The feminist writer Louise Perry published a book last year called The Case Against the Sexual Revolution which she has been interviewed about on certain YouTube channels I’m subscribed to including Benjamin Boyce (here) and Triggernometry (here). More recently, she has spoken to Jordan Peterson (here). The book was positively received by publications on both sides of the political spectrum and a number of people I follow on Twitter.
Louise Perry is part of a group of women who have been called ‘reactionary feminists’ which is made up of thinkers who advocate for women’s rights but also criticise some feminist ideas and express conservative viewpoints – you could also call them ‘anti-feminist feminists’. Mary Harrington and Nina Power are two other examples of this kind of feminist and both have also recently published books. My attention here though will just be on Louise Perry.
It might be the contrarian in me, but I am less enthralled by Louise Perry and her views as a lot of people I follow online appear to be, although this is not to say that Ms. Perry has no valid points to make.
In this post, which will be one of three, I’m going to explore three extracts from Perry’s book that were published on the Daily Mail website when the book was released. Reading these extracts is not the same as reading the entire book, but they still give us insight to Louise Perry’s thinking.
The first article adapted from her book can be read here.
Louise Perry begins by saying that sexual freedom has backfired for women:
“Rather than women being emancipated sexually, in the digital age we have become a society in thrall to the worst of male sexuality.”
A recurring theme in the article, and presumably the book, is the contrast between male sexuality and female sexuality, but more on that later.
Ms. Perry argues that current attitudes towards sex separate it from love and commitment which in her view is more harmful to women than men. Promiscuity and pornography tell women “to enjoy being humiliated and assaulted in bed” and websites such as Instagram and TikTok are full of “women desperate for some positive male attention.” Similarly, dating apps like Tinder are often used for casual hook-ups rather than to potentially find a long term partner.
Because of this Louise Perry, and many others, have concluded that sexual liberation has benefitted men more than women.
To reiterate her point, Ms. Perry looks at what she calls the “earliest icons” of the sexual revolution: the Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and the actress Marilyn Monroe. Hefner and Monroe were born in the same year – 1926 – and are buried beside each other as Hefner bought the crypt next to Monroe’s. I was surprised to learn that Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Monroe never met when they were both alive but Hefner apparently claimed that “spending eternity with Marilyn” was “too sweet to pass up.”
As you can imagine, this caused some outrage because of the fact that Marilyn Monroe couldn’t consent to who would be buried next to her. Of course, most deceased people can’t decide who will be buried next to them! Hefner’s actions were also controversial because Monroe posed nude in the first edition of Playboy magazine and later claimed she only got $50 for doing it (I’m not sure how much this would be in today’s money).
According to Louise Perry, the lives of Hefner and Monroe show:
“in perfect vignette the nature of the sexual revolution’s impact on men and women.
Ms. Perry even quotes Andrea Dworkin, who claimed that Monroe’s “lovers in both flesh and fantasy had fucked her to death.” Given Dworkin’s status as a radical feminist who had misandric views, she might not be the best person to quote on this subject. It is true, however, that Hefner and Monroe’s lives turn out very differently: Marilyn Monroe died in 1962 aged only 36 whereas Hugh Hefner died in 2017 at the grand old age of 91.
Louise Perry writes:
“Hefner…experienced ‘sexual liberation’ very differently from Monroe, as men typically do.”
It should be noted that Monroe was not the only Hollywood actress of that era to die at a young age. Hollywood stars of both sexes who died prematurely include James Dean (24), Judy Garland (47), Montgomery Clift (45), and Jean Harlow (26). Harlow’s life was in some ways similar to Monroe’s in that both women were Hollywood sex symbols, both got married three times and both died young. Nevertheless, Jean Harlow’s death was in 1937, well before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Louise Perry also claims that Hugh Hefner lived out an adolescent fantasy living with younger women in his Playboy mansion and had a coercive relationship with them. I don’t know enough about “Hef” to judge how much of a controlling or predatory man he may or may not have been, but you could say his lifestyle was overly shallow and hedonistic. On the other hand, it’s possible that Hefner had to play up to a certain image even in his old age and may have preferred an early night to being the ultimate Playboy! One ‘Playmate’ claimed that Hefner would lie on his bed “with his Viagra erection” which doesn’t sound particularly appealing.
