Listen to your mother
a rant-punctuated review of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century, by Louise Perry — Polity Press, 2022. (216 pages)
I disagree with Louis Perry’s new book about one of her main theses, and I strongly recommend you buy it and read it and give it to your teenage daughters. Ms. Perry, a UK columnist for both a right-wing and a left-wing paper, studied anthropology, if I recall correctly, and one of the book’s main theses is that we can discern what is wrong with late liberalism’s schizophrenic take on sexual relations through the lens of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. First of all, this field is far too speculative to be of much use, to my mind. It’s based on a highly speculative prehistory after all — nothing against that in itself, I’m all for academic research and speculation — imputed from little scraps of evidence . . . there’s my rub. It’s imprudent to draw conclusions from reductively functionalist explanations for dynamic and highly complex phenomena. Secondly, her arguments that rely on evolutionary biology/psychology presuppose a nature-culture dichotomy that I don’t believe is a real thing. These analytical categories were invented as part of modernity’s relentless search for abstraction, and neither nature (however defined) nor culture (however defined) have ever in human history or prehistory been separated. They are not really things. Show me one instance where they were separable in the actually-lived world, and I’ll gladly kiss your ass in the middle of Main Street.
That said, Louise Perry is formulating an understandable response to a real political phenomenon, ascendant among academics in the nineties, and now become fashionable among “educated” liberals (and bewilderingly among “leftists”). This noisy fraction takes “the culture side” in the beguiling nature-culture debate, and takes it to absurdly untenable, and dangerously consequential lengths, as Louise Perry’s book shows to devastating effect. While she does reject the “naturalistic fallacy,” the magnetic attraction of biological determinism (a different issue than naturalistic fallacy) is built into the nature-culture separation, as is the opposing magnetic pull of ivory tower uber-constructivism. I still remember how the social Darwinists used bio-determinism, and I admit it makes me afraid.
The dualized abstraction nature-culture is also part and parcel of the Weberian disenchantment we’ll discuss further along. But on to the things we agree upon.
Before I begin in earnest, we’ll take a side trail through American politics for a moment, which is in a state of disarray that would be comical if it weren’t for the fact that while its clown combatants tussle over the levers and buttons of the decaying American political machinery, we’re all steamrolling toward manifold catastrophes. As I write this, there were three one-in-two-hundred-year rain events in the US in the last ten days, and one one-in-five-hundred-year rain event. California is burning (again), and you can now walk across Lake Mead without wetting your belly button. Couple of weeks ago, people were dropping dead in London from record heat. Household debt in the US is now $16.15 trillion (with a T) and we are now in a state of stagflation. Oh yeah, we’re also approaching nuclear standoffs with both Russia and China. You get the picture. These people are having pissing contests on the deck of the Titanic.
Everyone knows we just lived through the Trump administration; and everyone knows we’re now living through the equally calamitous Biden administration. And for the record, I have been a “leftist” of some stripe ever since my last three years in the Army, starting around 1993. I was a regular writer at Counterpunch and a member of two different left-wing cadre organizations. I think I wrote somewhere during my active participation against George W. Bush’s catastrophic military adventure, “I’m redder than a baboon’s ass.” I’ve attenuated that since, but my tactical political sympathies still lie with what used to be the left — those people who claimed to stand against the rich and for the working class and the poor.
When Trump managed to get a substantial portion of the working class vote in 2016, everyone acted like this was some bolt from the blue. It wasn’t the left that lost, of course (there is no stable “left” remaining in the US), but the incompetent neoliberal Democrats . . . after they’d ruthlessly stamped out the social democratic remainder like so many roaches, and with it a good deal of their own potential support. That said, the right offered no real solutions to the crisis we’ve been in since 2008, but they did win, and are winning, the culture war. When they win that, they’ll do some bad things. Mark my words.
The problem is, even if the Democratic Party were to fold its tent, the left would still be beaten, not because of economic policies that favor the working class (most people would agree with those), but in substantial part because they’ve adopted the philosophically liberal, “absurdly untenable, and dangerously consequential” stance of academics and “educated” liberals on sex. It’s not because regular people are “backward” about sex, but because working class people with daughters and granddaughters know goddamn well that these ideas are absurdly untenable, and dangerously consequential. And this is one Democrats, as well as “progressives,” are likely to get beaten like rented mules in 2022 and 2024. Paradoxically, the strike-down of Roe may be what rescues this incompetent corporate servant of a party. The culture war is not about things that don’t matter, even if the right is using it as an opportunistic cudgel. (We’ll come back to this.)
Louise Perry, in her conversations with various conservatives, has said that she “arrives at some conservative conclusions, but [as a kind of leftist] from different priors.” Well put. While I disagree with her reliance on evolutionary biology/psychology, and while I’m skeptical of some of her statistics- and survey-related conclusions, I strongly agree with pretty much everything else she’s written here.
She and I have arrived at the same conclusions “from different priors.”
Since I’m neither omniscient nor infallible, I’ll take that. These are not life-or-death disagreements; and her non-speculative observations are dead on, as are her sensible suggestions for young women who are trying to make their way through a world that has become more sexually hazardous for them than it was before I was born . . . that would be six years after World War II.
Louis Perry displays two things in her writing that I, as a writer, struggle with. Accessibility and brevity. And she’s written a hell of a good book on both accounts.
The book is divided into eight chapters for eight broad arguments with provocative, straightforward titles: “Sex Must Be Taken Seriously,” “Men and Women Are Different,” “Some Desires Are Bad,” “Loveless Sex Is Not Empowering,” “Consent Is Not Enough,” “Violence Is Not Love,” “People Are Not Products,” and “Marriage Is Good.” The epilogue is called “Listen To Your Mother.” These chapter titles may appeal to a section of “conservatives,” and they will provoke a patellar reflex from a cohort of academics, libertarians, corporate CEOs, and pop-poststructuralists.
Perry is a self-described secularist, but there’s another group who will likely agree with all these titles: Christians, and not just the lily-white, gun-and-flag-worshiping heretics in my own country. The unifying theme of these titles, read by this Christian, might be “objectifying human beings is always wrong, even when one is objectifying oneself.” We believe reducing human beings to objects is kinda wrong. Doing this to people over whom one wields social or economic power is kinda even more wrong.
