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Review of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution

by Laurie Penny

As with The Speed of Dark, this was a birthday gift for my friend Rebecca. I like my original review, so here’s just a few new thoughts from this second reading.

Second review: Finished on February 6, 2018

This time around, I read Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution with a slightly more critical eye. I was trying to imagine how Rebecca might see it, curious about the things that will jump out at her. I underlined and annotated and asked questions, part of our ongoing conversations about feminism and gender and society.

I still really like the second chapter, “Lost Boys”, detailing Penny’s thoughts on how patriarchy sets men against women to obscure the fact that most men have very little power in society beyond their power over women. Over the past three years, as I’ve continued my journey of learning about feminism, my understanding and positionality has evolved from, “What is privilege?” to “How do I have privilege?” to “How can I use my privilege to dismantle patriarchy?” So lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my place, as a cis man, within feminism. And I pinpoint this chapter as the origin of some of my first thoughts along these lines. I have to think about how I can use my voice to help other men understand the privilege from which they benefit and create more space within mainstream society for other genders to speak and function without fear of reprisal.

Penny’s writing remains as unapologetic, incisive, and acerbic as ever. She has a great way with words. I can understand, though, some of the critiques others have levelled at this book. It definitely emphasizes the experiences of young, white, and often middle-class women; moreover, Penny’s style sometimes leads to generalizations made more for dramatic than rhetorical effect. As a result, I can see why some readers are going to look at parts of this book and think, “No, that’s not my experience with things.” Owing to my personal amount of privilege, however, it’s really hard for me to unpack and examine and critique that on my own—so I’ll leave that to others.

I’m still really fascinated by the empathy and compassion within this book. That isn’t to say that feminists need to be nice to men. But I think it’s worthwhile examining the ways in which intersectionality and other forces, like capitalism, affects everyone’s lives. Penny concludes that feminism has always been about liberating all genders from the straitjacket that rigid gender roles and expectations put on us—and I agree with that sentiment.

Unspeakable Things is an imperfect polemic. It’s gripping and biting in places, general in some, but overall I like the way Penny grapples with these issues.

First review: Finished on July 13, 2014

This book made me angry, and definitely a little uncomfortable. However, I’m not angry with the book or with Laurie Penny. I’m angry in the sense that she outlines in chapter 2, “Lost Boys,” when she says, “Anger is an entirely appropriate response to learning that you’re implicated in a system that oppresses women but the solution isn’t to direct that anger back at women.” I’m angry at the abuse and suffering women undergo in our society; I’m angry that as a man I’m expected to act in ways that, directly or indirectly, facilitate such suffering. And I’m uncomfortable because Penny discusses painful and, as the title promises, Unspeakable Things. This book is part-catharsis, part–rallying cry, and it’s entirely polemical and political in a brilliant way.

“This is a feminist book. It is not a cheery instruction manual for how to negotiate modern patriarchy, with a sassy wink and a thumbs-up.” From the very first page of the introduction, Penny lays her cards on the table and is absolutely clear about what to expect from Unspeakable Things. And so, from that first page, I found myself nodding along in agreement. I’ve taken a more active interest in gender issues for years now, so I’m relatively familiar with the concepts, the ideas, the jargon. Hence, I’m not going to claim that the average reader will have the same reaction to page one as I did. But that doesn’t matter, because the point of the book is that it gradually and carefully lays out an argument for why all of us—men, women, and other genders—need to talk about these things. It’s all there in the title: Penny’s concern is that there are people on both sides of these issues of sex and gender who are trying to shut the discussion down. There are certain things too sensitive, too sacred, that we just shouldn’t talk about them. We need to shut them away, maybe so we can “protect the children.” This silencing is implicit, codified in the way we socialize men and women through upbringing and schooling and media, as well as explicit, waged as attacks, physical and verbal, against women and their allies in print and digital media. In many ways, Unspeakable Things isn’t about defining or recapitulating particular notions of feminism so much as it is an exponent of free speech in a feminist way. This is a powerful and, for some people, scary idea. But Penny’s writing is more than equal to the challenge of being accessible while still avoiding the pitfalls of popular non-fiction. As she promises in the introduction, this is not one of those cheeky books written and published under the banner of new feminist success stories, guides and tell-alls about how to “have it all” in the world of work and childrearing. Rather, this is a frank polemic. As I said at the beginning, it is painful and discomfiting, and if it doesn’t stir you to anger, then you’re reading it wrong.

