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Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution
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Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution

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by Laurie Penny

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Shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize 2014

Smart, clear-eyed, and irreverent, Unspeakable Things is a fresh look at gender and power in the twenty-first century, which asks difficult questions about dissent and desire, money and masculinity, sexual violence, menial work, mental health, queer politics, and the Internet.

Celebrated journalist


Shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize 2014

Smart, clear-eyed, and irreverent, Unspeakable Things is a fresh look at gender and power in the twenty-first century, which asks difficult questions about dissent and desire, money and masculinity, sexual violence, menial work, mental health, queer politics, and the Internet.

Celebrated journalist and activist Laurie Penny draws on a broad history of feminist thought and her own experience in radical subcultures in America and Britain to take on cultural phenomena from the Occupy movement to online dating, give her unique spin on economic justice and freedom of speech, and provide candid personal insight to rally the defensive against eating disorders, sexual assault, and internet trolls. Unspeakable Things is a book that is eye-opening not only in the critique it provides, but also in the revolutionary alternatives it imagines.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Latoya Peterson
…Penny is an elegant writer, and she deconstructs the issues of the day with an eye to how neoliberalism has filtered into our intimate relationships…The book feels freshest when Penny explores her own vulnerabilities—coping with the public eye, awkwardly engaging on the Internet, dating other activists…In such sections, Unspeakable Things deftly examines the shifting meanings of sex and gender in Western cultures and unpacks as many lies as it can identify.
Publishers Weekly
★ 06/23/2014
Journalist and activist Penny (Meat Market) combines unsparing autobiography and searing political analysis in her latest book; the result is a powerful feminist polemic that critiques the structure of society. Though she adopts a radical perspective, Penny avoids the usual hectoring that overvalues the politics of the personal, and she makes it clear that, as a feminist, she’s not interested in how women dress or whether they wear makeup. Instead, Penny tackles broad issues of gender and sexuality. The first two chapters provide a masterful analysis of the place of both women and men in society, and later chapters present Penny’s brilliant views on sexuality and “cybersexism.” The author incorporates rich personal narratives that serve as reminders of the injuries inflicted on individuals by the social problems under discussion. The book is chilling and accessible, a majestic treasury of ghost stories that are, in fact, all too real. Penny has given us a feminist book for our time that burns with a wild light and deserves attention. Agent: Juliet Pickering, Blake Friedmann (U.K.) (Sept.)
From the Publisher

“[Penny's] work on protest movements, sex, and desire has been at the forefront of feminist writing of the last few years.” —Bitch

“Laurie Penny is already a respected commentator . . . She balances sophisticated theorising with the anecdotal . . . An exceptional writer with a shark-bite wit.” —The Independent on Meat Market

“Incisive… A fascinating read.” —Feministing.com on Meat Market

“Penny writes in raw, engaging prose about how blogging was a liberation from her troublesome teenage body, about the joys of being a geek, and--most interestingly--about what it is like to be on the receiving end of sexist abuse . . . A worthwhile and provocative read.” —The Observer on Cybersexism

Kirkus Reviews
A British columnist and gender activist's gutsy analysis ofhow neoliberal capitalism has taken the "ideals of freedom" and transformedthem into "strategies of social [and sexual] control."The global financial collapse of 2008 revealed that neitherthe market nor the mainstream feminism that claimed to have made inroads intoit was woman-friendly. The violence that accompanied the Occupy movement threeyears later only confirmed the radical inequality that underlay the social,political and economic systems of the developed world. In this book, whichseeks to smash "the machinery" of 21st-century neoliberalcapitalism, New Statesmancontributing editor Penny (Meat Market:Female Flesh Under Capitalism, 2008, etc.) examines the current state offeminism in a money- and power-obsessed world. Drawing on her experiences withanorexia and mental illness, she explores the impact of "good girl" narrativesof perfection on women, who are expected to cultivate their "erotic capital"rather than their talents to succeed both socially and financially. Men, whomthe author sees as plagued by confusion, self-hatred and self-doubt, also sufferunder neoliberal capitalist tyranny. A bisexual woman living and loving on theedges of both British and American cultures, Penny observes that inter- andcross-gender relationships form the basis of the "ritual dehumanization" andobjectification of women by men. Since neither females nor males are free frommisogynist ideology, neither finds true sexual fulfillment or freedom. The onepossible space of liberation is the Internet. Through its emphasis on thewritten word, it allows women the promise of temporary release from the "weightand anxiety" of the female body. Fraught as it is with the visual lures ofpornography and the dangers of bullying and stalking, cyberspace is still aplace where revolutionary new forms of personal, sexual and political networking/organizingcan take place, helping to overcome prevailing sexist social and economicsystems.Spirited, intellectually sexy reading.

