Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution

By Laurie Penny


Welcome to the whirlwind world of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny 🌪️📚! In this riveting book, Penny, a renowned journalist and feminist, dives deep into the heart of contemporary feminist issues, intertwining personal narrative with sharp social analysis. Released in the thick of the digital age’s rise, the book tackles the complexities of sexism, gender, and power dynamics in the 21st century. Laurie Penny brings to the table her rich experience as a writer, activist, and public speaker, making this book not just a read, but an experience. It’s a genre-defying mix of memoir, feminist treatise, and sociopolitical commentary, and it boldly navigates the rough seas of modern sexuality and inequality. So, buckle up for a journey through the eyes of someone who’s not afraid to say the unspeakable 🗣️💥.

Plot Summary

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is not a traditional narrative with a linear plot but rather a potent exploration of various themes related to gender, feminism, capitalism, and the digital age. Below is an outline that captures the essence of its structure, focusing on its main thematic “events”:

  • Exposition — Laurie Penny introduces us to the current state of gender politics, emphasizing the crisis of masculinity and the objectification of women in society. She sets the stage by discussing her own experiences and observations, providing a personal lens through which readers can understand broader societal issues.
  • Rising Action — Penny delves into the heart of the digital revolution and its impact on feminism and activism. She discusses how the internet has become a double-edged sword: a place for liberation and expression but also for harassment and misogyny. The rising action involves her analysis of how neoliberal capitalism exacerbates gender inequality and how traditional power structures adapt to maintain control.
  • Climax — The climax occurs as Penny critiques the failings of contemporary feminist movements to be inclusive and intersectional. She challenges the reader to rethink feminism beyond surface-level engagements and calls for a revolution that addresses the roots of oppression, including capitalism, racism, and patriarchy.
  • Falling Action — In response to the climax, Penny offers pathways towards a more inclusive and radical form of feminism. This involves embracing vulnerability, acknowledging diverse experiences of oppression, and fostering a solidarity that goes beyond gender binaries. She emphasizes the importance of creating spaces where difficult conversations about privilege, identity, and resistance can occur.
  • Resolution — Penny concludes with a hopeful vision for the future, suggesting that through collective action, empathy, and understanding, a more equitable society is possible. She calls for a revolution not just in the streets but in the mind, urging readers to reimagine and rebuild the world in which we live.

This structure helps Penny weave together personal anecdotes with cultural criticism, creating a compelling call to action against the unspeakable things that perpetuate inequality and injustice in our society.

Character Analysis

In Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, Laurie Penny uses her own experiences and observations as the central perspective, rather than traditional characters found in fiction. Therefore, the “character” analysis here focuses on the personas and groups she discusses in relation to the themes of the book.

  • Laurie Penny — As the narrator and principal ‘character,’ Penny presents herself as both a journalist and activist. Her voice is passionate, critical, and deeply personal. She navigates through her own life experiences, using them as a lens to critique broader societal issues. Her development throughout the book reflects a journey of understanding and articulating complex issues around feminism, gender, and capitalism.
  • The Feminist Activist — Representing a broad group rather than an individual, the feminist activist in Penny’s narrative is anyone who challenges the status quo of gender politics. This ‘character’ evolves from traditional feminist ideologies to a more inclusive, intersectional approach that recognizes the multifaceted nature of oppression.
  • The Neoliberal Capitalist — This persona is used to critique the economic system that, according to Penny, exacerbates inequality and commodifies feminism. While not a character in the conventional sense, the neoliberal capitalist embodies the forces of market-driven feminism and the co-optation of feminist movements for profit, contrasting sharply with the ideals of the feminist activist.
  • The Internet Troll — Another figurative ‘character,’ the internet troll represents the dark side of digital culture. Penny discusses how anonymity and the structure of the internet foster a culture where misogyny and harassment flourish, challenging the notion of the internet as an inherently democratic space.

Character Analysis Summary

Laurie PennyCritical, insightful, passionateTo critique and analyze gender politics and capitalismGrows in understanding of intersectionality and activism
The Feminist ActivistDetermined, inclusive, evolvingTo challenge gender inequalities and promote a more just societyMoves towards more intersectional and inclusive approaches
The Neoliberal CapitalistImpersonal, exploitative, pervasiveTo profit from and maintain the status quo under the guise of progressHighlighted as a contrast to genuine feminist values
The Internet TrollHostile, anonymous, regressiveTo disrupt and harass under the veil of anonymityServes as a critique of unchecked digital culture

Through these characters, Penny illustrates the dynamic and often contentious landscape of modern feminism, activism, and social change, urging a reevaluation of our approaches to these critical issues.

