Against the Case Against the Sexual Revolution
Year Zero Review of Books
Today’s guest post is a review of the Case Against the Sexual Revolution by the writer Emma Collins, who is on Substack here. Collins describes the sense of “identification and repugnance” she felt for this “elegantly argued book.” I may return to revisit this book myself in a future post.
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution
On perusing the chapter titles of Louise Perry’s “The Case Against the Sexual Revolution,” I initially thought, “I will find much to agree with here.” As a hater of the term “sexual marketplace,” an essay called “People Are Not Products” promised to be interesting. And since I’m religious, the book’s first chapter, “Sex Must Be Taken Seriously,” was sure to be vindicating. Indeed, Perry is admirably unafraid to state simple truths in plain language: she devotes paragraphs to asserting that men and women are not only physically but psychologically different, as anyone outside the muzzled professional classes can freely admit.
But while the problems Perry outlines in her attempt to reckon with post-1960s sexual life in the West will be recognizable and relatable to many women, her approach is profoundly controlling. I read this elegantly argued book with a sense of identification and repugnance.
In an age of euphemism, Perry’s language is often harsh and unsparing. In the first chapter, she recounts that a woman who had an illegal abortion was “scraped out.” She describes how women’s magazines evolved from giving domestic advice to sex tips: “arse licking is now literal.” She’s brave enough to counter the old feminist adage that rape is a crime of power by acknowledging that it is also about sex. She warns that men can either be in “cad mode” or “dad mode.” She says that women who fuck like men are basically just “fuck[ing] themselves over.” She objects to the way modern liberalism corporatizes language, like when violence and disease resulting from sex work are classified as “occupational health risks.” She’s not afraid to characterize dating apps as little more than dehumanizing “shopping sites.”
Perry should be applauded for her candor. In an era of public firings for stating the obvious, in which hordes of people silence themselves every day at work or in social groups, she goes right ahead and proclaims that “it is still true that only one half of the human race is capable of getting pregnant.” This is refreshing. In seeking to find effective, realistic ways to reduce rape, she says that “hostility to evolutionary biology is a mistake” and that “once we accept that men and women are different, many other things follow.” Perry is deeply attuned to the ways in which modern people bullshit themselves — like describing divorce as an act of “radical self-love” — and raises an eyebrow at those who post on message boards, racked with jealousy, all the while swearing they are practicing ethical non-monogamy. Benign or saccharine language is used to cover all kinds of ills these days: I’ve met more than one womanizer who simply calls himself “poly.” Isn’t this a bit like calling a riot a peaceful protest?
One of the most admirable things about Perry, who lives in the UK, is that she is no mere academic theorist. She has on-the-ground experience in trying to help women overcome sexual violence: her first job out of college was at a rape crisis center. She also cares deeply about remedying the ills women face in a dating scene which favors empty, meaningless casual encounters. She rightly laments that sex in the modern era has become disenchanted. But she does women a disservice when she repeatedly calls into question their ability to resist cultural forces. She claims that the idea of agency is often solely a “comforting myth.” She tells her readers that “our choices are severely constrained … because we are impressionable creatures who absorb the values and ideas of our surrounding” environment. She questions whether any woman who works in pornography or enjoys illicit forms of sex can truly stand by her choice, or if she is merely acting under the pressure of overwhelming societal coercion. When it comes to the power of a sovereign individual to direct her destiny, she contradicts herself often — in some cases stating that “the whole concept” of individualism is “based on a lie” — and in others maintaining that “it is still possible for individuals to go against the grain and insist on doing the harder, less fashionable thing.”
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Perry frets over “excess male sexual desire,” and is at her most strident when she condemns pornography. She thinks of both performers and consumers as unequivocal victims. It is here that her commands reach their forceful apex:
“There is no good reason to use porn.”
“Not a single one of us needs to watch porn ever again.”
“I’m telling you that you have an obligation to stop.”
Attacking the distinction between the erotic self and the public self as a “fundamentally false premise,” she argues that sexual attraction can never be separate from politics. But as Andrew Sullivan once wrote, “‘the personal is political’ is not just a glib phrase. It is actually best exemplified by totalitarian systems, which seek no limits to their authority over private matters, even those matters that are buried deep in your mind and soul.” He rightly adds that this is a worldview which “gives no one space to think or escape.”
In a chapter titled “Some Desires Are Bad,” she attacks the nature of fantasy itself. According to what she calls her moral intuition, something as commonplace as adult consensual use of a schoolgirl costume promotes pedophilia. Isn’t this the kind of mentality that leads to the presumption of controlling another person’s very thoughts? How can anyone think they should have the authority to sanction immaterial fantasies?
Such is the attitude of the censor: and censorship, according to the writer Abigail Shrier, “like all tyrannical instincts, has no self-limiting principle; it will continue to expand.” A posture like Perry’s will ultimately result in the banning of art. In similar fashion to censors who blame school shootings on Marilyn Manson or gang violence on drill rap, Perry contends that watching violent porn “can intensify [the] existing arousal pattern” of a would-be rapist. She attacks fetishes as though they are meant to be taken literally. She proclaims that “only a culture in thrall to the worst of male sexuality could have eroticized the dick pic.” One wonders what a feminist of her ilk would make of Robert Mapplethorpe, and if his beautiful photographs of male genitalia would be forbidden under her regime.
