The title of Louise Perry’s first book makes it sound almost comically conservative: uh-oh, you think, expecting a manifesto worthy of some latterday Mary Whitehouse or Victoria Gillick. But don’t be misled. In this cultural moment, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution could hardly be more radical. It is an act of insurrection, its seditiousness born not only of the pieties it is determined to explode, but of the fact that it is also diligently researched and written in plain English. Did Perry, I wonder, struggle to find a home for it? Was her manuscript considered too hot to handle? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that while most mainstream publishers are seemingly content to publish feminist books that are both fact-free and clotted to the point of unreadability with jargon, her utterly sane and straightforward text comes to us courtesy of Polity, a small academic press.
Perry used to work in rape crisis, and it’s this experience – harrowing, but also highly, endlessly bewildering – that is her starting point in The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. It seems to her, as someone who has both talked to victims and run the kind of well-meaning workshops that are meant to reduce sexual violence against women, that 21st-century liberal feminism has backed itself into a corner so far as rape goes. Hellbent on the notion of freedom, and determined to minimise the innate differences between the sexes, such women have arrived at a point where they are not only queasy about using the power of the state to imprison rapists (those who disagree with them on this they call “carceral feminists”, a phrase that is only ever said with a sneer); they remain unwilling even to consider how women might best keep themselves safe, believing that to do so is simply “victim blaming”.
In combination, this takes the more unthinking among them to some pretty wild places – even when, ostensibly, they’re trying their hardest to be furious about male aggression. Perry cites the (admittedly extreme) example of a 2020 book of feminist essays about #MeToo in which one contributor encourages rape survivors to seek out sexual partners with a taste for sexual violence, otherwise known as “joining the BDSM community” (if you can’t beat them, join them, in other words). But as appalling and as stupid as this may be, she’s hardly surprised by it. For all the gains that the sexual revolution has brought women – chiefly the freedom to have sex without the fear of getting pregnant – those who have benefited from it most, according to Perry, are men. In a world in which sex is now just another leisure activity, and in which to be anything other than “sex positive” is to be, at best, a killjoy and, at worst, someone who is harbouring deep internalised shame, women must remain eternally silent about certain behaviours. They must celebrate “kinks”; they must enjoy porn; they must consider “sex work” a valid choice (even as, say, they disapprove of clothing sweatshops). Above all, they must fuck like a man, celebrating this as hard-won equality, and never, ever texting afterwards.
Honestly, girls, sex isn’t a big deal, even when it hurts! At one end of the scale, this means women who might once have worried (wrongly) about being seen as promiscuous are now almost as anxious to avoid being thought of as “clingy” (or “too intense”, as a man who’d spent four years telling me he loved me described me, when I dared to wonder about our future). At the other, it means that juries are increasingly prepared to buy “rough sex” defences in court (about half the homicide cases that deploy such a defence now end without a conviction for murder). Throttling? It’s just another “kink”, isn’t it? As for those who worry about the exploitation involved in prostitution or the porn industry, they’re just reactionaries and prudes. Alison Phipps, a professor of gender studies at the University of Sussex, has likened present-day anti-trafficking campaigns to the “white slavery” panics associated with 19th-century temperance.
Perry is alert to the contradictions involved in this way of thinking. If sex work really is just work, why are people so horrified by the idea that a tenant might be expected to pay their rent in sexual favours? She also has a lot to say about the limitations of an ethics based only on consent (consent is a low bar, one that gives us no framework in which to talk about decency, kindness or the many cultural pressures that are all around us all the time). I don’t always agree with her solutions, though it comes as something of a shock to see a feminist writer with any new ideas at all (the books of her peers are mostly just catalogues of woe lightly sprinkled with personal anecdotes). When she advises against dating apps, I wonder if she has ever been lonely. When she talks of what might be done to keep men sexually continent, I had flashbacks to the women I worked with at Boots in Sheffield as a teenager, who had some pretty retro tips on this score.
And I wish she hadn’t detoured into marriage. As a feminist who decries the matricidal impulses of her generation, I hope she won’t mind me saying that life is long, that people fall in and out of love in spite of their best efforts, and that all the statistics in the world cannot make me believe that a child with really miserable parents would not, ultimately, be better off if they could only separate amicably.
But such disagreements on my part are half of the point. This is a provocative book. More than once, its author says the unsayable. It makes you think, and it makes you want for a better world. It is urgent and daring and brave. It may turn out to be one of the most important feminist books of its time.
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