The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century by Louise Perry - review by Joan Smith

Joan Smith

What Women Really Want

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century


Polity 200pp £14.99

There is an iron rule that revolutions (French, Russian, sexual – take your pick) let down women. The blokes leaping the barricades generally pay lip service to equality, but always make sure to keep a sharp eye on their self-interest. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, women welcomed a revolution that would release them from the shame that attached to extramarital sex and the irrecoverable loss of ‘reputation’ that came with unwanted pregnancies. A combination of the pill, challenges to conventional morality and the rapid expansion of higher education promised exciting change but produced a model of sexual relations that favoured men just as much as the old one. Second-wave feminists spotted this a long time ago, but the case for the prosecution has seldom been expressed as clearly as it is in Louise Perry’s invigorating book.

Perry does not use the word ‘libertinism’, but her target is something very like it. Her thesis is that ‘liberal feminism’ has promoted a sexual free-for-all, premised on the notion that women can have emotionless sex without regard for the consequences. She takes aim at the idea that men and women are essentially the same, able to make identical choices or buy their way out of trouble when biology intervenes. Choice is everything in the modern marketplace, whether women are selling their own bodies, using other women’s to bear their children or changing sex (neatly skewered here as ‘stepping out of your female body altogether’). To be clear, Perry is not returning to the old idea that ‘sex is destiny’, which limited every aspect of women’s lives. She is saying that casual sex disappoints many women, and that the culture of it forces them into a corner where they have to pretend that men’s sexual needs are identical to their own.

‘Why do so many women desire a kind of sexual freedom that so obviously serves male interests?’ she asks. ‘What if our bodies and minds aren’t as malleable as we might like to think?’ Of course it is possible to think of lots of examples of what she is talking about, from women feeling they have to go on work outings to lap-dancing clubs to girlfriends holding back from challenging their partners’ use of porn. But Perry is most eloquent when she writes about the emotional damage suffered by women who feel they have to accept this male-centred model of sexual relationships. ‘Hook-up culture is more common in environments in which men are dominant, and, in a sexual marketplace in which such a culture prevails, a woman who refuses to participate puts herself at a disadvantage,’ she writes. Who wants to be the uncool girl who admits that she values intimacy and emotional connection more than casual sex?

Whether men and women differ in their expectations for cultural or biological reasons is a matter of fierce debate (Perry comes down on the side of the latter). But there is no doubt that telling women they have to prioritise men’s desires, shaped by an avalanche of misogynist porn, has had catastrophic effects. Here is a staggering statistic: in 2019, research conducted by ComRes revealed that over half of women in the 18–24 age group reported having been strangled by their partners during sex. A friend in her twenties told me recently that most of her peers have been asked to consent to choking, a form of assault sanitised in men’s magazines as ‘breath play’. Perry is excellent on the danger of relying on ‘consent’ in such cases, showing that it may be illusory in situations where the man doing the asking has more power. She deserves great credit for campaigning against the so-called ‘sex game gone wrong’ defence often used by men who have fatally strangled their partners. It is an indictment of the indulgence shown to sexual predators that some defendants have avoided a murder conviction by claiming that the dead woman, who wasn’t there to defend herself, wanted to be choked during sex. 

I should mention a couple of reservations here. It strikes me as odd that Perry recognises that men strangle women to show how powerful they are but rejects the long-standing feminist argument that rape is about power. If she is right to explain forced sex as an evolutionary strategy that increases men’s chances of passing on their genes, it is hard to see why it hasn’t declined at a time when casual sex has never been more widely available. What about rapists who kill their victims or use condoms (sperm is a useful source of DNA evidence)? And I can’t help wishing that Perry would apply her scepticism about consent in ‘rough sex’ cases to the preposterous defences used by rape suspects who habitually claim that women who were drunk, drugged or just walking home wanted to have sex with them. Perry’s argument that ‘it’s always going to be challenging to prove beyond reasonable doubt the presence or absence of consent’ reinforces, unintentionally I think, the idea that we can’t trust what women say about horrible sexual encounters. It has become standard practice in rape investigations to treat victims as suspects, an approach condemned last month in an excoriating report produced by the UK Information Commissioner.

I’m not as pessimistic as Perry about the possibility of increasing the scandalously low level of rape convictions, but it requires a recognition that the criminal justice system is imbued with the profound misogyny she writes about in her book. It is without doubt a fine achievement, saying out loud what many women have thought but have been afraid to put into words. I hope liberal feminists will recognise themselves in its pages and realise how damaging the ‘anything goes’ approach to sex has been for generations of women. We wanted a revolution, but not one that would impose a new set of demands on women when it comes to sex – and in some cases actually puts lives at risk. 

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