Louise Perry — once a standard “millennial urban graduate” on the subject of sex — arrived at her present positions, as many radical feminists I have known and learned from, dealing with women in rape crisis centers. Seeing rape victims up close and in large numbers apparently discloses four things that fly in the face of the utterly disingenuous, “sex-positive,” prostitution apologetic, porn-friendly mavens of the liberal PMC and identitarian pseudo-left: (1) women and men are different, (2) men are generally far bigger and stronger than women, (3) men are generally more violent than women, (4) men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of rape. She is not a radical feminist, but a post-liberal one, and she says, “a postliberal feminist is just a feminist who has witnessed the reality of male violence up close.”
As a old-leftish, Christian grand-dad to five girls (and most regular people would agree), I don’t want these “sex-positive,” prostitution apologetic, porn-friendly charlatans anywhere near my granddaughters, and I want those girls to internalize as soon as possible every one of these four facts . . . as basic survival tools. This sentiment is a big driver in the aforementioned political rejection of “liberals” who gush sexual disenchantment conceits like shit fountains. And the very worst of the right has now driven through this breach like the Wehrmacht punching into Poland.
Perry, a very soft-spoken person in the flesh (I’ve watched several of her interviews and presentations), has little patience with meme-length and meme-shallow idealistic pronouncements like, “The solution to rape is not raping,” or the vacuous claim that advising women on how to avoid rape is “victim blaming.” When I first went into the Army, the Army had learned early on that among recruits and draftees there would be a fair number of thieves. The Army had a rule that you had to lock your stuff up, and the rule was enforced, sometimes in draconian ways, against those who did not comply. It did, however, ensure far lower rates of theft. This defensive strategy was never called “victim blaming,” because we all knew damn well that thieves are not deterred by the rules or they wouldn’t be thieves. Rapists are not deterred by the rules, or they wouldn’t be rapists. Louise Perry thinks it’s in the best interests of women to remember to lock up.
I don’t want to give the impression that rape is the main point of this book or Perry’s principle interpretive standpoint. I would suggest, based on the epilogue, that her book is similar to St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Perry’s book isn’t aimed at Roman Christians, of course, but at young women (even though this septuagenarian male enjoyed the book a great deal). Paul of Tarsus was dealing with a factional struggle within his own nascent tradition, and he was in prison if I recall correctly. He hadn’t even been to Rome, but he knew the factionalists were heading there (from Jerusalem, I believe) to throw gas on an already smoldering fire. The letter was addressing the errors of both factions, in an attempt to achieve advance reconciliation, and his letter was sent as an inoculation against the specious arguments of both sides. I think Perry is writing this in response to a factional dispute, and I think she wrote this book as a prophylaxis for young women against popular arguments (as abundant as marsh mosquitoes on the internet) that will harm them.
Her first chapter sets up her thesis with a major premise: sex must be taken seriously. This is a deceptively simple claim that excavates a lot of philosophical ground. She’s taking on the liberal axiom of sexual disenchantment. Disenchantment is a Weberian sociological term that describes the loss, in an ever more “secular” world, of the sense of mystery and wholeness of things. Carolyn Merchant does a detailed history of disenchantment in her feminist classic, The Death of Nature. Sexual disenchantment is the ever more popular idea that “sex is merely sex,” which underwrites the disingenuous claims of so-called sex-positivists and porn/prostitution apologists. As my friend De Clarke wrote once, “There is no such thing as mere.”
Sexual disenchantment is the idea that sexual congress need be no more intimate, no more consequential, no more psychologically impactful than having a burger or buying groceries or having your car’s oil changed. Perry says this is a lie, a damned lie, and that even the people who say this stuff know it. I agree, they are engaging in the worst forms of sophistry to protect a cherished but decaying philosophical architecture for which this sophistry is a foundation stone.
Sexual disenchantment is a natural consequence of the liberal privileging of freedom over all other values, because, if you want to be utterly free, you have to take aim at any kind of social restrictions that limit you, particularly the belief that sex has some unique, intangible value — some specialness that is difficult to rationalize. From this belief in the specialness of sex comes a host of potentially unwelcome phenomena, including patriarchal religious systems. But when we attempt to disenchant sex, and so pretend that this particular act is neither uniquely wonderful nor uniquely violationg, then there is another cost.
That cost falls disproportionally on women. (Perry, p. 11)
Perry historicizes the problem — thus her title, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution — by taking us back to the introduction of legal, widely available chemical and mechanical birth control, which changed the entire sexual landscape. It was perceived as a Good, and that in some ways it was, but she also shows, to great effect, that it was not an unequivocal Good, and that it has not in many ways improved, but degraded, the situation of women — once the political subject of feminism, before “being a women” became a “choice” or a “cultural construction,” a move which — as the radical feminists warned us — began to erase actual natal women as political subjects.
Yes, the introduction of widely available birth control did give some women, including married women, a great deal more sexual freedom; but it was hailed by many men for entirely different reasons — again, something radical feminists pointed out, which led to the first wave of second-wave demonization. Many men, especially of the most caddish and objectifying variety, saw the door opened for increased access to the bodies of more objectified women. And for heterosexual women, who were already at multiple disadvantages in the sexual negotiation arena with men, this removed one of the former locks — referring to my military analogy — which was saying “no” on the grounds that they could get pregnant.
It’s easy to forget that once upon a time — through all but the last millisecond of human history and prehistory, in fact — childbirth wasn’t only an all too likely outcome of sex, but childbirth itself was a dangerous event. Maternal mortality was so common that many women made out their wills before giving birth; and, of course, maternal mortality among the poor and marginalized was even worse than for the ruling classes. There were very good reasons — for women — to support measures that contained and restrained male libidos, even though some of these customs also put women at a social disadvantage in other realms.
Reality doesn’t divide neatly between good and evil, and Perry’s book, in making the case against the sexual revolution, doesn’t call said revolution an unmitigated evil. She unearths the unintended outcomes that have been buried because they were inconvenient for liberal ideologues. She states very clearly that this wasn’t some kind of conspiracy, but a series of developments whose knock-on effects were unpredictable.
As evidence that the sexual liberals don’t really mean what they say, Perry points out the glaring contradiction, between (a) “sex-positivism” (meaning emotion-free licentiousness as consumer virtue) and porn/prostitution advocacy around “sex is merely sex,” and (b) the #metoo phenomenon as well as the (only historically recent) anathematization of pedophilia. When sexual liberal ideologues defend porn and prostitution as mere choices (ignoring that most of both practices victimize women and promote misogyny), or defend hookup culture, they promote sexual disenchantment; but when they rightly call out the Harvey Weinsteins of the world or pedophiles (which include “great men” like Foucault), they are tacitly admitting that sex is a special category, requiring special considerations and protections. We should, as a friend once said to me, “be dropping dead in our tracks from cognitive dissonance.”
What if I were to say that having sex with a child is no more consequential than buying him or her a hamburger? And yet we’ll say shit like this about adults.
Something I have to emphasize here which Perry’s book makes a point of emphasizing. Hookup culture, casual sex with strangers (and even familiars), prostitution, and pornography are dangerous for women. The portrayal in entertainment media of these things as harmless or worse, “empowering,” is profoundly irresponsible. Hooray for Louise Perry for saying so — a lot — in this book addressed to girls and women!
A little excursus here: I wrote a little book called Tough Gynes — Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men, published by Wipf and Stock/Cascade Books in 2019. In it, I reviewed (and “deconstructed”) nine films with female protagonists who in various ways were “redemptively” violent, and who were celebrated as feminist icons for this incursion into formerly male roles. The subject wasn’t “having sex like a man,” but “employing redemptive violence like a man.” Nonetheless, the theme runs parallel to Perry’s arguments about sex and male-female asymmetry and about the liberal denial of the same.
My point was that historically male violence was nothing to be emulated, because it is not, as portrayed, redemptive; but also that the archetypical character of this violence remains historically and epistemologically male, ergo my reference to “honorary men.” Representations of female violence didn’t help women at all, and instead reinforced the legitimization of male violence that, in the real world, always augers ill for women — as participants and as victims.
I took particular aim at “postfeminist” narratives about “empowerment,” one of the most poisonous terms to enter into our present-day socio-political lexicon. Of course, I know women can be violent. In Haiti, where I spent a substantial amount of time, women routinely kill animals for food — which might give many metropolitan women the shivers — and I saw more than once when women would bloodily crack each others’ heads with makeshift batons, generally over men. But that’s different from fictional representations of female violence that are “woman-empowering” demonstrations of male-female equality, when the male violence replicated is part of a larger system that associates masculine virtue with violence, bullying, and conquest.
Moreover, these representations are lies — not in the sense that they are fiction (fiction can be far more truthful than fact), but in telling girls and women that women actually can administer violence as effectively as men. They can’t, not on average. When I see cop shows that portray women cops whipping some big male criminal’s ass, I just shake my damn head. As Perry points out at one point, and this is an important gender difference in the real world, most men can kill most women with their bare hands. The reverse is not true. Telling girls and women otherwise is reckless endangerment, just as promoting hookup culture or “empowering” pornography to women and girls is.
Trivializing and disenchanting sex, including things like BDSM, for God’s sake, has not been a good thing for women, even if a few with the luck and privilege to get away with it say they like it. (Many who have said that have eventually recanted, mostly when they are removed from the influence of toxic-ass, predatory, controlling men.) This is why Perry says that sex has to be taken seriously. Whoever made Fifty Shades of Gray should be horse-whipped, in my humble opinion, and I’ll tell any of the women or girls that I love, if some dude even mentions BDSM as anything other than a denunciation, get as far away from that motherfucker as you can as fast as you can.
There are a few phrases I want to unabashedly steal from Perry’s book, and one of them is “chronological snobbery.” She is referring to the progress-myth, by which we reflexivley valorize what’s new and fashionable and demean what was in the past. When it’s an insult to say, “Oh, that’s the way your grandparents did it.” It’s this fashionability, this relentless pursuit (ideologically inscribed in capitalist culture) of the new, with all its “creative destruction” (which is mostly just destruction), that co-signs sexual liberalism and demonizes the very idea of sexual restraint.
There’s another glaring liberal contradiction here, because the progress-myth, whether articulated by Hobbes or Hegel or assumed by “sex-positive” dupes, resists restraint, when the original progress myth (and its “chronological snobbery”) understood “civilization” as the increase of restraint (with Hobbes, by the state, with Freud by the paternal superego), because “uncivilized” humans were seen as inherently dangerous. The prehistoric record, by the way, is to thin to either confirm or deny this as some universal; and the record from more contemporary “pre-modern” societies, even correcting for the Heisenberg Principle, is very mixed.
I think there is also a contradiction here in Louise Perry’s biologism, very evident in her second chapter describing men and women as different (agreed) then explaining that difference using evolutionary psychology (disagree).
Marshal Sahlins once wrote:
We are the only people who think themselves risen from savages. Everyone else believes they descended from gods. . . . We make both a folklore and a science of the idea, sometimes with little to distinguish between them. The development from a Hobbesian state of nature is the origin myth of Western capitalism. But just as Hobbes did not conceive that the commonwealth abolished the nature of man as wolf to other men, but merely held that it permitted its expression in comparative safety, so we continue to believe in the savage within us — of which we are slightly ashamed.
This was just too simple and too schematic. I am leveling the same criticism of Perry’s reliance on evolutionary psychology — which is not a science in the sense of either the scientific method or, say, physics. It doesn’t tend toward (or even aspire to) demonstrable law-like generalizations. It is psychological speculation, based on a post-Enlightenment scientism, that is, a dominant post-Enlightenment narrative with its own hegemonic and highly abstract vocabulary. Perry intuits, more than once, the ways in which both history and context embarrass abstractions, whereas liberal power inhabits abstractions — like that sexless asocial “individual” Perry and I both want to kill off.
The truth is, as far as history can tell — which notably begins with civilization and a war (which I argue, with Paul Virilio and Jacques Ellul, are conjoined twins). The most horrifying violence on the greatest scales are committed by civilized societies. Civilization and technology also have to be understood in their relation to one another. Virilio and Ellul note the close association between war and technological development. In Borderline, my book on gender and militarism, I took note of how violent masculinities and war co-develop and reproduce one another. Highly stratified societies, far from being something explicable from primate studies, have to be understood as “human, all too human,” given both the plasticity of human formation and practice and our special capacity for manipulating the environment. In fact, in Borderline, contra those who would refer to primates or speculative cave men (based on some archeological scraps) for explanations of our formation, practices, and actions (note I am avoiding the term “behavior,” another technocratic abstraction that conceals far more than it reveals), I show a primate study that actually supports cultural construction as much as it does “innate behavior.”