Given his role as a figurehead for ‘sexual liberation’, Hugh Hefner was involved in other related political causes:
“After his death in 2017, a British journalist argued that Hefner had indeed ‘helped push feminism forwards’ by taking a progressive stance to the contraceptive pill and abortion rights and promoting them in his magazines.”
Here Louise Perry restates her argument: while the sexual revolution allowed women control over reproduction and freedom from expectations of chastity and motherhood, she believes it was more beneficial to male sexuality than female sexuality. In short, liberal attitudes towards sex has unleased male sexual behaviour and society, and women in particular, are experiencing the consequences of that.
This idea is not exactly groundbreaking, since you can find many conservatives, especially conservative women, who say similar things. While I can understand the general principles behind this stance, I think it is also incomplete and often one-sided, which I’ll get to later on in this post.
Louise Perry was originally on board with liberal attitudes towards sex but eventually had a change of heart. Her hybrid feminist/conservative viewpoint came about from working in a rape crisis centre and witnessing “the reality of male violence up close.” She goes on to write:
“It made me realise that the sexual revolution has not freed all of us, but it has freed some of us, selectively and at a price.”
As well as writing:
“I am baffled why so many women desire a kind of sexual freedom that so obviously serves male interests.”
Commenting on the commercialisation of sex, Ms. Perry points out the beliefs of those who advocate it:
“Sex is nothing more than a leisure activity”
“It has no intrinsic specialness, it is not innately different from any other kind of social interaction and can therefore be commodified without any trouble.”
These last two quotes are valid observations, which have been made by other writers such as the late philosopher Roger Scruton. Engaging in sex without any attachment involved can certainly lead to a lot of dissatisfaction and unfulfillment. Similarly, although I’m not a prude, I recognise that the commercialisation of sex has arguably made our culture more crass and self-indulgent than it had been before.
That being said, I should now explain my issues with some of Louise Perry’s views.
The reader will likely have noticed that Perry takes a dim view of male sexuality which has supposedly being unleashed onto society since the 1960s. In what could be considered an appeal to female superiority, Louise Perry makes this comment about the modern, commercialised idea of sex:
“In general terms, that has long been the male attitude to sex.”
Later she writes:
“On average, men want casual sex more often than women do, and women want committed monogamy more often than men do.”
While Louise Perry is right to point out differences between men and women, such as attitudes towards casual sex, it is clear Ms. Perry has a far more favourable view of female sexuality than male sexuality. From her perspective, male sexuality could be seen as being like a seedy, pornographic magazine, whereas female sexuality presumably is a Jane Austen-type novel full of romance, sacrifice, duty, and commitment; male sexuality is base, hedonistic, exchangeable and potentially exploitative in contrast to female sexuality which is romantic, noble, civilised and socially conscious. For Perry, women who have sex “like a man” to liberate themselves from traditional expectations are actually degrading themselves to be like men.
The idea of sex being a commodity that benefits men more than women, and is thus characteristically more male than female, is understandable considering that men are predominantly the consumers of sex industry ‘products’ such as pornography and prostitution. However, if men are able to buy sex, then some women must be willing to sell it. Likewise, some women must have chosen to become Playmates, models, prostitutes, or whatever without some evil spell being cast upon them by figures such as Hugh Hefner.
While there are no doubt men in the sex industry who are controlling, predatory and exploitative, there will be women who take advantage of the system for their own benefits. Similarly, while it is probably true that men can handle a casual ‘hook up culture’ better than women can, women in the sex industry, or many other industries, understand that sex is a useful quid pro quo. Think of women who have “slept their way to the top”.
Louise Perry does concede that some women enjoy casual sex but argues that it does not benefit women as a group. The problem, she believes, is the notion that men and women are the same – a.k.a. the blank slate idea of human nature.
