log in

  • Published in Book Reviews

Perry’s Case Against the Sexual Revolution raises important questions about women’s liberation, but is based on deeply flawed premises, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

the-case-against-the-sexual-revolution-lg.jpg
Louise Perry, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century (Polity Press 2022), xi, 216pp.

Louise Perry, the back cover text warns us, is setting out to be provocative with her central contention that the sexual revolution has been bad for women. The sexual freedom won by the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s has become, she argues, not just the ability for women to have casual sex, but the expectation that we should embrace a sexual culture in which, if you’re not doing that, there’s something wrong with you. If you’re not having transactional, no-strings sexual encounters ‘like a man’, using porn, going to strip clubs and engaging in fun, consensual choking, then you’re a prude and a dinosaur.

That a culture in which young women in particular feel an obligation simultaneously to view sex as ‘no big deal’ and to strive to be as ‘sexy’ as possible at all times can be bad for women has been noted before. Perry tends not to give much explicit acknowledgement to such previous feminist arguments though, possibly because the conclusions she draws from what might appear to be similar criticisms are very different.

Ariel Levy, for example, noted in 2005 in her Female Chauvinist Pigs the development of a raunch culture, which is not ‘the by-product of a free and easy society with an earthy acceptance of sex. It is a desperate stab at free-wheeling eroticism in a time and place characterized by intense anxiety.’i The problem for Levy is that women have not achieved real sexual liberation and power, but are simply being required to play a new role, of ‘silent girly-girls in G-strings faking lust.’ii In other words, that the sexual revolution has not gone far enough in achieving genuine liberation for women.

Perry, on the other hand, takes explicit issue with this viewpoint, arguing that the problem is not that ‘the sexual liberation project of the 1960s is unfinished, rather [that] ... it was always inherently flawed’ (p.15). The answer, she believes, contrary to the views of many feminist thinkers, is to return to monogamous marriage and disapproval of pre-marital sex. This would not only relieve women of the obligation to have casual sex they don’t want, but would be a structural mechanism for imposing sexual continence on men:

‘A monogamous marriage system is successful in part because it pushes men away from cad mode, particularly when pre-marital sex is also prohibited. Under these circumstances, if a man wants to have sex in a way that’s socially acceptable, he has to make himself marriageable, which means holding down a good job and setting up a household suitable for the raising of children. He has to tame himself, in other words’ (p.182).

The family and oppression

This prescription to return to a rigidly enforced nuclear family ignores the historical role of the family in women’s oppression. Perry acknowledges feminist arguments that marriage was used to control female sexuality, although she dismisses these in a sentence: ‘and it does do that, of course, but that was never its sole function’, which was, she argues, also for the protection of women and children (p.176). Perry’s disinclination to see the material role of the nuclear family in controlling women’s labour is a significant omission here. Even leaving that aside, though, the apparent ‘the 1950s were great’ message seems a surprising one from someone who her publishers call ‘one of the most exciting young voices in contemporary feminism’. It may seem even more surprising for her book to have garnered praise from feminists like Julie Bindel and Nina Power.

To be fair, many of the approving comments from contemporary feminists appear to be for the provocative nature of Perry’s arguments, rather than representing agreement with everything she says. Bindel’s comment, for example, that ‘agree or disagree with the central premise, it is fresh and exciting’, does not express unqualified support. Even Kathleen Stock’s foreword allows for the possibility of considerable disagreement, calling for ‘open-minded attention’ and arguing that ‘whether you ultimately agree or disagree with Perry's analysis, the book takes the interests of women deadly seriously’ (p.ix).

It is perhaps tempting to cherry-pick positives from among the more dubious parts of Perry’s arguments, because she does make some good points along the way. She gives, for example, a brief but well-argued criticism of the commodification of reproduction, in which ‘money, technology and the bodies of poorer people’ are employed to enable a minority of women to work as uninterrupted as possible by pregnancy, childbirth and childcare (p.9). She is also sharp on the hypocrisies of some middle-class commentators who are adamant that sex work undertaken by working-class women is work like any other form of work, but are less sanguine about sex being exchanged for money when it is their potential landlords expecting sex in lieu of rent.

The implicit position in Rachel Clarke’s Guardian review, for example, is that elements of Perry’s arguments are so welcome that we should be able to look past the other aspects which are less helpful. It is ‘something of a shock to see a feminist writer with any new ideas at all’, so those should be celebrated, even while we’re sceptical about her ideas on keeping men sexually continent and ‘wish she hadn’t detoured into marriage’.

