Louise Perry, author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, joins High Noon to talk about the consequences — especially for women — of the 1960s ethos of individual sexual freedom. Louise and Inez also discuss the sexual state of nature between men and women and speculate on how it might be possible to arrest our slide into ancient or pre-Christian norms that harm women and children the most.
High Noon is an intellectual download featuring conversations that make possible a free society. The podcast features interesting thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum to discuss the most controversial subjects of the day in a way that hopes to advance our common American future. Hosted by Inez Stepman of Independent Women’s Forum.
Welcome to High Noon, where we talk about controversial subjects with interesting people. And I’m so pleased to have Louise Perry on this week. She’s a writer and campaigner based in the UK. She’s a columnist at the New Statesman and The Daily Mail. But what we’re really going to talk about this hour is her new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century.
So I think this book is just awesome. I’m really happy to have you on, especially because even just in the title, you actually take aim at the sexual revolution. And so much of the conversation around this seems to have been, seems to have kind of avoided really taking aim at where I think a lot of the root of things that people are complaining about, especially women are complaining about.
It’s just a lot of folks who especially are coming over from the left are not willing to talk about the relationship between some of the freedoms that they champion and perhaps the consequences that they don’t enjoy. And you definitely do that in that book. So I’m so pleased to welcome you to High Noon, Louise.
Oh, what a pleasure. Hello.
Well, let’s start with that, which is you really make an argument in this book against centering freedom, particularly sexual freedom, but I think it could be broadened out from there. You’re making an argument that freedom, while it may be a good in limited circumstances, it may bring pleasure to a certain number of people, but in the sexual realm, it’s actually had a lot of negative consequences. Can you maybe elaborate on your argument?
It is a slightly disorientating one, I think, for some readers and reviewers, because obviously freedom is a good thing. That’s what we talk about all the time, on left and the right. We’ll elevate freedom to the very top of all of the virtues that we’re seeking.
The argument I’m make in the book is that the common narrative around the sexual revolution from feminists and other progressives, is that the reason that we still have so much unhappiness and so much dysfunction in our sexual culture is because we haven’t fully implemented the freedom project that was begun with the sexual revolution, that we’re not free enough, that we have to keep traveling down that road towards greater and greater freedom. And we will eventually end up with no sexual harassment, with no sexual violence, all of the things [inaudible 00:02:58] by me too, which is still very much of the fore of feminist thinking from all quarters.
The thing that I argue in the book, which runs very much counter to that view, is that actually sexual freedom is a cause of much of the unhappiness that we are seeing, and that more and more freedom will not cure what ails us. The reason for that is to do with the fact of sexual asymmetry, the fact that women and men are fundamentally different in very important physical and psychological ways. And what used to exist before sexual revolution was a flawed and often unfair, but also very complex and finely tuned system of laws and norms and institutions, which sought to regulate that sexual asymmetry and protect men and women and children from the worst possible consequences of sexual misjudgment, misbehavior. And that was torn down pretty much entirely.
I mean, we do still have some of these, kind of the relics of these institutions. Marriage does still exist for instance, even if it’s no longer the norm, particularly for anyone outside of the upper classes. And there are still vestiges of some of the old ways of thinking, particularly among older people. But in general, what we’ve seen happen has been a wholesale rejection of the old sexual culture. And in its place, what we have is the consent model, which is that basically anything goes as long as everyone is willing and able to consent. And I don’t think that that model is nearly, nearly up to the task of replacing what came before. And I think that the hurling more and more freedom at a culture that is already, I think in denial about the existence of sexual asymmetry, more and more so, is only going to result in further pain.
So why is it that consent is not enough to distinguish not only rape from not rape, but good sex from bad sex? Why is it that you think that consent is just not able as a concept to guide us in that way? Because it seems to be what is being proposed as the alternative, the only limits on sexuality and sexual freedom should come from consent.
