You’re never going to get an argument from me about turning back the clock on feminism’s hard-won victories. My life—my education; my marriage; my work—would simply not be possible without it.
But it’s impossible to deny the unintended consequences of feminism and the sexual revolution. Pick your subject: porn; hook-up culture; fewer marriages and fewer babies; less sex. It’s hard to look at the current landscape and not ask: Did we go wrong somewhere along the way?
Louise Perry’s answer is an emphatic and unapologetic: yes.
She makes that case in her new book—“The Case Against the Sexual Revolution,” which you can pre-order here—and in the powerful essay below.
I was struck by Louise when she came on Honestly to debate this subject with Jill Filipovic. If you missed it, I highly recommend a listen. Consider sharing it with your teenagers, especially your daughters.
I used to believe the liberal narrative on the sexual revolution. As a younger woman, I held the same opinions as most other millennial urban graduates in the West. I conformed to the beliefs of my class.
Of course freedom is the goal, I thought. What women need is the freedom to behave as men have always behaved, enjoying all the pleasures of casual sex, porn, BDSM, and indeed any other sexual delight that the human mind can dream up. As long as everyone is consenting, what’s the problem?
I no longer believe any of this.
I’m not a religious conservative. I’m a feminist, and I’ve spent my entire professional life working on the issue of male violence against women—first in a rape crisis center, and later as a journalist and a media relations director for a legal campaign against sexual violence.
It’s precisely because I’m a feminist that I’ve changed my mind on sexual liberalism. It’s an ideology premised on the false belief that the physical and psychological differences between men and women are trivial, and that any restrictions placed on sexual behavior must therefore have been motivated by malice, stupidity or ignorance.
The problem is the differences aren’t trivial. Sexual asymmetry is profoundly important: One half of the population is smaller and weaker than the other half, making it much more vulnerable to violence. This half of the population also carries all of the risks associated with pregnancy. It is also much less interested in enjoying all of the delights now on offer in the post-sexual revolution era.
The research is clear. Men are (on average) far more interested than women are in casual sex, buying sex, watching porn, and experimenting with unusual fetishes. It’s not that women never enjoy such things. But, on average, they enjoy them much less than men do.
Remove the progressive goggles, and the history of the last 60 years looks different. The sexual revolution isn’t only a story of women freed from the burdens of chastity and motherhood. It is also a story about the triumph of the playboy.
The new sexual culture isn’t so much about the liberation of women, as so many feminists would have us believe, but the adaptation of women to the expectations of a familiar character: Don Juan, Casanova, or, more recently, Hugh Hefner.
This may all be changing. My friend the writer Katherine Dee has been predicting a shift for some time. “I believe the pendulum with sexuality is going to swing, big time,” she wrote last year on her Substack. “We’re diving headlong into something that’s been simmering in the background since 2013–2014 . . . The pot is about to boil over.”
Katherine is one of those people who has a talent for noticing changes in the cultural winds, and she observes more and more signs of a coming reaction against the excesses of the sexual liberation narrative—particularly from Gen Z women who have experienced the worst of it.
On TikTok, teenage girls are swapping their war stories and decrying a “sex positive” culture that sets them up to fail. On Reddit, a group called Female Dating Strategy is offering tips on how to survive in a dating culture that is fundamentally hostile toward women. Some women are opting out of sexual relationships altogether and adopting labels like asexual or “femcel” (female celibate). There has even been a rise in millennial nuns.
I think Katherine is right on this. I think young women have been utterly failed by liberal feminism and have the most to gain from a swing back against its excesses.
This is the advice I would offer my own daughter:
• Distrust any person or ideology that pressures you to ignore your moral intuition.
• Chivalry is actually a good thing. We all have to control our sexual desires, and men particularly so, given their greater physical strength and average higher sex drives.
• Sometimes (though not always) you can readily spot sexually aggressive men. There are a handful of personality traits that are common to them: impulsivity, promiscuity, hyper-masculinity and disagreeableness. These traits in combination should put you on your guard.
• A man who is aroused by violence is a man to steer well clear of, whether or not he uses the vocabulary of BDSM to excuse his behavior. If he can maintain an erection while beating a woman, he isn’t safe to be alone with.
• Consent workshops are mostly useless. The best way of reducing the incidence of rape is by reducing the opportunities for would-be rapists to offend. This can be done either by keeping convicted rapists in prison or by limiting their access to potential victims.
• The category of people most likely to become victims of these men are young women between the ages of 13 and 25. All girls and women, but particularly those in this age category, should avoid being alone with men they don’t know or men who give them the creeps. Gut instinct is not to be ignored: It’s usually triggered by a red flag that’s well worth noticing.
• Get drunk or high in private and with female friends, rather than in public or in mixed company.
• Don’t use dating apps. They offer a large pool of options, but at a severe cost. It is far better to meet a partner through mutual friends, since they can vet histories and punish bad behavior. Dating apps can’t.
• Holding off on having sex with a new boyfriend for at least a few months is a good way of discovering whether or not he’s serious about you or just looking for a hook-up.
• 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.
• Monogamous marriage is by far the most stable and reliable foundation on which to build a family.
None of this advice is groundbreaking. It’s all informed by peer-reviewed research, but it shouldn’t have to be, since this is what pretty much most mothers would tell their daughters, if only they were willing to listen.
If we are to challenge the social costs of the sexual revolution effectively, then we can’t redesign society on the back of an envelope. We have to look at social structures that have already proven to be successful and compare them against one another, rather than against some imagined alternative that has never existed and is never likely to exist. The technology shock of the Pill led many liberals to the hubristic assumption that our society could be uniquely free from the oppression of sexual norms and function just fine.
The last 60 years have proved that assumption to be wrong. We need to re-erect the social guard rails that have been torn down. To do that, we have to start by stating the obvious: Sex must be taken seriously. Men and women are different. Some desires are bad. Consent is not enough. Violence is not love. Loveless sex is not empowering. People are not products. Marriage is good.
And, above all, listen to your mother. In 2021, a TikTok video by a young American woman named Abby went viral. In the video, Abby tells the camera:
“I, like many other college students, am someone who is entangled in hook-up culture, and often hook-up culture makes it difficult for me to determine whether or not what I’m doing is good for me and kind to myself. Very often, as women, we are led astray from what we actually deserve. So here’s what I’ve been doing lately . . . ”
Then she pulls up on screen a series of childhood photos of herself and explains that the men she’s hooked up with in the past have often made her feel as though she’s undeserving, not only of love but also of basic respect. So she’s trying to remind herself of her worth as a person by playing the role of mother to her inner child. “Am I OK with that for her?” she asks tearfully, gesturing at her younger self in the photo. “Would I let her be a late-night, drunk second option? Would I let this happen to her?” She shakes her head, weeping. “From a third-person, caretaker point of view, I would never let any of this stuff happen to her.”
Abby is trying to mother herself, though she isn’t quite sure how to do it. And the thousands of young women in her replies are trying to do the same (“I’m sobbing”; “i rlly needed this, thank you”; “this just changed my life”). They’ve been denied the guidance of mothers, not because their actual mothers are unwilling to offer it, but because of a matricidal impulse in liberal feminism that cuts young women off from the “problematic” older generation. This means not only that they are cut off from the voices of experience, but—more importantly—they are also cut off from the person who loves them most in the world. Feminism needs to rediscover the mother, in every sense.
Until we do, each individual woman will have to learn on her own the lie of the promise of sexual liberation—the lie that tells us, as Andrea Dworkin phrased it, that “fucking per se is freedom per se.”
It was a lie all along. It’s time, at last, to say so.