Why the sexual revolution has been a disaster for women: Feminist Louise Perry sparks fierce debate
When Emma Watson, the film star and women’s rights campaigner, was criticised for showing her breasts on the cover of Vanity Fair, she hit back by asserting ‘feminism is about giving women choice.
It’s about freedom’. For liberal feminists like her that might be true.
But for many other women — perhaps a sizeable majority — that freedom has spectacularly backfired. It has turned out to be a lie and a con.
Rather than women being emancipated sexually, in the digital age we have become a society in thrall to the worst of male sexuality.
Feminist author Louise Perry passionately argues how the sexual revolution has impacted men and women in different ways. ‘For younger women in particular, today’s sexual culture is destructive, divorcing love and commitment from sex and favouring one-night stands, casual ‘hook-ups’ and ‘friends with benefits’ arrangements’
For younger women in particular, today’s sexual culture is destructive, divorcing love and commitment from sex and favouring one-night stands, casual ‘hook-ups’ and ‘friends with benefits’ arrangements.
Worse still, it pressures them into promiscuity, bombards them with violent pornography and tells them to enjoy being humiliated and assaulted in bed.
Rather than selfies, many young women on social media now post ‘belfies’ (photos of their bottoms).
Instagram and TikTok are filled with the youthful breasts and buttocks of women desperate for some positive male attention.
Film star and women’s rights campaigner, Emma Watson, famously hit back at criticism after showing her breasts on the cover of Vanity Fair, stating that ‘asserting feminism is about giving women a choice’.
Society now has a sexual script that is increasingly aggressive and loveless, typified by men sending women pictures of their penises, so-called ‘d*ck pics’.
I don’t know what they think the recipients are supposed to do with them.
I know of no woman who would be turned on by an image in which the rest of the person has been cropped away, leaving only a slab of flesh ready to be laid out on the anatomist’s table.
Typical female sexuality isn’t orientated towards these kinds of images. But the internet abounds with them.
Former cabaret dancer, Diane Mathews, 22, pictured burning her bra outside the headquarters of the Magic Circle in London in protest against sexual discrimination by the organisation
Violence is available, not only on mainstream porn sites but also on social media platforms marketed as suitable for children.
Dating apps such as Tinder turn people into products in a sexual marketplace that encourages users to browse the available merchandise and select their preferred options from the comfort of their homes, with very little effort and no intimacy whatsoever.
One male user described the voracious appetite that the apps encourage: ‘You’re always prowling.
‘In a bar you might have two or three girls to choose from but online you can swipe a couple of hundred a day and set up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them.
‘You could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.’
Another user compares Tinder to an online food delivery service —‘but you’re ordering a person’.
Hugh Hefner arriving at London Airport from Chicago with Playboy Bunnies on 26 June 1966. Hefner is considered one of the sexual revolution’s ‘earliest icons’
He saw no harm in scrolling through would-be sexual partners in the same way as we scroll through any other kinds of consumables.
In reality, once you permit the idea that people can be products, everything is corroded.
When Wonderbra released its famous ‘Hello Boys’ ad campaign, featuring Eva Herzigova admiring her own boosted cleavage, the posters were so distracting that they reportedly caused car crashes. That was in 1994.
In contrast, try walking down any British High Street today and keep a tally of how many lingerie-clad boobs and bums you see in shop windows, on the sides of buses and on the covers of newspapers and magazines.
The flaunting of sexuality has been so normalised we hardly notice any more.
What all this shows is that sexual liberation — the result primarily of the contraceptive pill which separated sexual activity from procreation — was flawed, largely benefiting men rather than women.
It was so from the outset. Take two of the sexual revolution’s earliest icons — Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Monroe.
They never met, but they were born in the same year and laid to rest in the same place, side by side.
Marilyn Monroe was the first naked centrefold in the first edition of Hefner’s Playboy magazine. She had been paid just $50 for a two-hour shoot with a freelance photographer, curling up on a red velvet bedspread
In 1992, Hefner bought the crypt next to Monroe’s in a Los Angeles cemetery, commenting that ‘spending eternity next to Marilyn is too sweet to pass up’.
At the age of 91, Hefner got his wish. The long-dead Monroe had no say in the matter.
But then she had never been given much say in what men did to her over the course of her short life.
She was the first naked centrefold in the first edition of Hefner’s Playboy magazine.
