January 27, 2022

“Women have very little idea of how much men hate them,” wrote Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch (1970). Last week, a tall, moustachio’d 25-year-old serial shagger in New York City became Exhibit A for this claim – and also for men’s defence against it.

West Elm Caleb reportedly slept with a lot of women via dating apps, and wasn’t very honest with any of them about what he was doing. Then some of his dates compared notes via TikTok and the result caused so much arguing it was even reported in India.

Why all the noise about some two-bit Lothario in a city a long way away? Well, in one sense, this is as old as humans: the ongoing resonance of mythic figures such as Helen of Troy show we’ve been quarrelling about men, women and sex for a very long time.

But the contours of the argument are also uniquely modern. It concerns a dream of hedonistic freedom that blossomed in the mid-20th century, and that Greer herself helped to articulate. And it also captures the way that dream has soured in the hyper-mediated 21st-century world.

In The Female Eunuch, Greer argued that men have, since time immemorial, stuffed women into a domestic role, in which we’re treated variously as drudge and sexual object. In Greer’s inimitably pithy terms: “a receptacle into which he has emptied his sperm, a kind of human spittoon”.

In turn, she thought, women have internalised a stunted image of our own desires. While our bodies are different, supposedly immutable differences in our inner lives are really imposed by stereotype. And this stereotype serves to “castrate” women, replacing a fully engaged and emancipated “female energy” with a weak and artificial “femininity”.

Greer argued that women should abandon this self-imposed prison. Instead, we should pursue “revolution” – meaning the “freedom to be a person, with the dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood”.

Five decades later, how is Greer’s vision working out? Well, the Anglosphere rejection of suburban domesticity and motherhood is now advanced. The average age of marriage has been rising steadily since the Seventies, while the total number of marriages has declined steadily. Over the same period, birth rates in the US and UK have fallen steadily and are currently at their lowest ever level.

“Childbearing was never intended by biology as a compensation for neglecting all other forms of fulfilment and achievement”, Greer argued. And now that women have more choices, claims feminist Jill Filipovic, we’re voting with our feet (or, perhaps, wombs).

So Greer’s vision of swapping compulsory domesticity for greater female choice, self-realisation and empowerment has been realised, at least for some. But how far did she really swim against the tide in setting this out?

When The Female Eunuch rocketed Greer to international fame, the Anglosphere had already seen a decade of “counterculture”, centred on the rejection of tradition and the pursuit of freedom and desire. And one crucial text for this was Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957) – a book that, like The Female Eunuch, celebrated the freewheeling pursuit of passion over the humdrum everyday.

The central character, Dean Moriarty, is a drifter, a slacker and a hedonist. He floats from place to place, leaving a trail of unpaid debts, disappointed friends, damaged cars and chaos in his wake. He’s also a prolific and faithless shagger, taking up with (and sometimes impregnating) lover after lover before abandoning them – in one case with a newborn baby.

In Kerouac’s telling, Moriarty is depicted both as a walking disaster zone but also an ecstatic, spiritual figure. Far from being abusive, his womanising seems animated by an intense desire to drink deeply from the cup of life, love and desire:

He darted the car and looked in every direction for girls. ‘Look at her! […] And dig her!’ yelled Dean, pointing at another woman. ‘Oh, I love, love, love women! I think women are wonderful! I love women!’

Kerouac celebrated Moriarty’s unthinking and often-callous spontaneity as a kind of saintliness. Greer’s innovation was to lay claim, on women’s behalf, to a countercultural movement whose main characters had hitherto been mostly male.

For her vision of revolution also involved women becoming more Dean Moriarty-like. Women, she claimed, “are not by nature monogamous”. Rather, we should be “deliberately promiscuous”, reject domesticity as “an attitude of impotence and hatred masquerading as tranquillity and love” and (again, frequently, like Dean Moriarty) “run away”.

But footloose emancipation on the Greer and Kerouac model has not been cost-free. Greer the libertarian argued that what gets called “rape” is mostly just bad sex, and shouldn’t be severely punished. But the angry and aggrieved women of the #MeToo era seem far from her breezy confidence that bad sex should simply be shrugged off, especially where it feels coercive.

And we’re witnessing a steady re-evaluation of past attitudes to sexual liberation, too. It turned out, in practice, that no sooner was sex liberated from reproduction than it was re-ordered to commerce in enterprises such as the Playboy pornographic empire. Despite Greer’s disapproval of this development, Playboy was for decades a byword for egalitarian, libertine (and commercialised) sexual empowerment. Now a recent documentary has compiled allegations of abuse and even bestiality, by dozens of the Playmates Hugh Hefner brought to live in his mansion. It turns out that the brave new world of free agency and personal responsibility can mesh uncomfortably with real-world imbalances, whether of power, money or beauty.

