Laurie Penny’s Sexual Revolution offers an eclectic argument full of inconsistencies, while omitting any understanding of how class underpins oppression, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Laurie Penny, Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback (Bloomsbury Publishing 2022), vii, 397pp.

The interconnected crises of capitalism and the tendency of mainstream commentators to consider them only in bite-sized chunks provide writers on the left with an easy way to sound profound. Simply point out that issue A is in fact directly related to issue B and you’re already way ahead of most of the liberal media. Thus, Laurie Penny’s opening gambit in Sexual Revolution is that ‘you can track the crisis of democracy against the crisis of white masculinity, and [that]… the far right is rising in response to both.’ In consequence, we’re facing ‘the choice between feminism and fascism’ (p.1). It is an interesting hypothesis, but it is lacking here in sustained argument to back it up.

At many points, the text reads as if it could have done with at least one more copy-edit. Penny is fond of lists – of right-wing leaders, of oppressed groups, and so on – but shows an unfortunate tendency to construct lists where at least one member’s inclusion is dubious. So, for example, a list of leaders who are ‘feckless wastrels who … had spent their lives falling upwards and dodging responsibility’ (p.4) includes not only Trump, Johnson, and Bolsonaro, but also Putin. Putin can of course be criticised for many things, but the lazy irresponsibility of a Johnson-like figure is not really one of them. It is not that Penny categorises all right-wing figures as feckless wastrels. Johnson appears twice on lists of ‘stern fathers’: political figures standing for family values and law and order, which doesn’t seem to quite nail Johnson’s political presentation. The fact that one of these lists is explicitly described as being of Western politicians but includes Indian PM Narendra Modi (p.167) underlines the impression of carelessness.

Inconsistencies and evidence

Other lists have a similarly unfortunate effect on the sense. Penny routinely lists ‘women, girls and queer people’ where what is really meant is people who were assigned female at birth, such as those who suffer sexual harassment at work, protect men from uncomfortable self-reflection, or put up with mediocre relationships. While some queer people, those who were assigned female at birth, may indeed be subject to these aspects of women’s oppression, most of those who were assigned male at birth will not be. The formulation has the effect of making the experience of queer people assigned female at birth more difficult to disinter, which is presumably the opposite of the intent.

This is not restricted to Penny’s references to queer people. There is for example one particularly egregious passage where Penny comments in a discussion of how ‘sooner or later, every revolution comes down to who does the dishes’ that ‘it is still women, and particularly women of colour, who do most of the cooking, the cleaning, the childbearing and the childrearing’ (p.151). This is true because women of colour are less likely than white women to have the resources to pay for cleaning and childcare, and more likely to be employed in domestic work themselves. Penny’s omission of this aspect and concentration on the personal, though, ends up implying that women of colour are simply worse at persuading their partners to take on their share. This would reflect the racist idea that black men are more sexist than white men and would, of course, not have been Penny’s meaning. It demonstrates though how lip-service to intersectionality without genuinely intersectional thought can end up in some strange places.

Even aside from the lists, the argument is shot through with inconsistencies, including those which arguably matter more than the question of whether Johnson is a stern father figure or the sort of father who lets the kids run with scissors and try Daddy’s whiskey. Penny’s discussion of the sex trade, for example, is clear in its condemnation of feminists who work ‘in collusion with the carceral state’ (p.145). This is rather in contradiction, however, to a discussion of rape a hundred pages before, in which Penny is clear that ‘repairing all this is not just about changing laws. It’s as much about enforcing laws that are already on the books’ (p.45).

To be clear, this is not to argue that feminists should work with immigration officials to get the victims of sex trafficking deported, nor that rape laws should not be enforced. There are indeed no easy answers on this issue within the capitalist system. However, if you are going to call those with whom you disagree carceral feminists, you can’t then hang important parts of your argument on calls for action by the carceral state. Not, at least, if you wish to appear as if you’re arguing in good faith, or that you know what ‘carceral’ means.

In general, Penny’s arguments are light on the supporting evidence and references. This has been commented on in other reviews particularly in reference to the section on the sex trade, but it is apparent throughout that we’re largely expected to take Penny’s pronouncements on faith. This has the effect of merging what Penny thinks should happen with what is actually happening, as in the opening polemic:

‘All over the world, women and queer people are rewriting the terms of a social contract that was never supposed to include us. Women of colour, Indigenous women, trans women and young women are driving this change. They are remaking the future in a shape that redefines freedom as universal and demands it for everyone’ (p.2).

You’re left feeling that this would be an excellent development, but some examples of this new movement in action, beyond a short piece about #metoo, would have been helpful.

Change only in the head

It may be though that these real-world examples are missing not simply from an unconcern about chronology but because they’re happening, not out in the world, but in people’s heads. It becomes clear in the course of the book that while Penny is prepared to talk about systems, of patriarchy or capitalism for example, the vision of society with which we’re presented is essentially one where the driving force is individuals and their feelings. Patriarchy, we’re told, is ‘a system of male dominance that is designed to keep everyone, of every gender, in their assigned roles, concentrating wealth and agency in the hands of a paranoid few’ (p.3). The inclusion of paranoia here has the effect of implying that it is the feeling which keeps the patriarchal system in place. If those wealthy white men would be prepared to give up their paranoia, then the system would change.

This blindness to the real, impersonal workings of the system of exploitation and oppression under which we live carries over into Penny’s views of activism. For someone who practises resistance and rebellion, Penny is remarkably unwilling to see any historical developments as being the result of feminist activity. It’s not quite that Penny is oblivious to the existence of Second Wave feminism, but there is a strange disinclination to attribute any gains to it.

