Laurie Penny in 2018 (Picture credit: Hal Bergman/Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

Penny for your thoughts

Laurie Penny writes a book about how to deliver change while actual feminists are getting their hands dirty

I wanted to like Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback, the new book from millennial writer Laurie Penny, mainly because I believe we need as wide a range of feminist theory as possible. It is no secret that we are at opposite ends of some key debates in feminism, such as the issue of whether prostitution is exploitation (me, yes, Penny, no), and whether demands from trans activists to be included in female-only spaces represent a clash of rights (again: me, yes, Penny, no).

Penny believes that “trans women are women” and therefore should be able to share prison wings, changing rooms and hospital wards with females. Penny is also a vociferous supporter of the “sex work is work” ideology — so how does that allow for a critique of sexual harassment and exploitation? With an entire chapter on the politics of consent, how does she deal with the fact that prostitution is one-sided sexual pleasure?

If Penny wasn’t around for it, it didn’t happen

In Sexual Revolution, Penny focusses on the direct link between misogyny, the backlash against women’s liberation and far-right violence, as well as exploring how and why right-wing leaders make use of men’s fear of women’s freedom, as evidenced in the female support for Donald Trump. She locates this phenomenon as powerful men reclaiming their reign and entitlement over women. As the subtitle Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback suggests, Penny is railing against “modern fascism” and seems to be arguing that the fight that will ultimately lead to sexual revolution is between white supremacists and, as she puts it, “women and queer people, particularly women and queer people of colour”.

One of the key problems with Sexual Revolution is its very premise: that we can explain misogyny in its current form with the growth of right-wing ideology and fascism. This excuses a huge growth area in modern misogyny, which is the so-called male progressives: men on the left.

And its style can be grating. Penny’s schtick has always been to overwrite her sentences to the point where they become tediously indulgent while saying little. For example, Penny says:

Something has broken. Something is breaking still. Not like a glass breaks or like a heart breaks, but like the shell of an egg breaks – inexorably, and from the inside. Something wet and angry is fighting its way out of the dark, and it has claws.

Penny also appears reluctant to give credit where it is due. Books on feminist theory, including the non-academic tomes such as this, are usually peppered with references to previous work by decades of women’s liberationists, but not Sexual Revolution. Although she cites feminist philosopher Carole Pateman — who was the first theorist to link consent in heterosexual sex to political authority — in the introduction of her book, Penny gives little credit to her and others for the ideas she espouses on the link between sexual and political relations. Penny also seems blissfully unaware that any feminist activism happened prior to the #MeToo movement:

In the early autumn of 2017, something snapped. Women and a few brave men finally began to come forward to speak, in numbers too big to dismiss, about the sexual harassment and abuse they had endured. It had been coming for years, but when the dam finally broke, it began in Hollywood.

This was 2017. There had been an active women’s liberation movement for 60 years by then, which was well engaged in fighting the injustices rained down upon women by men in power.

“Almost nobody saw it coming,” Penny writes. “Nobody predicted that the greatest challenge to the social order in this century would be … women, girls and queer people of colour, finally coming together to talk about sexual violence and structural abuse of power.”

There is also some hypocrisy at times: “Nobody is born with the right to use the body of another person to their own ends.” But Penny has long defended the systems of prostitution, including in this book. “Sex workers disrupt the sexual marketplace,” she claims. “Whorephobia is the sharp edge of slut shaming.”

Feminist campaigners are often misrepresented and undermined in Sexual Revolution. For instance, Penny claims that those seeking to abolish the sex trade are white, middle-class saviours who work in tandem with border police “to track down and deport migrant sex workers”. But who? And where? No evidence is provided.

It’s important to remember that abolitionist feminism — feminism that seeks, as its core goal, to eliminate sex work — has always had an embarrassing aspect of White saviourism. The spokeswomen are often wealthy, cisgendered White women who see themselves as rescuing sex workers, who are more likely to be trans, working-class, foreign nationals, Black or Indigenous.