The problem with this as a verdict on the work is that Perry’s is a coherent argument. It is not, as Clarke herself says, a ‘catalogue of woe lightly sprinkled with personal anecdotes.’ Her prescription of marriage as the cure for the societal ills she diagnoses isn’t a detour. It is the logical conclusion of her overall argument, that women are hard-wired to want monogamy rather than sexual freedom, while men are hard-wired to want the opposite. This is her entire case against the sexual revolution, so accepting parts of her analysis is to accept the whole by default.

What the science does and doesn’t say

For anyone with any knowledge of the debates over evolutionary psychology in the past few decades, Perry’s argument that we’re up against hard biological limits will seem less fresh and ground-breaking than it is wearily familiar. The crux of it is that tired old saw that because women produce fewer gametes than men, and have to undergo pregnancy, they have considerably more physical investment in the gametes and the foetuses they do have than do men. Men have little physical investment in each individual sperm, or even in each conception. Thus, women have evolved to be sexually choosy, while men have evolved to be sexually promiscuous. In this view, all sorts of male sexual behaviour, from hook-ups to rape, is a result of this adaptive urge to spread their genes around, whereas female sexual behaviour results from their adaptive urge to find a man with lots of resources and tie him down.

In this view, the mismatch in adaptive urges creates an imbalance in sexual desire between men and women. In older societies (a term which in this argument broadly spans the whole of human history up to about 1963) this imbalance was met by designating some low-status women to service the excess male sexual desire. The sexual revolution then changed that by designating all women in this role, creating an obligation for women to persuade themselves that they want the casual sex their biology has evolved to make anathema to them. The answer is therefore to embrace a monogamous system which artificially tames male sexual desire. Quite how this differs from the caricatured older society model, and why male sexual desire is presumed to be socially malleable, but women’s not, is not explained.

Perry presents this as simply what the objective, incontrovertible Science is telling us. These are simply facts that our feminism has to accommodate. It is ‘all informed by peer-reviewed research’, after all (p.188). It is Science, not Perry, telling us to ask the question ‘what if our bodies and minds aren’t malleable?’ (p.10), and to wonder how to deal with the fact that we’re in the twenty-first century with biology evolved for the Palaeolithic. In fact, though, Perry is relying on various works of evolutionary psychology which have themselves been thoroughly debunked.

Perry’s question about whether we’re ‘malleable’ enough for the sexual revolution is not original but goes back to science writer Robin Wright’s pop-evolutionary psychology work, The Moral Animal, from 1994.iii This has been widely criticised for ignoring the considerable evidence of plasticity in a wide range of species. It was a popularisation of understandings of animal behaviour which took as a given that the females of whichever species was being studied were sexually passive, so the only sexual behaviour studied was that of the males. When a new generation of female scientists started actually seeing the females as actors, they discovered a considerable range of female sexual behaviour and strategies, including behaviour which could change significantly depending on environmental factors and a good deal of actively sought recreational sex. The idea that human, or indeed any animal behaviour is hard-wired and un-malleable isn’t sustainable.iv

Evolution of rape?

Perry also puts a good deal of emphasis on A Natural History of Rape, by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, which came out in 2000.v This argues that rape in humans is analogous to forced sex in other animals and can be attributed in all those cases, including in humans, to an adaptive strategy on the part of the males practicing it. In other words, it’s a device by men to get their genes spread as widely as possible.

Perry says that it ‘hit me like a ton of bricks’ (p.34) as a convincing demonstration of how rape is a biological (innate, unchangeable) issue rather than a social one. It revealed that men have evolved to need much more casual sex than women, with rape resulting from the mismatch in sexual desire. She makes much of the point that the modal age of female rape victims is fifteen, so, she says, it corresponds with the peak of female sexual attractiveness, demonstrated by the fact that this is also around the age when young women will be experiencing the most street harassment. This shows, she contends, that rape (and by extension sexual harassment) really is about sex, not power. Rapists are men with excess sexual desire and poor impulse control.

The idea that men have to struggle constantly to hold themselves back from raping any woman they fancy is of course depressingly common, appearing for example in egregious judicial remarks excusing rapists, like this one from 2014: ‘You are not the type who goes searching for a woman to rape. This was a case where you just lost control of normal restraint … She was a pretty girl who you fancied. You simply could not resist.’vi If we accept this as true, unchangeable and inevitable, though, the only possible conclusion would be not the monogamous marriage Perry supports, but the sort of separatist feminism which imagined communities of women keeping men out.

