Book Review: Unspeakable Things – Sex, Lies and Revolution

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Laurie Penny’s new book, Unspeakable Things, sheds light on some perceptive ideas about how pervasive gender is and how destructive it has become.

I began reading Unspeakable Things about a week ago before going to bed. Just a few pages in, I realized this was not a book for late night reading—Laurie Penny’s unapologetic writing is in your face and it will keep you awake. She declares, “This is a feminist book. It is not a cheery instruction manual for how to negotiate modern patriarchy with a sassy wink and a thumbs-up … As a handbook for happiness in a fucked-up world, this book cannot be trusted.” However it can be trusted to shed light on some perceptive ideas about how pervasive gender is and how destructive it has become. 

Each of the chapters is loosely based around a different topic which relate to the societal and psychological consequences we face, from rape culture to cutting. The basic premise is that capitalism has created gender norms that are constrictive for everyone. By putting a value on the various roles we play in work and in love, our worth has become defined by how well we fit (or don’t fit) into the current economic system.

Feeding into this is feminism which has come to mean the right to work outside of the home (and aimed at women with mid-to-high wage earnings), a narrow definition that fails to recognize other facets of life and liberation. 

Being a part of this system, Penny contends, comes at a higher price for women. Women are subjugated to contradictory expectations. If you’re pretty then you’re shallow or slutty. If you’re ugly then you don’t even matter. If you get pregnant while working then you don’t take your career seriously. If you don’t want children, then you’re selfish and unnatural. And when women do speak out, they’re met with threats, degrading comments or dismissed as crazy, all of which are attempts at silencing women’s voices or putting them in their place. 

Throughout the book Penny is honest about her own life, the most agonizing being her struggle with anorexia. While some of her experiences may not resonate (like testing the waters of a polyamorous relationship), many others will. She points out that everyone is controlled by gender constructs—women and men, the bullied and the popular. While some additional statistics or studies may have helped her case in showing the depth of the problem outside of her own experiences, she solidly makes a case for untangling a lifetime of gender expectations with the responsibilities, boundaries, and dynamics that we truly desire.

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