May 24, 2022

If Nineties America was consumed by panic over teen pregnancy, sex bracelets, and the terrifying (albeit entirely fabricated) scourge of “rainbow parties”, today’s big concern is the absolute opposite: now, we’re very worried about all the sex young people aren’t having.

The litany of concerns is familiar: that young people today fear catching feelings the way people 20 years older feared getting AIDS. That they are not just less sexually active than previous generations but eschewing physical connection in general, preferring to interact through the intermediary of a screen. That the little sex they are having is fraught and not very good. The birth rate is plummeting, anxiety is skyrocketing. If you were feeling especially catastrophic, you might imagine human beings becoming one of those species, like pandas, who fail so categorically at the whole sexual enterprise that our very survival becomes imperilled.

The path we beat to this point runs from the sexual revolution in the Sixties, to the purity-obsessed Nineties, to the hookup culture that reigns today. And here we find ourselves in a peculiar moment, in which the average young woman in search of romance sits around analysing the text messages of her current hookup like it is a cipher from the Zodiac killer. Does he like her or not? It’s an emotionally naked question that it is still taboo to ask, even if you’ve been literally naked together a dozen times.

At the heart of all this lies the eternal puzzle: what does a woman want? Sigmund Freud spent a lifetime plagued by his inability to solve it. Countless writers, from Russian classicists to pickup artists, have attempted to to tackle it. But now Louise Perry, in her new book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, takes a novel approach to the conundrum of wanting, and wanton, women: what if it’s the women themselves who are answering this question all wrong?

Observing the sexual marketplace — the anxiety, the unhappiness, the decline of intimacy and the rise of porn, the growing prevalence of strangulation as part of the sexual repertoire of ordinary couples — she sees not just a crisis but a broken promise. Sexual liberation was supposed to be, well, liberating — freeing women to pursue their desires free of shame or stigma. That the present state of affairs makes so many of us miserable instead is proof that the movement has failed us: women, she claims, have been sold a bill of goods.

Perry isn’t the only one to question whether women are being ill-served by the total dissolution of the old rules surrounding physical intimacy, or to see the sexlessness of GenZ as an attempt to correct for the curse of having too much freedom. Katherine Dee predicted a backlash to sex positive feminism among the young people who “feel rightfully burned by America’s imbalanced relationship with sex”. Washington Post columnist Christine Emba released a book, Rethinking Sex, in March, which treads similar territory to Perry, albeit from a different angle. (Emba was raised evangelical with all the sexual suppression that entails, then “ping-ponged a bit, from purity culture to a rebellion against it to something in between”.) This isn’t your grandmother’s sexual moralising — no Bibles have been thumped in the making of this ideology — but the New Prudes nevertheless reach the same conclusions as the old ones. Sex is meaningful, and deep, and dangerous, and no amount of pretending otherwise will make it so.

Perry’s most compelling chapters make this point via evolutionary psychology, the hard-wired differences that once ensured the survival of the species and now lurk, like easily-enflamed vestigial organs, against the backdrop of contemporary sexual mores. Given our limited gestational capacity and the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, women evolved to be exceptionally picky about who we have sex with; men, who are technically capable of fathering as many children as times they manage to ejaculate, have a similarly strong evolutionary imperative to do as much indiscriminate screwing with as many women as possible.

Of course, biology is not destiny; of course, innovation throws a wrench in things. Against 200,000 years of evolution, the advent of birth control is a formidable foe — but as a species, we’re still in the infant stage of learning how to live (and love) having thrown off the shackles of reproductive biology. The sexual revolution and its attendant technologies have given us a world of commitment-free, casual sex, aka the ability to “have sex like a man”, whether you are one or not. Perry argues convincingly that this has not been a gift to women.

But what perplexes her, and where the book falters, is that women themselves often refuse to see it that way.

Like the generations of prudes before her, Perry struggles to comprehend the notion that women might want sex, even enjoy it, on its own merits. The Case Against the Sexual Revolution argues openly that Some Desires Are Bad (this is the title of Chapter 3), yet cannot quite bring itself to levy this judgment against women; instead it suggests that women suffer a form of false consciousness when it comes to the pursuit of the kind of sex Perry considers not good for them (of the slapping and choking variety, for instance). They don’t really want this, she insists — and she attributes the fact that the woman themselves might disagree to “more or less subtle coercion”, fuelled as much by the dynamics of the sexual marketplace as pressure from individual partners.

The problem, per Perry, is that sex is something you do with other people. Everything a man desires, from the mundane to the pathological, creates a vacuum that requires a woman (or, in one much-riffed-upon hypothetical, a raw chicken) to fill it. It’s a remarkable vision of sexual economics, one that places women permanently and exclusively on the supply side; that they might have desires themselves is not only dismissed, but simply never even considered.

