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31 May 2022

Feminists must abandon their delusions about the sexual revolution

Men and women are not the same, and it is usually women who suffer when we pretend otherwise.

By Louise Perry

My first book will be published on 3 June. It’s titled The Case Against the Sexual Revolution and it pretty much does what it says on the tin. My argument is that the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s has mostly not been of benefit to women.

As I write this, the first reviews are being published, as well as several extracts, and the word “provocative” is coming up a lot, as I thought it probably would. The Sunday Times is running a very alarming poll on its website asking readers: “Do you agree with Louise Perry’s opinions?” I gulped when I first saw this, but have since been pleasantly surprised to see that about three quarters of respondents have so far answered “yes”, suggesting that, if I am a provocateur, then I am not an especially outrageous one.

The level of interest that the book has attracted pre-publication has startled me, although there have been rumblings in the media for a while suggesting an imminent backlash against the excesses of the sexual revolution. My friend Katherine Dee – an American writer and expert in the history of internet culture – has for several years been predicting a swing back against the dominance of sex positive feminism in prominent spaces, and in recent months has found herself vindicated, with the Guardian announcing that Gen Z was “turning its back on sex-positive feminism” and the New York Times saying that the ideology was “falling out of fashion”. 

The plea of the mournful revolutionary, when faced with the terrible consequences of his utopianism, has always been that “real communism has never been tried”. This, too, is increasingly the go-to explanation for sexual revolutionaries who are dismayed at where we find ourselves as a culture. If the consequences for women of sexual liberation have been more violence, more abuse and more unhappiness – as I argue is true – then their solution has to be yet more liberation, if the revolution is going to be waged right to its bloody end. 

On paper, there seems to be nothing wrong with a school of feminism that is designed to maximise individual freedom and challenge the shame and repression associated with traditional sexual cultures. In practice, however, pressing the “more liberation” button over and over again is never going to solve the problems that feminists are concerned with.

As the socialist historian RH Tawney wrote almost a century ago, “freedom for the pike is death for the minnows”. Tawney was writing about the rich and the poor, but his observation applies just as well to sexual politics. Of course the factory owner supports free marketisation, and of course his wage slave disagrees – the pike and the minnow have different economic interests. This is also true in the sexual marketplace, which has been rapidly deregulated over the last sixty years.

The playing field is not a level one because the sexually dimorphic nature of our species has produced certain important asymmetries between men and women. Firstly, there is a substantial difference in strength and size, which means that almost all men can kill almost all women with their bare hands, but not vice versa. And then there is the fact that only women can get pregnant, and it is therefore women who bear (literally) the potential consequences of any heterosexual encounter.

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Modern contraception partially flattens this asymmetry, but unreliably. And even if the physical differences between men and women can be disguised by technology, we still cannot eradicate the psychological differences that persist despite all our best efforts.

And we shouldn’t try to eradicate them. I don’t accept the idea that having sex “like a man” is an obvious route by which women can live happier and healthier lives. Nor do I think that encouraging women to behave more like men in every other area of life is necessarily to women’s benefit.

Kathleen Stock (who wrote the foreword to my book), has written critically of the “dream of gender abolition” and its sometimes troubling consequences: “In a real-life approximation of an attempt at gender abolition – that is, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution – there were still sex-associated norms for women. These norms dictated that women should behave more like men. As the slogan went: ‘Times have changed. Whatever men comrades can do, women comrades can do too.’ … In practice this norm meant that women under Mao faced the double burden of heavy agricultural work duties in addition to domestic and child-rearing ones.”

One consequence of this historical attempt at gender abolition was that pregnant and postpartum women were given the same work tasks and hours as their comrades, resulting in many cases of miscarriage and haemorrhaging. Men and women are not the same, and it is usually women who suffer when we pretend otherwise.

Sex-positive feminism is just one instantiation of a larger liberal movement intent on maximising individual freedom – which is a fine project, up to a point. But the push for ever greater freedom is now butting up against the limits of our biology, and thus a feminist movement that was once concerned only with securing liberty for women finds itself in a futile war with nature.

It doesn’t need to be this way. I think there is an alternative school of feminism brewing, one that has emerged out of the failed experiment of sexual liberation, and which takes seriously the hard limits imposed by sexual difference. Interviewers keep asking me what this movement is called, and I don’t know what to tell them. “Post-liberal feminism”, perhaps? Or “reactionary feminism”, as my friend Mary Harrington (jokingly) calls it? I’m not sure. What I do know is that it can’t come too soon.

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

[See also: South Korea’s new president weaponises anti-feminism to win election]

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This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special