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9 March 2022

In Sexual Revolution, Laurie Penny wages war against bad sex

This broad, ambitious book skilfully skewers everyday sexism, but Penny's feminist uprising underestimates those they wish to save.

By Sophie McBain

In Laurie Penny’s Sexual Revolution, the journalist and left-wing firebrand argues that to understand our present age of crisis – the threats to democracy, the resurgent far-right, the rise of strongmen leaders – you need to understand that we are undergoing a fundamental renegotiation of the rules of sex, gender and consent. Our foundational social structures, from the nuclear family to the workplace, are based on the assumption that men are entitled to sex, care and love, and that women must give these freely, that men cannot help but act on their sexual desire and that women must be conditioned to repress theirs. We’re now witnessing a backlash, a last stand by the “white supremacist patriarchy”, against a sexual revolution that has been gathering pace in the wake of the #MeToo movement: more women are opting out of long-term relationships and motherhood, and more people are rejecting the gender binary (Penny identifies as genderqueer and uses the pronoun they).

Penny is a skilled polemicist, and their underlying argument, if not exactly original, is vital: that questions of sex and love are central to politics. How a powerful man treats women is not a private issue – as many claim – but part of his political identity. Penny is right that women are used to having their concerns dismissed as trivial – they are often told they are “silly” for caring about their appearance, as though they were not permanently bombarded with the message that their social value depends on how they look. We know that people who doubt their own worth will find it harder to stand up for their rights, in public or in the bedroom.

Society treats men’s pain as a “problem to be solved”, while women’s pain is “normalised, made invisible and accepted”, Penny writes, which is a perfect summation of our cultural double standards: some people find it easier, for example, to extend sympathy to those accused of sexual abuse than recognise the suffering of their accusers. Penny has a knack for identifying missed connections: they note that the politics of austerity has compelled women to provide for free the care work that the state no longer supplies, and that the consequences of this are not limited to the pressures on women. When the nuclear family becomes the prime source of love, it becomes harder to imagine alternative forms of living. When women are forced to fill the gaps left by the state and a winner-takes-all economy, they, rather than the economic system, become easy targets for the resentment of men who think they deserve better.

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But the picture Penny paints of straight female sexuality is so bleak that you start to wonder if they are describing the 1950s rather than the 21st century. “It seems that for straight women, ‘good sex’ still means ‘sex where you weren’t seriously injured or killed’,” Penny writes. Really? The statistics are indeed stark: according to BBC research, a third of women under 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, choking, gagging or spitting during consensual sex. That doesn’t mean straight women are so unenlightened that they do not expect better, or that they’ve never enjoyed sex. But Penny is here to help. “Here’s the secret: good sex is still possible, once you stop looking to white supremacy and to patriarchy to define its terms,” they write later. “Nobody will ever convince me that all of these dull keyboard-bashers with their weary fantasies of gamified fucking will ever experience the thrill of the single weekend I spent in Berlin in 2018.” Penny never elaborates: what happens in Berlin stays in Berlin.

“It was not only women… who decided that heterosexuality was always and only violent,” Penny observes – but since when did women decide that anyway? This strange stance might be partly explained by Penny’s decision to define heterosexual sex as bad sex (at least for women). “Female desire expressed without shame” is “inherently queer”, they write. But this isn’t the only instance when Penny imagines that the feminist successes of the past five decades have entirely passed most women by. “Not raping or beating your partner has long been the standard for decent male behaviour in straight relationships, when it ought to be the baseline,” they write. Again, really? It was almost as jarring to read Penny’s analysis of the unequal division of domestic labour, and their (correct) assertion that much political analysis fails to acknowledge social reproduction as valuable work, as to find no mention of feminist campaigns such as Wages for Housework. Women have been raising these issues for years; the problem is that not enough people have been listening.

The effect of these omissions is is one of condescension towards those women Penny wants to help liberate. “It is hard for women, too, to remember that they are not commodities, not simply inanimate meat to be traded for men’s money and approval and affection,” they write. In my experience the struggle women face, including in patriarchal and repressive cultures, is not in overcoming a lack of self-esteem, but in getting others to recognise their worth. The reason it hurts to be treated like a pair of tits on legs is because you know you are more than that. Penny presents a caricature of the modern “liberated woman” forever juggling her work, her family commitments and her beauty-and-exercise routine: “If she wakes in the night wondering when she last felt like a person, she’ll soon have another appointment, another responsibility, and besides there are always beta blockers and Botox,” they write, and I surely cannot be alone in detecting a note of disdain. Penny finds it hard to imagine that even people much less cool than them, even the “glossy-maned mothers of Instagram” with their “rictus grins”, could also be politically aware. That they might even feel like people.

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Bizarrely, given how often Penny presents most women as passive and politically apathetic, they sometimes ascribe more choice and agency than is accurate – as when they write of the large number of women “opting out” of marriage, long-term relationships and motherhood. Of course, many women are choosing to remain single and child-free for positive reasons, but research in the UK and US demonstrates that economic precarity, high house prices and the extortionate cost of childcare mean other women who do want children are concluding they cannot afford to have them. Penny’s analysis leaves no room to consider the complexity and diversity of women’s desires: free or low-cost universal childcare would indeed be a huge step forward, liberating women who want to work and to retain financial independence, so that they aren’t tied to abusive or unsatisfactory relationships. But not all childcare is performed grudgingly; plenty of mothers (and fathers) would also want the time and financial support to stay at home with their children.

This is a broad, ambitious book, and Penny’s writing is vivid and passionate. I share many of their aspirations: how wonderful it would be if all people were equally free to express their sexuality, identity and desires without fear or punishment, if we all felt we could choose to remain alone or form the kinds of families and intimate relationships we want. In fact, I’d go slightly further than Penny. You can “have it all” they write, if you have a professional job, a home in a nice area, a husband and kids, “as long as you never asked if there was, or could be, anything more”. But what if not every such woman is suffering from a harmful failure of imagination: what if they are quite simply happy?

Sexual Revolution
Laurie Penny
Bloomsbury, 320pp, £20

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror