Transcript: Louise Perry
My conversation with the author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution
Since the sexual revolution, women’s lives have undergone dramatic changes. The dominant narrative is that liberal feminism has freed women in profound ways. So why does data show that women’s happiness has actually declined?
My guest on this episode argues that the sexual revolution has, in fact, failed women.
Louise Perry is a British writer and activist. She’s a columnist at The New Statesmen and a features writer for The Daily Mail. Her brilliant debut is called The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century.
Below is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the podcast for free here.
TH: Louise, welcome to Lean Out.
LP: Thank you so much for having me, hello.
TH: It’s wonderful to have you on. Lots to talk about today. I want to start with a statement that your grandmother made when you told her the thesis of this book. She said women have been conned. I have to say, I kind of agree. Let’s talk about the big picture here first — when you look at the state of women’s lives, as compared to 60 years ago before the sexual revolution, what do you see?
LP: I see improvement, but not across the board, by any means. This is something that’s puzzled sociologists for a long time. Tracking women’s life satisfaction, happiness rate, et cetera, over the last half century or more, there’s not been any improvement. There’s actually been a dip in women’s self-reported life satisfaction. Which does seem very strange, doesn’t it? Given the amazing changes that we’ve seen, in terms of women having so much more control over their own lives, and participation in public life and in the workplace, and so on. You would expect there to be a very clear, good result in terms of how happy we are on average. And you don’t see that.
The piece of the puzzle that I’m engaging with in my book is to do with sexual relationships. The popular narrative that I’m writing against is the idea that as we’ve got more and more freedom over time — and we’ve been able to explore our sexuality more, and express ourselves more freely, and have control over our reproductive lives that we didn’t used to have — that this has been an obvious good for women. The argument I’m making is that, actually, I think that the real beneficiaries have been a subset of men. Very often at women’s expense.
TH: I do want to get to that class of men shortly. But first, you are a feminist. I certainly started out as a feminist, although I’m not sure at this point. What role do you think liberal feminism has played in this so-called conning of women?
LP: So, I’d start by saying that it’s not a conspiracy. I don’t think that anyone has sat down in a darkened room and designed any of this. I think a lot of it is just has to do with historical accident, and people making decisions at an individual level that make sense to them, but doing so within a context which has much broader ramifications.
Liberal feminism is just an iteration of liberalism. Which is one of the reasons I decided to describe it in that way, even though most liberal feminists would probably call themselves intersectional feminists nowadays, or various other terms. But I think liberal feminism describes it best, because I think that the key project is to do with freedom. And the idea that we used to be constrained by all sorts of social and material forces, and that the project before us is to undo them step-by-step.
I think that that is a flawed project. It’s not because freedom is a bad thing, but because freedom has to be balanced against other virtues. And the way that liberal feminism has often conceived its project is to do with us being more and more like men. Seeing masculinity as the ideal for which we need to strive. Which kind of makes sense in some contexts. Like in the workplace, for instance. You might say, “I think that it was absurd that women used to be restricted from becoming doctors, or becoming lawyers, or being formally denied access to the professions on the basis of our sex.” That’s a wrong that was righted a long time ago.
In that context, it made sense for us to strive towards access to masculine spheres, which we were otherwise excluded from. But the problem that I think we’re coming up against now is that there are some fundamental differences between men and women. Some of which are absolute differences, like the fact that only women can get pregnant. Some of which are average physical differences, like that women are weaker than men are on average. (I say “on average,” but the difference is massive; it’s very rare to have individual exceptions.) And some of which are psychological differences, which are much more controversial.
So, for instance, the fact that men like casual sex a lot more than women do, on average — that’s a really profound difference between the sexes and it’s quite a hard one to overcome. I think that the problem with liberal feminism is that once you’ve got the easier wins — for instance, women are allowed to vote, or allowed access to certain professions, all that good stuff that we’ve already achieved … If you keep pushing and pushing at this idea of sameness, and the idea that women should be as much as possible like men, you eventually hit the buffers. Because you come up against some biological differences that are not going away.
I think that that’s what we’ve seen with post-sexual revolution sexual culture. Which has all been about destigmatizing masculine modes of sexuality in women. That women should be allowed to do all the things that men have historically enjoyed doing, like buying sex and watching porn and having casual sex relationships. That the goal is for us to behave like men in the bedroom, as well as in the boardroom. I write at one point in the book about the first episode of Sex and the City — which is the bible of liberal feminism — where Carrie, the protagonist, has a hookup with an ex-boyfriend who she doesn’t even like. Has no respect for, let alone love for. And is deliberately selfish in bed. Then, as she’s leaving, she said, “I felt so alive. I felt like a man.” This was a great accomplishment.