Perry is a great foe of the Marquis de Sade, and deeply disappointed by women who are aroused and intrigued by sadomasochism. She falls into the anti-art trap of those who believe a great creator’s work should be discredited because of his or her misdeeds. The work of Sade, an Enlightenment philosopher and erotic writer is not only about sexual freedom but freedom of thought. But to Perry, any feminist he inspires is “prioritizing [her] own intellectual masturbation over [her] obligation to defend the interests of women and girls.” Advocating for a population one deems vulnerable is all well and good — but women for whom this is important should become social workers, not artists or intellectuals. Intellectual inquiry which places social responsibility as its highest value will never be free.
“The Case Against the Sexual Revolution” is not a mere meditation. It is a prescriptive book, as the author states when she mentions early on that she “needed to offer readers some real guidance on how to live.” There’s just one small problem. I am an American, and I don’t like to be told what to do. Unlike Perry, I do not want freedom to be replaced as the primary political value. Although it is much less gentle and much more demanding, her book is similar to Christine Emba’s recent “Rethinking Sex.” “Connection,” not freedom, Emba writes, “is what we as humans crave most deeply. We may want liberation today, but we want meaning tomorrow, and for the rest of our lives.” Perry too critiques the “liberal privileging of freedom over all other values.” She calls for “a much more sophisticated moral system” of sexual ethics to take hold in Western societies.
But who is to devise this moral system, and who shall enforce it? While I share with the author her disdain for a certain brand of liberal feminism, I am highly wary of what she is proposing. The mere sight of Gloria Steinem or voice of Hillary Clinton is enough to make my skin crawl, but I don’t want reactionary feminists like Perry telling me what to do either. I don’t like to be tread upon. For me, sex positivity has always had more to do with D.H. Lawrence than “Sex and the City,” and I reject Perry’s exhortations for a society that promotes “wellbeing” over liberty. Whose version of wellbeing are we talking about? Women are not a monolith, and while Perry’s book is full of serious-minded common sense for agreeable heterosexuals, there is very little within for disagreeable girls who may be interested in various forms of imaginative sex.
There’s a reason Rage Against the Machine’s most popular song, with its frantic repeated refrain of “FUCK YOU, I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME,” is a singularly American piece of art. And to use social justice parlance, I am tired. I am tired of being morally hectored. Exhausted, even, as I suspect many of us are. I am tired of hearing about how horrible it is to be a woman, of how being desired is traumatic instead of thrilling. I am tired of hearing about rape instead of sexual ecstasy.
Romantic poet William Blake once wrote, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” I certainly do not want to be enslaved by the moral system Perry is envisioning, and I appreciate the space afforded by the liberal tradition to make my own choices — even in a society that doesn’t fully cater to my wellbeing, as no society ever will. What is it that gives me the ability to withstand the pressures of an unsatisfactory, or even coercive, culture? Faith. The very thing Perry dismisses in her third chapter as mere “ancient religious codes,” adhering to which would mean “reverting to traditionalism” and “imitating the past.” But there is eternal wisdom in the directive to “be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). Perry laments that “being eccentric carries costs.” Yes, it does. It always has.
I hesitate to claim membership in the feminist project, for I have long harbored resentments against almost every manifestation of it that I have encountered. The heroines of my youth were Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, and Mary Magdalene. I could admire the egalitarians, contrarians, and mystics; but almost every other feminist I knew was more controlling than the hierarchies she sought to overthrow. The recommendation of some overarching vision that could save us from the emptiness of girlbossery and the anti-eros of Dworkinites like Perry is anathema to my conservative nature. Still, a vision is needed — because a society in which every person constructs herself, and only herself, represents a kind of dissolution and the loss of hope. The essayist Tanner Greer writes that the Hellenistic Era, in which a “cohesive” world of “citizens [who] were joined together by shared loyalty to a polity” had been “destroyed,” was characterized by “individual ethics, not collective politics.” In a continually fracturing empire, people are in danger of being “denied all chance to meaningfully shape the form and fate of their community.” When this happens, as one could say of America today, people will “instead seek meaning and esteem in the expression of their identities.” Thus I, an American woman surrounded on all sides by other women telling me what to do, assert my libertarianism, all the while knowing that liberty contains within it the seed of loneliness.
For days after I read this book, my initial impulse to refute its claims was tempered by the unsettling sense that there were deep truths therein. It is sound advice for young women who want to have stable lives to only have sex with men who would make good fathers. I have had friends, flag-wavers all of sexual libertinage, who endured abortions and sexually transmitted infections. If I had a daughter, I would tell her that sex is a gift from God and its ultimate fulfillment is the creation of life. I would also tell her to listen to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit, and take its counsel, and deny any orthodoxy or draconian ideology that sought to limit God’s true will for her. I would hope for her sake that she could live in a country that honored her freedoms, precisely so that the voice of God, rather than the voice of a politician or activist, would direct her actions. And I would understand that naturally, I would ultimately have no control over her decisions.
The case Perry makes in “Against the Sexual Revolution” is secular. It is also sex-negative, as the trend is described today. Even if one agrees with her evisceration of contemporary feminism, it is worth considering the opposite of her proposals: a sex-positive Christianity, for example, or a conservatism that embraces desire.