‘Entertainment for men’ was the promise offered on the cover and it was a commercial success from that very first issue.
Monroe had been paid just $50 for a two-hour shoot with a freelance photographer, curling up on a red velvet bedspread.
She was humiliated by the session, which she resorted to only out of desperate need for money.
Hefner didn’t pay her to use her images and didn’t seek her consent before publishing them.
Monroe told a friend that she had ‘never even received a thank you from all those who made millions from a nude Marilyn photograph. I even had to buy a copy of the magazine to see myself in it’.
In her provocative thesis, Ms Perry looks back at a 16-year-old Britney Spears who ‘gyrated in a school uniform and begged viewers to hit me baby one more time’
The courses of these two lives show us in perfect vignette the nature of the sexual revolution’s impact on men and women.
Monroe and Hefner both began in obscurity and ended their lives rich and famous.
But, while Hefner lived a long, grubby life in his mansion with his ‘Playmates’, Monroe’s life was cut short by misery and substance abuse.
As radical feminist Andrea Dworkin wrote: ‘She grinned, she posed, she pretended, she had affairs with famous and powerful men.
‘She had so many illegal abortions wrongly performed that her reproductive organs were severely injured.
‘She died alone, possibly acting on her own behalf for the first time. Her lovers in both flesh and fantasy had f***ed her to death.’
More than half a century after her death, not much has changed. At the age of 16, pop star Britney Spears gyrated in a school uniform and begged viewers to ‘hit me baby one more time’.
She has since suffered a protracted and very public nervous breakdown.
Hefner, on the other hand, experienced ‘sexual liberation’ very differently from Monroe, as men typically do.
He lived the fantasy of a particularly immature adolescent boy, hosting parties for his celebrity friends and then retiring upstairs with his harem of identical 20-something blondes.
According to one of his Playmates, in old age, life in the Playboy mansion consisted of ‘Hef just lying there with his Viagra erection.
Each girl gets on top of him for two minutes while the girls in the background try to keep him excited by yelling obscenities’.
He took an obsessive and coercive attitude towards the girls, dictating how they wore their hair and make-up, keeping a detailed log of all his sexual encounters and becoming angry if refused sex.
He never experienced any guilt for the harm he perpetrated.
Asked, aged 83, if he regretted any of the dark consequences of the Playboy revolution he set in motion, he was confident in his innocence: ‘It’s a small price to pay for personal freedom.’
By which he meant, of course, personal freedom for men like him.
After his death in 2017, a British journalist argued that Hefner had indeed ‘helped push feminism forwards’ by taking a progressive stance to the contraceptive pill and abortion rights and promoting them in his magazines.
But his commitment to decoupling reproduction from sex had nothing to do with a commitment to women’s well-being.
When fear of pregnancy was one of the last remaining reasons for women saying ‘no’, he had every reason to wish for a change that would widen the pool of women available to him.
The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s certainly freed women from the burdens of chastity and motherhood, giving them control over their reproductive lives.
But it also brought the triumph of the playboy, pretending they were liberating women when in truth it was their own libidos and depravities they were liberating.
There have been plenty of periods in history in which the norms around sex have been loosened for a while.
But the sexual revolution of the 1960s stuck and its ideology is now a murky sea we all swim in.
I used to believe the liberal narrative that this free-and-easy attitude to sex was unalloyed progress.
As a younger woman, I conformed to liberal feminist ideas that saw nothing wrong in porn, bondage, sadomasochism and hook-up culture.
Women were just expressing the same casual and adventurous approach to sex as men did.
I let go of these beliefs after working at a rape crisis centre, where I witnessed the reality of male violence up close.
It made me realise that the sexual revolution has not freed all of us, but it has freed some of us, selectively and at a price.
Believe me, I’m not anti-liberal and I don’t reject the desire for freedom.
I recognise that with the right tools, freedom from the constraints imposed on women by our societies and our bodies now becomes increasingly possible.
Don’t want to have children in your 20s or 30s? Freeze your eggs. Called away on a work trip post-partum? FedEx your breast milk to your newborn. Want to continue working full-time without interruption? Employ a nanny or a surrogate who can bear your child.
But I am critical of any ideology that fails to balance freedom against other values.
And I am baffled why so many women desire a kind of sexual freedom that so obviously serves male interests.
