The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century, by Louise Perry (Polity, 200 pp., $59.95)
In a famous experiment from the 1970s, researchers sent a young woman to a college campus to ask random men whether they would like to have sex with her that night. They compared the men’s reaction to that of women on campus when men unknown to them asked the same question. The results are so predictable as to be a waste of words: most of the men said, basically, “why wait till tonight?,” while the women scowled and said something on the order of “drop dead, perv.” The experiment is an understandable favorite among fans of evolutionary psychology. It confirms one of its basic tenets—namely, that women, who risk pregnancy from intercourse, are choosier about sexual partners than men, who, like other male primates, are instinctually driven to spread their genes all over like horny Johnny Appleseeds.
This interpretation had its dissenters, however. Some feminists argued that women would be just as gung-ho for sex with a stranger as were men if they didn’t have to worry about being assaulted. In her new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, rape-crisis-center volunteer and Spectator columnist Louise Perry shows how the two views are not just compatible but intertwined. Across cultures, men have more intense desire for sexual variety—or sociosexuality, as it is more officially dubbed—and are more open to casual sex than women. They are also (typically) far stronger than female partners. The strength gap means that sex is risky for women not just because they could get pregnant, as most evolution-minded thinkers emphasize, but because they could be raped—the brutal fate of so many of their sex throughout history. Perry puts it bluntly: “almost all men can kill almost all women with their bare hands but not vice versa.”
Perry is one of a squad of young women writers, many, like her, British, now fixing a cold eye on the sexual revolution, whose precepts saturated the culture they grew up in. They are far from the first to notice that women’s sexual liberation did not usher in the hoped-for free-love utopia. Already in the 1970s, sex radicals like Ellen Willis and Susan Brownmiller were voicing complaints about male ignorance of female anatomy and their misogynistic insensitivity to women’s pleasure. In the 1980s, Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin followed in that vein in their controversial campaign against pornography and the male aggression it purportedly inspired.
For all the complaints, however, these critics of the sexual revolution found nothing fundamentally wrong with the radical assumptions of the 1960s; the revolution was simply incomplete. Most feminists still hold this view, but not Perry or today’s crowd of “reactionary feminists,” to use writer Mary Harrington’s apt term. They argue that the sexual revolution was built on a foundation of shaky assumptions. They don’t believe that sex can be successfully reduced to “a leisure activity, invested with meaning only if the participants chose to give it meaning,” as the author puts it, or that sexual violence and jealousy can be eradicated with the help of the proper workshops and consciousness-raising. They have no patience with the idea that social construction, or socialization designed by a patriarchy, can explain all male-female differences. Finally, they attack the idea that “consent” is an adequate sexual ethic.
In making her contribution to the growing literature of sexual discontent, Perry looks to evolutionary psychology. The post-1960s liberal-feminist regime rests on an ideological foundation of “human exceptionalism,” she argues, as if we are “uniquely detached from the normal processes of natural selection.” In the liberal view, whereas other species evolved sexual biology and practices that offered the best chance of perpetuating their species, humans seemed to have no instinctive baggage—except, of course, for sexual pleasure. When the birth control pill came along in 1960, followed shortly after by increasing access to safe abortion, it was enough to crumble the ancient social calculus that had limited women’s pleasure. A new sociological creature was born: “the apparently fertile young woman whose fertility had in fact been put on hold. She changed everything.”
Well, not quite everything, as the author herself understands. True, women understandably celebrated their new freedom from unwanted pregnancy and successfully created a culture in which the traditional double standard seemed like the absurd relic of an oppressive age. Yet, over the ensuing decades, as sexual taboos melted away, women found themselves marching to the beat of another set of equally ill-suited norms. These norms largely aligned with the preferences of those high in sociosexuality, which generally means men, writes Perry. The idea was to be able to “have sex like a man,” in Sex and the City’s memorable phrase—purely for fun, without any messy emotions or attachments. Perry catalogues magazine and web articles explaining how to avoid “catching feelings” after a hook up, examples of women who can’t quite explain why they’re unhappy in a friends-with-benefits “pseudo-relationship,” and porn showing women “begging men for painful or degrading sex acts.” The cool kids, goes the message, should be comfortable with any and everything purported to bring sexual pleasure: oral, anal, polyamory, threesomes, BDSM, breath play (i.e., choking). The only limiting factor, the only moral imperative really, is consent from both parties.
No doubt many will write off Perry as a die-hard conservative, but that’s too simplistic. She views abortion and contraception as net positives for women. She singles out “conservatives who are silly enough to think that returning to the 1950s is either possible or desirable.” The past can teach us only so much about how to live in the present. But like most conservatives, Perry is skeptical about liberal ideas of progress, especially in the realm of sex; her case against the sexual revolution boils down to a rejection of the naïve, expansive vision of human possibility held by liberal feminists and quasi-utopians. No pill can counter the reality of the strength and sociosexual gap. “[W]e keep sending young women out as cannon fodder in the battle against sexist double standards” and as servants of men’s desires, she maintains. Men have more strength; some will use it. “Being alone with an unknown, horny man will always be somewhat dangerous for any woman,” she writes. To riff on James Madison, if men were angels, no caution would be necessary. Alas, they are human and, like women, creatures of evolution.
The subtitle of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution is “A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century.” It alludes to Perry’s admirable determination to go beyond cultural analysis to offer actual recommendations for the young women readers she is hoping to attract. She suggests a strong dose of much-needed sexual realism—including an acceptance “of the existence of the sexual asymmetry.” Many of her concluding admonitions are sad reflections of how lost some of her readers may be: “a man who is aroused by violence is a man to stay away from . . . whether or not he uses the vocabulary of BDSM.” Bromides are a professional hazard in the advice business, and Perry does not wholly avoid them: “We should treat our sexual partners with dignity,” she explains. “We should not treat others as mere body parts to be enjoyed.” Luckily, her rigorous and lucid explications of modern sexual dilemmas illuminate the reasons such clichés exist.