Laurie Penny – Unspeakable Things

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable ThingsHow do you call that feeling when you pick up a book and inhale it in one sitting, and feel that the author has eloquently and in a well-informed manner articulated all your discontents, doubts, fears, anger at the world’s injustices, your suspicions of and disgust at the bullshit that goes on in all relationships? I think it’s called resonance. It’s a physics term that refers to being on the same or specific frequency. When a person on a different continent feels what you feel, sees what you see, understands what you have finally learned to understand, and has found the courage, creative energy, the mastery of transforming thoughts and ideas into well-crafted words and paragraphs, as well as the right tone (of a highly informed badass, with a lot of experience and expertise, a hint of irony, a sprinkle of humour, and a lot of kindness) to express all that and more.

That is what it feels like to read Laurie Penny‘s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). It’s what it felt like to read Gloria Steinem‘s oeuvre and the work of Anne Wizorek. They are women of different ages, in different countries, but their words and ideas seep through your whole mind and body and touch something very deep and solid inside you, eliciting a response of something along the lines of: “Yes, I understand that, I feel that. I agree with that. I have seen and felt the social and private injustices you describe and I too want to stand up against them. And thank you for being so brave and talented to be able to articulate them so well, to produce this feeling of connection and camaraderie, and for making me feel less isolated in my struggles.”

LaurieA good friend of mine in Berlin, who lets me stay at her apartment whenever possible, and indulges me in high-caliber meaningful conversations that last until 5am, once said that one way to define love is “to be seen, really seen, understood and accepted” by another. We often search for that acceptance and understanding in all the wrong places, and suffer when we cannot find it. But is it surprising, then, when we find it in critical works of women who have dedicated good portions of their time and energy to think about, research, write and make more accessible to larger audiences the confusing dynamics of human relationships, interactions, power struggles, power abuses, violence, (mis-)communication, and social injustices that affect us all? The resonance I feel when I read their work is what used to be reserved for the romantic sphere and the soul-mate lingo, an apparent or sometimes seeming like-mindedness that moves you emotionally, and makes you build new associations and connections that rewire your brain. But I no longer want to reserve that to the romantic realm. I want to expand that kind of understanding, compassion, empathy and kindness to all spheres of my life. That love and resonance, to me, in a word, constitutes feminism.

Laurie-PennyFor as long as I have been alive and conscious, masculinity has been in crisis. I doubt there was ever a time when it wasn’t. Yet, it is feminism that is constantly accused of stirring the gender pot and causing gender trouble. Even admitting that our current and recurring social injustice epidemic is gender- or race-based is admitting to participating in a flawed, dysfunctional, patriarchal system of dominance, oppression, and violence. And as in all neuroses, it is easier to stay with the familiar dysfunctional or abusive order than to venture into the unfamiliar and unknown. So, feminism is blamed for all woes, and for being the messenger who bears the consistently sad news. Patriarchal males are afraid of losing their exploitative power; undecided males are tired of mixed messages and don’t know what is happening to them; and feminist males have acknowledged their crisis and implication in patriarchal systems of injustice, and have become allies in the struggle for equality and social justice. Being in any kind of relationships with the patriarchs or the undecided people hurts as hell. The patriarchs don’t know how to function or interact without trying to dominate and subjugate, and the undecided ones just don’t know how to interact, period. The last dude I told that I only date feminist men, asked “What is that?” I told him to google it. That’s the opposite of resonance.

Unspeakable ThingsResonance originates in shared experiences, emotional intelligence and neurological wiring. It has to do with empathy, compassion, kindness, and connection. Resonance is so powerful because it confirms to us what we feel is right, even if we have not yet found material evidence to prove it. Resonance is the response we have to finding that evidence, manifested in the work of another person, often far away, unconnected to you, doing their thing, and you both find yourselves aligned on the same wavelength or neurological pathway. It is also powerful because it inspires creativity – to think, to question, to imagine, to deconstruct, to reassemble, to build and reconceptualize, to rewrite, retell, recreate forms that fit better than the outdated, dysfunctional ones, and to establish new connections that inspire others to innovate and to create things that do not yet exist. This is no small crafty-cutesy worldview, this is what revolutions are made of.