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
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Read an Excerpt

Unspeakable Things

Sex, Lies and Revolution

By Laurie Penny


Copyright © 2014 Laurie Penny
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-689-2


This is not a fairy tale.

This is a story about how sex and money and power put fences around our fantasies. This is a story about how gender polices our dreams. Throughout human history, the most important political battles have been fought on the territory of the imagination, and what stories we allow ourselves to tell depend on what we can imagine.

Women, like any oppressed class, learn to fear our own rage. Our anger is legitimately terrifying. We know that if it ever gets out, we might get hurt, or worse, abandoned. One sure test of social privilege is how much anger you get to express without the threat of expulsion, arrest, or social exclusion, and so we force down our rage like rotten food until it festers and sickens us.

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. It is not a charming, comforting book about sex and shopping and shoes. I am unable to write any such thing. I cannot force a smile for you. As a handbook for happiness in a fucked-up world, this book cannot be trusted.

Nor is this an academic study – it's a polemic grounded in research, experience and years of writing and campaigning on the queer and feminist scenes in Britain and America and online. I have seen enough women shamed for speaking of rape or threatened with death for seeking basic reproductive healthcare; enough men beaten or bullied to suicide for not acting straight enough; enough people of both sexes and every gender driving themselves to despair in order to live up to stereotypes of success that they never chose.

This is a book about love and sex in austerity, about gender under neoliberalism. 'Neoliberalism' refers to the attempt to reorganise society and the state on the basis of an ideal of 'the market'. Neoliberalism proclaims that the logic of business and money is the best determinant of human happiness. Neoliberalism also says that human beings can't be trusted, so the market must necessarily dictate what the people want. Every category of human interaction, therefore – from the public sector to the intimate adventures of love and lust – must be made to work more like a market, with in-built competitive mechanisms and cost controls. Every personal choice, including democratic choice, must be subsumed into the logic of the market: flesh itself can be remoulded for profit.

We are told that this is what liberty looks like. Neoliberalism is an attempt to build a 'Machinery of Freedom', in the words of David Friedman, in which human beings are economic creatures first and foremost. Everything we do should be about 'maximising utility', whether it's in a relationship, in a job, or in social situations. The self is just an entrepreneurial project. The body is just human capital, a set of resources – whether the brain, the breasts or the biceps – which can be put to work generating an income stream.

This affects everyone – but women most of all. Women are more likely than men to perform labour that is socially necessary but low waged or unwaged, and more likely to need public services and welfare. In this nominally freer and more equal world, most women end up doing more work, for less reward, and feeling pressured to conform more closely to gender norms.

Neoliberalism, while extolling the 'career woman', reviles poor women, women of colour, sex workers and single mothers as hopeless dependants, sluts and thieves. That's why the 'career woman' is a neoliberal hero: she triumphs on the market's own terms without overturning any hierarchies.

The 'career woman' is the new aspirational ideal for young girls everywhere: she is a walking CV, her clothing, make-up and cosmetic-surgery choices merely means of upgrading her 'erotic capital' to generate more income for herself or her boss. She is always beautiful, invariably white, and almost entirely fictional. Nonetheless, it is her freedom that is prioritised, as states across the world cut services and provisions for poor women while championing the cause of 'women in boardrooms'. Neoliberalism colonises our dreams. It cannibalises our ideals offreedom and regurgitates them as strategies of social control.

This is a feminist book in that it raises feminist politics as a solution to the colonisation of the most essential of our passions by money and hegemony. It also has dirty bits. If you're only interested in those, skip to pages 231–4.

I started writing this book in the middle of a student occupation, curled up with the laptop on my knees while young people staggered in bruised and shaken, having seen their friends cuffed and beaten for daring to stand in front of their parliament building and demand a better future. I wrote the rest in notebooks, in strange apartments above occupied public squares as police and protesters clashed on the wasted dreamscapes of neoliberalism. I watched the young naive middle-class women and men of the twenty-first century learn the true nature of the world they live in. I watched all this happening, and I believe that there is hope. I believe that if anything can save us in this fraught and dazzling future, it is the rage of women and girls, of queers and freaks and sinners. I believe that the revolution will be feminist, and that when it comes it will be more intimate and more shocking than we have dared to imagine.