Reading this, I wonder how Penny makes sense of the fact that a significant number of active, vocal sex trade survivors are women of colour? And that these women speak passionately about the racism, colonialism and misogyny that underpins prostitution? She shows no understanding that such activism exists.

The chapter on how women are deemed to be mad when they speak out against male violence is interesting, but again Penny seems to think that it began in 2017: “The #MeToo movement was exactly what the sanity and safety of thousands of unnamed women was once sacrificed to avoid: a giant flaming fuss.”

But decades earlier, we had feminists such as Phyllis Chesler, who wrote Women and Madness in 1972, a seminal text that has sold more than five million copies worldwide.

Quite simply, if Penny wasn’t around for it, she doesn’t believe it happened. And #MeToo wasn’t a movement, it was merely a moment.

Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback by Laurie Penny (Bloomsbury, £20)

Only older white, right-wing, and fascist men in government institutions seem to wield power in Penny’s eyes, which of course they do, but I wonder about lumping Boris Johnson in with Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. It makes sense that these men are one-dimensional characters, showcased to make an important point about the way that ultra-conservative politics currently dominates the landscape, but I can’t help thinking that what is missing is an analysis of masculinity and male power in general.

Penny acknowledges that there are mechanisms in place to keep women away from one another and that, for many years, there was simply no way for us to speak about what was happening. But again, she seems to locate it in the #MeToo movement, or in contemporary queer activism, and completely ignores how this all started in the 1960s with consciousness raising groups, just as she tends to side-line the key feminist texts of the second wave, such as Kate Millett’s ground-breaking Sexual Politics.

The scant mention of social class falls flat. “Most of us are not working in glittering Hollywood studios or ancient government buildings, unless we’re there to empty the bins,” states Penny disingenuously. Why write in the first person here? Is it to forge solidarity, or position herself as “one of them”?

This happens throughout, such as the oft-used phrase “women and queer people”, used to describe the “goodies” in the book (the “baddies” being powerful white men, with no mention of black masculinity or violence and abuse experienced by black women from black men). But in modern parlance, “queer” is a term used to describe anyone from a gay man or lesbian to heterosexual male kinksters turned on by choking women. So, how these two groups are working together to bring about a sexual revolution is beyond me.

“Social media has shattered the illusion that what happens in private homes cannot be political.” But feminists shattered that illusion decades ago, making it the bedrock of the women’s liberation movement. This is the very meaning of the phrase, “The Personal is Political”.

The feminists currently labelled “TERFs” and “SWERFs” are those who have changed laws

Where Penny is strong is about the silencing of women by abusive men, and why and how women and girls are so routinely disbelieved. But what, then, of the incident at the WiSpa in California last year and the black woman who complained when her daughter reported seeing a man with a semi-erect penis in the female-only section of the spa? The woman was disbelieved, called a transphobic bigot, and accused of inciting riots outside of the spa. Penny said in relation to the incident that the child should not “stare at other people’s genitals without their permission, because it’s rude”.

There is no doubt that Penny is genuine in her commitment to naming male violence, so long as it does not get in the way of her “trans women are women” and “sex work is work” ideology. Swotting up on her feminist history wouldn’t go amiss, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she can’t credit her theories on male violence to those deserving of it; after all, these women are now the baddies in her world.

No amount of fudging and outright denial will alter the fact that the feminists currently labelled “TERFs” and “SWERFs” are those who have changed laws, raised public awareness and established domestic violence refuges, rape crisis centres and other women-only services that have proved essential in a world where male violence is endemic.

Despite her impressive brains and talent, Penny chooses to align herself to posturers and virtue-signallers as she laments, “I sit at my laptop with my hands hovering over the keys and my fingers lose their purchase on the ledge of the present.”

Meanwhile, actual feminist campaigners are getting their hands dirty and tackling the myriad problems women face in the real world.

In response to this review — “Penny seems blissfully unaware that any feminist activism happened prior to the #MeToo movement” — Laurie Penny’s publishers said the following: “I wanted to highlight that Laurie Penny’s pronouns are they/them (as indicated in the book and press release). Could the review be updated to reflect this, please?”. 

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