In her book, Laurie Penny has established connections between gender, race, social (in)justice, lies, and revolutions quite eloquently. Written when she was 27 years old, this book sums up pretty much all that is currently at stake in the world of gender inequality. And she does it without the apologetic self-deprecation that women, even feminist women, have been known for throughout history.

Future Cybrsexism Meat Market Penny Red

Here are some of the most insightful quotes from Laurie Penny’s book: 

p.44 – Men’s first desire is to have enough things and do enough things; women simply want to be enough. Men want; women are wanted. And for women, to be undesirable is still a real existential threat. Women who are not stereotypically attractive, young and able-bodied often speak of feeling “invisible” – as if they don’t exist.

p.45 – The more powerful women become, the more we are taught that our bodies are unacceptable.

p.49 – [Your family] want you to be pretty and pleasing and no trouble at all. It’s not because they hate you and want to keep you down, but because they want what’s best for you, and objective observation of the world suggests that girls who are ugly and troublesome tend to have problems, or become problems, and nobody wants you to be a problem. It’s what your boyfriend wants. He has not been raised to expect a relationship with a real human being, but a sidekick, a helpmeet, a wank-fantasy made only-just flesh. And it’s what your boss wants. He – or she – wants you to play the game. Be a good girl. Smile and make people feel comfortable; accept low pay, long hours, the occasional grope in the corridor, compete with other young women to be the prettiest and most compliant, the hardest-working, the girl everyone loves. Just don’t ever aspire to be more than that.

p.60 – Feminism has never just been about liberating women from men, but about freeing every human being from the straightjacket of gender oppression. For the first time, men and boys as a whole are starting to realize how profoundly messed up masculinity is – and to ask how they might make it different.

p.65 – The great obstacle to women’s progress is not men’s hate, but their fear. The “Men’s Rights Activists” who organize to drown out and silence women on the Internet are usually fearful, lonely creatures who are desperate to speak about gender, but only able to do so as a way of shutting women down. That expression of fear comes from a profoundly childish place, a posture which is as fascistic in its policing of gender roles as a playground bully, and which uses words like “Feminazi” which apparent seriousness. Because fighting for equality was what the Nazis were really known for.

It is as if by talking about the hurt women experience, often because we are women, we are somehow preventing men from speaking about the painful pressures of masculinity, Interestingly, for many men, the only time they do feel able to talk about their own suffering is when they are trying to stop women talking about theirs. In every other context, men and boys are discouraged from talking about their pain. Thinking in a new way about sex, gender, and power – call it feminism or “masculism” or whatever the hell you like as long as you do it – can help men to process that pain. But it’s far easier to just blame women.

p.68 – Somehow, it is still hard to talk to men about sexism without meeting a wall of defensiveness that shades into outright hostility, even violence. Anger is an entirely appropriate response to learning that you’re implicated in a system that oppresses women but the solution isn’t to direct that anger back at women. The solution isn’t to shut down debate by accusing us of “reverse sexism,” as if that will somehow balance out the problem and stop you feeling so uncomfortable.

Sexism should be uncomfortable. It is painful and enraging to be on the receiving end of misogynistic stacks, and it is also painful to watch them happen and to know that you’re implicated, even though you never chose to be. You’re supposed to react when you’re told that a group you are a member of is actively fucking over other human beings, in the same way that you’re supposed to react when a doctor hammers your knee to test your nerves. If it doesn’t hurt, something is horribly wrong.

p.69 – You can choose, as a man, to help create a fairer world for women, and for men, too. You can choose to challenge misogyny and sexual violence whenever you see them. You can choose to take risks and spend energy supporting women, promoting women, treating women in your life as true equals. You can choose to stand up and say no, and every day more men and boys are making that choice. The question is – will you be one of them?

p.70 – Patriarchy is a top-down system of male dominance that is established with violence or with the threat of violence. When feminists say “patriarchy hurts men too,” this is what we really mean. Patriarchy is painful, and violent, and hard for men to opt out of, and bound up with the economic and class system of capitalism. I’ve found that when I speak to men about gender and violence, the word “patriarchy” is one of the hardest for them to bear.

