By Dr Emma Wood
When I was coming of age, “sexual liberalism” looked like it was here to stay. A generation on from the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, I grew up in a world where very few public figures were brave enough to question the supposed progress that the sexual revolution had brought.
The story is different today. The past couple of decades have seen a steady but sure increase in commentary on the sexual revolution and the sexual ethics behind it. Ideas long taken for granted – that sexual liberationism is essential to the cause of feminism, that promiscuity, porn, and casual sex are empowering, or that easy divorce is a sign of progress – now face an intimidating array of critics.
One of the strawmen levelled against this literature of criticism is that only prudishness – some dying remnant of sexual repression that the revolution is yet to overcome – could possibly motivate such a backlash. But this is far from true. Wendy Shalit’s memorable 1999 book A Return to Modesty made the interesting argument (among others) that “modesty” – mystery – is an essential ingredient to sexiness. Ariel Levy’s 2005 Female Chauvinist Pigs documented the rise of raunch culture and its negative effect on young women. College campus psychologist Miriam Grossman’s 2006 Unprotected recounted her observations of the emotional and physical costs of hook-up culture, particularly on young women. Many of Grossman’s warnings about the drawbacks of casual sex were echoed in Donna Frietas’s 2013 book The End of Sex. The list goes on. More recent online pieces with titles like “A lot of women don’t enjoy casual sex – so why do we force ourselves to participate?”, and “I thought casual sex would be empowering, but it was the opposite”, and “The problem with being cool about sex” all tell a similar story: sexual “liberation” has not led to the promised paradise on earth. In short, this commentary does not critique sexual liberalism from a prudish dislike of sex, but rather, from the assumption that sex is valuable, and that ‘sexual liberation’ might be doing damage to sexual relationships.
Commentary on the societal cost of the sexual revolution is no less abundant. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart gives an in-depth expose on the growing wealth divide between the “marrying rich” and the “unmarrying poor”, whose economic outcomes and lifestyles repeat themselves over generations. (The upper middle class might praise ‘liberation’ in public, but they reject its extremes in private, while the costs of the sexual revolution disproportionately impact the poor). Mark Regnerus’s books Premarital Sex in America and Cheap Sex detail the new power dynamics in the sexual economy. While women still (as we always have) desire long-term romantic commitment, men now have less incentive to seek this. With casual sex, purchased sex, and porn at his disposal, the average man no longer needs to channel his sexual desires into the search for a life partner, and the result is that fewer women are getting what they want, or are getting it much later in life than they want. As economist Gordon Menzies explains in his book Western Fundamentalism, marriage was once a relationship that almost everybody – including the most ‘ordinary’ people – could achieve. It is now a luxury good for an increasingly lucky few.
Critiques of second-wave feminism’s rejection of marriage and family, and its embrace of abortion on demand abound. Mona Charen’s Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense suggests that the ‘decline in female happiness’ observed from the 1970s to the 2000s is explained by the feminist movement’s wrong turns. Legal Scholar Helen Alvare’s paper “Sexual Markets, Abortion, and the Law” echoes much of Regnerus’s findings about ‘cheap sex’, arguing that easily available abortion has contributed to the phenomenon. And Erika Bachiochi’s book The Rights of Women argues that a rediscovery of the initial feminist vision – one which championed the political equality of women, women’s education, the value of women’s work, the value of the unborn and the value of monogamous marriage – is exactly what women need.
The latest critic of the sexual revolution is young UK author Louise Perry, whose book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution is making waves. This week, I listened to Perry debate Jill Filipovic on Bari Weiss’ podcast Honestly, on the topics of sex, porn, feminism, and whether the sexual revolution has been good for women.
As I listened to the podcast, much of which was spent discussing the ethics of casual sex, Perry lucidly presented much of the data I had come across before:
“There are various traits that differ, on average, between men and women, and the one I am most interested in… is what psychologists call sociosexuality… That’s your desire to have sexual variety in your life. It’s not quite the same thing as sex drive. It’s the desire to have a variety of partners… and I don’t think any listeners will be surprised to hear that men are, on average, higher in sociosexuality than women are, and that that holds true across cultures… At the population level, that difference is quite stark…
I think the problem we come up against with a culture of casual sex… a culture in which this is the expected thing… is that women so obviously lose out. We suffer all of the physical risks, all of the discomfort, I mean women orgasm so rarely in casual sex compared with men… and women want it less, on average… And I think that, when you list it like that, the idea that casual sex could be of benefit to women as a class, I think just falls apart.”
The reply from the host (Weiss) was revealing:
“I definitely grew up in a context where the narrative was very much, like, “This is how you figure out what you like. This is how you find yourself, this is how you get to know what your tastes are… you gotta hook up with lots of different people…” the idea was, this was ultimately good… In the end, if I’m honest, and I look back at where a huge amount of my time went, it went to talking friends off ledges who weren’t hearing back from people they hooked up with the night before.”
