Louise Perry has written a feminist critique of the sexual revolution, and it’s brave, excoriating, and magnificent. (9 minute read)
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution isn’t a Christian book. Perry’s critique is rooted in evolutionary biology, feminist passion, and empirical observation, not biblical interpretation or theology. (We could of course argue that feminist passion is ultimately a product of biblical interpretation and theology, but that discussion can wait for another day.) Her language will offend some readers. She mentions practices and depravities that most of us would prefer never to think about. The devastating consequences of sexual “liberation” on vulnerable young women, particularly through loveless sex (chap. 4), pornography (chap. 5), sexual violence (chap. 6) and prostitution (chap. 7) are unsparingly exposed through analysis and personal narratives that can be deeply uncomfortable to read.
Ditching the stuffy hang-ups and benighted sexual traditionalism of the past is an unambiguously positive thing. The sexual revolution has liberated us to enjoy a heady mixture of erotic freedom and personal autonomy. Right?
Wrong, argues Louise Perry in her provocative new book. Although it would be neither possible nor desirable to turn the clock back to a world of pre-60s sexual mores, she argues that the amoral libertinism and callous disenchantment of liberal feminism and our contemporary hypersexualised culture represent more loss than gain. The main winners from a world of rough sex, hook-up culture and ubiquitous porn—where anything goes and only consent matters—are a tiny minority of high-status men, not the women forced to accommodate the excesses of male lust. While dispensing sage advice to the generations paying the price for these excesses, she makes a passionate case for a new sexual culture built around dignity, virtue and restraint.
Polity. 200 pp.
Perhaps the best way of summarizing The Case Against the Sexual Revolution is through the chapter titles: “Sex Must Be Taken Seriously” (chap. 1), “Men and Women Are Different” (chap. 2), “Some Desires Are Bad” (chap. 3). It almost sounds like a preaching series based on the opening chapters of Genesis. The echoes of Christian anthropology continue throughout the book, as Perry engages the various ways in which sex is distorted and abused in our culture (chap. 4–7) and concludes with “Marriage is Good” (chap. 8) and “Listen to Your Mother” (conclusion). Yet the rationale for each of these statements is empirical, not exegetical, and draws on peer-reviewed research rather than biblical authority.
Sexually speaking, Perry explains, men and women have different interests. These interests are rooted in biology and are as old as the hills. Some relate to the basic facts of life: the male contribution to creating a child takes minutes and costs nothing, while for the female it takes months and could cost everything. Some emerge from psychological differences, such as the statistical reality that men have a much higher desire for sociosexuality, or sexual variety, than women. Some are simply a function of anatomy; the differences in strength and speed between the average man and the average woman mean that men pose an incalculably greater physical risk to women than vice versa.
Every society has to work out how to balance these interests, and no way of doing it is flawless. But, Perry argues, “Western sexual culture in the twenty-first century doesn’t properly balance these interests—instead, it promotes the interests of the Hugh Hefners of the world at the expense of the Marilyn Monroes” (10–11). Powerful men win. Vulnerable women lose.
Not All Desires Are Good
At the heart of this culture is the disenchantment of sex. Sex means nothing for the liberal feminists Perry is challenging; sexual intercourse is just a form of physical recreation, sex work is just a form of work, and any restrictions on either are nothing but outdated, patriarchal, Victorian prudery. Any way in which you want to express your sexuality is good, by definition: “A woman should be able to do anything she likes, whether that be selling sex or inviting consensual sexual violence, since all of her desires and choices must necessarily be good” (14).
At the heart of this culture is the disenchantment of sex.
But this, for Perry, is simply not true. Some desires are bad. “Liberal ideology flatters us by telling us that our desires are good and that we can find meaning in satisfying them, whatever the cost,” she explains. “But the lie of this flattery should be obvious to anyone who has ever realized after the fact that they were wrong to desire something, and hurt themselves, or hurt other people, in pursuing it” (20).
Many women (and no doubt men) make sexual choices they defend at the time as an expression of genuine desire but look back on later as products of environmental or social pressure, pornified expectations, fear, financial desperation, or coercion. Even the category of consent, which does a huge amount of work in a sexual culture like ours, is for many women an inadequately thin defense against unwanted male attention. Lots of the stories that came out as part of the #MeToo movement related to “sexual encounters that were technically consensual but nevertheless left [women] feeling terrible because they were being asked to treat as meaningless something they felt to be meaningful” (12).
