Peter Wyatt writes: According to Philip Larkin, ‘sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three’. Until today, this sexual revolution, brought about by more effective forms of contraception, has been hailed as an emancipation of human beings. No longer were we subject to the restraints of traditional morality as policed by religious faith, and family mores. Instead, they could act according to our desires, to find pleasure and happiness in any way they saw fit. Why should society have any opinion on what happened between the sheets, as Stephen Fry once said?
In her provocative new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry argues that the picture is far from rosy. Instead of liberation, society has created new forms of oppression: rough sex, hook-up culture, and pornography to name a few. She argues that in all of these women have been the losers. In her view, the much-touted concept of “consent” as the answer to everything has failed and we have arrived at a situation that benefits a minority of men, at the expense of women.
Her book is fearless in attacking the current orthodoxy, using her own experience as a campaigner in a rape crisis charity, along with extensive research, and she ends the book by quoting the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin (to paraphrase), that it is a lie to equate sexual freedom with freedom. Instead, she offers one piece of advice, ‘get married and stay married’. That is an incredible statement from a secular author!
In Chapter 1, Perry uses Hugh Hefner (founder of Playboy magazine) and Marilyn Monroe as twin poles of the sexual revolution – winner and loser, male and female. Hefner was famously progressive on abortion rights and contraception, not surprisingly as it benefited his own personal pleasure seeking, with his “harem” of identical looking twenty-somethings in his Playboy mansion. Not for him the risk of unwanted pregnancy or the trauma of abortion. On the other hand, the sexual revolution played out very differently for Monroe. She was the first ever cover star on Hefner’s magazine, for which she was paid a mere $500, and about which she felt humiliated throughout her life. Not for her the money and lifestyle Hefner enjoyed, but substance abuse, multiple abortions and misery.
According to Perry the sexual revolution is not only a story of the liberation of women from the burdens of motherhood and chastity, but the triumph of the playboy. She acknowledges the progress of contraception and legalised abortion but asserts that the benefits have largely gone to men. Her target is not feminism per se, but liberal feminism which places freedom of choice as the ultimate good. Liberal feminism argues that male female differences are either a social construction or of no significance, and therefore women should be able to behave in ways that men have always done so. Perry parts company with that school of thought: in her view, men and women are different (shock, horror!) – this is the theme of Chapter 2.
This unfashionable view is surely the foundation of her whole book, and she comes at it from a very interesting angle – by looking at the subject of rape. Liberals have argued that rape is not about sex, but a cultural expression of men’s need to have power over women. To put it bluntly, boys are socialised into being rapists by society. Perry says an important book, A Natural History of Rape, totally changed her mind on this. Through careful examination of the data the authors establish that rape is a product of aggressive male sexual desire, not of a wish for dominance. For example, female rape victimisation and female sexual attractiveness peak at exactly the same age, indicating that rape is indeed about sexual desire. Could it be that society’s ills stem from male sexual desire, rather than some societal conspiracy to dominate the lives of women? The implications of this finding, in her view, are staggering and turn upside down much advice given on sexual politics, and this is what the rest of the book explores.
In the light of this, Chapter 3 questions whether all desires are necessarily good. According to liberals, if a man wants to have sex with a dead chicken, then there should be nothing to stop him. The 1968 revolution in Paris stated, ‘it is forbidden to forbid’. But what about incest? What about paedophilia? Both liberals and conservatives alike agree that sex with children is wrong. Both would agree that some sexual desires are wrong and need to be restrained by one means or another. Perry argues, therefore, that the repression of sexual desires is a virtue in many circumstances. Even in normal relations, if you want to have sex with someone and they don’t want it, the law requires you to repress your desires. Yes, sexual repression in the past may have caused harm, but the denial of it requires that the “minnows” of society are regularly sacrificed to satisfy the desires of a few. According to Perry repression is good!
In Chapter 4, Perry describes how liberal feminists have fought against the patriarchy by advocating that women should have ‘sex like a man’ – in other words, without love and without guilt. By this, women can free themselves from old-fashioned patriarchal expectations of chastity and obedience. If men and women are psychologically and physically the same, why shouldn’t women experience the same pleasures as (high-status) men? But again, Perry argues that men and women are not the same. Biologically speaking, men’s investment is completed at conception. For women, however, pregnancy demands a huge commitment physically and emotionally. Of course, many men invest a huge amount into their offspring in a socially recognised relationship – in other words being a dad. However, men have an alternative model available – being a cad, where objective is quantity of offspring rather than the quality. This is inescapable biology, Perry would argue. Indeed, it is interesting to look at men’s sexuality when the limiting factor of female sexual preference is removed: the mean number of lifetime sexual partners is 6 to 8 times higher for gay men as compared to straight men. And yet hook-up culture is the norm for teenagers in the West but, in Perry’s view, this does not accommodate women’s psychological needs for intimacy and commitment. Of course, these are only average behaviours – some women are sociosexual and many men long for commitment, but this does not negate the point that women have frequently been the losers from the sexual revolution according to Perry.