In 2004, the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Biology published an article titled “Emergence of Peaceful Culture in Baboons,” documenting the fieldwork of neurologist Robert Sapolsky and neuropsychologist Lisa Share. Sapolsky remarked that while he studied baboons as a young researcher in Kenya — in his case, using baboons to study the physiological effects of stress — he found the animals to be highly disagreeable. The dominant males in “Forest Troop,” Sapolsky’s study group, brutalized smaller males and females alike, taking the best of everything and impulsively and unpredictably attacking or harassing other members of the troop. It was an ideal environment to research stress responses, because the big baboons passed the abuse they suffered from bigger baboons down to smaller baboons. The entire troop was in a chronically bad mood from recycled male abuse.
But then a catastrophe befell Forest Troop and ended Sapolsky and Share’s stress research. The baboons were scavenging food from a tourist facility that was infected with bovine tuberculosis, and the disease wiped out the dominant adult males in the troop. These males died because Forest Troop was run by dominant males. A feeding order was established in which females and juveniles were not permitted to feed until the adult males had had their fill. The contaminated food was meat, coveted by baboons, and so the adult males, dominant males first, appropriated all the meat for themselves and unintentionally saved many of their female and juvenile counterparts.
The troop had a culture of bullying. Weaker baboons were bullied by the more dominant ones, and they in turn dished it out to those baboons who were weaker than them . . .
In 1993, Sapolsky and Share returned to Kenya and rejoined Forest Troop. What they found was that, while the ratio of female to male was more than two to one respectively just after the dominant-male die-off, the ratio had returned to approximately half and half. That was no particular surprise. Pubescent male baboons migrate into new troops. The surprise was how pacific the troop remained, long after the loss of the former dominant males. The troop was highly cooperative and generally non-aggressive, more so than another troop they observed during this period, a kind of control group that hadn’t undergone the mass death of males. Sapolsky’s characterization of baboons as unpleasant creatures was premature. It wasn’t baboons per se. The Forest Troop had a culture that through violence and emulation of violence reproduced a kind of culture-wide hatefulness.
The implications of this research for those who still dichotomize nature and nurture is perhaps the first issue that comes to mind with this story. Our genetic cousins in Kenya seem to have shown us that even other primates share two characteristics with human beings: their individual formation was strongly influenced by culture, and there had been a strong correspondence between violence and the category male. (Borderline, pp. 28–9)
I am not denying that we are either biological or cultural. I am saying that this particular (and disenchanting) post-Enlightenment dualism is not only inadequate to describe actual human beings, it is deceptive in itself. These analytical categories never, ever exist apart in the real world. This duality is not a reflection of anything except its own invention. It becomes a dual reification, which then sets up a false conflict, over which we can then fight (and never resolve anything). Yes, we are inescapably embodied creatures, which the constructivists try to deny (in taking one side of this false dualism); but that doesn’t mean the only recourse we have to rebut them is taking the other side of a false dualism. I totally understand why many, including Louise Perry, do. In a semiosphere where these categories and assumptions are baked into the language itself, it takes a pretty strenuous epistemological effort to escape them . . . then you’re faced with no one understanding what you’re on about.
The nature-culture dichotomy is at the root of Hobbes’ and Freud’s wolf-man — which Sahlins insightfully describes — combined with the Baconian conquest-of-nature conceit (explicitly masculine, Man conquers [female] Nature). The “civilized” restraint prescribed by Hobbes and his ilk was class/nation-specific and class/nation-internal. There was no restraint prescribed — in fact it was anathema — in pursuit of the conquest of nature (or women or “savages” or colonies). This was nascent capitalist ideology, which translated into no restraint on profits, which eventually required, with the need to commoditize heretofore unexploited spheres of life, the progressive removal of restraint from all desires — which advertising has proven are anything but “natural” if “natural” is seen as culture’s opposite.
A far more revealing and productive approach would be to look at societies (an abstraction of its own), communities, and groups as the Marxists have done better, by studying the relational dynamics between “material conditions,” social structures, perceptions, and beliefs — whatever the drawbacks to this approach might be — which are far removed from primate behavior and anthropological speculations about pre-history, but available and observable now. I’d augment this materialist analysis with some Illich-style history of personhood and perception, just because I’m a deep-down Illician Catholic. Then throw in some Christophe Wulf, Jessica Benjamin, Christopher Lasch, Barbara Duden, Vandana Shiva, and Phillip Rieff.
I would say something similar about the use — here I’m struggling with Perry again — of statistical models. Statistics can be helpful. Her statistics on the relative physical strength of men and women are important and helpful (but they were obvious to most of us who don’t disingenuously disown our own experience). But her statistics on men’s and women’s sexual preferences and predispositions lead her to conflate causation and correlation at certain points, especially when she uses modern-day statistics gleaned from Western metropolitan populations as evidentiary support for her evolutionary psychological speculations.
I saw this attraction to bio-determinism among radical feminists as well, and I have an hypothesis about it. It’s a case of epistemic entrapment, especially entrapment by the nature-culture (sex-gender) duality. But it’s also entrapment by modern categories more generally. It shows up as contradictions even in the critique of liberalism, of which I consider both Perry and myself a part in our participation in the larger post-liberal discussion. We are still “using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” A Kantian search for universal “solutions” that aren’t there. Abstractions that fall apart in the particulars. The substitution of the scientism, market, and will for eternal truths that were formerly found in what Ellul called organizing myths. And the interminability of our (nature-culture, and other) debates is an outcome of what post-liberal philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre identified as incommensurable premises in a pluralistic society where power is wielded only through sterile bureaucratic management.
What we run up against, again and again, when we study feminism (not the fun kind) and the seemingly transhistorical male predisposition for violence, is the big WHY? My partial and provisional answer to that was . . . war, to which I’m sure Perry would respond, at least in the interrogative, which came first, the chicken or the egg? And here we fall back again on speculation about something we can never know. My own approach was not to study men as male organisms, but to study the history of constructions of masculinity — which might be construed as constructivist (ha!). Whatever.