It has happened because the idea has taken root in our society that sex is nothing more than a leisure activity.
It has no intrinsic specialness, it is not innately different from any other kind of social interaction and can therefore be commodified without any trouble.
In general terms, that has long been the male attitude to sex. But, with feminism coming to the fore, women were encouraged to think along the same lines.
In the first ever episode of Sex And The City, the liberated Carrie resolves to stop looking for ‘Mr Perfect’ and start enjoying herself. The show saw Carrie congratulate herself for having sex ‘like a man’
In the first ever episode of Sex And The City, the liberated Carrie resolves to stop looking for ‘Mr Perfect’ and start enjoying herself.
She hooks up with a man she can’t stand, uses him solely for her pleasure and then walks away, congratulating herself for having sex ‘like a man’ and ‘feeling powerful, potent and incredibly alive.
Nothing and no one could get in my way’.
Liberal feminists see having sex ‘like a man’ as an obvious route by which women can free themselves from old-fashioned expectations of chastity and obedience.
If you believe there is nothing wrong in instrumentalising other people in pursuit of your own sexual gratification, then this makes sense.
And if you believe that men and women are both physically and psychologically much the same, save for a few hang-ups absorbed from a sex-negative culture, then why wouldn’t you want women to have access to the kind of sexual fun that men have always had.
I don’t doubt that there are some women who genuinely enjoy casual sex and who decide, having weighed the risks and benefits, that it is in their best interests to pursue it.
What I question is the claim that a culture of casual sex is of benefit to women as a group.
What is being ignored is the basic fact that men and women are not the same.
Physically, almost all women are weaker than almost all men. Men can out-run women as well as out-punch them.
Every now and again, a police force will launch a campaign on rape prevention, with posters (example above) advising women to stick together on nights out, to keep their friends safe
Psychologically too, men and women are wired differently. On average, men want casual sex more often than women do, and women want committed monogamy more often than men do.
In other words, there are a lot more super-horny men out there than super-horny women, and a lot more super-not-horny women than super-not-horny men.
Yet casual, hook-up culture which treats men and women as the same in their sexual appetites is now the norm among today’s adolescents and young adults.
Sexual behaviour outside of traditional committed romantic relationships has become increasingly typical and socially acceptable.
Although it is possible for young women to opt out, research suggests that only a minority do so.
On our university campuses the gospel of sexual hedonism is openly preached.
At Sex Weeks, freshers are given a lecture on the importance of consent and sent on their way with ‘I love consent’ badges and tote bags.
They’re taught that, with consent, anything goes.
Yet this simple rule is broken again and again, both through rape and the more subtle forms of coercion.
The prevailing culture is a terrible deal for women. It demands that they suppress their natural instincts in order to match male sexuality and thus meet the male demand for no-strings sex.
Inexperienced young women are encouraged into situations in which they are alone and drunk with horny men who are not only bigger and stronger than they are but are also likely to have been raised on the kind of porn that normalises aggression, coercion and pain.
Many of these women are naively unaware that men are, in general, much better suited to emotionless sex and find it much easier to regard their sexual partners as disposable.
Ignorant of this, women can all too easily fail to recognise that being desired is not at all the same thing as being held in high esteem.
And yet this prevailing hook-up culture is endorsed by feminists as a form of liberation.
Young women don’t have to look far for advice on how to overcome their perfectly normal and healthy preference for intimacy and commitment in sexual relationships.
Guides abound with titles such as ‘How to have sex without getting emotionally attached’.
One suggestion I saw was just avoid making eye contact during sex.
Some women are Carries, quite happy to do this, but most find it unpleasant, or even distressing. It also places them at risk.
Some learn the hard way that freedom has costs.
Meanwhile, we scoff at the past, believing we have inevitably progressed from those Neanderthal days of the 1950s when a home economics book offered tips to housewives on ‘how to look after your husband’.
The housewife was advised that, when her husband got home from work, she should have dinner on the table, her apron off and a ribbon in her hair, and that she should always make sure to let her husband ‘talk first’.
This was ridiculed on social media when it was put online in 2016.
How reactionary, how stupid and backward!
But then take a look at a small sample of Cosmopolitan magazine guides published within the last decade: ‘30 ways to please a man’, ‘20 ways to turn on your man’, or ‘42 things to do with a naked man’.
