Sexual Neocons Inch Closer to Social Conservatism
Louise Perry’s new book identifies the problems with the sexual revolution but fails to offer an alternative vision.
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, by Louise Perry (Polity: August 2022), 200 pages.
Among the remarkable things about The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry, set to hit shelves tomorrow, is that it’s not much of a case against the sexual revolution at all. Given the title, you’d expect Perry’s book to recount the history of the sexual revolution, engage with its intellectual underpinnings, and offer an alternative, superior sexual morality. Perry doesn’t do these things. Her inability (or unwillingness) to provide a philosophical backbone for her neoconservative sexual ethic weakens her criticisms of liberated sexuality and prevents disaffected liberals from hopping the fence.
Perry’s book is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Her book's main point is that the sexual revolution was, in many ways, a mistake. She condemns modern feminism for denying the natural differences between men and women, unleashing male sexual desire to the detriment of women, and destroying the supports that used to make meaningful relationships possible, such as monogamous marriage and taboos against promiscuity. Further, she recognizes that sexual morality is necessarily a political problem: “When sex before marriage is expected,” she writes, unwillingness to have sex before marriage “becomes a competitive disadvantage” in the “sexual market.” Freedom of choice is an illusion if the political and cultural order only support certain choices.
But Perry is unwilling to solve the political problems she identifies. Much of her book’s real estate is wasted on peripheral matters: She relitigates the #MeToo cases against actors Armie Hammer and Aziz Ansari, and devotes a full chapter to BDSM. When she comes to political and hot-button cultural matters, she balks. She is unwilling to acknowledge procreation as the purpose of marriage (even though she hints that it was once the institution’s strongest justification) because that would exclude same-sex couples. And while Perry claims the welfare state is an ineffective “back-up husband” responsible for breaking up the family and forcing women into the workplace, she thinks that curbing it would cause “misery and mayhem.” All Perry can do is tell young women to be choosier with men, advice that Perry herself recognizes to be inadequate to the scope of the problem.
Perry’s book is less interesting for its positions on sexual morality than it is as a cultural barometer. Perry sees herself as a feminist injecting some realism into a movement that has drifted from reality to disastrous effect. Many academic feminists, for example, hold that there are no natural differences between men and women, and that all alleged differences are really a result of socialization. Liberal feminists are therefore unable to speak with consistency on issues that affect women as a class, such as male-on-female violence. Perry, a real women’s advocate who has worked to dismantle the “rough-sex defense” in the U.K., cannot afford such an unreal, luxury belief.
Perry evidently finds herself in a position analogous to — of all people — Irving Kristol, though she does not mention him by name. Just as “a conservative is just a liberal who has been mugged by reality,” as Kristol once wrote, Perry says “a post-liberal feminist is just a feminist who has witnessed the reality of male violence up close.”
Perry’s not alone in her sexual neoconservatism. She’s just the latest example of liberal apostasy in the face of the left’s denial of reality. Books like hers are indicative of a growing number of liberals who are committed to individual freedom in the public sphere but recognize that, when extended to the private sphere, unmitigated freedom —understood as the unmooring of the individual from any authority—empties life of its content and ushers in a paternalistic, totalitarian state. These liberals take a Tocquevillian approach to “intermediary institutions,” and increasingly see traditional structures such as the family, the church, and civic associations as means of tutoring individuals in their long-term interests and serving as guarantors of personal liberty against the state.
Under classical liberalism, individual rights and freedoms are a negative means of protecting individuals against state tyranny, allowing them to live according to consciences shaped by private associations. The progressive modification of liberalism—really the destruction of liberalism—is to extend “freedom” downward by policing private associations, or more accurately, by replacing them with the state as the only legitimate moral authority.
This is no hyperbole; it is exactly what the early progressive reformers themselves said of their project. One glance at the Biden administration’s approach to Title IX is enough to convince anyone that such a social project is still underway. Issues like gender ideology, critical race theory in schools and universities, and sexual morality are wedge issues that are moving liberals to the right—not because such issues reignite old prejudices, as is often claimed, but because these liberals are consistent in their defense of individual rights against state power.
Perry’s book shows both the attractiveness of the liberal position and its limits. She recognizes that freedom ought not be pursued for its own sake, arguing that we must “balance freedom against other values” and “interrogate where our desire for a certain type of freedom comes from” rather than “referring back to a circular logic by which a woman’s choices are good because she chooses them.”
She also rejects the liberal-progressive view of the individual as an independent being that can exist outside any long-term communal ties. “Modern contraception has allowed us to stretch out that young adult state artificially, giving the illusion that independence is our permanent state,” she writes. “But it isn’t — it’s nothing more than a blip, which some of us will never experience at all.” We are born dependent, and once we reach the “second childhood” of old age, we will be dependent again.
“How can we all be free?” is therefore the wrong question, she says. “We must ask instead, ‘How can we best promote the wellbeing of both men and women, given that these two groups have different sets of interests which are sometimes in tension?’”
That is indeed the question, but Perry’s attempted answers are far too equivocal. Sometimes nature serves as her model, such as when she condemns sexual liberalism for militating against the natural female desire to have fewer, longer-term sexual partners. Other times she indicates nature must be resisted, such as when she calls for us to police the natural male desire to have many short-term partners. Similarly, she argues the sexual revolution is bad because it denies our “moral intuition.” Yet at the same time, she claims moral intuition is “a poor guide.”
If nature and moral intuition can’t be the basis of a sexual morality, what can? Perry’s solution is “virtue,” which she doesn’t define. Her argument stops where it should start:
I can’t pretend that this is an easy issue to resolve, because "How should we behave sexually?" is really just another way of asking "How should we behave?" and, after millennia of effort, we are nowhere near reaching an agreement on the answer to that question. Nevertheless, here is my attempt at a contribution: we should treat our sexual partners with dignity… We should prioritise virtue over desire.
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In other words, Perry has nothing to teach on this subject. Her full and final stance on sexual morality is that there should be one. The fact that this book-length condemnation of liberated sexuality should end with the flimsiest of relativist platitudes is infuriating.
One would hope someone who wrote a book on sexual morality would be able to bring us closer the question of how we should behave sexually. In a way, however, perhaps Perry does. The Case Against the Sexual Revolution contains many good arguments against the promiscuous jungle we have inherited. Her primary audience—young women, especially those “who learned the hard way,” to whom she dedicates the book—would certainly benefit from the exposure she offers to the sexual realities of modernity that other ideologues paper over. The problem is that, without an intellectually consistent alternative view of sexuality (e.g., the religious view), the political inheritance of the sexual revolution will not be overcome.
I’m cheering on the sexual neocons. But until they can pick up where this book leaves off and articulate a political program to resist the tyrannical denial of sexual reality, full-throated social conservatism will remain the more attractive position.