Themes and Symbols

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny delves into a myriad of critical themes and uses potent symbols to underscore its analysis of modern society. Here’s a look at some of the major themes and symbols Penny employs:

  • Intersectionality — A crucial theme, intersectionality highlights the complex layers of identity that affect how individuals experience oppression. Penny argues that feminism must consider race, class, sexuality, and more, to be truly effective and inclusive.
  • The Digital Revolution — The internet emerges as a double-edged sword; a symbol of freedom and oppression. It represents the potential for feminist activism but also the dark underbelly of misogyny and harassment. Penny navigates this duality, showing how the digital landscape shapes modern feminism.
  • Neoliberal Capitalism — This theme critiques how capitalism co-opts feminism and social movements, turning them into marketable products rather than genuine change. Penny uses the commodification of feminist symbols and messages as a critique of neoliberal capitalism’s pervasive influence.
  • Vulnerability and Strength — Through personal anecdotes and broader social analysis, Penny presents vulnerability as a symbol of strength. By sharing her own experiences with harassment and insecurity, she illustrates how embracing vulnerability can be a powerful tool for connection and change.
  • The Unspeakable — Central to Penny’s work, the concept of the “unspeakable” symbolizes the issues society refuses to address: sexism, inequality, and the hidden mechanisms of power. Penny urges readers to confront these uncomfortable truths to foster genuine revolution.

Significance and Contribution to Overall Meaning

  • Intersectionality ensures that the narrative is relevant and resonant for a broad audience, emphasizing the need for a feminism that acknowledges diverse experiences.
  • The Digital Revolution reflects the contemporary battleground for feminist ideas, where victories and setbacks occur in the fast-moving online world.
  • Neoliberal Capitalism serves as a warning against the dilution of activist movements in the consumerist agenda, stressing the importance of authenticity in the fight for equality.
  • Vulnerability and Strength challenges the traditional dichotomy of weakness and power, proposing a new paradigm where honesty about one’s struggles is an act of defiance and strength.
  • The Unspeakable ties the book’s themes together, underscoring the imperative to voice and confront the systemic issues often left unaddressed in public discourse.

Through these themes and symbols, Laurie Penny crafts a compelling critique of modern feminism and society, calling for a radical reevaluation of how we discuss and tackle the deep-seated issues of gender, power, and inequality.

Writing Style and Tone

Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution is marked by a distinctive writing style and tone that contribute significantly to the book’s mood and atmosphere. Let’s break down these elements:

  • Personal and Conversational — Penny writes as if she’s directly conversing with the reader. This approachable style makes complex ideas accessible and engaging, fostering a sense of intimacy and understanding.
  • Incisive and Provocative — Never one to shy away from controversial opinions, Penny’s writing is sharp and pointed. She challenges conventional wisdom and societal norms, inviting readers to question their own beliefs and assumptions.
  • Empathetic yet Uncompromising — While Penny often shares personal anecdotes to connect with the reader on an emotional level, she remains steadfast in her critiques of societal structures, demonstrating a balance between empathy for individuals and a critical stance on systemic issues.
  • Humorous and Witty — Despite tackling heavy topics, Penny’s writing includes moments of levity and wit. Her humor serves as a tool for both engagement and critique, lightening the tone without diminishing the seriousness of her arguments.
  • Reflective and Analytical — Penny combines personal reflection with deep analysis of cultural and political phenomena. This blend not only grounds her arguments in real-life experiences but also provides a nuanced examination of the issues at hand.

Mood and Atmosphere

  • The personal and conversational tone creates a welcoming atmosphere, making readers feel like they are part of an ongoing dialogue.
  • The incisive and provocative nature of her writing energizes the narrative, keeping readers engaged and often prompting moments of self-reflection.
  • Her empathetic yet uncompromising approach fosters a mood of solidarity with those who experience oppression, while also demanding accountability and change from the systems that perpetuate inequality.
  • Humor and wit introduce a dynamic mood, allowing the book to navigate the tension between critique and hope, darkness and light.
  • The reflective and analytical style adds depth to the atmosphere, encouraging readers to ponder deeply the complexities of modern life and the possibilities for a better future.

