Unspeakable Things

Issue section: 

Journalist Laurie Penny’s second book, Unspeakable Things, argues that “feminism is a tool to build a better world” and that “a change of consciousness is coming that will bring sexual and social revolution”.

As with many books about the conditions of women’s lives written in the past few years, she uses the language of women’s liberation with a different meaning. Penny is not talking about “consciousness-raising” or that all women have to fight for liberation against all men.

Instead she argues that to get rid of “capitalist patriarchy… we have to talk about power, class, work, love, race, poverty and gender identity”.

This new language of feminism is influenced by the mass occupy movements, the student revolt, life under austerity, and its impact on the question of women’s oppression. She uses her confessional, and at times sentimental style, to great effect and covers many topics; including growing up, sex, sex work and pornography, abortion rights, online misogyny, activism and popular culture.

Penny finds much to be angry with, but the most powerful parts of Unspeakable Things are when she describes her own experiences, such as being sectioned with anorexia. The book has some shortcomings, and many of her arguments rely too heavily on assertions.

For instance, when discussing the poor state of sex education, Penny writes: “We are unable to provide adequate sex education in schools beyond, the sterile, the sexist and the crashingly heteronormative”.

This is a valid criticism; yet it does not explain why sex education in some schools is better than others, and how some teachers have been able to introduce progressive teaching about sex and sexuality.

Some of her arguments are questionable. She writes that for “forty thousand years of human history, biology divided men and women into different sex classes and rigid gender roles”.

Yet research, such as Eleanor Burke Leacock’s ground breaking The Myth of Male Dominance, points to different conclusions: that gender divisions arose with class society and that many cultures practised social norms that are very alien to those in western cultures.

However the central argument of the book, that socialism without women’s liberation is not worth having, is one shared by many people who are coming into radical politics.