Meanwhile, the female sexual emancipation Greer pursued has delivered a bonanza for every live-in-the-moment modern-day Dean Moriarty with the looks to enjoy it. In the world of online dating, sex is even more abundant than it was for Dean Moriarty: one twentysomething friend tells me that “photogenic” male friends find female attention so abundant that some are “quite sick of the attention”.

But not everyone lucks out: among those neither married or possessing the charms to “game” online dating, sexual access may be difficult to come by. And among these “involuntarily celibate” or “incel” men, this uneven erotic liberation has spurred a boiling rage, much of which is directed against women. Over on the other side, too, it’s the other team’s fault: every woman exploited in a #MeToo situation, or running afoul of some other sexual asymmetry, points the finger at “patriarchy” (ie men) for her distress.

But the common factor in both cases is a culture in hock to the libertarianism of Kerouac and Greer. For while this worldview was lionised as freedom, in practice what it delivered was a kind of marketisation of the heart, that imagines we can love according to principles of rational choice and utility maximisation. Rooted in mid-century “liberation”, this paradigm powers much of the hostility between the sexes today.

When a man claims that we shouldn’t empathise with Hefner’s Bunnies as they were adult women who should have known what they were getting into, that’s not “misogyny”. It’s just what it looks like when you apply the market logic of freedom and personal responsibility to sex.

The same market logic suffuses the manosphere fixation on “sexual market value” – and concludes that “West Elm Caleb did nothing wrong”. For in market terms, we’re all independent, rational adults; why shouldn’t a man treat women as human spittoons, should they make themselves available in this capacity?

On the other side of the ledger, we find the same mindset in the women who share “first date evaluation” spreadsheets with their friends; in the supposedly feminist claim that “sex work is work”; or in the bleak assertion that all men cheat, so you might as well hold out for a rich cheater. Or the claim that men’s loneliness is men’s fault, for male loneliness is caused only by “a surplus of high value women and a surplus of low value men”.

Instead of questioning sexual market liberalism, all we’re offered to make sense of this mess is a schizophrenic “feminism” wholly in thrall to the same fixation on autonomy – but only for women. This worldview celebrates Greer-esque radical autonomy and sexual permissiveness, while dismissing observable normative differences between the sexes as ‘stereotypes’ and blaming any negative side-effects of this approach on patriarchal revanchism.

Beneath this officially sanctioned surface, meanwhile, lurks an increasingly embittered male resentment, that reacts with gleeful schadenfreude whenever a woman acknowledges that there can be tradeoffs between female “empowerment” and motherhood.

Yet neither side is willing to see the field of courtship as anything more than a low-trust, radically individualist, structurally impermanent market – a grim perspective both reinforced and accelerated by the dating apps that now dominate courtship. And under that cloud of suspicion and impermanence, it’s easy to see how the prospect of an 18-year commitment to a dependent child (and hopefully also to his or her other parent) might well seem wildly implausible, or just unattainable.

Where autonomy conquers solidarity, children are psychologically (and, increasingly, literally) inconceivable. But it’s precisely when we get to children that the persistent asymmetry between the sexes becomes most difficult to deny, as poignantly illustrated by the lives of both Greer and Kerouac themselves.

Kerouac is an object-lesson in the wider shock-waves caused when men refuse to move on from sexual hedonism. He married three times, and only grudgingly paid child support for Jan, the daughter he fathered in his eight-month marriage to Joan Haverty after a paternity test. He met his daughter only twice; her life was marked by poverty, trauma, sexual abuse, drug-taking and finally death at 44. Greer, meanwhile, never had children. Her biographer recounts how she struggled and failed to do so, before eventually taking solace in her animals.

Team Kerouac and Team Greer are both really the same camp, then. But depending on your sex, the costs of liberation are inescapably different – and if we just point fingers at the other side’s selfishness, we miss the deeper truth that beneath the pervasive tone of cynicism are real humans of both sexes. And no matter how loudly disappointment curdles to bitterness, nearly all in truth still long for intimacy, companionship and (in most cases) kids.

Such a craving for solidarity is now nigh-on impossible to square with contemporary norms or social infrastructure. Hard as it may be to admit, this is not the exclusive fault of one sex or the other. And yet compassion for the opposite sex’s predicament is ever more difficult to muster.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.