‘The flaunting of sexuality has been so normalised we hardly notice any more’ – in today’s sexual era society are increasingly taking provocative pictures to gain positive male attention
In what sense are these guides not encouraging precisely the same degree of focus on male desires, except in this case it is sexual pleasure rather than domestic comfort?
Women are still expected to please men and to make it look effortless.
We have smoothly transitioned from one form of feminine subservience to another, but we pretend that this one is liberation.
Liberal ideology flatters women by telling us our desires are good and that we can find meaning in satisfying them, whatever the cost. I propose an alternative sexual culture that recognises other human beings as real people, invested with real value and dignity.
For a start, women need to avoid courting danger.
Most feminists dislike this suggestion, believing that women should not be expected to be the ones who modify their behaviour.
Every now and again, a police force will launch a campaign on rape prevention, with posters advising women to stick together on nights out, to keep their friends safe and so on.
Invariably these efforts invite a feminist backlash.
They see this as victim blaming, when it’s the rapists the police should be concentrating on. Which is true.
But here’s the point: rapists don’t care what feminists have to say.
Posters that say ‘don’t rape’ will prevent precisely zero rapes, because rape is already illegal and would-be rapists know that.
It has to be possible to say simultaneously that rape is reprehensible and that it is okay — in fact, essential — to offer advice that could help to reduce its incidence.
I could hardly have more contempt for rapists.
I fantasise with friends about marketing a range of tiny guillotines to deal with rapists in a very direct manner.
And yet I’m exhausted by a feminist discourse that can’t move beyond just saying over and over that rape is bad.
Yes, rape is bad. Now let’s actually do something about it.
There are two ways of reducing rape. The first is to constrain would-be rapists by imprisoning them.
Prosecution rates for sexual crimes are appallingly low in every part of the world — in the UK, less than one per cent result in a conviction.
Convicted rapists should spend much longer in prison — life, if need be — because I have very little faith in the effectiveness of sex offender rehabilitation programmes.
One such programme in England and Wales was actually found to slightly increase rates of reoffending.
The other course of action is to limit opportunities for rapists.
They are men who are aroused by violence and unable to control their impulses when presented with a suitable victim and a suitable set of circumstances — a victim who is drunk, high, or otherwise vulnerable, the absence of witnesses and no fear of legal or social repercussions.
Young women aged between 13 and 25 are prime targets, which is why if you wanted to design the perfect environment for the would-be rapist, you couldn’t do much better than a party or nightclub filled with young women who are wearing high heels (limiting mobility) and drinking or taking drugs (limiting awareness).
Is it appalling for a person even to contemplate assaulting these women? Yes.
Does that moral statement provide any protection to these women whatsoever? No.
I made this mistake many, many times as a young woman and I understand the cultural pressure.
But, while young women should feel free to get hammered with their girlfriends or highly trusted men, doing so among strange men will always be risky.
I think we all know this, just as we all know that it’s risky for young women to hitch-hike, travel alone or go back to a strange man’s house.
The sorry truth is that something in the region of 10 per cent of men pose a risk and those men aren’t always identifiable on first sight, or even after long acquaintance.
So my advice to young women has to be this: avoid putting yourself in a situation where you are alone with a man you don’t know or a man who gives you a bad feeling in your gut.
He is almost certainly stronger and faster than you, which means the only thing standing between you and rape is that man’s self-control.
This advice doesn’t protect against all forms of rape, including (but not limited to) incestuous, prison, child and marital rape.
I wish I could offer advice to protect against these atrocities, but I can’t.
Other feminists can gnash their teeth all they like, accuse me of victim blaming and insist that the burden should be on rapists, not their victims, to prevent rape.
But they have no other solutions to offer.
I have no doubt that, in this free-and-easy, sleeping-around sexual climate, vulnerable young women need to be cautious for their own protection.
My advice to them is this: only have sex with a man if you think he would make a good father to your children.
Not because you necessarily intend to have children with him, but because this is a good rule of thumb in deciding whether he’s worthy of your trust.
Or whether, just like Marilyn Monroe, you may be putting yourself at risk of exploitation and worse.
Adapted from The Case Against The Sexual Revolution: A New Guide To Sex In The 21st Century by Louise Perry, to be published by Polity on June 2 at £14.99. © Louise Perry 2022. To order a copy for £13.49 (offer valid to 11/06/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.