I think that consent is important, but I think it’s a very, very low bar, which ought to be trivially easy to jump. And indeed there are all sorts of acts and phenomena that the vast majority of us instinctively feel to be awful, which do jump that bar. Even if we have some remaining taboos and restrictions on something like child pornography, for instance, widely available, but also criminalized and condemned. There are all sorts of things adjacent to child pornography and adjacent to child abuse, which do jump the consent threshold, and which it’s impossible to argue against if the only tool you’ve got available in your rhetorical arsenal is the consent tool. Drawings designed to look like child pornography, for instance, or adults dressing up and pretending to be children, or all manner of things which are not technically illegal, but which are also intuitively horrifying.
And further to that, I think that the consent framework, if taken to its logical conclusions, and the sexual freedom as a principle taken to its logical conclusions, inevitably leads us to a road further and further from any of the apparently irrational restrictions still placed on human sexuality. There have been all sorts of efforts, post sexual revolution, to de-stigmatize pedophilia in various ways with more or less success. There were periods in the ’70s and ’80s where pedophile advocacy groups were surprisingly successful and able to get a hearing in all sorts of corridors of power in the UK and America, and places like Scandinavia often feted as being the sort of most advanced progressive nations where child pornography was legalized along with other pornography in the ’60s. And it was only several decades later that those laws were reassessed.
Some of the most influential thinkers, sexual revolution, people like Foucault, were really quite open in advocating for the de-stigmatization of pedophilia. And their argument was never that it was okay to violently coerce children into sex. Their argument was that children could in fact sometimes consent to sex in some circumstances. So their argument was entirely within the consent model. It was just a tinkering at the edges, as they would see it, and a debate over exactly where the boundaries should fall. Because of course the age of consent varies between countries. There clearly is a degree of arbitrariness in where you set these limits. And if you’ve done away with any of the deeply felt moral objections to the sexualization of children, then really what you are left with is just a debate over terms and over exactly where legal thresholds should be set with no kind of moral weight left in your argument.
And I would say that that is happening again. I think that there was a reaction against, in the ’90s and so on, there was a reaction against that loosening. And I think that we’re swinging back again. And the problem with the many liberals who feel instinctively appalled by say something like Cuties [inaudible 00:09:38] the Netflix show, which received huge condemnation from conservatives because it featured 11-year-old girls being very sexualized in excruciating detail, both in posters and also in the film itself. Even though the film itself was, the moral of the film, supposedly was anti sexualization of children, the film also featured an awful lot of sexualization of actual children who genuinely looked like they were 11 years old.
And conservatives who were still invested in some of the old sexual norms are quite comfortable with condemning Cuties. Liberals were really dumbfounded. Because what do you say? If you’ve signed up to the project of radically transforming a sexual culture and rejecting anything deemed to be remotely kind of traditionalist, then all you’ve got to talk about is consent. You’re going to really struggle to deal with people who are determined to push their radical agenda still further.
I mean, it seems like there are two problems with putting consent in the center. The first is what you just pointed to, the arbitrary line. And I’ve always been skeptical. I think on the right, we use these kinds of arguments as well, especially in the transgender context where we imagine that there’s a firewall between children and adults and that we can endlessly promote something as positive for adults, and then have this arbitrary sort of firewall where when you’re 17 and 364 days, it’s a moral evil to chop off your breasts, for example, and go through irreversible hormone surgery or taking hormones and then irreversible surgery. And then at 18, it’s fine. It’s just on the menu of the freedoms that are cherished or are key to having a free society.
