Women should be able to have sex like men do. That’s the premise, at least, of much millennial feminism: that women should be free to do whatever they like with their bodies, without being shamed or judged or held to some hypocritical double standard. From that flows the story of twenty-something female life we’ve come to see as standard; what Dolly Alderton, in her cult memoir and now major BBC series, Everything I Know About Love, fondly calls the “golden, grubby” years of drunken partying, messy one night stands and wrestling back the secret, needy longing for boys to really like you. But is all this freedom really as liberating as it sounds?
That’s the provocative question posed by Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, which tips a brisk bucket of cold water over what’s sometimes called “sex-positive” feminism, or the idea that anything goes between two consenting adults and that desire should not be policed. The trouble with this form of liberation, she argues, is that it has chiefly ended up liberating men.
Perry, a freelance journalist and New Statesman columnist, compares the sexual free-for-all to an unfettered capitalist free market, creating an explosion of opportunities for some – men seeking lots of commitment-free and sometimes aggressive sex, plus a small number of women with genuinely rampant libidos – but risking exploitation and insecurity for the rest. The “choice” to go wild ends up feeling more like an obligation for many women, she argues, given the enduring fear of being thought frigid for saying no.
[See also: Feminists must abandon their delusions about the sexual revolution, by Louise Perry]
“A truly feminist project,” she writes “would demand that in the straight dating world it should be men, not women, who adjust their sexual appetites.” (This is very much a book for straight readers, given its emphasis on what she sees as the innate and conflicting differences between male and female sexuality, of which more later.) But instead, setting boundaries and sticking to them has come to be deemed not just prudish but a form of “kink-shaming”. So women who consider themselves highly liberated end up not daring to tell their partners that actually they don’t like being slapped, spat on and choked during sex. Perry has worked for the campaign group We Can’t Consent to This, which has lobbied to limit the so-called rough-sex defence used by men accused of murdering their partners – defendants who claim the deaths happened accidentally during consenting encounters – and some of her most powerful arguments deal with the way strangling has moved from extreme porn into men’s everyday sexual repertoires, even as fetish clubs ban it as too dangerous.
There have been plenty of books by young women denouncing pornified culture. But what’s unusual about Perry’s is its full-throated boldness. She doesn’t, she insists, want to drag everyone back to the 1950s, despite her uncompromisingly retro view that women should get married and stay married if they possibly can. But she absolutely is gunning for what she calls “liberal feminism”, a painstakingly inclusive credo embracing diverse sexual identities. (The book’s foreword is by Professor Kathleen Stock, the philosopher best known for her gender-critical views on trans rights, although that issue makes only a very fleeting appearance in the book.) Perhaps the most conservative – with at least a small c – thing about Perry’s book, however, is its preference for coaching young women on how they can individually navigate a sexually aggressive culture, rather than calling for sweeping structural changes to that culture as a whole.
Her rules – don’t get drunk except with female friends or very trusted men, in case someone takes advantage; wait a few months to have sex – may sound to many of her peers like fusty relics from the Victorian age, and I have both practical and ideological reservations about several of them. Her descriptions of the “female brain” also come down too heavily, for my money, on the side of biology over social conditioning, given the painstaking work of psychologists such as Cordelia Fine to disentangle the two.
But Perry undeniably has a sharp eye both for the ways in which contemporary feminism risks eating itself – worrying that calling for rapists to be jailed is incompatible with the anti-carceral movement, say, which holds that a racially biased criminal justice system is a tool of repression – and for those guilty feminist moments where emotions awkwardly refuse to comply with the theoretical ideal. Any woman who has ever had what was meant to be a gloriously hedonistic no-strings fling, only to find herself anxiously checking her WhatsApps just to see if he’s called, will recognise something here.
Is that simply because we’re conditioned to feel ashamed of meaningless sexual encounters, and so try in retrospect to force meaning on them? Or is it, as Perry argues, because most women do struggle to divorce sex from emotion, and shouldn’t be made to feel there’s something wrong with them for wanting more than a soulless hook-up?
But although she skewers a problem, Perry is less convincing on the solutions. In a chapter on rape, she attacks with gusto the now widely accepted idea that it’s “victim blaming” for police to offer women safety advice such as sticking with friends on nights out, since the emphasis shouldn’t be on telling women to change their behaviour but on telling men not to rape. “Which is true, of course it is!” she writes. “But here’s the point: rapists don’t care what feminists have to say.” The kind of men who prey on drunk women in nightclubs won’t stop because someone asks nicely, she argues. Yet she herself concludes a powerful chapter on how violent porn is skewing ordinary sex lives by telling her readers simply to not watch porn.
There is a long tradition of protest that consists of dropping out of the mainstream culture altogether, and Perry’s advice should perhaps be seen in the same faintly hippie light: small individual acts of resistance, which might one day become a wider movement. But following it would surely feel like swimming against a rip tide for many women. What if you ditch the dating apps and rely, as Perry suggests, on friends to fix you up, only to find that they don’t know any nice single men? How does avoiding porn help, if the men you sleep with are steeped in it?
To be fair to Perry, however, the reason many women will recognise the unresolved tensions she describes is that women have been grappling with them for generations without finding an answer. (Even in Everything I Know About Love, it’s the earnest virgin and the boyfriend everyone else considers dull who end up with the fairy-tale love story, not the cool girl.) The tug of war between freedom and security, pleasure and shame, isn’t new. But Perry has brought it bang up to date in this invigoratingly readable book, which fits neatly into the gap between highly “online” feminism and what lots of women actually think and feel and do in private.
You don’t have to agree with her entire world-view to find it thought-provoking. You just have to wonder, even fleetingly, why the aspects of patriarchy men seem keenest on overthrowing so often seem to involve taking your clothes off.
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution
By Louise Perry
Polity Press, 200pp, £14.99
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This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down