This book will not help you find a man, fix your hair or keep your job. This is a book about love and sex, beauty and disgust, power and passion and technology. It is a book about the intimate territory of unrest. I wrote it in unfamiliar cities, in conversation with teenage runaways, radical feminists, anarchists, hipster kids, sex workers, mad artists, convicted criminals, transsexual activists and sad young women in small towns longing for adventure.

This is for the others, as one of the others, as one of those who will never be satisfied with good enough, with free enough, with equality for some. This is for the unspeakable ones, the unnatural ones, the ones who upset people. Who do not do as they are told. Who speak when they shouldn't and refuse to smile when they are supposed on demand. Who are weird and always want too much. If you're one of those, or think you might be, this book's for you.


Why does mainstream feminism remain so tepid and cowardly?

The notion that feminism matters and has much work to do is no longer a minority opinion. After decades of tentative acquiescence, women and girls and their allies across the world have begun to speak out to demand a better deal, not just in law but in practice. They have begun to challenge rape culture, slut-shaming, sexual violence. They have begun to fight for reproductive injustice and against the systemic poverty that has always fallen heaviest on women and particularly upon mothers. As finance capitalism faltered following the near-collapse of the global stock markets in 2008, the notion that one day all women would be able to make empowering choices within a market that respected their goals and autonomy was exposed as a twenty-year-old fairy tale.

The feminism that has mattered to the media and made magazine headlines in recent years has been the feminism most useful to heterosexual, high-earning middle- and upper-middle-class white women. Public 'career feminists' have been more concerned with getting more women into 'boardrooms', when the problem is that there are altogether too many boardrooms, and none of them are on fire.

There was an understanding that gender liberation, like wealth, would somehow 'trickle down'. The flaw in this plan, of course, was that it was arrant bollocks. Feminism, like wealth, does not trickle down, and while a small number of extremely privileged women worry about the glass ceiling, the cellar is filling up with water, and millions of women and girls and their children are crammed in there, looking up as the flood creeps around their ankles, closes around their knees, inches up to their necks.

Just when it should be most radical, 'public feminism' has become increasingly concerned with a species of thin-lipped censoriousness that posits sex, rather than sexism, as the real problem. The feminist campaigns that attract the most attention and funding are those concerned with stamping out pornography, ending prostitution and preventing the sale of suggestive T-shirts.

This is a discourse that treats women as victims not just of our admittedly hugely fucked-up erotic culture, but of sex itself, without properly understanding the nature of commercial sexuality or of objectification. Sexism is apparently not the problem: the problem is sex, the nature of it, the amount of it that's being had away from moralising eyes, sometimes for money.

We were lied to. The women of my generation were told that we could 'have it all', as long as 'it all' was marriage, babies and a career in finance, a cupboard full of beautiful shoes and terminal exhaustion – and even that is only an option if we're rich, white, straight and well behaved. These perfect lives would necessarily rely on an army of nannies and care-workers, and nobody has yet bothered to ask whether they can have it all.

We can have everything we want as long as what we want is a life spent searching for exhausting work that doesn't pay enough, shopping for things we don't need and sticking to a set of social and sexual rules that turn out, once you plough through the layers of trash and adverts, to be as rigid as ever.

As for young men, they were told they lived in a brave new world of economic and sexual opportunity, and if they felt angry or afraid, if they felt constrained or bewildered by contradictory expectations, by the pressure to act masculine, make money, demonstrate dominance and fuck a lot of pretty women while remaining a decent human being, then their distress was the fault of women and minorities. It was these grasping women, these homosexuals and people of colour who had taken away the power and satisfaction that was once their birthright as men. We were taught, all of us, that if we were dissatisfied, it was our fault, or the fault of those closest to us. We were built wrong, somehow. We had failed to adjust. If we showed any sort of distress, we probably needed to be medicated or incarcerated, depending on our social status. There are supposed to be no structural problems, just individual maladaption.

The world has changed for women and queers as much as it possibly could without upsetting the underlying structure of society, which is still sexist, homophobic and misogynist, because it relies for its continued existence on sexual control, on social inequality and on the unpaid labour of women and girls. Further change will require more ambition than we have hitherto been permitted. Further change will require us to speak what is unspoken, to refuse to accept the world as it is. It will require us to ask big, challenging questions about the nature of work and love, sex and politics, and to be prepared for the answers to be different from what we had expected. That is what this book attempts to do.

I am twenty-seven years old; I do not know all the answers. But I think I know some of the questions, and it is questions that interest me more.

Asking questions is the authority of the young, and it's the first thing girls are told not to do. Don't put your hand up in class, or the boys will shout you down. Don't talk back to your teachers, to your parents, to the police. Asking questions is dangerous.

