Louise Perry is on a mission: “It was not enough to point out the problems of our new sexual culture”, she declares at the beginning of her hard-hitting first book The case against the sexual revolution. So she also offers advice to young women who she says have been “completely failed by liberal feminism.”
Indeed, contemporary sexual mores have exposed them to risks, the most serious of which are linked to the propensity of some men to violence. Women, Perry argues, have been conditioned over the past few decades to repress their desire for attachment. Instead, they learned to behave in more typical male ways, with their (on average) greater appetite for casual sex or “sociosexuality.”
Perry, who says working for a rape crisis service has changed her attitudes, points to the dangers of sado-masochistic sex, as seen in the rise of the “rough sex” defense, which says the growing number of women (and a smaller number of men) killed by their partners are charged in court with consenting to the violence that resulted in their deaths.
But Perry thinks the problem is deeper. She attacks the normalization of extreme pornography, hookup culture and the apps that promote it, and the ethically weak concept of consent where a person’s agreement to a given activity is seen as the final word.
Missionaries preaching sexual restraint are liable to be mocked, and Perry has been compared to Mary Whitehouse. But Christian morality is not the motivation for the sexual counter-revolution she proposes. She doesn’t want things to go back to the way they were before birth control and abortion were legalized, when single mothers were stigmatized and their babies taken away from them. Instead of this punitive double standard, she argues for a new sexual rule that allows for differences between men and women, and a version of feminism that supports it. Above all, she opposes what she calls “sexual disenchantment,” whereby physical intimacy between people is treated as a mere pastime. And she argues that poor and vulnerable women pay the heaviest price under current conditions, since money, education and other forms of privilege are, as always, to some extent protective.
Some feminists, of course, have long understood that sexual liberation and women’s liberation are not the same thing. Sheila MacLeod wrote in 1988 of her generation’s discovery that “the world of accomplished male fantasy has added nothing to the sum of their own happiness”. What Perry’s “post-liberal feminism” does is update this outmoded idea. In doing so, she walks a delicate line. The UK has no equivalent to the American Christian right. But the links between homophobia and conservatism (sexual, religious, political) did not disappear with Article 28, the 1988 law prohibiting councils from “promoting homosexuality”.
Forty years later, Perry is looking to turn things around. Restrictions on human sexual behavior are not necessarily right-wing, she argues. In fact, it is those who value freedom above all other values who are the “sexual Thatcherites”. Their disregard for norms and taboos and their laissez-faire attitude towards sex businesses (including pornography and BDSM, with its many store-bought paraphernalia) turned them into proselytizers for a deregulated sex market.
In a way, I’m not the right reader for this book. At 50 and married, I don’t need Perry’s advice on how to find love and safety — or why not sell nude photos to pay my rent. But as someone who grew up in liberal north London in the 1980s and who imbibed many of the same ideas as Perry, I found this book captivating. Like her, I am appalled by the uncritical adherence to a simplistic anti-repression creed. I too have belatedly noticed how closed feminists are to evolutionary understandings of human behavior, even the monumental achievements of scientists like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy were mostly ignored in favor of insights from the humanities and theory critical.
Perry pushes in the opposite direction. One of the most provocative sections of his book uses the argument of Craig Palmer and Randy Thornhill in A natural history of rape, that there is an evolutionary explanation – which is not the same thing as a justification – for male sexual violence. And she’s tearing up the much-revered Angela Carter for her literary celebration of the “Sadian woman.” To dignify the Marquis de Sade in this way, Perry argues, is to sanitize the actions of the Peter Sutcliffe of his time.
I disagree with Perry that young women should avoid getting drunk in mixed company or having sex with a man only if they think “he would make a good father”. She exaggerates when she says that independence is “nothing more than a bump” between stages in life where we depend on others. His last command “listen to your mother” assumes that all mothers have sensible things to say. Some women should do the opposite.
But his challenge to commodified and dangerous sex, and the liberal rights advocates who promote it, is timely. More truth and less wishful thinking is a wise message. Anyone who cares about intimacy should be prepared to think about it.