Monday, July 28, 2014

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

Let me say this up front:  I thought this book was excellent.  I understand now why she has such a large following for her blog.  She has a powerful voice as a writer, and what she says throughout the book is compelling.  She is rattling the cages of those who have become complacent, or those who think that all gender issues have been resolved--like the person who told me there is no racism anymore.  Sexism, asymmetrical power relations, and a culture of violence against women, Penny argues, persist, and the case she makes is very persuasive.

Penny focuses on the fact that women continue to be seen as bodies only, suggesting that this has gotten worse, not better, over the last fifty years.  She writes "You are a body first, and your body is not yours alone; whether or not you are attracted to men, men and boys will believe they have a claim on your body, and the state gets to decide what you're allowed to do with it afterwards."
One consequence of being seen as a body intended only to attract men, she asserts, is that women wind up participating in violence against their own bodies: "When you grow up to find yourself trapped in a body that seems to invite violence, a body that seems to be all you're good for, a body that is suddenly and forever the most important thing about you, there is a grim logic to the attempt to cut your way out of it.  To discipline it and bring it under your control.  The body that hurts, and hungers, and ceaselessly wants things.  The body that betrays you."

Ultimately the root of the problem is uneven power relations:  "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."  I'm not sure I need to add to what Penny says, except to say that this book should be required reading for teenage boys when they hit the age of fifteen.  Many of them would hate it, some would say ugly things about what's she's arguing, and some would likely fall back on received misogynistic notions about women.  Regardless of all that, the book would be deeply unsettling for almost all of them.  In teenage male culture, how boys behave towards women is often informed and determined by the dumbest guys, and reinforced by constant peer pressure.  To give teenage boys a book like this, and ask them to think about the challenging ideas in it on their own, would mean creating a different space for boys to shape their understanding of gender and sexuality in society.

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