Reviewed by Roger Keeran
May 21, 2023
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century by Louise Perry. (Cambridge, UK and Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2022. 216 pp.)
In a series of well-researched and provocative essays, Louise Perry has written a serious polemic against the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and its consequences. Perry writes for the Daily Mail and New Statesman in England, where she deals mainly with issues related to women and gender. She is also the press officer of “We Can’t Consent to This,” an organization opposed to the growing tendency of courts to accept “rough sex gone awry” as a defense for the murder of women by their mates. Perry says that this book was informed in part by her experiences as a counselor at a rape crisis center.
Perry argues that the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that was rooted in the legalization of contraception and abortion and promoted by feminists as a path to equality and liberation has ended by producing a sexual culture that harms women, particularly young women, as well as children, and the society at large.
Perry makes her strongest contribution by exposing the scientifically groundless ideas that have accompanied the sexual revolution and the toxic sexual culture that has emerged. At her best, Perry’s social and cultural critique reminds one of Karl Marx’s dictum: “Since it is not for us to create a plan for the future that will hold for all time, all the more surely, what we contemporaries have to do is the uncompromising critical evaluation of all that exists.”
Perry contends that one of the most ill-founded and noxious ideas to emanate from the so-called sexual revolution is that men and women are basically the same, and that what differences exist are mainly due to “socialization.” This idea lacks any foundation in evolutionary biology, physiology, anthropology or psychology. Rather, men and women differ in important ways starting with physical strength. Women are half as strong as adult men. “In hand grip strength, 90 per cent of females produces less force than 95 per cent of males.”
This physical difference is particularly salient given that rape is primarily a male crime. According to one study, 46 percent of rapists were men under age twenty-five. Another study found that 27 percent of men would force sex on a woman if there was no likelihood of getting caught. Another study of American men found that 10 per cent admitted having forced sex on an unwilling partner.
If physical differences make women more vulnerable to sexual aggression, so do psychological differences. Women rate much higher on “agreeableness” (defined as a propensity to put your own interests last) than men. Given such differences, the idea that men and women are basically the same or that there is a level sexual playing field is absurd and dangerous.
Another product of the sexual revolution is the idea that sex lacks any special meaning, that it simply represents a leisure activity like any other activity that can be enjoyed by consenting adults or bought and sold like any other commodity. Perry calls this the “disenchantment of sex.” In reality, it is the latest manifestation of the capitalist propensity that Marx described a hundred and fifty years ago: “the bourgeoisie drowned religious fervor, chivalrous enthusiasm, and philistine sentimentalism in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” The disenchantment of sex is related to numerous other manifestations of today’s sexual culture.
Among these is the emergence of the “hook-up” culture, the widespread acceptance of casual sex, sex on the first or second date with no feelings, no commitments, and no responsibility. It is also evident in the growing popularity of sado-masochism (BDSM–bondage-domination-sadism-masochism), reflected on campuses and on-line as well as in such popular books and films as “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Perry says that BDSM “is simply a ritualized and newly legitimized version of the toxic dynamic that is all too common between men and women” and “it has made a lot of money for the porn industry.” Perry points out that of all the acts associated with BDSM “strangulation is currently the most fashionable,” with “over half of eighteen to 24 years-old UK women reported having been strangled by their partners during sex.”
Sexual disenchantment is clearly reflected in the idea promoted in such television shows as “Sex in the City,” where sexual liberation for women is equated with the freedom of women to have sex for pure sexual pleasure without feelings. Sex without feelings or responsibility, however, is clearly more attuned to the evolutionary psychology of men (who are inclined to value many partners) than of women (who are inclined to favor stable and continuous relationships best for childrearing).
According to Perry, the disenchantment of sex is also reflected in the explosion of the global on-line pornography industry that currently is worth some $97 billion. This is not a harmless matter. The indulgence in on-line pornography is clearly related to an increase of sexual dysfunction. According to Perry, “the addictive power of porn and the consequent sexual impairment” has led in the past twenty years to erectile dysfunction affecting 14 to 35 per cent of young men in contrast to 2 to 3 per cent at the beginning of the century. A sad and perverse consequence of the so-called sexual revolution is that due to pornography “the average young person is now having sex less often than their parents and grandparents once did.”