Modern economics creates few winners, so a lot of men are left feeling like losers – and a loser is the last thing a man ought to be. Women don’t want to be with losers. Losers aren’t real men, desirable men, strong men, and if neoliberalism is creating more losers, it must be because men aren’t being properly appreciated, and it’s probably the fault of feminism, not fiscal mismanagement. Neoliberalism may have set up vast swathes of people to fail, but the real problem cannot be a crisis of capitalism, so it must be a crisis of gender.

p.71 – Across the global north and south, people are realizing how they have been cheated of social, financial and personal power by their elected representatives and unelected elites – but young men still learn that their identity and virility depends on being powerful. What I hear most from the men and boys who contact me is that they feel less powerful than they had hoped to be, and they don’t know who to blame.

p.75 – The first big secret is this: most men have never really been powerful. Throughout human history, the vast majority of men have had almost no structural power, except over women and children. In fact, power over women and children – technical and physical dominance within the sphere of one’s own home – has been the sop offered to men who had almost no power outside of it.

One of the saddest things about modern society is that it has made us understand masculinity as something toxic and violent, associated with domination, control and savagery, being hungry for power and money and acquisitive, abusive sex. Part of the project of feminism is to free men as well as women from repressive stereotypes.

p.76 – It is difficult for men not to grow up with the expectation of power over women – even when that power is supposed to be benign, loving power, strong power, the power to protect and dominate. Almost every story boys get to read casts them as the hero and women and girls as supporting characters, mothers and wives and girlfriends. Culture has not yet adjusted to stop promising men the beautiful sidekick, the lovely princess, the silent, smiling companion as a reward for whatever trials life throws their way. Women, by contrast, although we still cast ourselves in that supporting role all too often, are no longer mandated into it by law and lack of medical technology.

p.78 – Desire is socially constructed: what the heart and groin and stomach want is brokered by the basic desire to fit in and not make a fuss.

p.87 – At Occupy, women were raped in their tents and sexually assaulted at sit-ins. In Baltimore, in Dallas, in Cleveland, in Glasgow. At Occupy London a prominent activist who was tried and acquitted for the rape of two female comrades kept a list of sexual conquests on the wall of his tent. The list began, according to his defense, “as a joke with other men” at the camp.

p.88 – Socialism without feminism is no socialism worth having, and men and boys are beginning to learn, slowly and painfully, that they cannot liberate themselves alone. Too many social movements have treated women, queer people and people of colour as collateral damage, telling us to swallow our suffering until the revolution is over – but somehow, that time never comes. This time is different. We are refusing to wait any longer, and we are taking the boys along, too.

The precious core of modern male privilege is time. It’s the time to decide where your life is going before certain people start telling you it’s effectively over. It’s the time to make money, build a career, travel the world or just learn to play the trumpet really damn well before you even have to think about finding a partner and starting a family. It’s the time to be young, to fuck up, to fail and start again. It’s the time to get distinguished, rather than grow old. It’s time.

p.89 – By the time we hit our late twenties, women and girls are expected to have their shit more or less together. We are expected to have chosen the people around whom our life’s work will revolve, to have made a plan and begun to put it into practice. The word “young” stops being a prefix to “woman” when we are spoken about in the third person. The women we see in the public eye, the women who are celebrated and held up as role models, are overwhelmingly very young, sometimes barely out of school. I’m twenty-seven years old right now, and I’m barely a functional adult.

p.90 – Women fear that we will become invisible. We know that, like Cinderella, our time is running out. Men are told that there is time enough. Those ten extra years make all the difference. They are the ten years in which we get to fuck up, be young, damage ourselves and heal again, if we’re lucky, try to build something out of the debris of lust and dreams we accrete like limpets clinging to the underside of time. Men don’t get told that the best years are over just as they’re starting to get the hang of being here. When I think of the lost young men I have known and loved, the ones who made it and the ones who didn’t, a fist of rage and sadness clenches and unclenches under my ribcage. When I think of all the brilliant, passionate, scared young men, mostly poor, many queer an of colour, who didn’t get a chance to make something out of the great gift of those years, I want to shake them in frustration. The tragedy of male privilege is that it is no longer a guarantee of health and happiness, if it ever was.