In Ms. Perry’s words, if you think men and women are the same “why wouldn’t you want women to have access to the kind of sexual fun that men have always had.” Perry also argues that other sex differences are ignored, such as the fact that men are stronger than women but I don’t think this is as widespread as often stated. Similarly, she makes the points that there are more “super-horny” men than women are more “super-not-horny” women than men.
The following quotes may be familiar to anyone who has read Bad Men by David Buss (or my review of it):
“gospel of sexual hedonism is openly preached”
“The prevailing culture is a terrible deal for women. It demands that they suppress their natural instincts in order to match male sexuality and thus meet the male demand for no-strings sex.”
“Inexperienced young women are encouraged into situations in which they are alone and drunk with horny men who are not only bigger and stronger than they are but are also likely to have been raised on the kind of porn that normalises aggression, coercion and pain.”
“Many of these women are naively aware that men are, in general, much better suited to emotionless sex and find it much easier to regard their sexual partner as disposable.”
“Young women don’t have to look far for advice on how to overcome their perfectly normal and healthy preference for intimacy and commitment in sexual relationships.”
Perhaps it takes another feminist to take some of Louise Perry’s views to task: Cathy Young gives a pretty good review of Perry’s stance in this article for Quilette where she notes that Perry’s arguments have been made before by other women such as Wendy Shalit in her book A Return to Modesty. Young also writes:
“in her eagerness to push back against dogmatic sex-difference denial, Perry lapses into massive and drastic generalizations about women and men, despite some pro forma disclaimers that these differences are averages, not absolutes. Yes, the evidence of a greater male preference for sexual variety and a greater female preference for sexual commitment is quite strong; however, not only are there numerous variations in this pattern, but the preferences are often a matter of degree rather than a stark binary.”
Cathy Young – ‘Children of the Counter-Revolution’
“for all her dissent from modern feminist orthodoxy, Perry’s own feminism is stuck in the same woman-as-victim mindset. It’s telling that one of the feminists she cites most approvingly is writer and activist Andrea Dworkin, who died in 2005 and was briefly touted as a misunderstood prophet during the rise of #MeToo.”
As Young points out in the above quote, it’s one thing to recognise differences between men and women, but being too black and white about the sexes can also have its drawbacks. It’s important to understand that humans are contradictory creatures who have desires that are not always compatible.
For example, we on the one hand desire safety and security, but on the other hand also desire danger and excitement. This certainly applies to our sexual desires. Women for instance may desire a stable, dependable provider in a romantic context but at the same time desire a ‘bad boy’ who will excite them sexually; men obviously like a sexually available woman but this can also be off-putting if men want to have children they can be sure are their own.
Perry reverts into a more standard feminist way of thinking by arguing that women have replaced one form of subservience towards men, such as a 1950s housewife expected to look after her husband, with another, the modern expectation of pleasing men with sex.
This argument ignores the fact that contemporary women have often been taught to be uncompromising, independent and have a dismissive attitude towards men and male behaviour. She also mentions a guide called ‘how to have sex without getting emotionally attached’ which suggests avoiding eye contact with your sexual partner. While it’s true that women desire emotional attachment, men who act distant and dismissive towards women can be attractive to the opposite sex.
Louise Perry proposes an alternative sexual culture that recognises other human beings as real people with value and dignity. While this is hardly an original idea, I’m not suggesting that Louise Perry is entirely wrong in what she is talking about, as it’s possible she is ultimately ‘right for the wrong reasons’. Are we any happier as a society following the sexual revolution? This is a question that is definitely worth asking but it all too often falls into the narrative of poor helpless women being preyed upon by beastly, sex-obsessed men.
As I noted earlier, Louise Perry does, on occasion, make some legitimate points. For example, she states that women need to avoid courting danger:
“here’s the point: rapist don’t care what feminists have to say. Posters that say ‘don’t rape’ will prevent precisely zero rapes, because rape is already illegal and would-be rapists know that. It has to be possible to say simultaneously that rape is reprehensible and that it is okay – in fact, essential – to offer advice that could help to reduce its incidence.”