It would be ironic if I tried to describe what every reader, including women readers, would get from this book. I can’t even claim to speak for all men. But let me describe my reaction, as someone whose external appearance and performance of gender means I receive a great deal of privilege in this society. One reason that this book just works so well for me is how Penny seems to have made a conscious effort to address as diverse an audience as possible. In my case, I of course identified with that second chapter, in which she chronicles the detrimental effects of patriarchy on men. Penny systematically dismantles the argument that feminism is something that benefits only women. This is perhaps one of the most pernicious and pervasive myths about feminism that make many people, men and women, balk at discussing it or embracing it. But once again, Penny states it loudly and clearly for all to hear:

Feminism has never just been about liberating women from men, but about freeing every human being from the straitjacket of gender oppression. For the first time, men and boys as a whole are starting to realise how profoundly messed up masculinity is—and to ask how they might make it different.

In particular, Penny argues that patriarchy does not actually benefit many men, just those at the top. The oppression of women is, in part, a sop to men who actually have very little power otherwise—their power over women and children essentially there to compensate their relative powerlessness in other spheres of society. And she highlights the way media often portray men in hyper-masculine ways. It’s not just women who suffer at the hands of commercials, music, film, television. Men too find expectations thrust upon them as a consequence of their gender. Men, just like women, were bound by certain rituals of etiquette and unspoken codes of conduct (the difference being that men, unlike women, experienced more perks under this system) and were punished unduly for deviating. This has started to change recently—but the fact remains that some people seem terrified by the idea that some men don’t want to pursue women, don’t want to view them as objects, don’t want to act in macho and masculine ways. These same people are terrified by the idea that women are more than bodies, that they want autonomy over their lives, that they might want to act more like men—or, indeed, cleave to a very feminine identity without the baggage of the male gaze attached to such expression. This is where my anger enters the picture again: I’m normally an easygoing person, but the concept that some people would seek to circumscribe the rights and privileges of the rest of us in order to satisfy their own fucked up idea of “normality” is more than just messed up. It’s actually sickening, the extent to which people will hurt one another simply because they don’t conform to certain ideas about gender.

So in this way, I can empathise with the first chapter, “Fucked-Up Girls,” as well as the second one. I can’t know exactly what it’s like for women to experience the abuse and oppression, the pressure they endure in the face of countless signals from society about how they should behave around each other and around men. Yet I have some very good reasons for wanting to make the world a more equitable place, one where people of any gender have more equal privileges. There is a small but nonzero probability that one day I will reproduce, and that the child I have will identify as a woman. And though this merely possible future, I’m human enough to feel twinges of anger and sorrow that this child could find her life difficult and painful merely because she doesn’t conform to the allowable parameters of womanhood. On a more immediate note, I have a fair number of women friends. I care for them. So the idea that this is what they experience, whether it’s daily or occasionally or almost never at all, is unconscionable.

You have to be a pretty lousy person to want to perpetuate a system that actively harms half of humanity and subtly oppresses the other half.

So throughout the book, there was this undercurrent of anger mixed with genuine distress as I read. Penny has come much closer than many other feminist writers in helping me understand how some women feminists do call for more radical actions and imagine futures without men. Thanks to the Internet, women have so many ways of expressing this anger and sharing the stories of their oppression. And this anger is legitimate and painful, as it should be, and the proper response is not to shut it down or attempting to speak over it but instead to step back and acknowledge it. However, what makes Unspeakable Things all the more impressive is the way Penny balances this anger with a resilient empathy. As bleak as it might get, she always insists that there is a way forward in which all actors, women as well as allies, can benefit and work together for a better future. Amidst what is otherwise a somewhat stark view of the current state of women online and in the developed world, this hopeful message is a welcome beacon of light.

