‘The Case Against The Sexual Revolution’

British journalist makes an old-school feminist case about changing the way we view sex in modern society

Culture writer Louise Perry released her book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution earlier this year in England, where she works on both sides of the aisle with major bylines in The Daily Wire and The New Statesman. The late August U.S. release of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution comes out in quite a different context–in the wake of the Dobbs decision allowing for local abortion bans. Here, Perry’s argument holds quite a different tone. We take it for granted that women have a right to their own bodies and their own sexuality. Yet Perry suggests that just because women can have sex with whoever they want, doesn’t mean that they should, and that the sexual revolution has been much more forceful on the latter point than the former.

Perry’s thesis is fairly simple. She posits that sex drive is an essential difference between men and women. Men tend to want more of it than women, with distributions of these populations existing on a bell curve, so there are outliers. Perry roots this difference in evolutionary biology. Men can impregnate women with far less effort than a woman needs to expend to bring a single child to term. Consequently, pair bonding is much more important for women in regards to reproduction because they would prefer to have a coparent for the very labor-intensive process of raising a kid. While a man can go for quantity children over quality children, women don’t really have that option, and miserable single mothers with miserable children tend not to be very fit.

Perry means this in the literal sense rather than the moral sense. Single parents tend to have worse outcomes. But issues of single parenthood, much like any other issue adjacent to the sexual revolution, has become an issue largely detached from material analysis. Perry quotes a lot of statistics in the book, nearly all of them uncontroversial and not the kind of thing anyone would think to argue against except for ideological reasons.

The Case Against The Sexual Revolution
‘The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, by Louise Perry (Polity, August 29, 2022).

Yet virtually all of them are quite politically incorrect. Take the chapter which deals with sexual violence. Not explicitly criminal sexual violence, but in a BDSM context. If that very juxtaposition sounds very oxymoronic, well, that’s pretty much Perry’s point. The media portrays an image of the typical BDSM practitioner as strong, empowered, sexually dynamic woman ordering a consenting man to do her bidding while wearing fetish gear and probably stepping on him. They might exchange money, but the media mostly portrays BDSM acts as empowering for women.

But the reality of BDSM in practice is a vastly different story. The huge majority of doms are men, not women. A lot of what they do isn’t kinky and harmless-looking, but actually the kind of behavior that could result in the sub going to the hospital. Perry has found a disturbing number of cases where male defendants have successfully contested rape and even murder charges, claiming that their partners were literally asking for it, because they were into that kind of thing. Yet outside of relationships with men, women writ large show almost no masturbatory interest in, say, choking during sex, suggesting a dubious notion of consent in even the best circumstances.

From its big mainstream debut in Fifty Shades of Grey, the image of BDSM has softened considerably in the last decade, and pornography has increasingly likewise emerged as an empowering personal choice that we shouldn’t judge. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that men watch a lot more porn than they used to, that porn contains a lot more violence than it used to (mainly choking), and that the typical young woman on the bell curve who experiences this is more than a little alarmed by its prevalence.

Perry gives this same basic treatment to a wide variety of subjects. Sex work is another major one, with Perry noting that  the relatively well-off minority that can charge $200 an hour and be choosy about clients dominates the field of sex-work activism. But most sex workers charge $20 an hour, have drug problems, and are often runaway minors. With any other kind of work, liberals would at least claim to prioritize the interests of the more vulnerable group, yet the abstract idea of prostitution is of greater importance than the living conditions of prostitutes. We’re not even supposed to use the word prostitute anymore, the stigma of the word itself being of greater concern than the fact that people, again overwhelmingly women, end up doing work that’s quite dangerous physically and mentally.

Perry deals more with reality than image, leading to a lot of uncomfortable, counterintuitive truths. Take how birth control pills appear to have caused a massive spike in pregnancies to unmarried women, who aren’t generally trying to become pregnant. But combine the fact that birth control pills have never been as foolproof as people like to pretend with the simple logic of their existence making it harder for women to put off an eager partner, and it’s no surprise at all how that happened.

The obvious counter to this argument, that before the pill women were trapped in loveless marriages, is actually really misandrist, since it implies that men writ large are and always have been unstoppable rapists. Contrary to popular belief, such “all men are rapists” rhetoric has never been essential to feminist movements. Perry notes how first-wave feminists, who did far more social work with the poor than the more academic waves that proceeded them, had this slogan–votes for women, chastity for men. Once upon a time, people commonly believed that men could control themselves, but that society conditioned them into violent behavior. There’s even an academic term for this, toxic masculinity, which almost no one uses correctly, as we increasingly see maleness as an inherent trait that we can’t change or influence.

Perry’s book has drawn surprisingly little controversy or attention. Only right-wing websites have featured it, and left-wing ones haven’t seen fit to rebut her. Part of this is because of the strength of her argument. Her statistics are rock solid. There’s also the awkwardness, which Perry discusses at length, of how #MeToo and other anti-rape movements awkwardly exist alongside a feminist discourse of encouraging everyone to have as much sex as possible. Then there’s just the sorry state of feminist discourse in general, which revolves so much around LGBT issues that people barely discuss anything else.

Another interesting statistic from Perry’s book–lesbians are far more likely to form family units with children than gay men are. This isn’t meant attack anyone. Acknowledging and negotiating the differences between people used to be, and should be, what feminism is all about. Instead we have a gross, Victoria’s Secret-esque distortion of the idea, where women are literally the same as men, but whose lives in general and sex lives in particular appear to suffer dramatically when they actually try to act like it.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution isn’t some polemic with clearly-defined bad guys. The book is a serious, thoughtful discussion of cause and effect that’s a lot more romantic than it sounds just because it emphasizes that women want romance, yet make themselves miserable chasing orgasms. Not all of them, obviously. It’s just you’d never know that if all you read or watch is media prioritizing women’s sexual liberation as a theme.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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