This feminist manifesto is like bad sex: perfunctory and monotonous

FEMINISM: Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback, Laurie Penny, Bloomsbury, $29. 99

Recognised for their acerbic and insightful books and articles, the journalist and writer Laurie Penny has carved out a career as a brave and unapologetic left-leaning feminist. In Penny’s latest book, the weighty topic of fascism is given a modern makeover in the context of a new sexual revolution.

It is, however, hard to pin down whether fascism here is the new name for what we have traditionally called patriarchy, or a new kind of white masculinity aligned to far-right ideology, increasingly threatened by the perceived gains of women, people of colour, and sexual minorities, or indeed modern masculinity tout court. Disappointingly, we never get a clear sense of why fascism is the best term to describe the enemy of feminism’s protracted and diffuse battles. In spite of this incoherency, the stark choice presented at the beginning of the book is between feminism and fascism. There are no shades of grey.

Many of the topics Penny covers (heterosexual love, consent, unpaid domestic labour, reproductive rights, extreme misogyny, male abuse of power and privilege) are critical if not new issues but their intractability warrants renewed attention if not outrage. But fused with anecdotes (many about Penny’s or their friend’s own experiences of bad sex and relationships) and one-size-fits-all polemical solutions, there is little sustained attention or intellectual care here to make the personal political or even evocative.

Instead, the book gives us plenty of rhetorical outrage (265 pages), the kind that has become all too familiar on our social media feeds. On the first page alone we have the crisis of white masculinity, a crisis of democracy, a crisis of care and of reproduction, to be finally told that sex and gender are [also] in crisis. Granted there is a lot that makes us feel the world is in deep trouble. But to routinely mark everything with the rhetoric of crisis without providing a deeper account of what these predicaments tell us about the present, makes the book come across as a pile-on of shouty headlines rather than a call-to-arms, let alone a sustained critique.

To further frustrate the reader, the book is littered with editorial errors, undigested ideas, and passages that are perplexing if not comical: Something has broken. Something is breaking still. Not like a glass breaks or like a heart breaks, but like the shell of an egg breaks – inexorably, and from the inside. Something wet and angry is fighting its way out of the dark, and it has claws. Although recalling the Alien film franchise (for this reader at least), I’m not sure Penny had in mind this kind of alien creature as the symbol of the new feminist fightback. But who knows?

Like bad sex, the book feels at once overly perfunctory and incessantly monotonous. And like a lot of meme-driven political culture, if not institutional diversity initiatives, it tends to flatten the various constituencies for which it otherwise advocates. For example, the repeated shorthand phrase women and queer people and occasionally women and queer people and people of colour nods to intersectionality without bothering to reflect on how the issues at hand have very different consequences for disparate minority or subordinated groups.

It is this kind of flimsy intersectional language that works to homogenise the experiences of minority groups and keeps in play a version of Western feminism that nods to diversity without bothering to understand how difference operates.

Promoted as a manifesto for social change and gesturing to second-wave feminist classics such as Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), Penny ’s book nevertheless lacks the visionary force and acute writing associated with those iconic feminist manifestos and their radical blueprint for change. Nor does the book give us a useful digest of why these works might be still meaningful today.

Reading this while watching Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins hold powerful men accountable for their power and privilege, their cowardness and their scapegoating, I was struck by the dissonance between Penny’s incoherent bid for a sexual revolution and the realpolitik of outrage and anger performed by these two women on mainstream media.

If you want a reason for hope, perhaps turn again to Tame and Higgins’ press club address. That may not be a revolution in the making but it is a robust sign of the changing landscape of feminism as it bravely and impatiently confronts the slow progress of change.

Natalya Lusty is a professor of cultural studies at the University of Melbourne and is completing a book on feminist manifestos.

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