p.94 – More than one in five men report “becoming so sexually aroused that they could not stop themselves from having sex, even though the woman did not consent.” Rape and sexual violence are routine. Ritualized misogyny is so normalized that we need a radical redefinition of how men and women relate, and the traumatic beginnings of that redefinition are causing causalities on both sides. When rape is raised in the press, the concern is always for the man’s reputation – which is considered of more value than a woman’s autonomy.

p.113 – Aristotle, who was the sort of vicious misogynist that people have paid attention to for two thousand years, believed that women were incapable of higher reasoning because we are more animalistic than men, more bound to our bodies – women were bodies first before they were whole beings, and those bodies needed to be kept in line by men with muscle. Two thousand years later, the same logic is at play at the highest levels of government. It is at play whenever lawmakers suggest that women should be forced to go to counselling before they have an abortion. It is at play whenever the state decides it knows better than women what our sexual autonomy should look like. It is at play when one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, and the public conversation is stuck on how many of those women are liars.

p.121 – Men have sex; women are sex. Being a woman, and being a woman whose role in life is to sexually attract, please and coddle men is still phrased as the primary occupation of every female, although some of us are still on strike.

p.125 – The great genius of commercial sexuality has been to give the impression that this society is one of unprecedented erotic freedom while maintaining the impression that sex is almost always something violent and disgusting that men do to women. Hence the ubiquity of that pernicious little word “sexualisation,” which is used to describe everything from teeny push-up bras to music videos where the latest teen starlet to come off the Disney channel prances about in hotpants.  Women should never be sexual: sex is something that is done to us, preferably as late and as infrequently as possible.

p.148 – Rape and abuse are the only crimes where, in the words of the seventeenth-century legal scholar Lord Matthew Hale, “it is the victim, not the defendant, who is on trial.” They are crimes that are hard to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” in a court of law, because it’s a case of “he said, she said.” Nobody can really know, and so naturally we must assume that he is innocent and she is lying, because that’s what women do. The trouble is that in this society, “he said” is almost always more credible than “she said,” unless she is white and he is not. The rule of law cannot be relied upon when it routinely fails victims of abuse.

p.178 – Germaine Greer once wrote that women had no idea how much men hate them. Well, now we do. The Internet has a way of making hidden things visible, of collapsing contexts so that the type of banter that might once have been appropriate at a frat party exists on the same Twitter feeds where fifteen-year-olds are starting feminist campaigns. Combine that with the disinhibition provided by time-delay and anonymity and you have a recipe for the sort of gynophobic, racist and homophobic rage that women and men who are its targets often find incredibly frightening. Parts of the Internet still behave like men-only spaces, even though they almost never are.

p.179 – Right now, the beginning of a backlash against online misogyny us under way. Women and girls and their allies are coming together to expose gender violence online and combat structural sexism and racism offline, collecting stories on hashtags like the #everydaysexism and #aufschrei and #solidarityisforwhitewomen. Projects like this turn sexism and racism from something you have to sit and experience alone into something that can be turned back on your attackers, forcing men who really aren’t as ignorant as they’d like to be to understand women’s experience in a new way, to understand that the stories they grew up hearing about how the world worked might not be the only stories out there. When bigotry is forced to see itself through the eyes of another, the reaction can be grotesque.

p.190 – One of the most important things to understand about cybersexism is that it comes from a place of pain, a place of fear and hurt that translates into violent incomprehension in the most personal ways. It is not, of course, the responsibility of those abused to make their abusers feel better, but comparison is a useful tool for understanding as well as a way forward. For geekdudes, the Internet is a safe place. It always has been.

