Most feminists agree that heterosexual young women face, on the dating scene, a dystopian nightmare. Louise Perry’s new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, is representative, arguing that the proliferation of porn and hook-ups leads to harmful sexual practices and miserable relationships. For this, as it says on the tin, she blames the seismic shift in attitudes towards sex and relationships in the Sixties, which was partly the result of legalised abortion and the availability of the contraceptive pill. So far, so good.
I had assumed that women, aside from the progressive “feminists” for whom all sex is good sex, knew perfectly well that the so-called sexual revolution only benefited men, giving them access to women’s bodies without fear of consequences. After all, feminist historian Sheila Jeffreys wrote Anticlimax, a searing takedown of the myth that women became sexually liberated post-1967, in 1990.
Failing to cite Jeffreys, or any of the vast number of feminists who have written against the sexual revolution, Perry even seems to be suggesting that she alone developed the critique. In response to an article written by the actor Emma Thompson, in which she said that the sexual revolutions of the Seventies and Eighties made women “more available” and encouraged predatory behaviour, she tweeted: “has…. has Emma Thompson been reading *me*?”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with blowing your own trumpet when you have a new book out, but Perry is in danger of giving the impression, to swathes of young women, that she is a sole voice of reason. There are, in fact, plenty of feminists who advocate against sexual libertarianism. But some of us also advocate for women’s sexual pleasure and liberation.
I joined the Women’s Liberation Movement at the very end of the Seventies as a 17-year-old lesbian. Many of the feminists I hung out with had escaped miserable or even violent relationships with men and, realising that they had been railroaded into compulsory heterosexuality without making a conscious choice, they were now making up for lost time by having great sex with women.
The feminism I practised prioritised women’s sexual pleasure and liberation alongside the campaign to end unwanted sex and male violence. Thinking back to those days, where true sexual liberation felt possible, I can’t believe that more than 40 years later pre-feminist sexual modesty is being peddled as a response to male violence and exploitation.
What Perry suggests as the way forward is, to me, both shocking and depressing. To address the appalling levels of sexual violence towards women and girls it is, she argues, necessary to give up on the notion of sexual freedom and instead return to traditional monogamous marriage.
There is much to applaud in Perry’s book, which is why I gave it a glowing cover endorsement. It is well-written, rigorously researched, and it is clear that Perry has a genuine commitment to ending male violence. I share that commitment, but here’s where we differ: I would never recommend that women invest in a hypothetical chastity belt and accept as inevitable that men will rape and pillage unless we contain them.
In Perry’s view, the choice is between old-fashioned chivalry and the kind of “tits out” feminism in which porn, kink, sex work and hook-up culture becomes “empowering”. “The Hugh Hefners of the world do not quail at the thought of a ‘sexually liberated’ womankind,” she argues. But she misses the point that the type of feminism that demands true sexual liberation makes Lotharios as well as conservatives wince — because as long as a woman isn’t subservient to a man, she is clearly a threat to his erection.
I agree with Perry that porn is a vile misrepresentation of female and male sexuality, with women being the direct victims. To translate that into “casual sex is bad”, which is what Perry does, is like saying the occasional Burger King take out means you don’t like food. But even if you accept Perry’s argument, she misses the feminist point again, which is that although the porn industry may have been allowed to flourish in the wake of the sexual revolution, it was produced by a toxic combination of other factors: misogyny, unbridled capitalism and the technological revolution.
The cover of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution is a box of tissues, and I could not help but wonder, when I first saw it, whether it signified women’s tears or… something else. If I were a heterosexual woman in today’s culture of unbridled misogyny, I would feel like crying — especially if I were reading Perry’s pessimistic take on how to cope with it.
She appears to do what many feminists, me included, have long questioned, which is persuade women to have children. She offers a salutary warning, pointing to the example of second-wave feminist Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex (1970), who argued that women should give up having babies in order to be truly liberated. Having never married or produced children, according to Perry, Firestone “spent the final years of her life in a state of profound vulnerability caused by severe mental illness”. Hell awaits any woman who dares remain childfree!
Some of Perry’s arguments, then, support the “biology is destiny” ticket that most feminists roundly reject. For her, women going out to work after having babies means “physically prising apart women from their children”. Men are biologically programmed to spread their seed, and so they primarily rape women aged between 12 and 25, because this group is most physically attractive to them. Perry also claims that most rape is committed by men who are at their sexual peak — even though we know that a significant minority of married men have sex with their wives when they are not consenting. To blame a biological “urge” for rape is no different from arguing that because some men are more likely to beat their wives when they are drunk, their behaviour is the fault of the alcohol.
A pessimistic view of men runs through this book like a stick of Blackpool rock. Perry accuses radical feminists — barely mentioned, despite our impressive track record of putting the issue of male violence on the political, legal and social stage — of “utopianism”. I freely admit to having a vision of a world free from male violence, where rape, prostitution and femicide are distant memories. And although utopian thinking can never be a substitute for action, we cannot change the world without imagining a better one. Every single refusal to accept the status quo edges us a little bit closer to a world free of sexual violence, a world which I believe it is our imperative to strive for.
Perry, on the other hand, seems to doubt that we can end male violence and suggests that all we can do is contain men’s behaviour, preferably via marriage. I struggle to see how this argument is any different from the suggestion that giving violent men an outlet through prostitution reduces violence against women; surely it simply designates a category of women whom it is acceptable for men to abuse? And I am too optimistic to think that women will always need to be protected by chivalrous men from their predatory counterparts; this is the antithesis of the freedom I crave and deserve.
But for Perry, chivalry is a good thing and monogamous marriage is the best foundation to build a family. Girls and women should avoid being alone with men they don’t know or who give them the creeps; sexually aggressive men can often be readily spotted because they are impulsive, promiscuous, hyper-masculine and disagreeable. A woman should, she suggests, court a man for a few months without offering any sex and see if he plays nicely. If he does, he is husband and father material, so marry him, have the baby and stay married — even if you get a bit miserable and bored further down the line.
Aside from transporting women back to the Victorian era, as a solution to the danger of rape and abuse, this completely defies logic. Men who beat and rape their wives are often Jekyll and Hyde. In the first few months of a relationship, they are charming, almost too good to be true. It is only when a woman is trapped as his wife and the mother of his children that the violence emerges. Prior to 1992, rape in marriage was not even a crime, and many women still feel that if they unwillingly have sex with their husband it doesn’t count as rape. Contrary to Perry’s view, getting married and staying married is perhaps the most straightforward way to ensure that a woman will be compelled to endure male sexual aggression and coercive control.
Perry tells us that loveless sex is not “empowering” for women. So what? It can be fabulous fun. If our actions were guided by this depressing idea, as well as Perry’s passionate endorsement of marriage, we would indeed return to the status quo of the Fifties.
We need not accept either the progressive creed that “all sex is good sex”, or the conservative recommendation that marriage and monogamy are best. There is another, bigger, much more daring and ambitious project that feminists have been engaged in — with some success, despite the huge misogynistic backlash we are facing at the moment — and that is the true liberation of women. If we fail to imagine a world free of all forms of male violence, we will never achieve it. Rather than tell women they should contain the beast, should we not rather be equipping her to slay him?