In both Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, the thorny issue of consent is examined by Perry in two different contexts – in the pornography industry and in the context of rough sex. For liberal feminists, consent is the golden ticket, the get out of jail free card – as long as there is consent, then no harm is done. However, this presents consent as simple and clear cut, whereas in reality consent is messy, one-sided and deeply flawed. Perry suggests that in both contexts the current cultural background plays a huge part in ‘softening up’ women—that is the ubiquity of porn, and the depiction of rough sex as a normalised activity. This background leads to very real pressures on women. In the porn industry, actors often start on ‘tame’ projects but are quickly ratcheted up into more hardcore work, especially as work offers dry up. The porn industry defence is always that ‘the actor said yes and who are you to argue with that?’ But according to porn-industry survivors, the reality is abuse, no respect for boundaries and the exploitation of vulnerable (mostly) women. She argues that consent is only meaningful when there are viable alternative choices, which for many women in the industry, there are not.
In the other context, Perry makes the case that rough sex also has a consent problem. She takes the example of a practice known as choking. Even if it is meaningfully possible to consent to being strangled, you are faced with the problem of how the law can distinguish between consensual and non-consensual forms of sexual violence, especially if someone is dead! In a campaign that Perry herself was involved in (We Can’t Consent to This), in 67 cases where women died the killers claimed that the deaths were a sex game gone wrong. She claims that with the prevalence of rough sex depicted in pornography, young women are groomed into saying yes to activities they would find distasteful in normal life. The liberal feminist faith in consent relies on the fundamentally false promise: that who we are in the bedroom is different from who we are outside of it.
Chapter 7 looks at sex work, which liberals now hold up as a worthy profession, freed from the stigma of patriarchy. But does this explain the universal cross-cultural reluctance that most women feel when faced with the idea of sex work? Again, Perry calls upon evolutionary biology to explain the difference: the asymmetry of investment in bearing a child creates a different experience for men and women. Perry states that sex work is just a paid form of rape – the person being paid must ignore her own lack of desire, or even bone-deep revulsion in order to service another’s pleasure. It’s no wonder that the industry only attracts the poorest or most desperate.
Finally, Chapter 8 outlines Perry’s proposal for a corrective to the sexual revolution: marriage. Some feminists argue that marriage is the single biggest vehicle for the oppression of women, but Perry argues that marriage solves several extremely difficult problems in society, given that human beings are constrained by their biology. Firstly, it solves a problem she calls dependency. As she says, if you value freedom above all else, then you must reject motherhood, because motherhood creates dependency in the form of a child. Instead, marriage creates a solution and a rationale for dependency, where a father can provide support, resources, protection to the mother and child. Secondly, it provides encouragement for men to adopt the ‘dad’ mode of sexual behaviour as opposed to the ‘cad’ mode. As Perry discusses all the way through the book, the ‘cad’ mode of male sexuality is extremely detrimental to women and the source of many of the ills mentioned in previous chapters. According to anthropologists, monogamous marriage is successful in pushing men away from cad mode, and in providing a stable environment for child-rearing. Perry argues that marriage is not perfect but that there is no better system that has been tried in history.
Her book has been surprisingly well-received even in liberal circles (e.g. the Guardian), and has been discussed on Radio 4. However, several criticisms have emerged. Firstly, that Perry takes up an essentialist position on male-female differences. In response, her argument would be that we can’t escape the biology of human reproduction and that affects male and female preferences on average, although not necessarily in any individual case. Secondly, in the light of male sexual desire, Perry is putting the onus on women to stay safe. For example, Perry says that women should only get drunk in female company, as to do so with men present is to put yourself at risk. Would this not turn society into some kind of Saudi Arabia with male-female segregation? Perry would no doubt say that this is realistic and practical advice—she condemns consent workshops as useless.
Perry seems to have a fairly pessimistic view of human nature and particularly that men can only be saved by being married and being a good dad. This does have echoes in biblical teaching, and as a Christian commentator, I find her book a very encouraging antidote to the liberal feminist orthodoxy which pervades much of the media. Perry has managed to pull off a clever trick by putting forward a conservative voice whilst at the same time gaining plaudits from that same media. She is definitely a name to be looking out for in the future.
Rev Peter Wyatt is married to Michelle and has two teenage children. He is a Church of England minister in a council estate in Croydon where his church runs various social action projects such as a community food shop, support groups and homeless shelter.
If you would like to review a book about contemporary culture, faith or biblical studies, get in touch with me (Ian) through the contact page.