My first research was my own history in the military, and the guy I studied (moi) has an enfleshed existence that began at conception and will end in the not too distant future with death. The radical constructivists won’t like that, me saying that the all-powerful and perpetually-inventable “self” is thus enfleshed, situated, and continuous. What they really won’t like is me saying that people not only can’t conquer nature (or our situatedness), we shouldn’t try. Here is where Louise Perry and I again agree. Like she said, “arriving at the same conclusions from different priors.” Her description of the sexual revolution as the attempt to technologically conquer our embodiment with technology is also at the root of the gender-constructivist dream of overcoming our natally-sexed bodies with the help of modern surgery and a lifelong drug regimen.
The “gender fluidity” ideologues have their own contradictions to deal with — quite a few actually — but the one that stands out to me here is the simultaneous claim that a male or female “body” is mismatched (by some “natural” cause presumably) and requires chemical and surgical correction (like a cleft palate) and that “gender” is a pure social construction. That’s as far down that rabbit hole as I’ll go here.
Moving along, I particularly like Perry’s chapter, “Some Desires Are Bad.” This is the best anti-advertising slogan I’ve ever heard. I’d like to see this on highway billboards or as subliminal messaging on YouTube. Let’s face it, when the market is saturated with commodities no one wants or needs anymore, there’s nothing left for it but to create demand by creating, inflaming, and expanding desires — even when they are the worst desires imaginable. Hey, that’s the Almighty Market at work.
Ivan Illich, to whom I inevitably return on many matters, speaking as a Christian, says that the hope and promise of the enfleshed and risen Christ is a double form of freedom: (1) freedom to establish the bonds of friendship (agape) across boundaries, and (2) freedom from the tyranny of desire.
I fully endorse Perry’s associated attack on the concept of consent as our only firewall for desire. Carole Pateman wrote a whole book, called The Sexual Contract, wherein she traced the history of contract theory (a consent theory), as an adjunct to capital accumulation of course, which showed what a pernicious and perfidious tool consent is. As a firewall against really, colossally fucked-up, horrible desires, consent has been not only a failure, but an enabler. There is not a single good reason to allow the mass production of gonzo porn, cigarettes, jet skis, online gambling, or games like Grand Theft Auto. But consent doesn’t rest on good reasons or the common good, it’s touted as “a principle.”
That principle is “freedom.” Not freedom, like escape from chattel slavery. Freedom to “do whatever you want.” Wants can be implanted. That’s why I don’t want my grandkids to see and hear the shit they are seeing and hearing on television and the internet. It damn well does affect them, because they are kids! It affects credulous adults! Does anyone think the advertising industry would spend a jillion dollars a minute if it didn’t work? Perry unpacks this in her sub-chapter, “Limbic Capitalism,” with regard to pornography.
This “freedom” fetish is class-contingent, as Perry points out more than once. Liberal feminism and “power feminism” both seem to have giant holes in their heads where class should be, but then these co-opted counterfeits are tools, and sometimes weapons, of the business class (who want to exclude “class” from all conversations). The feminists who tutored me back in the day may not have been “gender-fluid,” but they knew their Marx and Fanon, even as they criticized them. Perry’s castigation of “progressive snobs” was welcome to this reader, and long overdue. It’s only this group — that is to say, well-off dilettantes of the “aesthetic” class — who can really afford to embrace fashionable “transgression,” bounded only by the consent standard, and pretend its some form of liberatory politics for everyone.
Consent is a standard that already favors the richer and more powerful. Perry devotes a whole chapter to this, with the porn industry as her case study. (I should mention that Perry is active now in a campaign to expose the highly effective murder defense strategy, “she consented to rough sex that went wrong.”) The multi-billion dollar porn industry is built upon, maintained, and justified by the inhering inadequacy and hypocrisy of the consent-standard.
It was reading Catharine McKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State in the very early nineties that first drove an epistemological hole in the dike of my own thought processes with regard to consent and “equality.” Setting aside my own criticisms of “equality” for now, MacKinnon — a law professor — showed how the abstract equality of liberal law reproduces actual inequality. It’s actually pretty common-sensical when you think about it, but it’s masked by a curtain of liberal (including conservative liberal) ideology. Legally recognized contracts are based on mutual consent between individuals who are seen by law as equals, that is, equally capable of giving consent. But when you look at something like an employment contract, in its real context, an employer has vastly more social power than the employee. The fact that the employee may be entering into that contract because the options available are work or starve, and the fact that the employer know this and produces a shitty deal to take advantage of the employee, are circumstances that are “invisible to liberal law.”
This is how consent works. In the eyes of the law — and of postfeminist and liberal influencers — the circumstances surrounding consent are invisible. Consent is reduced to a mere instant, and the situations and motivations leading each party to this consent-instant are — and here I’m borrowing an equally disingenuous term from liberal economics — externalized. We pretend the destruction, exploitation, displacement, and pollution are not part of the economic equation, which can only be measured using dollars exchanged; and we pretend that past abuse, economic desperation, psychological coercion, addiction, et al, are not part of the sexual consent equation.
Perry recounts several harrowing stories of former porn “performers,” who once themselves made the consent argument when they were justifying their own “work,” and who later “came out” to recant and tell stories of the abuse behind the scenes when they were acting sexual and ideological marionettes for their pimp-ass husbands, producers, male “actors,” and directors. I was reminded of the late Andrea Dworkin, herself a survivor of abuse and prostitution, who penned Right-Wing Women, when she said:
The woman, in defending the ideologies of men who rise by climbing over her prone body in military formation, will not publicly mourn the loss of what those men have taken from her: she will not scream out as their heels dig into her flesh because to do so would mean the end of meaning itself; all the ideals that motivated her to deny herself would be indelibly stained with blood that she would have to acknowledge, at last, as her own.
“There is the barest definition of the term [consent]” writes Perry, “on which we have to rely in a court of law — did she and could she say ‘no? — but there is also a thicker meaning. And here I’m afraid we’re going to have to let go of seductively simple ideas about consent derived from liberal individualism. I’m going to argue that, although ‘but she consented’ may do as a legal defence, it is not a convincing moral defence.” (Perry, p. 96)
Preach it! Hear it! Amen!
Her thesis on consent is given special force in her chapter, “Violence Is Not Love.” This should be kind of axiomatic, but we live in a period where academics get paid to spout indecipherable nonsense and people follow Q-Anon.