Penny’s discussion of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, for example, puts it down entirely to the liberating effect of the development of birth control. It’s not, of course, that contraception was unimportant, but it is technological determinism of the most obtuse kind to see the Pill as the sole driver of women’s liberation. Yes, women’s ability to control their fertility was and remains crucial, but without the feminist struggles of the two centuries before the Pill, it is entirely possible that contraceptive advances would have remained restricted, deployed only for women who were controlled by and acceptable to men. The shift from Dutch caps only available by showing your marriage certificate to the doctor to the Pill available to any woman, was not an automatic result of the technology. It is denying the agency of all those women who fought for sexual liberation to argue differently.

Self-help feminism

For Penny, however, activism is not organising with others to change the world, so much as it is changing your own feelings. The peroration, in which Penny opines that ‘resistance is an intimate art. It works from the inside out’ makes this clear, together with the rather disturbing notion that ‘your part in a better, braver world’ is contingent on your realisation that ‘you deserve to be part of a society that nurtures life’ (p.265). ‘Revolution’, Penny says in the introduction, ‘does not begin the streets. Revolution begins in the head, and in the heart’ (p.18). The impression you are left with by the end is that that is also where revolution stops. There is no revolution other than the revolution of feelings.

This is feminism as self-help, with the concomitant implied message of much self-help that if we haven’t fixed the world by now, it’s because we haven’t improved ourselves enough. It is true, as Penny argues, that movements against oppression can’t divorce themselves completely from the personal behaviour of the activists. That there are male activists who ‘believe that the way they behave in intimate relationships with women exists in a magical sphere separate from politics’ is a problem, and they are wrong to think that ‘the way they treat women romantically has nothing to do with racism or sexism’ (p.128). Equally, though, a movement that demanded absolute purity would be consumed by trying to root out the impure. We are all imperfect products of our imperfect society, fighting for a better world while living with the effects of the society within which we’ve all been brought up. This isn’t a get out for sexism or racism, but an acknowledgement that we need to be orientated on actual activity not personal denunciation.

If this sounds as if I am accusing Penny of adopting a rather liberal attitude towards feminist struggle, that’s because, for all its rebellious packaging and back-cover claims to be revolutionary, this is an essentially liberal book. For Penny, there appears to be very little in the way of society, and certainly no such thing as class. The existence of capitalism is acknowledged, but as a structure sitting underneath patriarchy, which leads for example to the odd implication that the modern workplace is primarily ‘an enforcing mechanism for hierarchies of racial and gendered power’ (p.137). This is not to say, of course, that workplaces cannot fulfil that function, but it is rather missing the basic point that workplaces under capitalism exist to generate profits.

Class and oppression

There is no sense here of why women’s oppression exists, except perhaps that some old, white men are nasty. Penny states that it began when ‘half of humanity [was] corralled into the political category of ‘womanhood’, but gives no suggestion of what may have been behind this development (hint: class), or indeed that there was anything behind it at all (p.6). You’re left with the notion that it was either arbitrary or inevitable, neither of which is helpful for understanding how to overthrow it. This ignoring of class and exploitation affects not just Penny’s view of the reasons for women’s oppression, but the view put forward of its operation in the present. White women, Penny argues for example, sometimes go along with white supremacist men out of ‘cowardice’ (p.193). A better explanation here would be that those white women perceive white supremacy to be in their class interests, but Penny cannot make that argument without acknowledging the existence of class.

The non-existence of class in Penny’s world view renders the central argument about work particularly incoherent. In discussing women’s continuing responsibility for the reproduction of labour, Penny adopts a ‘wages for housework’ position, arguing that housework is ‘the great unfinished battle of modern feminism’ (p.163), and that domestic and care work must be recognised as work and paid for accordingly. This does not appear to be accompanied, however, by any understanding of the extent to which domestic work has been commodified since the Wages for Housework campaign of the 1970s. Working-class women are being paid for housework; they’re just being paid low wages by agencies for spending many hours doing it in other people’s houses.

An argument which posits that domestic work should be paid, without taking into account this modern reality, is unlikely to help many women. It is also inconsistent with Penny’s objection to any kind of work, on the basis that it is non-consensual. This is an argument introduced in the discussion of the sex trade. Penny argues that the position of some abolitionists, that prostituted women forced into the industry by the lack of other options cannot give free consent to sex they’re paid to have, isn’t an effective argument against prostitution. On the contrary, it is an argument that all work under capitalism is non-consensual, in the sense that we have to sell our labour in order to live, and therefore that building a new ethics of consent would undermine all forms of work.

Superficially, this could seem to be a good point, but a little thought here shows that non-consensual work is simply part of life. All creatures, from ants to blue whales, must work in some sense to eat. Objecting to that basic fact on the basis that it is non-consensual gets us into the ‘I didn’t ask to be born’ territory of teenage tantrums. The more sensible objection to work in class societies is, of course, that it is exploitative. We don’t get to keep the value of our labour; nor do we get to have a democratic say over what work is done and the uses to which what we produce is put. Women’s oppression, like other forms of oppression, is an important tool for elites to maintain their exploitative power over the working class, so fighting it is key for both women and men. You would not know that, however, from Penny’s argument.

This review has concentrated on the weaknesses of Sexual Revolution, because they are so prominent, but it would not be fair to leave out the positives. Every generation of feminists needs their entry-level texts, and if you have never seen an account of how anti-abortion laws are bad, or right-wing movements are often misogynist, or an argument that you don’t have to put up with your boyfriend treating you like a sex slave or his mother, some of this will be worth reading. Penny can certainly write. It is just a pity that in this latest book, there is so little evidence of Penny’s undoubted ability also to think.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.