She follows this by stating that rape convictions ‘are appalling low’ but this should take into account the difficulty in convicting a man in rape cases where it is unclear if the sexual act was consensual or not – the old ‘he said, she said’ problem. etc. Perry also suggests limiting opportunities for rapists because some men are aroused by violence and are unable to control their impulses. This is true but could the same thing be said for some women?
Similar to David Buss, Louise Perry comments on the potential dangers of women going on a night out:
“if you wanted to design the perfect environment for the would-be rapist, you couldn’t do much better than a party or nightclub filled with young women who are wearing high heels (limited mobility) and drinking or taking drugs (limited awareness)”
True, but for every potential male rapist, how many men would alternatively try and protect women from such men? And if women were so afraid and in so much danger, wouldn’t they never go out and get drunk in the first place?
At the end of this first extract, Ms Perry writes:
“My advice to them is this: only have sex with a man if you think he would make a good father to your children. Not because you necessarily intend to have children with him, but because this is a good rule of thumb in deciding whether he’s worthy of your trust.”
Although this advice is perfectly sensible, telling women to only have sex with men who may be good fathers is like telling men to only have sex with women who will make good mothers. What both sexes are attracted to in the other is not necessarily related to if they are good parent material. Just because a woman may be young and beautiful doesn’t mean she will be a good mother, even though a lot of men would want to have sex with her. Moreover, what women may be sexually attracted to men may not correlate with the men being good fathers. Women’s attraction to men can vary depending on their so-called ‘short-term’ or ‘long-term’ mating strategies also known as ‘dads vs cads’.
I’ll conclude here by offering an alternative reason why sex-positive feminists have promoted sexual liberation for women.
Many societies have placed restrictions on the sexual activity of both men and women, but may have been more lenient with men owing to differences in sex drive and because men don’t get pregnant. Restrictions that were, or are, placed on women can include forbidding the wearing of make-up, expecting women and girls to tie their hair up rather than letting it hang loose and wearing clothing that does not show off their bodies, such as the veil in Islamic societies. One obvious purpose for these restrictions is to reduce the likelihood of sexual interest from men which may be welcomed by women or not. This remains so even if women are married and sexually active.
Another, less obvious, purpose for these restrictions was not just to protect women but also men. This idea may seem strange in the age of #believeallwomen and toxic masculinity. Many men might also feel emasculated by the idea that they would need protecting from women. Why would they?
The answer can be found in historical portrayals of dangerous women. In Greek mythology, for example, sirens would lure sailors towards them with their beautiful appearance and singing so that the ships would crash on the rocks and the sirens could eat the sailors. Similarly, in folklore, the succubus was a female demon who would seduce men and make them physically/mentally ill or even kill them.
Given that there are countless portrayals in many cultures of women or female creatures luring men with their sexuality, it appears that humans all over the world have recognised that sexuality can be used to control, manipulate or even destroy someone. Although male predators – real or imagined – can be sexually alluring, it is often female predators who are presenting in such a way. Since men have a higher sex drive than women, they are potentially more vulnerable to being taken advantage of using sexual attractiveness. From this perspective, sex can be both a source of power or powerlessness for men.
We often assume that men have the upper hand in matters relating to sex because of their physical advantage over women. While this should always be taken into account, we also need to think about ways in which women have an advantage over men. For instance, women’s greater physical vulnerability can produce protective instincts in men which can also be exploited, whether consciously or not, by women. Women could also use their sexual attractiveness to play men off against each other or make a man sexually jealous by flirting with other men.
Similarly, women have always been able to shame men about their masculinity, or lack thereof, which can have a psychological effect. Obviously men shame other men too, but women can use sex and a man’s sexual performance as a way to humiliate, intimidate and even emasculate him. Consider how a woman could mock a man for having a small penis, or who “can’t get it up”, who “is quick at the draw” or that she fakes orgasms during sex with him. These statements could have a profound effect on men, whose identity is somewhat less clearly defined than women’s.