I think that’s kind of inherently untenable for the reasons that you just stated and the arbitrary nature of it makes it very, very difficult to defend. And of course, I think in some ways America’s puritanical culture is really an aid in this endeavor because they have no problem with the arbitrariness, arbitrary nature of it. And sometimes I think too much where they imagine that men looking at 16- or 17-year-old girls is akin to pedophilia when obviously biologically those are very different impulses. Sorry. There’s a- [inaudible 00:12:30]
That’s all right. I’ve got a lot of traffic noise in the background as well. We’ll just have to …
But the other problem with consent is that, and this is a quite controversial one, feel free to push back on me. But it sort of assumes that women know their own minds in advance sexually. And it seems to me that so much of what makes the polarity between men and women interesting and fun and sexually arousing is not laying out in advance of actually being seduced, being wooed. And it seems like the consent model, it’s obvious that in its extremes, it leaves no room for that. That’s why in the US feminists are up in arms against a song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
But on the flip side, it puts a lot of pressure on women to have this very, almost masculine way of thinking about their own sexuality. Like, “I like these acts and I don’t like these acts and I have a list in advance.” And the reality I think is much more complex than that and much more specific to the person, to the man in the heterosexual context. So it almost seems like a very artificial construct, particularly for women, beyond the obvious baseline that you started off with. Almost all societies condemn rape, violent, forcible rape. But off of that baseline, it seems like a very kind of cold and unfemale way of thinking about sex.
The Sexual Bureaucracy Project, which is so interesting. They often ends up, kind of attempting to recreate marriage in one way or another. I have some examples in the book of people coming up with all these kind of elaborate schemes where you’ll sign a contract together, for instance, and then you’ll take a selfie of yourselves holding the contract before you have your hookup. This was a, that we used to have a thing. We used to have a whole thing for this. And there were photos and documents and everything associated with it.
Nicer photos, even, than selfies. You know, you hired a professional photographer.
Yeah. Why not invite your friends and your family? So it is kind of funny how you end up circling back towards some of the old solutions to this problem. Yes. I mean, I would say that no one knows their own minds, especially … Well, I think that’s just the nature of being human. That, it is clearly on a spectrum, but our ability, I’d say particularly when young, but by no means just when we’re young, to have perfect insight into our desires and what’s good for us is, I don’t think anyone really is possessed with that kind of superpower. And we’re all sort of muddling along. And this is the … I’m sorry, that’s my son in the background. This is the reasoning behind having social guard rails in place and institutions and systems of education that say that there are certain things that normally are good for people, that normally result in good outcomes, that are good heuristics to follow when you are young and inexperienced. And shall I repeat this in a second?
Yeah, go for it. You can take a moment. It’s not live.
I think he’s up. His nanny just got him. It sounds like a nappy change that is not welcome. Poor baby, he’s not [inaudible 00:16:06]
How old is your son?
He’s 16 months. And he’s been a little bit poorly.
Okay. Should we go? I think he’s all right now. Where was I going from this? Yeah. So I would say that men and women alike are both, struggle to know our own minds perfectly and have perfect insight into what’s good for us and what we really want. I don’t think that … It’s associated with youth, and we clearly recognize in law that children are particularly unlikely to be able to guide their own decision making well, which is why we don’t permit them to.
It’s also something that we shade into. We know that these lines are arbitrary, the line of 18, 16, whatever it might be. They have to be arbitrary, and they have to be in place. But there’s also clearly a lot of gray around those thresholds. And that’s what social guardrails are for, that you have systems of education and incentives that encourage behavior, which for most people will result in good outcomes, that for most people will lead to better decision making than otherwise.
And the risk with just throwing those social guardrails out the window. I mean, there are some people for whom they probably aren’t the right thing, to follow the conventional track. But equally there is generally a reason that these things have become conventional. And I think that we are putting far too much pressure on say 18-year-olds, technically adults who are presented with apparently all of the options in the world available to them, including a whole bunch of crazy new options like reconfiguring their genitals surgically, let’s say, which weren’t previously available to them. And we say, “Your only guiding star in deciding whether or not to take these decisions is what you feel in this moment, is your current desire.” And I think that that is, it should be no surprise that that kind of heuristic is due to failure.
Well, you started off in what was then called women’s studies, is now almost universally called gender studies. And maybe you have something to say about that.
I see. How did you guess?
