic model’, I think we should fine punters who pay for sex. This would dramatically reduce demand and make it unprofitable to traffic women around the world. Of course while we do so we should also ensure there are plenty of services available to help those who have become dependent on the industry to break that dependency. Drug rehab, job training, refuges, etc. It would be a disaster to take away their main source of income and leave them unable to survive. So I don’t think it would be fair to say that I’m trying to ‘ban’ prostitution in fact I’m trying to decriminalise it and simultaneously discourage demand for it.

And sex shops? I love sex shops if they’re responsibly run (ditto cafés, pubs, furniture shops). My favourite is Sh! in Hoxton Square, the staff are amazingly helpful and knowledgeable.

And yes I think we have a big big societal problem with guilt around sex. For centuries organised religions have been propagating the message that all sex is bad. But it’s actually equally dangerous, in my opinion, to respond to that by insisting that all sex is good. The anti-sex brigade talk about sexual abuse and cottaging as though they were morally equivalent when in fact one is a serious crime and the other is a legal (usually) consensual activity practiced by large numbers of men. Shaking off the guilt about sex means being able to talk about it openly – about the good, the bad and the criminal – not pretending there aren’t problems out there. The sex industry is worth billions of dollars every single day. I can’t name another billion dollar industry that doesn’t suffer from major-scale corruption, we shouldn’t blindly assume this one doesn’t.

ER:   Do you think sex and humour are largely inimical to each other? I.e., you can be funny about sex, but usually only to its detriment. Humour and sexual passion, on the other hand, rarely make good bedfellows. Why do you think this is?

KS:   I don’t agree with any of that. At all. I don’t think making jokes about sex is detrimental to sex. I think jokes are great ways of over overcoming self-consciousness and embarrassment and busting taboos and prejudices. Of course there are some comics out there making jokes about sex that reinforce stereotypes such as suggesting that promiscuous women should be ashamed. But then there are comics, including me, who ridicule that attitude and use humour to bust stereotypes.

And I find the idea that humour and sexual passion are somehow incompatible rather depressing. It makes me imagine that awful (I think, some people might like it) kind of sex where people try to recreate some sort of Hollywood scene, no talking, lots of heavy breathing, everyone perfectly made up, simultaneous orgasm then you stare into the middle distance and smoke. The best sex I’ve had in my life has always involved a lot of laughter. I think great sex relies on great communication, and great communication uses humour to great effect. And when sex isn’t the best, when something goes wrong, the alternative to seeing the funny side is hurt and resentment. I’ll take great sex and a lot of laughter any day!

 ER:   Thank you for talking with us, Kate.

Kate Smurthwaite is a comedian and activist, for more information and upcoming gig schedule please see


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