Weiss’ words expose the ethical bankruptcy and unworkability of the liberal sexual ethic. Treating other people like a sexual experiment might sound fun… being treated like a sexual experiment, not so much. Similar inconsistencies reared their head as Filipovic attempted to defend porn. On the one hand, the problem with porn is merely that too much of it is misogynistic; there isn’t anything inherently wrong with porn. Why? well, “A lot of people like it” Filipovic reminds us, “It is an important outlet for lots of people.”
The problem lies right there, in the word outlet. Want to know what the inner monologue of a man who views a woman as an outlet sounds like? It sounds, well, misogynistic.
The motifs of the podcast episode were familiar. When presented with the oceans of pain and heartache in the contemporary sexual landscape, the defender of the sexual revolution doubles down: the bad consequences of the sexual revolution have nothing to do with the sexual revolution itself, or with its sexual ethic. In fact, we’re not liberated enough. The solution to the pain is more ‘freedom’ for more people – men and women – to express their sexual preferences, which can’t truly happen until the last signs of social inequality and misogyny still holding women back are expunged.
There are multiple reasons why I find this suggestion inadequate. Firstly, as Perry points out, men and women are not on an equal playing field when it comes to this freedom-fest. There are differences between men and women that look to be innate: the realities of sexual asymmetry are not socially constructed.
Secondly, is the problem that striving to legitimise all sexual preferences does not, in reality, result in a world in which it is possible for everyone to have their preferences fulfilled. Regnerus’s and Alvare’s scholarship makes this clear: in a world where there exists a greater ability for all individuals to have casual sex, the preferences of women who would like long-term commitment are fulfilled less and less. We are not isolated individuals – our choices shape our culture and sexual economy, which in turn shapes the range of choices available to us as individuals in the first place.
This all points, once again, to the necessity of asking fundamental moral questions about sex. When not all kinds of sexual preferences can be equally satisfied, which preferences should be satisfied? In case we need to repeat something obvious to us in every other area of life – a fact we’ve known since kindergarten – not all preferences are good for us. So how do we go about figuring sexual ethics out? How do we know which sexual preferences to pursue, and which sexual preferences are better set aside?
The dominant moral vocabularies of our culture - utilitarianism and political liberalism - struggle to deal with such questions adequately. Sexual liberalism (the assumption at the core of the sexual revolution) assumes that there is no such thing as sexual morality per se – meaning that there are no such things as objective moral norms particular to the domain of sexual activity, beyond those ordinary moral principles that apply in other areas of life, such as consent, truth-telling, and respect for autonomy. The liberal blindness to the possibility of sexual morality explains the persistence of the hopeless advice: more sexual liberation is what we need… so long as it is consensual, ‘respectful’, transparent, and borne of equal power dynamics. In other words, our sex problems will go away if we can just apply to sex the same moral principles we apply to other transactional exchanges in other domains of life like employment contracts, sporting contests, and purchasing property.
As I have elsewhere argued, viewing sexual activity merely as a transactional exchange embroils us in contradictions, and simply does not make sense of what sex is: bodily expression. Something two-faced and self-fragmenting is taking place when the intimacy and embrace one expresses with one’s body is not matched with intimacy of relationship, embrace of the whole person, and pursuit of their whole good. In other words, the proper context for sex, at the very least, is a relationship of love. Other human beings are not ‘outlets’. Other human beings are not ‘sexual experiments.’
If it really is true that there is such a thing as sexual morality – if sex is supposed to mean something – then all the pain, chaos, and discord following the sexual revolution has a far simpler explanation than the plea that we’re still not liberated enough, or just not doing ‘sexual liberation’ right. The reason we’re in pain is because this was never meant to be.
Some fear that a revival of anything like the traditional sexual ethic would be anti-feminist: it would take us back to a time in which women were the ‘gate-keepers’ of sexual behaviour while men had all the “fun”. While there is an element of truth to the picture of women as the gate-keepers of sex in previous generations, there is a positive way to view such a label.
If sex and love are not meant to be compartmentalised, this fact entails that the feminine preference for relationally significant sex is more in line with the objective good of human beings and human flourishing (including the true flourishing of men) than are the preferences of men for sexual variety. Female sexual preferences are, in other words, more ethical or more ‘virtuous’. This fact does not let men off the hook – the call to a revival of the traditional sexual ethic is not an apologetic for the old ‘double standard’. But women can, and should, take pride in the fact that it is our (typical) preferences, not those of the male, that provides a closer roadmap of what ethical sex is.
I hope others join Louise Perry in her feminist rejection of the sexual revolution. I hope the literature of sexual revolution critique continues to grow. I hope that future generations heed its wisdom.
Dr Emma Wood is a Research Fellow with Women's Forum Australia.