Book Reviews / Opinion Pieces

A Review of Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution


If there is one book that you should read this year then this.is.it. No I’m serious. You need to go out and get this book straight away. As soon as I started to read the book, I couldn’t put it down. Reading Penny’s words felt like she had somehow read my mind and put my thoughts to paper.

This book, in short, could be described as a new 21st Century feminist manifesto. Penny does not mince her words, nor does she appologise for her anger or frustration. Coming from an academic background, I’ve sifted through some pretty heavy literary works and theories. Although they are powerful pieces of writing, they are inaccessible to the masses – I had to read Paul Ricoeur at least four times before I even began to understand what he was talking about. This is why Penny’s work is so powerful. Suddenly, complex and highly controversial and convoluted terms like sexism, feminism, neolibralism, and gender semantics come alive in an easy and understandable format. She even uses a few F-bombs to get her point across. And you know what? Why not?! The only way to start a conversation about gender, feminism, and sexism is to start talking about in a way that can be understood and accessed by everyone.

Unspeakable Things is a manifesto of modern day feminism, but it is also a memoir that deals with the self and self-reflection. Penny weaves throughout her narrative, personal stories and accounts from her own experiences with feminism, gender, sexism, sexual assault, and the feminist revolution. Penny is both a journalist conducting voyeuristic research and commentary as well as a main character within her own book. The balance between commentary and personal reflection is perfect. It is, after all, impossible to think of separating feminism from personal experience.

If you’re not convinced by my words, here are some amazing quotes from Penny’s book.

Penny on Feminazis and Men’s Rights Activists:

“The great obstacle to women’s progress is not men’s hate, but their fear. The ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ who organise to drown out and silence women on the internet are usually fearful, lonely creatures who are desperate to speak about gender, but only able to do so as a way of shutting women down. That expression of fear comes from a profoundly childish place, a posture which is as fascistic in it’s policing of gender roles as a playground bully, and which uses words like ‘Feminazi’ with apparent seriousness. Because fighting for equality was what the Nazis were really known for.”

I think this is a really powerful quote and it is definitely something I have experienced online and off-. That is: as soon as you start to talk about something related to gender inequality in relation to women, you are shut down, in some way, by a man trying to voice his own frustrations about gender inequality. Both discussions are important. Men and women need to, and should talk about gender inequality. But not at the expense of the other’s voice.

Penny on what feminism is:

“Feminism is not a set of rules. It is not about taking rights away from men, as if there were a finite amount of liberty to go around. There is an abundance of liberty to be had if we have the guts to grasp it for everyone. Feminism is a social revolution and a sexual revolution, and feminism is in no way content with the missionary position. It is about work, and about love, and about how one depends very much on the other. Feminism is about asking questions, and carrying on asking them even when the questions get uncomfortable.”

This is a really interesting way to talk about feminism. But, to be honest, I’m sort of tired of hearing definitions of feminism. It’s like no one is listening when it is explained to them, and so we have to speak about it  ad nauseum. I really wonder how much the feminist movement could get done if we didn’t have to define it over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Hungry women:

“Of all the female sins, hunger is the least forgivable; hunger for anything, for food, sex, power, education, even love. If we have desires, we are expected to conceal them, to control them, to keep ourselves in check. We are supposed to be objects of desire, not desiring beings… We consume only what we are told to, from lipstick to life insurance…”

I really love this and this excerpt has really made me think over the past few days. Women are constantly told to diet, stay slim, not take up too much space. Make sure you look good enough for everyone else, not for yourself. If you don’t believe me. Just think about all the times you’ve been called a slut or a bitch or ugly? I bet you most times, you had these words hurled at you because you dared to want something, to be different, to step outside your socially accepted gender roles.

Sexism and semantics. People pleasing:

“Increasingly, before we talk about misogyny, women are asked to modify our language so that we don’t hurt men’s feelings. Don’t say ‘men oppress women’ – that’s sexism, just as bad as any sexism women ever have to handle, and possibly worse. Instead, say ‘some men oppress women’. Whatever you do, don’t generalise. That’s something men do. Not all men, of course, just some men.

This type of semantic squabbling is a very effective way of getting women to shut up. After all, most of us grew up learning that being a good girl was all about putting other people’s feelings ahead of our own. We aren’t supposed to say what we think if there’s a chance it might upset somebody else, or worse, make them angry. I see this used as a silencing technique across the social justice movements with which I am associated: black people are asked to consider the feelings of white people before they speak about their own experience; gay and transsexual people are asked not to be too angry because it makes straight people feel uncomfortable. And so we start to stifle our speech with apologies, caveats and soothing sounds. We reassure our friends and loved ones that of course, you’re not one of those dudes. You’re not one of those racists, or those homophobes, or those men who hate women.

What we don’t say is: of course not all men hate women. But culture hates women, and men who grow up in a sexist culture have a tendency to do and say sexist things, often without meaning to. We aren’t judging you for who you are, but that doesn’t mean we’re not asking you to change your behaviour.  What you feel about women in your heart is of less immediate importance than how you treat them on a daily basis. You can be the gentlist, sweetest man in the world and still benefit from sexism, still hesitate to speak up when you see women hurt and discriminated against. That’s how oppression works.”

Now I know that quote was not on the short side, but I find every single word important. This is a great way to start a conversation between men and women about gender equality in relation to women’s issues.

Penny on gender inequality and masculinity:

“Women, it seems, are allowed to talk only about their gender. Men are allowed to talk about absolutely anything except their gender. Discussing what it means to be a man is tacitly forbidden in most social circles. Masculinity functions rather like the film Fight Club, in that the first rule of Man Club is that you do not talk about Man Club.”

AND:

“Patriarchy: not the rule of men, but the rule of fathers and of father figures. Most individual men don’t have a lot of power, and now the small amount of social and sexual superiority they held over women is being questioned. That mist sting. Benefiting from patriarchy doesn’t make you a bad person, although it does very little to help you be a better one. The test of character as with everyone who finds themselves in a position of power over others, is what you do with that realisation.”

The Flight Club reference really hits home for me when I think about the men I know in my life. Many of them try to express and question their masculinity and their gender roles, but are too afraid to do it with other men. If they do talk about their feelings, questions of gender roles and power, they seem to, in my experience, feel more comfortable with talking to a woman. But men need to talk to other men too. Break the Flight Club cycle.

Lastly, Penny’s ideas on freedom are just unbelievably good. It is infinite and beautiful:

“The gains that women have made in the workplace, our new relative freedom from the obligation to get married, bear children and submit to male power at home and work are framed uncomplicatedly as a loss to men and boys. It’s as if there were a fixed amount of equality in the world and giving more to women automatically meant taking it away from men. Freedom does not work like that. Freedom is one of the few things in the world that enriches the people who give it to you, even if they give it unwillingly. Men of conscience have no idea how much they will love living in a world where women are permitted to live, work and fuck as free and equal agents, in a world where humanity comes before gender.”

I really loved Penny’s book. I’m not sure, if she will ever visit this blog, but in the off chance that she does indeed find it, I just want to say:

Thank you Laurie for an amazing book. It’s the sort of thing I want to carry around with me so I can whip it out at a moments notice. The arguments are strong and I think that your writing comes from a place of frustration, but also from a place of deep concern for men and women alike across the world. Please don’t give up. I’m backing you all the way!

Have you read any of Laurie Penny’s articles or her newest book Unspeakable Things? What did you think? I would love to hear your views on writing about gender, feminism, and the new world order Penny is asking for in her book. Remember to share the reading love.

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