Laurie Penny, you've lost me

A much-revered excerpt from Laurie Penny’s most-recent book, “Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution,” is published over at Salon. The headline reads: “Mainstream feminism is tepid and cowardly: Work, sex, race, ‘having it all’ and true liberation.”

Tips for newcomers: the hot and trendy thing to do in feminism these days is shit on it. Everyone is simultaneously too radical or not radical enough and no one’s really sure what radical means anyway. Since we aren’t quite sure what it is we are talking about and who “everyone” is, you can pretty much pick from a grab bag of labels, toss them around vaguely at no one in particular, and folks will pretend as though they know exactly what you are talking about and congratulate you for saying the same nonsensical thing a hundred other newbie/lazy people already said this year. It’s like how I play darts: just huck it as hard as you can and hope it sticks somewhere on the board. “Is that points? Yay.”

But Penny is no newbie. She’s a smart, brave, feminist and a strong writer. What gives?

In this particular excerpt she derides “mainstream feminism,” “public feminism,” “career feminists,” and, in not so many words, radical feminists, older feminists, and abolitionists. Who are we talking about here, exactly? Who is a “mainstream feminist?” Is it the almost universally hated Sheryl Sandberg, who feminism agreed would be the go-to example of doing it wrong? Is it the women who write for Salon? Is it all white women? Liberal feminists who are only focused on “getting more women into ‘boardrooms’?” Heterosexual women? Middle-class women? All feminists who are trying to make it as writers and journalists (i.e. women who are making feminism part of their “career?” Also potentially known as “career feminists?”)? Feminists who fight the appallingly racist, misogynist, capitalist, violent porn industry? The old, prudish, sex-hating, second wavers? Who?

Is anyone else willing to admit that the targets are both nobody and everybody? This all feels a little emperor-has-no-clotheseque, I have to say…

But here. I’ll start: Laurie Penny, you lost me. I literally have no clue what this essay is arguing. It feels like you stepped into the ring and threw a bunch of cheap shots without hitting any targets.

Well, no. You landed a few punches with some easy ageism and sexism… Classic move. The internet loves that shit.

“Just when it should be most radical, ‘public feminism’ has become increasingly concerned with a species of thin-lipped censoriousness that posits sex, rather than sexism, as the real problem. The feminist campaigns that attract the most attention and funding are those concerned with stamping out pornography, ending prostitution and preventing the sale of suggestive T-shirts.

This is a discourse that treats women as victims not just of our admittedly hugely fucked-up erotic culture, but of sex itself, without properly understanding the nature of commercial sexuality or of objectification. Sexism is apparently not the problem: the problem is sex, the nature of it, the amount of it that’s being had away from moralising eyes, sometimes for money.”

So, I don’t know what this “public feminism” means because, well, aren’t you public? Aren’t all of us who write or campaign or organize “public feminists?” In any case, were there to be such a thing as a cohesive “public feminism,” should it not be concerned with the ever-expanding, ever-exploitative, billion dollar sex industry? No? Stupid, right? I mean, why bother with silly things like the objectification of women? Or the rape and abuse and murder and degradation of prostituted women — selling sex because they have no other way to survive? Ugh. Focus on something that matters amirite? “Tepid.” “Cowardly.” Fight the man, you guys. Oh wait… We are.

And OH! The “thin-lipped” freedom-haters! Censoring “sex” with their cob-webbed vaginas and gavels! Bang! YOUR PORN IS CENSORED. Bang! See ya later prostitution! Bang! No more rapey t-shirts for you, boys!

Remember that time? That time we plucked out the eyeballs of all males, preventing them from looking at boobs on their computers? I’ll never forget those rows of bloody eye sockets. And then there was that other time — the time we stopped “sex” in its tracks. That was a good day. Let the good times of a rape-free, harassment-free, throat-fucking-free society roll. I just wear my chastity belt as a fashion accessory these days.

Sigh. I could write an entire essay about just those two paragraphs. In fact, I think I will.

Laurie Penny. You know better than this. You must know that feminism’s fight against pornography and prostitution is about opposing sexism — not about opposing sex. This is the game that anti-feminist men play. “Oh you hate watching gang-bangs? You must hate sex you ugly prude!” “Oh you think prostitution exists because of patriarchy and colonialism and exploits the most marginalized members of our society? WHY DO YOU HATE BONERS? Put your bible away, Jesus!”

Penny, a supposedly radical feminist, has essentially called feminists who fight misogyny dowdy, bitter, prudes who are invested, not in creating an egalitarian society free from violence and oppression, but censorship.

Why is this happening??

We understand “the nature of commercial sexuality [and] objectification.” We really do. Do you, Laurie? Do you truly believe that the feminist fight against the commodification and objectification of female bodies and sexuality is a fight against “sex?” Because I don’t believe that you believe that. Have you ever heard me complain about “sex” and the “amount” people are having? I never did publish those op-eds, “Get your dick out of my vag!” or “KAO (Kill All Orgasms)” after all. In fact, I feel like I published a number of other over-sharey articles about the intimate details of my sex life and the nature of my orgasms wherein not once did I express concern about how much sex I or other people are having. I also feel like a bunch of women have argued that porn provides a horrible sex education and teaches men that women’s pleasure doesn’t matter and, in fact, that women like to be hurt and that hurting and degrading women is sexy… I feel like it’s pretty clear that those arguments are not “anti-sex” so much as they are “pro-real-sex-that-is-pleasurable-for-everyone-involved-and-doesn’t-turn-women-into-fuck-toys.”

And as for our “moralizing,” well, I don’t know. I’ve come to the conclusion that having “morals” isn’t such bad thing. I feel like, in a society, we tend to like to agree that certain behaviours are acceptable and that others are not. Murder is wrong, for example (or wait, am I censoring murder now?). So is violence, abuse, incest, pedophilia, etc. Too much moralizing? Well, sorrynotsorry. Other things I am not sorry for: opposing that situation wherein men pay to fuck and abuse and degrade and sometimes murder women who are repulsed by them because we live in a world wherein men think women and girls were born so men have something to stick their dicks into.

I don’t know which one I am — the “mainstream feminist,” the “public feminist,” the “career feminist,” or the “thin-lipped censorius” feminist. I don’t care. These labels are meaningless and yet are tossed back and forth with zeal online, in an effort to win at the game of “step on someone else’s neck to make yourself taller/gain Twitter followers” that internet feminism seems so fond of. Why are you playing that game, Laurie? It’s a bad game. The ones who lose are women.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.