Through her unique writing style and tone, Laurie Penny crafts a compelling narrative that is both enlightening and mobilizing, driving home the importance of confronting the “unspeakable things” in our society with courage and conviction.

Literary Devices used in Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution

1. Metaphor

Laurie Penny uses metaphors extensively to draw parallels between societal issues and more relatable, everyday experiences. This device helps abstract concepts like capitalism and patriarchy become more tangible for the reader, enhancing understanding and engagement.

2. Anaphora

The repetition of words at the beginning of successive clauses, known as anaphora, is employed for emphasis and to build a rhythmic momentum in her arguments. This technique underlines key points, making them more memorable and impactful.

3. Allusion

Penny frequently references cultural, historical, and literary figures and events as a way to contextualize her arguments within a broader cultural and historical narrative, enriching the reader’s understanding of her points.

4. Irony

Irony is used to highlight the contradictions between societal expectations and reality, particularly around gender roles and feminist movements. This device effectively critiques the status quo by exposing its absurdities and injustices.

5. Hyperbole

Exaggeration or hyperbole is another tool in Penny’s arsenal, used to underscore the extremities of certain situations or to convey the intense emotions and stakes involved in feminist and social activism.

6. Imagery

Vivid imagery is utilized to evoke a strong sensory experience, immersing the reader in the scenes and emotions Penny describes. This device makes her narrative more vivid and compelling, drawing readers closer to her lived experiences.

7. Paradox

Penny often employs paradoxes to illustrate the complex, often contradictory nature of feminist and political issues. This device provokes deeper reflection on the intricacies and nuances of her subjects.

8. Personification

By attributing human characteristics to abstract concepts like capitalism or the internet, Penny makes these entities feel more immediate and potent, critiquing their influence on personal and societal levels.

9. Simile

Comparisons using similes make her arguments more relatable and understandable, bridging the gap between the reader’s experiences and the complex ideas she explores.

10. Juxtaposition

Placing dissimilar ideas, scenes, or descriptions close together, Penny highlights contrasts and contradictions within societal norms and expectations, emphasizing the need for change and a reevaluation of accepted norms.

Each of these literary devices plays a crucial role in enriching Laurie Penny’s narrative, making Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution not just a manifesto on contemporary issues but also a masterclass in engaging and persuasive writing.

Literary Devices Examples

Let’s break down examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny, presented in a table format for clarity.


“Capitalism is a meat grinder, and we are all just trying to not get chewed up.”This metaphor compares capitalism to a meat grinder, illustrating its ruthless nature and the struggle of individuals to survive within it.


“We fight for equality. We fight for respect. We fight for our rights.”The repetition of “We fight” at the beginning of each sentence emphasizes the collective effort and determination in the struggle for justice and equality.


“Like Icarus, we too have flown too close to the sun, thinking our digital wings would save us.”This allusion to the Greek myth of Icarus serves to caution against overreliance on digital technology and the potential downfall it could lead to.


“In a world screaming for freedom, we are shackled to our screens.”This irony highlights the contradiction between the ideal of freedom and the reality of our dependency on technology, questioning the true nature of liberation in the digital age.


“A thousand voices shouting into the void, hoping to be heard over the cacophony.”This hyperbole emphasizes the overwhelming nature of trying to make one’s voice heard in the crowded and noisy landscape of online discourse.


“The neon glow of screens illuminated faces in the dark, a modern campfire around which we gather.”This imagery vividly describes how technology has become a central part of our social interactions, evoking a sense of community and isolation simultaneously.


“We are more connected than ever, yet we have never felt so alone.”This paradox captures the irony of digital connectivity: while technology has the potential to bring us closer, it often leads to feelings of isolation.


“The internet whispers our deepest fears back to us, a mirror reflecting our darkest selves.”By personifying the internet as whispering and reflecting, Penny conveys how it can amplify insecurities and negativity, affecting our self-perception.


“Navigating the online world is like walking through a minefield, every step could lead to disaster.”This simile conveys the danger and unpredictability of online interactions, emphasizing the potential for harm in seemingly innocuous actions.


“In the boardroom, power suits and polished shoes; in the streets, placards and chants for change.”Juxtaposing the imagery of corporate power with grassroots activism highlights the contrast between the establishment and those fighting for societal transformation.

These examples illustrate how Laurie Penny employs a variety of literary devices to enhance the narrative power of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, making complex ideas more accessible and engaging for the reader.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution – FAQs

What is the main argument of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny?