p.191 – One of the most important ways in which boys prove their social value, prove that they are or will shortly become men, is by exerting power over women: sexual power, physical power, the power to bully and threaten and intimidate and control. Sexism is a status play. At school, the fact that geekdudes are normally lower down in the status hierarchy is part of what creates the unique flavour of rage spicing up the murky broth of nerd misogyny, and the rage is knotted up with sexual frustration.

p.194 – In her excellent book, Delusions of Gender, neuroscientist Cordelia Fine meticulously debunks every cod theory attributing social sex class to hard-wired “brain differences.” The many available studies that show no practical difference whatsoever in the cognitive, reasoning or structural processing power of “male” and “female” brains tend to get far less press coverage and be less high profile than those claiming that the social mores of white, suburban 1950s America were laid down in prehistoric times – despite the fact that they are consistently more sound.

p.198 – A networked society is only as good as the networks upon which it is built. A network that dehumanises women and denies them full, free access to the same channels men enjoy is simply not a network that works properly and geeks, nerds and everyone who cares about the Internet as a free and open space need to understand that their network is no longer fit for purpose. Our system is broken. It needs to be updated.

p.207 – We don’t just fall for all of this romantic faff because we’re stupid, or gullible, or weak. We fall because we want to, because we need to believe that something will make the rest of our lives safe and meaningful. The posture of romance, particularly straight, married romance, allow us to reject the grim meat-hook reality of work and death even as they fashion us for it, pairing us off into little pockets of pain and passion: you and me against the world, baby. We fall in love because it’s easier than learning to swim in the stuff.

p.209 – Women across the classes are taught to seek the love of men first, to assess our worth in the basis on how good we are at keeping and holding male attention. And across the classes, romantic humiliation can be used to bring women low. Every straight man I have ever spoken to about dating remains angrily convinced that women have all the power when it comes to romantic dealings, including the ultimate power: to accept or reject a man’s sexual advances, to put men in the “friend zone,” which is a mug’s game, because of course no real man would actually want to be a woman’s friend. The power to say no to sex makes women monstrous to men, feels like more than a fitting exchange for every other sort of power denied to women and girls over these long, weary generations.This is perfectly true, as long as one believes that the power to say no to sex is respected in practice. Men as a class are incensed by that process of female refusal. They rail against it, push against it, undermine it with violence. They come out in their cowardly thousands online to protest at the idea that sexual consent should be respected.

But men, too, have equal power of refusal in relationships. They can refuse to give of themselves in a way that is equally humiliating to women who have grown up learning that they were failing on a basic level if they could not command the love and commitment of men. And that’s it. That’s how heterosexuality makes us all miserable. That’s the privatisation of love.

p.212 – That’s how they keep you in line. I have, from time to time, been threatened with violence for walking too proud and talking too much and wearing my hair like a robot rent-boy from the future, but those threats are easy to laugh off. But deep down, I know if I choose not to play the good girl game, I might not get as many kisses as I want. And that’s so much more terrifying.  This, then, is how women are kept in line. The threat of violence is a fearful thing, but its injustice is clear, and there is always the risk of rebellion. To threaten someone with a slap, a kick, with broken teeth of a split skull or rape or murder, is not always enough to keep them behaving as you would want them to behave for ever. To threaten someone with loss of love, however, is a violence far more profound and painful: there are few people who would choose a long healthy life without love over a short, painful life full of it. To tell a person that if they don’t do what they’re told they will never be loved is an existential threat akin to soul-murder. It is that fear that keeps us cowed and conformist. It is the fear that we will be unloved.

We don’t pare ourselves down and tart ourselves up and process our personality into the mould deemed most pleasing by mainstream culture because we’re stupid, or cowardly. We do it because we fear loss of love. We do it because we grew up learning, unless our parents were particularly enlightened, that we were unworthy of love unless we conformed to a certain set of rules about how to look, dress, and behave. Of course, they get you coming and going.

p.213 – If you do follow all the rules, if you ever get it perfectly right, then, of course, you’re a dull bimbo, a brainless fembot, just as unworthy of male respect as the ones who didn’t. You’re a cardboard cut-out girlfriend, and you can be dismissed. No woman is ever dismissable, but sometimes, if we want men to love us, we are forced to act dismissable – and don’t all good girls want men to love them? There is a princess in all our heads: she must be destroyed.