As Perry herself says, A Natural History of Rape was greeted on publication with ‘a great deal of criticism from feminists’ (p.38). Perry characterises this as those feminists misunderstanding the argument or failing to accept that the authors were sincere in condemning rape. Omitted from her account is the fact that it was also roundly criticised by many scientists, who noted that since the 1980s, leading journals of animal behaviour had been rejecting the conflation of forced sex in animals and human rape as misleading anthropomorphism. ‘Specifically, using the term “rape” to refer to forced sex by mallard ducks or scorpionflies (Thornhill’s animal of study), was ruled out.’vii

Leaving aside the question of quite how a human onlooker could tell if a female scorpionfly was consenting to sex or not, it is clear that sex among such species, forced or not, only involves fertile females, whereas this is demonstrably not the case with rape in humans. Perry’s contention that the age of fifteen marks the peak of female sexual attractiveness is also both subjective and dubious. That most women experience the peak of street sexual harassment and are at highest risk of sexual violence when they may still be too young to have started menstruating is surely evidence that this is about power, not procreation. In any case, when you consider that neither ducks nor flies have class, nor women’s oppression, it is clear that any comparison between forced sex in animals and rape in humans can hardly be meaningful.

A different feminist politics is possible

Evolutionary psychology is not a new discipline. We’re not short of arguments that women are naturally fitted for staying home in the cave with the babies, waiting for their man to bring home a bit of mammoth for them to cook for dinner. It is possible to criticise raunch culture, or rape culture, without recourse to these sorts of unconvincing arguments, so this does raise the question of why this book might have been written and published now, and why it has garnered support (albeit sometimes qualified) from some feminists.

Perry states that in criticising liberal feminism, she is not using liberal as a synonym for left-wing, and that she is writing against ‘those conservatives who are silly enough to think that returning to the 1950s is either possible or desirable’ (p.7). Given though that she appears to be advocating a return to sexual mores that look remarkably like those of the 1950s, this is difficult to sustain. Polity Press appear to agree. The back cover claim that the book should be read by ‘all men and women uneasy about the mindless orthodoxies of our ultra-liberal era’ seems to situate the book within the gamut of right-wing criticisms of liberal feminism, rather than among criticisms from the left.

More generally, the argument that social inequalities have their roots in human biology and are therefore unchangeable is an essentially right-wing one, and one that has been used to justify the effects of racism as well as sexism. It’s difficult to escape the sense that Perry espousing this is an expression of the increasingly acrimonious divisions in modern feminism, between the feminism which holds that anything can be empowering for women if women choose it, and the second-wave feminists and their heirs that the first group increasingly denounce as prudes, moral-panic-ers and bigots. It comes perhaps from a feeling that if the mainstream has abandoned the path of feminist reason, all that remains is the right.

What is crowded out here is a materialist understanding of women’s oppression, which can recognise the significant gains for women from the sexual revolution, as well as the setbacks and areas where we have much further to go. As we have seen from the loss of Roe v Wade in the US, the right to abortion was not a small thing, nor was escaping the culture of shame around pregnancy and sexual activity by women outside marriage. This is not to underestimate the problems facing young women in particular because of the commodification of sex and the sexualisation of culture. In order to understand these issues though we need to approach them systematically.

Perry’s prescriptions for a different sexual culture are all to do with individual behaviour. A list in her final chapter, ‘Listen to your Mother’, advises young women, among other things, to hold off on having sex for the first few months of a relationship, and then to only go ahead if they could imagine him as the father of their children. Perry is not unaware of the way in which businesses sell young women the sexually liberated role, from G-strings to dating apps, but she doesn’t appear to see this as any part of an explanation for how our sexual culture has developed. A more systematic analysis could understand the damage Perry identifies as part of the effect of twenty-first century capitalism on many aspects of culture, not just on sexual expectations. That however would lead to the conclusion that it is capitalism, not our evolution, that is at fault.

 

i Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Pocket Books 2005), p.199.

ii Ibid., p.198.

iii Robin Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are. The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (Pantheon 1994).

iv For more detail on this, see Anne Fausto-Sterling, ‘Beyond Difference: Feminism and Evolutionary Psychology’ in Alas, Poor Darwin. Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, eds. Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (Jonathan Cape 2000), pp.174-189.

v Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases for Sexual Coercion (MIT Press 2000).

vi Kate Harding, Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture – and what we can do about it (Da Capo Press 2015), p.119.

vii Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, ‘Introduction’, in Alas, Poor Darwin, pp.1-13, p.2.

Before you go...

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now