Versions of this idea have been advanced before, usually by social conservatives, often with a misogynistic bent. In the Victorian era, a sexually desirous woman might be diagnosed with nymphomania and put in a sanatorium; more recently, she’d be slut-shamed and derided for her lack of self-respect. But The Case Against the Sexual Revolution takes a different angle: women in this view are too infantilised to be condemned. Brainwashed by the notion that anything goes as long as it’s consensual, they unwittingly “promote paedophilia” by engaging in schoolgirl role-play fantasies with a partner or encourage violence by allowing (or even inviting) partners to tie them up and spank them. Perry bemoans the consent-focused framework of our present-day sexual landscape that “does not allow space for moral intuition” — which is to say, prevents women from realising that what they want is actually, in some greater cosmic sense, wrong.

On this front, the book’s most scathing criticism (and an entire chapter) is saved for BDSM, which surged into the sexual mainstream in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey. Ironically, the popularity of Fifty Shades is perhaps the greatest example in recent memory of women’s demand-side power in the economy of sex, a fact which Perry acknowledges.

“Here’s the troubling thing,” she writes. “A lot of women loved it.”

More than anything else, to find women’s affection for Fifty Shades “troubling” seems a failure of imagination. Perry sees the mainstreaming of BDSM as beneficial primarily to abusive men who can now beat up women under cover of consent, and secondarily, to the purveyors of leather sex toys who are doing a booming business selling accessories. But she cannot fathom that it might offer something to women, too, especially in the MeToo era.

It is surely not a coincidence that Christian Grey became the heartthrob du jour at the same time as the fear of finding themselves at the wrong end of a sexual assault charge has turned many young men into consent-seeking automatons, nervously asking their female partner’s permission every time they want to shift the position of their hands. (Friends who have encountered one of these sexual interrogators in the wild report that there is no greater mood-killer.)

The obsession with consent as our sole framework for sex (which is roundly and compellingly critiqued throughout The Case Against the Sexual Revolution) has thrust women into the role of sexual gatekeepers, required to know exactly what they do and don’t want. As Katherine Angel has noted, this is ostensibly freeing for women “since it emphasises women’s capacity for — and right to — sexual pleasure”; but in practice, she suggests, it simply creates a new form of pressure: in this brave new world, women are expected to signal the okayness of the encounter by maintaining a state of unrelenting enthusiasm throughout.

Under those circumstances, is it any surprise that many women’s greatest fantasy is to just let someone else be in charge?

On the other hand, BDSM can provide a framework in which the usual script vis-a-vis who holds the power can be flipped to women’s benefit. In a post-sexual revolution world where so many old rules and taboos have ceased to apply, and mere consent has proved inadequate for replacing them, perhaps a community full of people who are happily playing with those power dynamics to everyone’s mutual enjoyment could offer some insight into making it all work. But Perry bemoans that “only” 34% of men in the BDSM community consistently preferred a submissive position (it’s not clear that this makes them worse, not better, than the heterosexual male mainstream).

As always, the desire to redraw the lines of sexual ethics so that certain behaviours and desires are simply out of bounds is fuelled by good intentions. There’s no denying that the current wild west of dating apps, hookup culture, and near-zero taboos has left a lot of young people — women, but men, too — deeply unhappy and unable to connect. It is also clear that years of conflating male desire with predation has taken its toll on young women, and not for the better: having been told that trustworthy men simply do not exist and that seeking one out is a fool’s errand, they might be tempted to fall into bed with men they don’t trust, with all the calamity that entails.

So when Perry instructs her hypothetical reader not to sleep with any man who wouldn’t be a good father to her children, she’s trying to reintroduce the desperately-needed notion of intimacy to a population that has been taught to see it as frightening and impossible — and to save young women the pain of blindly trying to navigate a miserable minefield full of cads, jerks, and sexual swindlers.

It’s a noble impulse, but ultimately misguided: it is impossible to protect any one person from sexual disappointment by policing the sex other people are having, particularly when they’re enjoying it. And while The Case Against the Sexual Revolution argues persuasively in favour of measures to reduce sexual violence, it errs towards conflating criminal violation with the ordinary ups, downs, and disappointments of the dating marketplace.

“Young women are forced to learn for themselves that freedom has costs, and they are forced to learn the hard way, every time,” Perry writes. And indeed, learning the hard way — which is to say, by experience — can be one of the more painful parts of being human. But what is the alternative to learning for oneself that the freedom to make choices comes with the possibility of regret?

The only way any woman — any person — can know what she wants is to occasionally bump up against the boundaries of what she doesn’t. And given the choice between learning the hard way and getting no education at all, women have always known which they prefer — whether someone else thinks they should want it, or not.