Have we reached the limits of the sexual revolution?

Have we reached the limits of the sexual revolution?

Last week, Louise Perry’s new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, hit the shelves. In an article for the New Statesman, Perry sets out her central thesis: “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”.

Perry critiques the premise of sex-positive feminism that technological advances in contraception and a sustained cultural insistence that men and women are equal will eventually produce conditions in which casual sex is possible for women in the same way it is for men. Perry agrees that the project to “maximise individual freedom and challenge the shame and repression associated with traditional sexual cultures” might be fine up to a point but argues that we are now discovering hard limits to this ambition:

“[T]he 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.”

Perry identifies at least three ways these hard “limits of our biology” work against the sex-positive feminist project:

  • “[T]here 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”;
  • “[T]here is the fact that only women can get pregnant, and it is therefore women who bear (literally) the potential consequences of any heterosexual encounter.” (Although modern contraception and abortion might reduce the consequences for women, Perry argues that it does so 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.”

According to Perry, not only is it futile to attempt to eradicate male/female difference but efforts to do so work against the best interests of women:

“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.”

To illustrate the problems that arise when “the dream of gender abolition” causes women to be treated exactly like men, Perry points to the treatment of women in Maoist China, which resulted in:

“pregnant and postpartum women being given the same work tasks and hours as their [male] 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.”

On the one hand, Perry’s arguments have solid feminist credentials. If we accept that women must think and act “like men” in order to achieve “equality with men”, then we have already fallen into the trap that Simone de Beauvoir pointed out – we have accepted man as “the norm”, measured against which, women will always represent “the other”; we have agreed with Aristotle that women are lesser human beings, defective men. According to this logic, the best thing a woman can be is “more like a man”.

The understanding that “equality” between men and women can only be achieved by acknowledging and accommodating male/female difference has been written into our anti-discrimination law for decades. In 1995, the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act (1984) was amended to prohibit “indirect discrimination” against women, which occurs when a measure applied uniformly to different groups works to the disadvantage of one by virtue of their different attributes. Apparently neutral policies that treat women exactly like men – and fail, for example, to make allowance for the fact that women get pregnant and breastfeed – may, in certain circumstances, create disadvantage for women.

So, if workplace policy has recognised that acknowledging and accommodating male/female difference is essential to achieving equality for such a long time, why has this same conclusion not been applied to sexual culture? Why are we still so insistent that sexual equality can only be achieved by treating men and women as exactly the same?

According to Perry, the blame lies with revolutionaries who refuse to accept that the revolution has failed:

“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 …

In practice, however, pressing the "more liberation" button over and over again is never going to solve the problems that feminists are concerned with.”

While Perry might be correct in identifying the problems that “sexual liberation” has created for women, she has perhaps underestimated the strength of feeling that is likely to arise against the solution she proposes. Because it is not only fanatical utopianism that causes revolutionaries to cling to the worn-out dream of sexual liberation; it is the fact that, if we agree “sexual liberation” doesn’t work well for women, then we are faced with the unpalatable possibility that traditional moral codes have some basis in wisdom.

For decades, feminists have (rightly) railed at the double standard that winks at the sexual indiscretions of men, while the same behaviour in women carries a far heavier social penalty. But if we agree that hook-up culture and casual sex doesn’t work for women, then the only alternative is a culture that requires men to offer something – marriage, love, commitment – in return for sexual access to women. Who is then responsible for ensuring men play by these rules? Is it fair to expect young women to bear the burden of upholding a higher standard?

Last weekend, Susie Goldsbrough – who identifies herself as a “millennial urban graduate in the west” – published her response to Perry’s book, providing us with a window into the thinking of the still-hopeful revolutionaries whom Perry anticipated would reject her thesis. Goldsbrough writes:

“I’m a fan of the sexual revolution. It means I can mess around with anyone I fancy (if they fancy me – alas, not always a given) without fear of disease or pregnancy or social ostracism. I can wear miniskirts and masturbate, then write about it in the newspaper my parents read (hi guys).”

Goldsbrough seems to accept what Perry says about the harms for women that have resulted from an ever-more liberalised sexual culture. “Last year, the highest number of rape cases to date was recorded by the police in Britain – that 67,125, or nearly 200 a day”. Goldsbrough did not know, before reading Perry’s book that “kink culture” has created some alarming statistics around the rates of women being strangled during sex.

“More than half of 18-to-24-year-old women report having been strangled by their partners during sex, compared with 23 percent of women aged 35 to 39”.

She agrees that acceptance of the “rough sex” defence in murder cases (where the defendant claims his dead female partner consented to sex play that “went wrong”, resulting in her death) is troubling; “some of the sentences as a result are chillingly light”. She hopes that a recent change in the law “should make these cases rarer”. Goldsbrough also agrees that “the most powerful and persuasive part of Perry’s argument is about the cast-iron link between violent sexual behaviour and the gigantic internet porn industry”.

However, despite largely accepting Perry’s evidence, Goldsbrough refuses to agree with Perry’s conclusion – that sexual liberation doesn’t work for women.