p.215 – Women learn that the only stories we really get to be the heroes of, from Pride and Prejudice to The Matrix to Bridget Jones’ Diary, are love stories – and we don’t even get to be the hero of those. This is why female artists and women writers remain figures of suspicion. Men are allowed to make their work, their practice, the central romance of their lives. Men are allowed to love their art, their writing, their passion, a little bit more than anything else. Women are not, and if we choose to so anyway, we will always be seen as lacking something, or taking on a man’s role, or both. Whatever else we do with our lives, we must carve out part of our hearts in the service of others, or we are not really women. We are permitted to be the wives and lovers of great men, but of we try to become great ourselves – even now, when there are fewer and fewer legal barriers stopping us from doing so – there must be something wrong with us. Sometimes you have to decide between doing what you love and being lovable, and the decision is always painful.

p.236 – Free love is love that is not co-opted or coerced, love that is not mutually oppressive, love that is not another word for work, duty and conformity. If we want love to be free, and of we want women to be free, we have to refuse to define ourselves by romantic love, or lack of it. The power of the neoliberal notion of romantic love is such that it is almost a century since feminists routinely questioned its omnipotence, but today’s growing girls of every age might do well to recall the words of Alexandra Kollontai: “I still belong to the generation of women who grew up at a turning point in history. Love still played a very great role in my life. An all-too-great role! We, the women of the past generation, did not yet understand how to be free. The whole thing was an absolutely incredible squandering of our mental energy, a diminution of our labour power.”

Love has meant conformity for so long that we have forgotten that it also means defiance.

p.238 – The idea that we have no control over who we love and what we do about it is one of the most disempowering things girls are ever told. Loneliness is a fearful thing. But a life lived grasping for another person to make you whole is just as fearful. If you see yourself as incomplete without a partner to be your “other half,” you will always be lonely, even in a partnership. It took me twenty-seven years to truly understand that just because you would give up every dream you ever had to see one special person smile doesn’t mean you should. I have been in Love™. I have fallen hard and fast for people with whom I shared something precious and unspeakable that went far beyond sex.

p.239 – Love is not a scarce resource. Love is not a prize to be won and jealously hoarded. Love is not a productive field, a sphere of work. Human love may have been colonized and appropriated by the demands of labour and capital, but it can be retaken.

p.242 – Gender oppression is part of a structure of social control grinding us all down, keeping us docile, making sure that men and women everywhere question power as little as possible. If we want to escape the straightjacket of gender under neoliberalism, we must stop trying so hard to hold ourselves and others up to impossible standards, standards we didn’t set ourselves. We have to resist the schooled inner voice telling us to be good girls, though boys, perfect women, strong men. If we are to realise a greater collective humanity, we must learn to see one another as human beings first. The raw humanity of others is the unspeakable truth every mechanism of modern sexism is designed to disguise. If we have the courage to claim it, a change in consciousness is coming that will bring sexual and social revolution, that will free us to live and love more fully, and it will be as exactly as terrifying as it sounds.

p.243 – Neoliberal patriarchy gives us choice, but not freedom. No choice in an unfree society can be a truly free choice. The choice between this boss and that, the choice between marriage and penury, the choice between shame and self-denial, the choice between degrading work and debilitating poverty, all of these choices are meaningful, but they are not the same as liberty. Feminism and radical politics are about demanding more than a choice between one type of servitude and another. They are about insisting on our right to live with dignity, our right to shelter and sustenance and learning and the means to take care of one another.

p.245 – A time is approaching when the humanity of women and girls and queer people and our allies will be understood in practice rather than acknowledged in passing. I believe that together we will find the courage to rewrite the old, tired scripts of work and power and sex and love, the old stories about what it means to be a beautiful woman, a strong man, a decent human being. I believe that the time is coming when those stories will be heard in numbers too big to silence. The great rewriting is already under way. Close your eyes. Turn the page. Begin.

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