I was particularly stricken by the section in which she described a phenomenon I’ve only recently become aware of, because we are a bit old and reclusive and comfortably distant from a lot of fashionable bullshit, and that’s choking as a form of erotic practice. This was actually a pretty alarming read for me, not because I’m an old fuddy-duddy who was unfamiliar with this particular form of lunacy (which I may well be), but because as a former soldier trained in a number of dark arts (including how to “choke someone out” to either unconsciousness or death) and as a former special operations medic, I’m acutely aware that choking people, under any circumstances, is a dangerously stupid thing to play around with. The idea of doing this because (1) it turns you on to do it to someone means you’re a fucking psychopath who shouldn’t be allowed to have intimate relations with anyone ever, and (2) doing it because it somehow enhances a sexual experience by adding a hypoxic rush suggests to me that your are (a) dangerously ignorant of human anatomy and physiology, (b) stupid, (c) horribly abused and compliant with a psychopath, or (d) batshit crazy. That’s a brain your depriving of oxygen, and those tissues you’re squeezing and densely concentrated and exquisitely fragile!
Apparently, this is some big porn convention now, which of course means that legions of boys and young men will be thinking of trying this insane shit out with their girlfriends. Yeah, Grand-dad is alarmed! Damn skippy!
There’s a perfect line in Perry’s book, which summarizes everything I wrote about in Borderline about what is wrong with the association of sex with hostility, aggression, and domination: “Any man who can maintain an erection while beating up his partner is a man to steer well clear of.” I may have written about this in the book, but Louise Perry reminded me of it with the word, “hatefuck.” My first encounter with that charming term was a work colleague in 2009, if I recall correctly, who prided himself as an Obama liberal, and out of the blue one day said, “I want to hatefuck Sarah Palin.”
Back to choking. It’s one of many practices that are portrayed as “transgressive” and “empowering” by pseudofeminists, who’ve apparently aligned their interests with the worst of men. Perry gives several stomach-turning examples of their irresponsible horseshit in the “Violence Is Not Love” chapter, and this chapter deserves, in my view, some extensive excerpts:
The UK domestic abuse charity Refuge reports that 48 per cent of women using their services report having been strangled, choked or suffocated, and women who have previously been strangled by their partners are eight times more likely to be killed by them, often by strangulation, since this is the second most common method of murder used by men against women in the UK. Scrolling through ‘choking’ porn and seeing image after image of men with their hands around women’s throats, anyone trained in the ideology of liberal feminism would be forgiven for seeing nothing more than bog-standard male violence against women — the kind of violence that feminists are supposed to be united against.
The trend for sexual strangulation has not confined itself to porn. Research conducted by ComRes in 2019 found that over half of eighteen- to 24-year-old UK women reported having been strangled by their partners during sex, compared with 23 per cent of women in the oldest age group surveyed, aged thirty-five to thirty-nine. Many of these respondents reported that this experience had been unwanted and frightening, but others reported that they had consented to it, or even invited it.
And here lies the complication, because you don’t have to look hard to find women who say they love being strangled, and these willing women — girls really, many of them — are held up as mascots by those who defend the fashion for sexual strangulation. The argument from liberal feminists such as Roxanne Gay is that, since there are some women who enjoy being strangled, it is wrong to condemn strangulation per se — it is only non-consensual strangulation that deserves our condemnation. It is exactly the same argument that we have come across earlier in this book: with consent, anything goes. (Perry, pp. 123–4)
The reaction to this, perhaps by some readers of my review here, might be, “What would you do? Legislate what goes on in the bedroom?” To which I respond, on my own behalf — Louise Perry is perfectly capable of responding for herself — that this reflexive default to the legal implications of any argument or critique is how moral and ethical criticism has been shouldered out of pubic discourse, and how complex issues have been reduced to the stupidity of abstract “principles” in the same discourse. Abortion, for example, will always be drawn into this legal-only frame, where the agonizing complexity of abortion in women’s real lives is pushed aside as irrelevant. Not everything can be explained, understood, grappled with, or solved by law and policy. This is especially the case in liberal society where the law is blind to any power except the power to consent.
“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
What Louise Perry, and I for that matter, and many others who have entered the postliberal discursive quadrant, want to do is not author a new menu of laws (we wouldn’t agree on them anyway), but to tell the truth, no matter how inconvenient for policy mavens and ideologues, in ways that might help actual, regular people better navigate the often treacherous straits of life in this period of technocratic contradiction, disorder, and decay. To hell with the law, for a minute. It’s incapable of discerning right from wrong; it’s incapable of delivering justice; it’s inadequate to bring order and sanity to our actual lives. Most of liberal law is aimed at providing a stable social environment for capital accumulation. As I said early on, a conclusion I can reach apart from the law, objectifying human beings is always wrong, even when one is objectifying oneself.
. . . she will not scream out as their heels dig into her flesh because to do so would mean the end of meaning itself; all the ideals that motivated her to deny herself would be indelibly stained with blood that she would have to acknowledge, at last, as her own.
Most of these (post)modern ideas about sex trickle down from either the academy, or indirectly from the academy to the cultural influencers and “civil society” technocrats of the capitalist retainer class. Perry calls them “luxury beliefs,” a term she’s cribbed from Rob Henderson, and from whom I suspect she also drew her emphasis on evolutionary psychology — Henderson’s specialty. Henderson is an interesting guy, as is his “luxury beliefs” thesis. Henderson grew up in the foster system in struggling working class circumstances, and he made the leap from there into university in a way with which I am very familiar, by joining the military and using his GI Bill benefits.
We share another experience, too. We’ve both been lectured to about “white privilege,” him as definitely not a white guy, and me when we were raising three black children in the South. We weren’t pilloried with this petit bourgeois conceit by black or brown people, but largely by white people . . . well-off white people with graduate degrees. In my case, also by a couple of black people, but — again — only black people with graduate degrees who were adjacent to their white class cohort. (Roxanne Gay is black, but she’s also the daughter of the owner of the biggest construction firm in Haiti, valued at around $13 million in a country where the daily wage is insufficient to buy a grape smoothie.) Most of the black people I’d known throughout my life — who never used the term white privilege— were fellow soldiers, people I’d shit alongside and occasionally wrapped up with together in poncho liners to ward off hypothermia while sleeping on the ground in below freezing temperatures.
