Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, by Laurie Penny

“If you’re not outraged, then you’re just not paying attention.” – (Attribution unclear)

Feminism has gotten a bad reputation, even worst than it used to have. We live in a society in which women actually reject the label or post to tumblr blogs like Women Against Feminism. We need feminism more than ever. Those of us who proudly identify as feminists need to spread the word that feminism is for everyone. It’s not about taking power from one group and giving it to another. It’s about shaking loose from the lies we’ve all been told about how to be women and men, what we should want, and how we should get it. In Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, Laurie Penny opens her readers’ eyes to the state of gender in the Western World. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.

20613624The first two chapters of Unspeakable Things, “Fucked-Up Girls” and “Lost Boys,” make it clear that we feminists are facing systemic, insidious problems. Both genders are told that in order to be Real Women and Real Men, they have to dress a certain way and look a certain way and act a certain way and expect that their life will follow a certain narrative. The reason we’re all so miserable—especially if you’re not cisgender—and medicated and and angry is because none of us fit the molds. Instead of finding a new narrative for how to live, we are told that there’s something wrong with us or told to find someone to blame. We’re all victims of the patriarchy. Penny makes it clear that we’ve also been misunderstanding that term. Patriarchy doesn’t mean oppression by men; it means oppression by father figures. A few people have real power in our society and we’re letting them set the rules. And, for some reason, we keep letting them and keep policing ourselves when one of us steps out of line.

In “Anticlimax,” Penny writes that sex isn’t the problem. Sexism is the problem. Having sex and enjoying it are not problem—how we think about and talk about sex is the problem. Penny frequently shares vignettes from her work, personal, and sex lives to illustrate her points and she is proudly, even gleefully, pro-sex. Women, she points out, are told to shun sex because 1) if we get pregnant our life is over and 2) people will call us sluts. (Penny wants to reclaim the word “slut.”) We’re told not to dress provocatively or go certain places or walk at night alone or we’ll meet with violence. On the other hand, we’re also told that we need to conform to Western standards of beauty or no one will love us. It’s violence on one hand and neglect on the other. Chapter four, “Cybersexism,” continues somewhat in this vein, but goes on to point how the so-called frontier of the Internet has not turned out to be the utopia we all wanted.

The last chapter, “Love and Lies,” hit me the hardest because it confronted me with something I hadn’t thought about before. Though I’ve been lucky enough to miss much of the blatant misogyny many women face, I’ve still bought into the myth of what Penny called Love(TM). Little in the other chapters of Unspeakable Things came as much of a surprise to me. But I’ve been hurt by Love(TM). Penny reveals that while she has fallen in Love(TM)—the traditional monogamist relationship of woman and man—she feels more at home, more like herself in polyamorist or homosexual relationships. By expecting traditional romantic love, Love(TM), to make us all happy, we’re all setting ourselves up for disappointment. We need to focus more on discovering who we really are and what will really make us happy.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Penny addresses this in her Afterword. Any to-do list would be a comforting fiction. Even to say that we need to stop accepting the pressures and lies society places on us is extremely difficult. I suppose what we can do is speak up. We should speak up when we see sexism. We should speak up when we see injustice. Most of all, we should point out when lies and pressures are being repeated. Feminism and our fight for real equality is far from over.

I worry that this book will be ignored by the people who most need to read it. It’s certainly going to be misquoted and deliberately misunderstood by anti-feminists. I also wonder how effective this book will be among feminists. Unspeakable Things will provide a needed charge of outrage and indignation. But it’s so wearying to fight sexism and anti-feminism all the time. I suppose this last makes speaking up even more important. By being vocal more often, maybe we can give a boost to the feminists who’ve been worn out and burnt out.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 16 September 2014.

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