I think that the problem with that project is that, actually, when it comes down to it, things like casual sex have so many more negative consequences for women on the physical level. Women are the ones who get pregnant. If they don’t want to get pregnant from a sexual encounter, they’re the ones who bear the consequences of it. Women suffer so much more risk of physical violence than men, just based on the fact that we are smaller. These are things that never happen in Sex and the City. Amazingly, the protagonists have so many hookups with so many dozens, hundreds of men across the series, and you never see anything like that come from it. Even though we know in reality, talking to women we know, that that stuff happens all the time.
There’s also the fact that women want all of that stuff less, on average. There are obviously exceptions, but psychologists talk about this trait called sociosexuality, which is slightly different from sex drive. This is a misconception. It’s not to do with how much you want to have sex; it’s to do with who you want to have sex with. People who are high in this trait are more likely to want to have lots of partners and to be much more adventurous sexually. And they find monogamy much more difficult. People lower in it are much more orientated towards monogamy. And they prefer to know someone for a long time before they have sex.
These are two bell curves for men and women. You see people at both extremes in both sexes, and you can’t necessarily know just from knowing someone’s sex what their sexuality is like. But the bell curves have a big gap between them. And across the population that has a really big effect. I think that basically what’s happened post-sexual revolution — all in the pursuit of freedom — is that women have tried quite hard to nudge themselves up towards the male bell curve, and to imitate that masculine style of sexuality that Carrie Bradshaw so aspires to. I think that actually the losers from that have overwhelmingly been women. And the winners have been the men who can now get consequence-free sex. Or so it seems to them.
TH: None of this would work without this idea that you raise of “sexual disenchantment,” this changing of what sex means. I want to ask you about that, and how that impacts the dominant view of very young, very online feminists. That sexual liberation for women is this right to pursue loveless sex — as you’ve just described with Carrie Bradshaw — the kind that’s often found on dating apps. How does sexual enchantment work with that?
LP: So, I’ve borrowed this term from an American writer called Aaron Sibarium, and he borrows it from Max Weber, the famous sociologist who talks about the disenchantment of the natural world that was part of the process of the Enlightenment. In that people used to believe that the natural world was infused with agency and spirits and magic. And then post-Enlightenment, we understand it just to be sort of a consequence of physical forces without any agency behind them. The natural world becomes much less special as a consequence. Aaron suggests — I think he’s completely right — that the same thing has happened to sex post-sexual revolution. That you used to have this idea embedded in all religious systems, everywhere in the world. You know, people have very strongly-held believes about sex. In Christianity, marriage is a sacrament and all of this stuff.
Then what happens post-sexual revolution is that this surprisingly influential idea comes around that, actually, sex didn’t have any specialness attached to it. That it could just be a social interaction like any other. If people want to invest meaning in it on a personal level, they’re welcome to. But that actually none of that stuff is innate. And, in fact, that it possibly is a bad thing to consider sex to have some sort of special status. This is where you get campaigning ideas like “sex work is work.” That selling sex is just like working at McDonald’s; it’s just like working in Starbucks. It’s just a service and it needn’t have any more significance than any other type of service. And if we do think that it has special significance, that’s because we are being hopelessly old-fashioned. And the project should be to try to reduce that significance as much as we can.
I don’t think that anyone really believes in disenchantment. I think it’s mostly a rhetorical move. Because even people who will push really hard at, for instance, the idea that sex work is work — they don’t actually tend to apply that consistently across the board.
TH: As you point out in the book, sexual harassment is the perfect example of that.
LP: Yeah. It is a very strange thing thing that often liberal feminists who will talk about sex work as if it were like working in McDonald’s don’t take that attitude in their own workplaces at all. And tend to be actually very sensitive to sexual harassment in the workplace. The question that I ask in the book is: If sex is just a service, if it doesn’t have any special significance, if it’s just like shaking hands or making coffee, or any of these other things that people commoditize all the time, why shouldn’t a boss asking for a blow job be permissible? In the same way that a boss asking for a coffee is permissible. People sometimes say to this, “Oh, but that’s because blow jobs aren’t in my job description.”
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