Henderson’s idea of “luxury beliefs” is taken from Veblen and his theses on conspicuous consumption. Back in Veblen’s days, the way the rich signaled status to one another (and everyone else) was by buying and conspicuously displaying expensive goods — clothes, houses, services, and consumables. Nowadays, Henderson noted while attending Yale — which he describes as a an elite fortress surrounded by a sea of wretched peasants — was that rich kids no longer displayed their wealth through obviously expensive clothing and consumer goods. In fact, they often dressed and acted in ways that seemed intended to disguise their net worth. Instead, Henderson noticed, the way the validated their status with one another (and displayed it to the rest of the world) was by professing the correct preoccupations and beliefs in the correct (in-group) language.
When a mountebank like Robin DiAngelo declares that she is inevitably racist by virtue of being white (and telling other white people about which she knows exactly jack-shit that they are, too) she is not humbly decreasing her status, but increasing it through performative self-abnegation — by in-group virtue-signaling. This applies to “sex-positivism” (a sly-ass term) as well.
The other thing Henderson noticed, as a formerly struggling foster kid, was the in-group’s general sense of entitlement, the shared sense among these young academics that they were so smart they should reshape the world in their own image. Two observations I’ve made repeatedly about well-off liberals is (1) they want to tell everyone else what to do, and (2) they think everyone has to be like them. That Perry has taken notice of this, as a young academically trained white collar person, is a comfort to me, and she is to be congratulated for breaking out of the bubble.
Returning for a moment to my initial rant about American politics, I can sum up the two complaints that many independent voters had about liberals which pushed them toward Trump and away from Clinton in 2016: (1) liberals want to tell everyone else what to do, and (2) they think everyone has to be like them. One of the main factors in the increasing numbers of black and Latino voters who shifted into the Trump column in 2020 was the aggressive and exclusionary liberal embrace of sexual “luxury beliefs.” When you can’t answer the question, “What is a woman?” in a public venue, it’s no wonder most people shake their heads and head for the door. When you tell them that your daughter engaging in “sex work” is no different than working at McDonald’s, you’ll get a one-finger salute as they exit. When you then dismiss them as troglodytes, you’ve sealed your political fate. Watch closely as 2022 and 2024 unfold.
Perry’s point in raising “luxury beliefs” with regard to sex is twofold. In the first place, most of the people who spout this so-called “sex positive” shit hold it as a luxury belief (for which they will suffer no consequences by virtue of their socioeconomic status) but themselves mostly live in stable, conventional marriages (it’s just in-group parlor talk), and the effect on those of lesser socioeconomic power — who are often forced by circumstance out of conventional marriages, or worse, into porn and prostitution (to which they may “legally” consent) — has been devastating.
Which brings us to marriage itself. Obviously, her chapter title, “Marriage Is Good” is designed to provoke, and I could raise the exceptional objections — as someone who lived through one very dysfunctional marriage myself, and as a father and brother who has seen marriages that very much needed to end for the good of all involved, including the kids. Louise Perry acknowledges as much, and we’ll come back to that. Before we do, though, I want to take note that Perry has read Tom Holland’s book, Dominion.
Holland is an historian of classical antiquity, who undertook a study of Western history after the first century. He was quite surprised by what he discovered, and that was how “gender subversive” were the original Christians. It’s not common knowledge, given everyone’s lifelong indoctrination in liberal categories and ignorance of history, that the first Christians were, for their day, the radical feminists and gender subversives. At that point, within the Roman Empire, ruling class men had unlimited access to the bodies of “their women,” and their pick of all males and females who were under them in the class structure. This was an unquestioned prerogative, violently manifest. Even Judean culture held to unlimited male prerogative in marriage, including the male right to divorce (which effectively sentenced many women to penury and prostitution), and the right to multiple wives. The Christian claim for men’s and women’s spiritual equality and the mandate for monogamous marriage with strict male fidelity were scandalous. This was a huge improvement for women and likely accounted in part for the large numbers of women who flooded into the movement.
Christian marriage was — under the circumstances — a very good deal for women. Perry says that in many cases and many respects, monogamous marriage is still a good deal for women. I agree with this chapter in some respects and am provoked to skepticism in others.
My skepticism is about her use of social statistics in support of aspects of her thesis. One big agreement is with her inclusion of and emphasis on children and motherhood.
I’m skeptical of the bio-determinist take on “sociosexuality,” for example. This means the degree to which one pursues or actively desires multiple sexual partners. Perry measures this with (uncited, tsk) surveys that show men and women on bell curves of sociosexuality. Unsurprisingly, men in the aggregate have higher measures of sociosexuality than women. Her supposition is that the offset sociosexuality bell curves between men and women are an evolutionary vestige, almost giving a Dawkins account of the “selfish gene.” This is unfortunate. To begin with, when we look at history, like the pagan history with which she is familiar form reading Holland’s Dominion, we can see that sociosexuality was restricted to male members of the ruling stratum; and we can also see that sexual norms, practices, and preferences were likewise historically-conditioned in great variety at different times and places. Sociosexuality surveys conducted today are conducted in a world that has been largely homogenized by capitalism and globalization. Moreover, it doesn’t take a “selfish gene” theory to account for the sexual asymmetry Perry herself describes in which women, as those who feel the consequences of sex more keenly than men (especially pregnancy, but also promiscuity stigma), tend to be less promiscuous than men in sexually disenchanted late modernity. I looked up sociosexuality studies, and even in modernizing China, where birth control is state-mandated, measures of sociosexuality are far lower than in the West; and the higher rates of sociosexuality for men and women corresponded most closely with . . . well, greater wealth.
She likewise jumps to causal conclusions based on present-day Anglo-American statistics with regard to marriage, marriage satisfaction, and divorce. This is unfortunate because it’s an attractant for “conservatives” who are not embracing such conclusions in good faith, but opportunistically to advance a larger political agenda. It’s also unfortunate, because those who oppose Perry can use this these correlation-causation fallacies to attack her most valuable arguments, arguments that don’t need these fallacies to support them. Enough said. Onward.