I’m not going to break this book down chapter-by-chapter, as much as I’d like to—this review is already getting long enough. But I do want to talk about the major themes of the last chapters. In particular, in “Cybersexism” Penny looks at how the Internet is influencing attitudes towards sex and sexuality. I spend a great deal of time online and am very invested in the Internet’s role in our world, so I found this fascinating. And in many ways, our attitudes towards sex and sexuality—and how and when we are permitted to discuss those things—are major artifacts of our gendered society.

Penny reviews how the Internet has been a boon and a bane for women’s self-expression, offering new spaces for speech while also throwing up the potential for anonymous trolls to come along and shame, silence, and threaten. She also mentions porn, and the conflicted and complicated relationship sex work in general has with feminism. Canada is currently in the process of attempting to recodify our criminal laws regarding sex work, and it’s difficult. It’s not something I know enough about to comment on in more detail, but I really enjoyed reading Penny’s thoughts on the subject.

Above all else, these chapters on love in the age of cyberspace showcase Penny’s anticapitalist approach to feminism. The Internet makes it that much easier for corporations to sell certain visions of sex and sexuality to people. They do this not because these visions are natural, normal, or just; they do this because they want to make money. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” became a sensation last year, and like many songs, it’s catchy until you look at the lyrics. So it attracted a fair amount of criticism and no shortage of defenders, male and female. In response to accusations of sexism, these defenders asserted that Thicke’s song actually promotes the “liberation” of women’s sexuality, that he’s encouraging her to express herself in ways that are not necessarily traditional. Alas, this counterargument misses the point. It doesn’t matter that a man is singing a song about women being more proactive in their sexuality. This is still a song about a man telling a woman what type of sexual expression he wants to see from her, what behaviour on her part gratifies him. This is the trap into which we too often fall when discussing sex and media: even so-called “sex positive” campaigns are still pressing upon us a specific model of sexuality that we are expected to follow. We haven’t won as long as media continue to sell us specific versions of permissible sexual expression; we will have won when media acknowledges that any expression is as good as the next, that there is no one true way to act in order to be happy or successful. And of course, this is not compatible with capitalism, which relies on the propagation of uncertainty and materialistic desire in order to create profits.

This thread of anticapitalist sentiment is present throughout the entire book. As with her declaration that Unspeakable Things is a feminist book, Penny makes not apologies for this stance (nor should she). She recognizes, rather, that for feminism to succeed it must be political and radical and that we won’t have gender equity until we dismantle this system. I think feminists who fail to view intersectionality as crucial to their endeavour are shortsighted. Penny acknowledges the importance of race but doesn’t spend too much time speaking about it; from her personal experiences she declares herself more able to discuss the class-based inequities that reinforce gender inequity. And this, in turn, links back to what I said earlier about that resilient empathy. While Penny does not mince words as she chronicles the hurts of sexism and misogyny, she also offers hope. In addition to her call for more frank discussions about these things that we would rather sweep under the carpet, Penny calls for a more permissive society, one in which we are not so constrained in our actions by our sex, gender, race, class, or any other label we are saddled with. This single element, among all the other reasons I like this book, is its best feature.

I won’t hesitate to say that Unspeakable Things is one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of the best feminist books I’ve ever read. I’ve followed Penny on Twitter for a while now and enjoy her New Statesman posts, but it’s good to have a tangible object I can recommend or give as a gift. And I do recommend it. This is a book everyone should read. Hopefully it will make you thoughtful, and if it also makes you a little angry, then that’s a good thing too. Anger can stir one to action, and it’s through action that we can help dismantle the system that oppresses us and build a better world. Or, you know, not. More likely we’ll fail in the process of trying. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Sexism and misogyny might be the way the world is, but it is not the way the world should be.


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