Sexual Revolution by Laurie Penny review – playing fast and loose with the f-word | Society books


When I was a student, there was a craze among a small group of my friends for a bestselling self-help book called Women Who Love Too Much by an American therapist whose name was Robin Norwood. We were all feminists, though at this point (it was the late 80s) the f-word was painfully unfashionable, and on our shelves was lots of seriously good – if then already slightly retro – theoretical stuff: Kate Millett, Janet Radcliffe Richards, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

Also, of course, Our Bodies, Ourselves by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, in its millionth (or so) edition. But somewhat to our embarrassment, it was Norwood’s book whose spine was the most cracked. What can I say? At 19, and away from home for the first time, all we really wanted to know was how to stop wasting so much of our time and energy on horrible men.

The grandiloquently titled Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback sounds more Kate Millett than Robin Norwood; it promises something serious-minded and galvanising, even if the word fascism does, in context, whiff just a little of Rick in The Young Ones. But as I read Laurie Penny’s “searing critique of male dominance”, it was Norwood of whom I thought. If the tone of this book is almost comically relentless – if Penny, whose pronouns are they/them, says something once, they say it 54 times – it’s also oddly reminiscent of a superannuated self-help manual, its assumptions seemingly based mostly on the experiences of its author and their friends, a focus group to whom every possible Bad Thing has happened at least once (so handy).

Men? Oh, they’re in terrible distress; they’re forever emailing Penny to tell them just how toxic masculinity is. Women? Well, they’re in terrible distress too, only they’re fighting back. To sum up: “More women are asking if they might do something bigger with their lives than wear themselves out saving the world one man at a time.”

For the reader, especially the reader who has never read a book or a newspaper, never watched any television or seen a film, Penny has all sorts of revelations. For instance: there are now more women in the “male workplace” than for centuries. Patriarchy, in case you don’t know, is a “power system based on male dominance” and consent “is not an object you can hold in your hand” (unlike some things Penny could – and does – mention).

It should also be noted that there are currently a lot of authoritarians around: Bolsonaro, Johnson, Putin, Trump, Jacinda Ardern … No, not Ardern. Ha, I almost got you there, didn’t I? Actually, Penny doesn’t mention Ardern at all, nor even Angela Merkel. Anyway, moving on: things are grim because women are still judged far too much on their looks, ageism is very cruel, and male violence is just, like, everywhere.

But don’t be disheartened. Penny has good news, too. Like them, we may eventually be able to overcome our addiction to “predators with pretty eyes and a vacancy for a secret side-piece”. We may even wind up loving ourselves instead of just waiting around “for a man” to find us lovable (for someone who identifies as gender-queer, and who therefore has some trouble with the word woman, which does not reflect her “lived experience”, Penny uses “man” with an abandon that is quite dizzying).

Heterosexuality is – newsflash! – “in trouble”, but good sex is still possible, once you “stop looking to White supremacy and patriarchy to define its terms”. Penny herself enjoyed a fantastically sexy weekend in Berlin in 2018 – good clean (or not) fun of a kind no “pearl-clutching Promise Keeper or chatroom-addled crypto-fascist” is ever likely to experience.

Most crucially of all, something is now – out in the world, I mean – fighting to break out, as if from a shell: something “wet and angry”, with “claws”. By this, I think Penny is referring to the ongoing activism that was stirred by #MeToo, but I suppose it is possible – I’m troubled by the word “wet” – that I’ve got this entirely wrong.

Personally, my feminism is fiercer than it has been for decades. I don’t disagree that things are still appalling for women, and in some senses I believe they’re getting worse. But the reader waits in vain for Penny to offer solutions to the injustice she describes, for serious analysis of any kind. The best they can do is to suggest that affordable childcare might be of help. No shit, Sherlock.

The chapter devoted to sex work is utterly enraging, and not only because Penny clearly knows so little about it (where are the interviews, the statistics, the thoughts of experts in this field?). Having painstakingly explained that many women enjoy sex – that they do not, contrary to the old myths, only endure it, the better to keep their men happy – Penny then accuses those women, feminists and others, who are critical of the sex industry of, yes, a sort of twisted envy, because why should some women get paid for what others have to do for free? I’m afraid I clutched my own pearls (inherited, I should say, from a grandmother who left school at 13) at this point.

Having spent half of my life hoping for feminism’s revival – for it to be, if not fashionable, then proudly worn and meaningfully directed – it is lowering beyond words to see a serious publisher describe this ill-edited, ill-considered drivel as a manifesto for the cause. This isn’t feminism. This is a swizz.

Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback by Laurie Penny is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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