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


Laurie Penny is a radical left-wing blogger and columnist, and a loudmouth Twitter pundit who often finds herself embroiled in online spats about feminism, sexism, trans rights, LGBT rights, civil liberties and politics.

The title of her new book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, appears to promote her image as a young, cutting-edge radical who's not afraid to talk about the difficult, unsavoury issues facing women and society today. Even the cover, a Gone Girl-inspired design with an embossed zip implying that Laurie will reveal the darkest depths of humanity's ills, hints at the melodrama to come.

Throughout this polemic about the way gender roles have been destroyed under market forces, Penny thrills in being provocative and dramatic. When she talks about the high proportion of men who succeed in committing suicide, she can't stop there, but has to imagine how they might do so. The hyperbole continues in her chapter "Fucked Up Girls", when, after making a sound point about the pressure on girls to appear perfect at all times, she adds: "We can preserve you as the perfect girl… with a few subtle slits for easy penetration. Ageing can and must be fought with injections and knives."

Although Penny writes about the injustice of women being labelled "attention-seeking" for speaking out in public, it is hard to see her book as anything but. Laurie seems completely at ease divulging her most personal intimacies. We learn she was expelled from ballet class as a young girl for masturbating, that she "tossed her virginity aside like a ballast", that she has slept with numerous nerdy male activists, and some women – sometimes with both at the same time. She even highlights in the introduction that there are "dirty bits", in case we want to turn to them first.

There is nothing wrong with a woman being sexually permissive, as Penny will be the first to tell you, but the transitions between passages from her personal life and polemics about sexual submission are often very abrupt. Midway through chapters we are suddenly thrown back to recollections of porn conventions, psychiatric units, Occupy protests and time spent living in squats. After a visceral passage about women's fertility still being seen as a sin against market forces, we cut straight to a first-person diary entry about flirting with a Catholic pro-lifer at a protest in Dublin. For all her many encounters with the male sex, men are continually disparaged, criticised and blamed throughout the book. Men as a group "hate and hurt women", they are socially conditioned to behave like "arseholes" and those who sexually abuse women are "evil". Penny expresses a strong resentment towards men for having more freedom and power than women.

Her version of feminism seeks to shut men out, rather than including them in the debate. It is unlikely many men would want to finish this book, which is a shame given she writes well about the social pressures they are under to behave with macho "masculinity" at all times.

As with many writers who favour radical ideals over pragmatism, Penny's arguments often seem to contradict themselves. It is hard to pinpoint what the book is really trying to say, which Penny half-admits herself in the afterword. Just like the Occupy movement she supports, her revolution has no clear narrative.