Perry argues that a casual attitude toward sex is related to the idea that prostitution should be legal and that sex work does not differ from any other work. Perry calls this a “luxury belief” that makes middle class liberals feel broadminded, but in reality the cost of prostitution is borne by lower class women, those most likely to end up in the commercial sex industry.
Another consequence of the sexual revolution has been the devaluation of marriage and concomitant the decline of marriage. Traditional marriage may not have been the greatest thing for women whose development was thwarted by confinement to the home, but the decline of marriage is not so great either. According to Perry in the UK today almost half of children are born out of wedlock compared to 8 percent in 1968. The numbers are similar in the U.S.: 40 percent today compared to 8 percent in 1960.
Because of these trends, children suffer. On average children without fathers at home “do not do as well as other children.” Moreover, remarrying does necessarily improve a child’s prospects since step-parenthood remains the “‘strongest risk factor for child abuse ever identified.” Whatever the limitations of marriage, it at least represents a recognition that fundamentally human beings are dependent creatures that typically begin life needing the care of others, spend much of adulthood caring for children and parents, and then end life in the care of others. Without a viable alternative to marriage and without a strong governmental safety net, the decline of marriage increasingly means stranding many children and seniors to the tender mercies of declining capitalism and its neoliberal austerity.
Though Perry’s book compels valuable reflection on the current sexual culture and mores, the book has major weaknesses. The first is that Perry offers no meaningful explanation for the cultural degeneracy she describes. She is content to blame it on extreme feminists and liberals who value “freedom over all other values.” She makes little attempt to connect current social sexual problems to the system of capitalism even though the sexual revolution and sexual culture she describes has been more or less confined to western capitalist countries. She provides no evidence that similar problems plague China, Cuba, North Korea or Muslim countries.
Moreover, Perry fails to acknowledge just how repressive and destructive were the sexual mores before the sexual revolution. Indeed, Perry goes out of her way to deny progress in this arena. Perry declares: “I am a ‘progress’ apostate: I do not believe that there is any such thing as the gradual, inevitable marching towards the good that Martin Luther King Junior so famously described as the ‘arc of the moral universe’ bending toward justice.” Still, one would have to be an apostate idiot not to recognize that cultural attitudes and practices are much healthier today in many respects than in the 1950s, when the mainstream culture frowned on divorce, nudity, and masturbation, outlawed abortion and contraception, and condemned premarital sex, homosexuality, and pregnancy out of wedlock.
A striking contrast to Perry’s methods was offered by Wilhelm Reich, the Marxist psychoanalyst. Reich tried to explain the roots and negative consequences of the culture of sexual repression of his time. In Sexual Revolution (originally published in 1945) Reich argued that sexual suppression over thousands of years has created a dangerous mass psychology, a fear of authority and submission to it, and an impairment of rational thinking, by which “the capitalist order of the past 200 has been able to exist.” Reich favored socialist revolution accompanied by a sexual revolution that would preserve “natural familial relationships” but would attack “the authoritarian compulsive forms of the family which are maintained by rigid laws, the reactionary human character structure and by an irrational public opinion.”
Since Perry fails to see any link between the destructive sexual culture she describes and the capitalist system of which it is a part, she also fails to offer any solutions apart from the admonitions of a personal advice columnist. After describing the serious and growing problems of the sexual culture, Perry simply advocates that we treat sexual partners with dignity, aspire to love and mutuality, and prioritize virtue over desire. This is all fine and good, but as the great sociologist C. Wright Mills observed, it is absurd to act as if social “issues” that are part of “an historical society as a whole” were merely personal “troubles” amenable to purely personal willful activity. It is as if the Boy Scout oath provided the answer to inequality, exploitation and war.
Perry’s unwillingness to link the destructive aspects of today’s sexual culture to the existing state of capitalism and decay, and her willingness to place the blame for today’s problems exclusively on feminists and liberals have made her the darling of some conservatives. The National Conservatism Conference of the UK scheduled for May 20 lists Perry as a speaker along with leadings lights of the Conservative Party. Nevertheless, much of Perry’s book remains valuable, however dubious the company she keeps.