Laurie Penny argues that contemporary society is fraught with systemic inequalities, particularly around gender and power. She critiques the ways in which capitalism, the digital age, and traditional feminist movements often fail to address these deeper issues, calling for a more inclusive and intersectional approach to feminism and activism.

Who should read Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution?

This book is recommended for anyone interested in feminist theory, social justice, and the impact of digital culture on society. It’s particularly insightful for those seeking to understand the complexities of modern activism and the challenges of navigating identity and inequality in the 21st century.

How does Laurie Penny view the role of the internet in modern feminism?

Penny presents the internet as a double-edged sword: it’s a vital tool for organizing and spreading feminist ideas but also a battleground for misogyny and harassment. She discusses both the empowering potential of digital activism and the challenges posed by online abuse.

What does Laurie Penny mean by “unspeakable things” in her book?

“Unspeakable things” refers to the societal issues and truths that are often ignored or silenced, including sexism, oppression, and the failures of neoliberal capitalism. Penny emphasizes the importance of confronting these uncomfortable realities to achieve genuine progress.

Can Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution be considered a feminist manifesto?

Yes, many readers and critics view the book as a feminist manifesto for the digital age. Penny calls for a revolution that goes beyond traditional gender politics, advocating for a more inclusive, intersectional feminism that addresses the root causes of inequality.

How does Laurie Penny incorporate personal experiences into her analysis?

Penny weaves her personal experiences throughout the book to illustrate broader societal issues. Her anecdotes about harassment, activism, and navigating the media landscape provide a relatable and compelling lens through which she explores themes of gender, power, and resistance.


QuestionABCDCorrect Answer
What is the primary focus of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution?The role of digital media in societyFeminism and gender inequalityThe history of feminist movementsEconomic theoriesB
Who is the author of Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution?Angela DavisSimone de BeauvoirLaurie PennyJudith ButlerC
Which of the following is a major theme in the book?The fall of the Roman EmpireIntersectionalitySpace explorationMedieval historyB
How does Laurie Penny view the internet’s role in feminism?As entirely negativeAs wholly positiveAs a mixed blessing with both opportunities and challengesAs irrelevantC
What literary device is frequently used by Penny to enhance her arguments?OnomatopoeiaMetaphorAllegorySatireB
Which group does Laurie Penny critique for co-opting feminist messages?Neoliberal capitalistsRenaissance artistsClassical musiciansMedieval knightsA
What does Laurie Penny suggest is necessary for a true feminist revolution?A return to traditional valuesGreater government controlAn intersectional approach that includes all genders and backgroundsAbandoning technologyC
In what way does Penny incorporate her personal experiences into the book?As footnotesAs the primary narrativeTo illustrate broader societal issuesShe does not include personal experiencesC
What symbolizes the potential for both empowerment and harm in the book?The oceanThe internetA mirrorA forestB
What is Laurie Penny’s stance on neoliberal capitalism?She supports it as the best economic systemShe critiques it for exacerbating inequalityShe believes it has no impact on feminismShe advocates for its expansionB

This quiz is designed to test comprehension and critical thinking about the themes, arguments, and stylistic choices in Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution.


Spot the Literary Devices

Read the following paragraph from Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny, and identify the literary devices used:

“In the glaring light of the digital age, we see the contours of new battles emerging. The internet, once hailed as the ultimate tool for democratization, has become a double-edged sword. It whispers our secrets back to us, amplifying our fears and desires, while trolls lurk in its shadowy corners, ready to pounce on any vulnerability. Yet, amidst this chaos, a new generation of activists is rising, armed with nothing but their convictions and the ability to connect across continents in the blink of an eye. They are rewriting the script, challenging the status quo, and proving that, even in the darkest of times, hope can find a way to shine through.”


  1. Metaphor – The internet is described as a “double-edged sword,” illustrating its potential for both positive and negative impacts.
  2. Personification – The internet “whispers our secrets back to us” and “trolls lurk in its shadowy corners,” giving it human-like qualities.
  3. Imagery – Descriptions of “glaring light,” “shadowy corners,” and hope shining through paint vivid pictures in the reader’s mind.
  4. Simile – Activists are described as “armed with nothing but their convictions,” comparing their determination to being equipped with weapons, though it’s more implicit in its comparative form.
  5. Allusion – The phrase “rewriting the script” alludes to challenging and changing established norms and expectations.

This exercise helps to deepen the understanding of how Laurie Penny uses literary devices to enhance the narrative and underscore her arguments in Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution.