Laurie Penny is a columnist for New Statesman and the author of Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism. Her new book, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is published by Bloomsbury.
In this wide-ranging interview, she discusses pornography, online abuse and the many different strands of contemporary feminism.
The feminism you articulate in this book seeks to speak for and liberate the marginalised, the ‘other’ in capitalist society. How did you come to this conception of feminism?
Well I wouldn’t say the kind of feminism that represents women who aren’t necessarily wealthy, white and living in Western countries was my idea. There’s a long history of socialist and anti-capitalist feminism which is one of the reasons why some of the themes – though I talk about the internet, online dating for example – and some of the ideas in it might seem quite retro. It's harking back to a slightly older form of feminism from the 1970s, '80s and even beyond. I look back on the work of Emma Goldman and Alexandra Kollontai, women who believed that women needed to rise together as a class rather than as individuals within the capitalist system.
You speak in a language of revolution and class – are you not worried that seeing feminism through a stridently left-wing prism will alienate your audience with socialist concepts that are little discussed in the mainstream?
No, I’m not worried at all. I think it's important to articulate these ideas in the mainstream and to make clear that some of our ideas of what mainstream feminism should be about are actually only representative of a minority. It concerns me, this idea that the only way to appeal to a broad spectrum of women is to only speak about the issues that affect women at the very top, which seems to be what feminism has been doing for some time now.
Which other current writers and thinkers do you consider to be articulating a similar form of feminism? For example, your work and the work of Paris Lees could be seen as comparable.
Oh yes, I love what Paris is doing, but actually the feminist and gender writers I really admire right now aren’t writing books – they’re writing articles, they’re writing blogs. I’m a fan of a lot of the writing coming out of America. For example, Hannah Black at The New Inquiry and Melissa Gira Grant’s book Playing the Whore is very important for my understanding of sex work.
But I think the thing that needs to be emphasised is that a lot of the most important feminist writing right now isn’t being done in books. I’m now trying to get some of those radical ideas online and into the world of mainstream publishing which has always seen socialism, anti-capitalism and supporting sex workers' rights as things that just won't sell.
Yours is a visceral, quite angry form of feminism, as opposed to the jokey pop-feminism of writers on websites such as Jezebel. Do you consider the latter equally as valid and useful as your own approach?
I’d challenge that actually, because some of the work of Jezebel can be quite radical. Lindy West, for example, one of Jezebel’s headline writers, is both hilarious and extremely radical when it comes to questions of gender representation and media. I challenge the idea that, particularly with online “pop-feminism”, there is no space for radicalism, and actually more forthright and provocative ideas are coming into the mainstream.
Can a coherent feminist worldview be held by a right-wing person? Do you think someone like Louise Mensch’s feminism makes sense?
That depends on what you mean by coherent. Certainly, there are feminists on the right. Their ideas of what feminism means have little relevance to most women and don’t address structural inequality and economic injustice, which are particularly important for women right now as the global super-rich pull away from everybody else. I wouldn’t say they are not feminists: there are many different kinds of feminism, but there are some who I don’t have much time for.
Do you think it’s a problem, within the vast range of modern feminism, that so much time is spent calling each other 'not feminist’ for whatever tiny mistake they might make?
I think the problem is that journalists focus on the tiny fights within feminism. I’m perfectly happy to let right-wing feminists get on with what they want to do, as long as they don’t start trampling on my rights or anyone else’s rights. Feminism is not about other feminists; it never has been, although of course that does happen. I think the story that interviewers and the patriarchal press still tell is a story about feminists fighting each other when that’s really not what’s happening and never really has been.
You use your own personal experiences as the jumping-off point for much of your writing, but isn’t your own experience as a public figure unusual compared to most of your readers, especially with regard to the online abuse you’ve received?
Well firstly, I haven’t spent my whole life being a public figure, nor am I particularly famous, though it's nice that you seem to think so. Online abuse can be experienced by anyone, particularly as we live so much of our lives online now. People who experience this abuse come from all different backgrounds and many different ranges of experience. A lot of them are people who happen to exist on the internet, who are being targeted and told their experience doesn’t matter.
There’s been a massive backlash against transsexual women on the internet right now. Transsexual women just writing in an everyday way about their experience face the most horrific abuse. I think for publicity, probably, the media tells a story about well-known white, middle-class professional women experiencing abuse, but really this happens for everyone. Maybe it happens to me a bit more because I’m more visible, but I certainly don’t think that I’m an outlier in that.
No sooner was your book released then it became a target for the sort of misogynistic trolling you discuss within it. Why does the internet not seem to like outspoken female voices?
I think there’s definite sections of society that seems to think that women should not talk in public about anything; that women should not occupy space in the public conversation, whether they’re talking about women’s experiences or anything at all. Women political columnists and women business columnists get attacked for just writing whilst female, having an opinion whilst female, because society remains deeply misogynist and massively resistant to the change that’s happening in terms of women’s voices.
Would you say you get more abuse because you’re writing as a woman, or because you’re writing left-wing opinions?
Well, people certainly don’t like that I’m both. I’ve never written as a left-wing person who’s not a woman, so I don’t really know what it’d be like.
Other writers like Owen Jones often receive a lot of trolling, but it seems that women often receive abuse that is more sexually violent in nature.
Absolutely, there’s particular vitriol aimed at people who are female and left-wing.
Like Yasmin Alibhai Brown?
Yes, and Yasmin Alibhai Brown is female, left-wing and from a Muslim background, so obviously she’s a hate figure for people who believe women and people of colour aren’t fully human and that therefore you can say to them whatever you want.
Yet you praise the power of the internet to connect women and create a worldwide support network, as well as its power of sexual liberation. Does this make it worth all the abuse?
Well I think online abuse is a direct response to the fact that the internet is allowing women to change social narratives around how we’re represented. It is allowing women to find ourselves and organise and discuss different ways of living much more quickly. I think the two are definitely connected. Online abuse and the violent exclusion of women from online spaces is definitely a political issue, and it's a response to the fact that the internet is the most important tool for the liberation of women that we have right now and that we’ve had for generations.
You talk about how campaigns based around restricting images of sex and pornography get the most attention – why do you think this is?
For two reasons: firstly, because there is a deep prudish strand within a lot of right-wing feminism that gets a lot of attention from particularly Conservative governments. It's very comforting to think that by sexually controlling women and young girls we can ‘fix’ feminism. But the other reason is that papers love to talk about sex and pornography. They love to run stories about sex and pornography, preferably with illustrations, as it means that they don’t have to talk about big, unsexy issues like domestic violence and economic injustice. Obviously sex and pornography are informed by those issues – they don’t exist in a vacuum. I think talking about sex and pornography without talking about social injustice and violence against women in a broader way, well, it's not very useful.
Would you say that fourth-wave feminism has got beyond the ‘all sex bad’ ideas of previous waves? You talk about the joys of cyber-sex, but do you have a general opinion on pornography, or does it depend on the specific images shown?
There’s a massive backlash against women’s sexual freedom going on, and pornography can be part of that because a lot of mainstream pornography tells a story about sexuality in which women are always passive, never experiencing pleasure and are there as objects for men to use and abuse for sex.
I think we need to have a conversation about pornography that includes the idea that sexual videos and pictures aren’t wrong, and that it’s not wrong to make money by selling sex or by participating in sex work. I think only when we understand that sex is a social idea and that pornography is not in itself evil can we ask why so much pornography is problematic.
Image credit: Carmen Jost