For forty thousand years of human history, biology divided men and women into different sex classes and rigid gender roles. Then, two or three generations ago – an eyeblink in the long dream of human history – technology moved forwards and allowed women to escape the constraints of reproductive biology just after movements across the world had succeeded in gaining them the right to be considered full citizens in law. That sexual revolution became a social revolution, and the shape of human relations was changed for ever. It can't be undone. Women will not return to sexual and political subjection without a fight to the death. But some people are still unaccountably angry that that sweeping social change was ever thought of, and have hung screaming on to our ankles every step of the long, slow trudge to gender equality. We are not there yet.

Right now a counter-revolution is under way against many of the gains that women have won, at great cost, over centuries of backlash and violence and ridicule. The counterrevolution is a social one, an economic one and a sexual one. This is a new culture war, a sexual counter-revolution. It is much bigger than the tactical 'war on women' that was briefly reported in the United States in the run-up to the presidential elections of 2012, as Republican lawmakers lost their collective wits in a moral meltdown over rape, contraception and abortion. That this sexual counter-revolution will never fully succeed makes it no less likely to ruin lives and destroy progress, nor does it dent the overwhelming message of those who seek to restrict women's socio-sexual choices in the twenty-first century. The message is: thus far, and no further.


Every few months, it seems, the media rediscovers feminism and decides it's a trendy new way to sell books and magazines, as long as it doesn't scare people by posing any actual threat to their way of life. The sort of feminism that sells is the sort of feminism that can appeal to almost everybody while challenging nobody, feminism that soothes, that speaks for and to the middle class, aspirational feminism that speaks of shoes and shopping and sugar-free snacks and does not talk about poor women, queer women, ugly women, transsexual women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould. That sort of feminism does not interest me. Let others write it. Let others construct an unchallenging feminism that speaks only to the smallest common denominator. The young women of today know far better than their slightly older sisters who came of age in the listless 1990s how much work is still to be done, and how unglamorous much of it is. They know how bloody important it is to talk about power, and class, and work, and love, race and poverty and gender identity.

This book is the start of one such conversation, and if that conversation included only women with absolutely similar backgrounds to my own it would not be worth having. At the same time, I'm aware that I can't know everything. The fact that I was born white and middle class in an English-speaking country and form relationships mostly although not exclusively with men inevitably affects how I think, how I write, and how I live my life. I am not writing as Every-girl, because there's no such thing.

Too many feminist writers attempting the 'book as bombshell' approach to a theory of gender and power begin with the disclaimer that they cannot possibly say anything about women who are not white, or straight, or rich, or cissexual, or mothers, or employed as full-time writers in London or New York City. That's their experience, and they can't speak for anyone else, which means they don't have to bother talking to anyone else or reading what anybody else has written, unless those writers are straight, white, wealthy, married professionals, too.

Hey, girls, we're all the same in the end, aren't we?

The idea that there is any such thing as Everygirl, a 'typical' woman who can speak to and for every other person on the planet in possession of a vagina, is one of the major sexist fairy tales of our time. Patriarchy tends to see all women as alike; it would prefer that we were all interchangeable rich, pretty, white, baby-making straight girls whose problems revolve around how to give the best blow jobs and where to buy diet pills. No man would ever be expected to write a book speaking to and for all men everywhere just because he happens to have a cock. The original feminist statement that the personal is political has been undermined by the insistence, in every media industry still run and owned by powerful men, that all women's politics be reduced to the purely personal.

Whoever we are, our understanding of gender, politics and feminism is going to be conditioned by our experience of love and sex, especially if we are straight. When we speak of fighting sexism, whether we know it or not, we're bringing our broken hearts to the table, we're bringing our wounded pride to the table, all those stomach-twisting sexual rejections, our frustration, our loneliness and longing, the memory of betrayal, the pain of our childhoods. We're also bringing the anxious heat of our desire, our passion for our friends and partners and children, every time a lover has laid a hand softly over a part of your soul you didn't know was stinging and soothed it. All of that at once, and more, and more, because gender politics are personal as well as political, but that doesn't mean the political has to collapse into the personal.


Excerpted from Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny. Copyright © 2014 Laurie Penny. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Laurie Penny is a columnist and contributing editor at the New Statesman and editor at large at the New Inquiry, and has written for the Guardian, Salon, the Nation, and others. Her blog, Penny Red, was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2010, and she won the 2012 British Media Award for Twitter Public Personality of the Year; she has 84,000 followers. She is also the author of two previous books, Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism and the collection Penny Red. Laurie lives in London.

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