In the Atlantic states, marriage is now almost seen as exchangeable, like jobs. Rising divorce rates, as Perry points out on pages 177–8, correlate with factors other than the sexual revolution. The rise of the Cult of the Self, for example, as capital — faced with market saturation — promoted selfishness as a virtue in order to boost new desires and generate new demand. Self-actualization, self-love, self-care, self-satisfaction, self-realization, self-esteem — “Pantene, because I’m worth it!” — is expressed in marriage more now, because people are going into marriage out of what Christopher Lasch called a culture of narcissism. The introduction of more reliable birth control limited the number of children who complicate the decision to divorce; but there is neither one overdetermining cause for such phenomena, nor can raw statistics give us anything more that the question, why? Surveys are even less reliable than statistics, unless both statistics and surveys are presented as themselves and nothing more. Snapshots. That’s why I’m skeptical about her correlation of fatherlessness with things like crime and teen pregnancy. There are entirely too many variables and social dynamics at work that relate to the abstract condition of “fatherlessness” to treat it as if it were one qualitatively identical, trans-positional, and transhistorical phenomena (observed, we should say, from one unacknowledged “normative” cultural standpoint). What we can end up with, if we’re not careful, is the Moynihan Report.
I realize that the sexual revolution is her target for this book, and it’s a commendable target. In writing Borderline, I did much the same thing she’s doing — albeit in a much wordier way — that is, making the assertion, in my case, that militarism and violent masculinity reproduce each other, and in her case, that the sexual revolution, with its wins and losses, may have been a net loss for women (I provisionally agree). We then assemble our evidence in support of the main assertion, and there’s the book. The danger is twofold: that we can ignore or exclude counter-evidence (bad faith) and that we can present the evidence in non-rigorous or fallacious ways. I probably did both at certain points, and I think Perry has done the latter in places in her chapter on marriage.
All that said, monogamous marriage — and I say this as a Christian, yes, but also from the social-critical point of view — taken up for the right reasons (mutual love, desire for family, commitment, and stability) — would still the best option for most women, especially those who want families. The problem is, our narcissistic culture doesn’t bend that way. Most women still intuit this.
I’m not taking up gay marriage here, which is a legal issue, inasmuch as marriage is also a state-recognized contract with all sorts of legal-financial considerations, from which I don’t think same-sex couples should be excluded. I’m speaking here of the covenental face of marriage.
All this has to be qualified, however, with one of the points implicit in Louise Perry’s own thesis. Our porn-poisoned, superficial, me-first, liberal culture is not forming a lot of men (or women in many cases) in ways that make them amenable to lifelong, selfless relationships. Which brings me back again to where I agree strongly with Louise Perry and fully endorse what she’s saying.
First of all, we agree that the worst places for girls and women especially to look for prospective mates are bars and dating app egosystems. I’m old fashioned enough that I think the pre-selection process should happen in real life, where the prospect can be observed in the many facets of his natural environment. Work, school, friendship networks. Not. Fucking. Apps. And no to the hell no of bars — shark ponds I call them. Enough on that.
On marriage and children. Marriage — which has undergone many evolutions and permutations over the ages — has always been strongly associated with children (yes, there are exceptions . . . geez). Perry takes note of feminist inattention to children, childbearing, and child rearing. Feminism, after all, is a liberal-era movement that responded to relations between men and women that were shaped by liberal societies; so it’s not surprising that the figure of the deracinated (adult) liberal “individual” invested with liberal “rights” became the centerpiece (and default) in much feminist theory, even though many feminists came to critique this “individual” as not only a fiction, but a male fiction. And even among those feminists, fewer still paid scant attention to women as mothers, even though this is the most significant experience of the vast majority of women. One feasible explanation offered by Perry is that among academics, the percentage of women who are mothers is far lower than the general population.
One of the claims made by feminists has been that marriage is an altogether oppressive institution that does nothing but perpetuate patriarchy. Experience tells us that this is true in many cases, sometimes overstated, and in some cases just plain wrong. In pursing this logic, some feminists have been led to bizarre speculations about children and child rearing, including — back in the heady days of the sixties — feverish dreams of mechanical child-bearing and state-raised children in communal facilities. Like industrial-ag child-farming. Perry cites Shulamith Firestone as one of these feminist techno-utopians.
Motherhood is the most stark and immovable manifestation of sexual asymmetry between men and women (even if ten deranged scientists manage, at great expense and effort, to Frankenstein wombs into a handful of natal men). A pregnant woman cannot be the liberal individual with the proprietary body. Liberal law cannot grasp the boundary-dissolving mystery of two bodies as one, because it can only grasp citizens. That’s why the interminable abortion debate is irresolvable. It is a debate about when the unborn are to be considered citizens, entitled to the state’s legal protection. This doesn’t even score the surface of the reality of pregnancy.
Neither having children nor raising children fits into the framework of the liberal individual, who Mary Harrington describes as fortified against all “unchosen obligations.” I certainly take issue with the idea that we can or shoudl reject all unchosen obligations, having been an unchosen obligation myself. Many kids are. Thank God for unchosen obligations!
Perry drives the point home: human beings are socially interdependent and therefore dependent animals. Childhood is a period of dependency. So are intervals of illness and disability. So is old age. Not even the most robust person can long survive without a constant flow of social and economic inputs. None can today survive without money, and last I checked, people don’t shit currency. They depend on those upon whom they rely to get the money. The independent individual is a ruinous lie.
As Perry quipped in one interview about raising toddlers, that they try to commit suicide about once every five minutes (truth!). Any feminism that fails to account for this, for mothers and children, is woefully inadequate.
And here is where I’ll begin to close out my remarks, on a particularly poignant epilogue, where she gives her best advice to young women. The title is “Listen To Your Mother.” This isn’t what it seems, and I’ll try not to spoil the ending too much. She suggests an exercise for young women, who may be mothers, expectant mothers, or considering motherhood in the future. She doesn’t say listen to your actual mother, but for young women to find old pictures of themselves when they were infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers, and grade-schoolers. Look at them, she says, and imagine you are their mother, who loves them and worries about them. Then consider things like bar pick-ups, porn, abusive boyfriends, and the rest, and ask yourself would you want that for her. Then apply that mother-perspective to yourself before you venture out to do the things you might feel pressured to do. Listen to that mother.
Then she lists eleven stand-by rules to use in place of the protective guardrails that have been taken down by the neoliberal turn of the sexual revolution. If you want to see those rules, buy the book.
My final grouse: I wish there had been an index.
This is Louise Perry’s first book. I hope it’s not her last. She’s on an interesting journey, and she describes the scenery in interesting and insightful ways. More than that, I think she is motivated by genuine good will and an authentic concern for others. Helluva a good book, and maybe “an important book.” I congratulate her, and look forward to what’s next.