Clearly a “sexual free market” (47), in which promiscuity and sexual experimentation are encouraged, chastity is sneered at, pornography is ubiquitous, and sex means nothing, is in some people’s interests. Powerful men with a high desire for sexual variety think it’s wonderful. So do people who can make money out of it. But it’s not in the interests of the vast majority of women, let alone their children. Perry puts it this way: “Research on male and female attitudes towards casual sex, combined with what we know about the sociosexuality gap, makes it clear that what is really happening here is that it is overwhelmingly women who are being advised to emotionally cripple themselves in order to gratify men” (81).
And the consequences of that development, tragically, aren’t limited to emotional damage. They extend to the abuses of the porn industry (94–113), the horrors of sexual violence (114–34), the myths and realities of prostitution (135–60), and the prevalence of campus rape. As Perry writes,
Few liberal feminists are willing to draw the link between the culture of sexual hedonism they promote and the anxieties over campus rape that have emerged at exactly the same time. If they did, they might be forced to recognize that they have done a terrible thing in advising inexperienced young women to seek out situations in which they are alone and drunk with horny men who are not only bigger and stronger than they are, but are also likely to have been raised on the kind of porn that normalizes aggression, coercion and pain. (15)
Toward a Solution
What, then, is the answer? If the “sexual Thatcherites” (64) are wrong to treat sex as a commodity which can be traded like any other, what’s the alternative? “I propose a different solution,” Perry writes, “based on a fundamental feminist claim: unwanted sex is worse than sexual frustration. I’m not willing to accept a sexual culture that puts pressure on people low in sociosexuality (overwhelmingly women) to meet the sexual demands of those high in sociosexuality (overwhelmingly men). . . . It should be men, not women, who adjust their sexual appetites” (79).
Practically, she suggests, that has implications for both men and women. Men should master their desires, practice chivalry, and opt out of porn altogether: “Giving it up costs the consumer nothing. . . . I’m telling you that you have an obligation to stop” (113). Women should date men within their social circle rather than people they’ve met online, wait months rather than hours before having sex with them, avoid getting drunk or high with men they don’t know, and only sleep with men who they think would make a good father to their children (187–88).
But how can this kind of behaviour be incentivized, rather than merely recommended? Perry’s primary solution is arrestingly obvious: “In order to change the incentive structure, we would need a technology that discourages short-termism in male sexual behaviour, protects the economic interests of mothers, and creates a stable environment for the raising of children. And we do already have such a technology, even if it is old, clunky and prone to periodic failure. It’s called monogamous marriage” (181).
Read, Weep, and Pray
Many of us find it refreshing to read accounts of our culture that, while not written from a Christian standpoint, still reflect a Christian perspective. Books like Tom Holland’s Dominion, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution can be both apologetically helpful and pastorally reassuring. They join the dots between social developments and biblical convictions and demonstrate there are good reasons to frame things in a Christian way, even if one doesn’t start with Christian presuppositions. Common grace goes a long way. This is the sort of book I can imagine leaving lying around just to see if anyone might pick it up and have a conversation about its contents.
Perry’s primary solution is arrestingly obvious: ‘It’s called monogamous marriage.’
At a personal level, one of my main responses to reading Perry’s argument was to weep and pray. I’m 43 now, and a member of the last generation of young men before internet pornography became nearly (but not quite) inescapable. I have two sons and a daughter and numerous young men and women in my church for whom the images, ideas, preferences, or even practices in Perry’s book are lived experiences rather than theoretical concepts. The challenges they face are different from mine, and in some ways I’d rather not know too much about them.
But as a father and a pastor, I can’t remain aloof. Books like this, as uncomfortable as they are in places, can remind me what young people (and our daughters in particular) are facing and stir me toward compassion, action, and prayer.
The modern sexual revolution was responding to real problems. But its solution, Perry argues, has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. It hasn’t delivered on its promises. Young people are having less (and less satisfying) sex than their parents or grandparents; divorce, abortion, sexual violence, and pornography have all shot up. And women have borne the brunt of it. Feminists, like Christians, should be saying so and writing books about it. Louise Perry has.