Although it may be taboo to suggest it, this shaming behaviour by some women may be, in certain cases, the root of men’s violence towards them, although this is not to condone such behaviour or justify violence against women in any way.
Prior to the sexual revolution, many parents may have been concerned about their sons bringing home a girlfriend who was, to use an old-fashioned phrase, ‘a woman of loose morals’. This concern would have been because parents thought such women were exploiting their sons or would not make good wives and mothers. It’s interesting how words such as ‘harlot’, ‘whore’ or ‘slut’ have disappeared from our language due to their association with a particular kind of woman and are now considered misogynistic.
In short, women who express themselves sexually can have a lot of power even it comes with vulnerabilities. In essence, both men and women are attracted to and afraid of the opposite sex albeit for different reasons: physical strength for women, sexual allure for men.
This arguably presents an interesting paradox, sexual liberation makes women more available to men, but it also makes men more vulnerable to sexual manipulation or attacks about their sexual prowess by women. Since women are assumed to be victims, men are also more vulnerable to being blamed for any sexual impropriety.
Being sexually explicit can also have an effect in other ways. In the Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls, there’s a scene where the characters are talking about which boy they might take to a 1950s style prom they’re having at their all-girls school. The sex-obsessed Michelle has this exchange with her friends and her cousin James about one of the boys she’s thinking of going with:
Michelle: I have heard he is really good with his hands. And when I say ‘he’s good with his hands’ I’m not talking about putting up shelves, girls. I’m talking about…
James: Everyone knows what you’re talking about , Michelle.
I’ve actually encountered more women who talk in this sexually explicit way than I have men and had a similar reaction as James, although I’ve usually thought it rather than said it! Men who talk in this way might be considered sexist or even predatory which may explain why I’ve encountered in more in women.
One reason for this overly sexual behaviour might be as an expression of freedom – i.e. the freedom to express your sexuality without being judged or disapproved by others. Another reason may be as an act of provocation – i.e. to create the sort of response from people such as James, even it’s just mild disbelief. There is power in busting taboos as it allows the taboo buster to shock or even ‘trigger’ people who might be sensitive towards subjects like sex.
There is a balance here to be struck between acknowledging that women are more vulnerable than men when it comes to sex from a physical standpoint, while also acknowledging women can take advantage of men via their sexuality.
Women want to be protected from dangerous men, which is fair enough, but also want to wear make up and dress in a way that some societies would disapprove of. The fact that women dressing in certain ways encourages a sexualised response from men is often presented as a type of ‘victim blaming’ if women are sexually assaulted, like at a party or on a night out. The purpose of stating this fact however is simply to note that, regardless of women’s intentions, appearing in a sexually appealing way may trigger responses in certain men which can lead to bad outcomes for women. Feminists appear to want women to be both free to be as sexually explicit as possible while at the same time being free of any harassment or assault from male predators.
The key point here is that the sexual revolution enabled women to flaunt their sexuality without judgement and restrictions from society and in a way that might entice or disturb men, or both at the same time. While Louise Perry rightly points out some of the disadvantages for women, she doesn’t acknowledge that sexual liberation gave women a kind of power that societies in the past have tried to discourage.
Overall, I feel ambivalent about how much sexual freedom societies should have: what people do behind closed doors is their business, assuming that it’s consensual, and sex can be a very funny subject as well as a very serious one. Having grown up in the 1990s and 2000s, I’m fairly laidback about a lot of sexual matters even though my own experience has been very innocuous. However, a society that is laidback about sex has to be willing to weigh up its complexities in an intelligent way.
As I was writing this, I started to think that a better term than ‘anti-feminist feminist’ for women such as Louise Perry is ‘OG feminist’ because they believe that society needs to control male sexual behaviour for the benefit of women. The anti-feminist academic Janice Fiamengo made this fascinating video talking about attitudes of 19th Century feminists towards male sexuality which are very similar to Perry’s.
I’ll continue exploring Louise Perry’s book by looking at the second extract.