“I am less convinced by Perry’s belief that sex can never be causal for women … while I am (reluctantly) willing to believe that 200,000 years of sex equalling pregnancy has made women more choosy, it doesn’t mean we’re naturally monogamous. And if we do get less out of hook-up culture, I would gently point out that men are much more likely to have an orgasm from a casual encounter, which is a problem that education can rectify.”

In other words, Goldsbrough is hopeful that she has a reasonable chance of navigating hook-up culture without being one of the women who is raped or strangled or murdered. She expects to find a sexual partner – someone she has perhaps never met before and will never meet again – who is gentleman enough to care whether or not she derives some sexual satisfaction from the encounter. With these optimistic ideas, Goldsbrough concludes:

“I’m not willing to give up on the sexual revolution just yet … it just needs a little more time.”

At least part of the reason for her objection to Perry’s thesis is that it comes at a high price for women: “[Perry] wants women like me to only get drunk or high in private with other women, boycott dating apps and withhold sex for the first few months of a relationship”. This, according to Goldsbrough, is simply impractical: “What 18-year old is going to trade in club dance floors for bingo nights with female friends?”.

Who can blame Goldsbrough for balking at such a challenge? How can we possibly expect young women to pit themselves against the gargantuan commercial forces – movies, TV shows, music, pornography, fashion, advertising, magazines, hook-up sites, etc – that have largely shaped the sexual marketplace? Can we blame them from clinging to the fragile hope that they might yet navigate this marketplace with their souls intact? Perhaps venturing into such a hostile sexual culture is worth the risk, if the only alternative is a lifetime of celibacy and bingo nights with the girls?

On the other hand, the society-wide consequences of not re-shaping the sexual marketplace are now becoming impossible to ignore. Perry is hardly the first to point to these problems. Feminists have been at the forefront of identifying and documenting the harms that result for women and girls from an increasingly sexualised culture for decades – think everyone from Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth to Melinda Tankard Reist (Collective Shout) and Gail Dines (Culture Reframed). The evidence that porn is a significant contributing factor to a rising public health crisis is now well-documented.

Perry is hopeful that the solution lies in “an alternative school of feminism … one that has emerged out of the failed experiment of sexual liberation, and which takes seriously the hard limits imposed by sexual difference”. Goldsbrough demonstrates why this represents, at best, an incomplete solution to the problem and one that places an unfair burden on women. If heterosexual women are to live happy lives, they need to find men who also recognise the benefits of personal sexual restraint and are willing to rise to the challenge of living this out in practice. In short, we need men to join in with any project to change sexual culture.

Why would they do so, when we are told so often that the sexual revolution has been just great for men? As it turns out, that too, seems to have been a lie – or, at least, not the whole truth of the matter.

It is increasingly evident, for example, that if men wish to avoid developing anti-social predilections, they had better avoid pornography. Anthony Comstock noticed the detrimental effects of lewd material on young men all the way back in the 1870s, when “pornography” consisted of a few grubby etchings. Comstock’s life’s work in creating and enforcing postal laws that criminalised the distribution of every “obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter, writing, print, or other publication of an indecent character” undeniably contributed to a pre-WWII American culture in which families could flourish, children were significantly safer than they are now, and women were not being strangled, raped or murdered on a regular basis. Ted Bundy explained the link between pornography and degeneracy into violence for young men back in 1989 and the dangers have only become clearer and more significant with technological advances since then.

Further, as Dr Stephen Chavura argues here, the sexual revolution has also done men a disservice in removing a significant incentive to marry. He explains that when women are “giving sex away for free”, men are not required to step up to the responsibilities of marriage and children which ultimately give their lives purpose:

“Men need purpose, men need responsibilities to stabilise them and they need to feel needed, that is a very male thing. That’s precisely what marriage and starting a family gives a man. It stabilises him, it grounds him, it gives him people who can rely on him and [for whom] he can be the hero …

“Take responsibilities away from men … and you get what Warren Farrell and John Gray in their brilliant book ‘The Boy Crisis’ … call ‘a meaning void’ and I think that there is a meaning void for many men today.

“You basically have a lot of men who are going into their late twenties, into their thirties, without the kind of deep meaning and purpose … that a lot of men historically have had … We know that there are mental health issues among men, there are suicide issues among men. You’ve got men just not leaving home. You’ve got men in a permanent state of infantilisation.”

Chavura concludes that the sexual revolution has been bad for women, because it has normalised a model of sex that is very masculine – basically, just meaningless sex justified on the basis of consent. Chavura agrees that consent is “necessary but not sufficient” for good sex and what we need to do is get back to a marriage culture in which “good sex” is defined as sex within marriage.

“That is great for both women – because it is meaningful sex within a relationship – and it’s great for men as well because they enter into that institution that really grounds them, gives them a sense of meaning, gives them a sense of purpose and makes dad the hero.”

Further, if we recognise that hook-up culture harms both men and women, that provides a rationale for both sexes to drive change in this area and to demand much better than the cultural mess spawned by the sexual revolution. The proposition has a lot to recommend it. Whether it will catch on – whether it will persuade millennials like Goldsbrough – remains to be seen.

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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