But what do you think is the relationship between where we are now … And by that, I mean the denial even of the biological, very obvious biological differences, I should say between men and women, our genitalia, your secondary sex characteristics. What do you think the relationship between say second wave feminism is and that? Because once you get into the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, it seems much tighter, and you do start to get arguments for that. But I’ve experienced a lot of pushback in sort of saying that actually it seems like this idea that social construction is the dominant driver of differences between men and women, it does go back further and I would really be curious as your opinion on it, because you have studied these things extensively as a women’s studies major. So.
Yeah, it is a source of controversy, including among some of my radical feminist friends. And I started out in the radical feminist camp. I used to subscribe much more to socialization theory. I don’t think socialization is completely irrelevant. We clearly do see cultural variation, which suggests a degree of flexibility on the biological template. But also the biological template is also rock solid. And you do reach a point where you cannot socialize away sex differences, which are very profound.
And yes. So what most radical feminists would say is that the trans movement is radically at odds with their view of gender, in that what the trans movement says essentially is that it is not your body, your material reality, which determines your sex identity, it’s your personality. I mean, they would say gender identity, but what they really seem to be talking about is personality, to the extent to which you conform to masculine or feminine stereotypes.
And whereas radical feminists would say masculine and feminine stereotypes are false and oppressive. And in an ideal world, we would just have sexed bodies and we would not have any of these kind of elaborate [inaudible 00:21:35] that comes from gender. So in that sense, they are completely opposed as ideologies. But I do think that’s at the second wave undermining of gender roles, deliberate undermining of gender roles, that the introduction of the idea of masculinity and femininity being bunk and actually being oppressive constructs that ought to be resisted. I think that did pave the way for the trans movement, which is the much more radical iteration of that view, which is not just that you can be whatever you want to be.
Biology is not destiny. You can be as masculine and feminine as you want, has developed to the point of saying that actually you can completely reinscribe on your body, depending on your own desire that you shouldn’t be … Not only should you not be constrained by society’s expectations of you, you shouldn’t even be constrained by the body. It’s all … And in fact that your access to new forms of medical tech, which have only just emerged, sometimes very recently, and none of which are more than half a century old, that your access to that medical tech in order to properly realize your identity is a human right, to be funded ideally by the taxpayer.
I think that that, I don’t think that second wave feminists set out to do that. And I think also that the trans activists, many of them are determined to erase their feminist foremothers and direct a huge amount of anger and sometimes violent aggression, these feminists. And I also think that they did inadvertently pave the way for exactly what we’re seeing now.
So I guess there’s two points or questions I want to ask in response. So one’s really a statement, then another one’s a question. But the first part is, I love the phrase you’ve used elsewhere, which is, but I think it encapsulates the second wave feminist view, which is essentially that sex differences stop at the neck. When the reality is that we do have, to the extent that we need scientific evidence for the fact that men and women on average have different personalities, different psychological traits. There is plenty of social science to back that up. And it seems to me, again, speaking of arbitrary, arbitrary to say that the body below the neck is not, is determinate by sex, biological sex, but the brain is not, right? That contains your true self or whatever. So that’s one point.
But the other point is, you brought up technology and you focus a lot on that in your arguments. You say essentially a couple things, one that the Pill had an enormous influence, and you actually kind of point away from activism. I mean, we’ve been talking about different waves of feminism, but you almost seem to have a more sort of historical view of why the relationships and roles of the sexes have gotten where they are today that is much less dependent on say suffragettes and much more dependent on developments and technology and economics, right? The economics of the family. So maybe could you lay that out? Those arguments out for us?
Before I do, I would just say it is an interesting point that a comparison that is sometimes made by some scientists who specialize in these psychological sex differences is to compare facial features between men and women. There are ways in which men and women’s faces differ, often. Things like men have bigger noses and stronger jaws and so forth. But the differences between individual features are often two overlapping bell curves. Some women have big noses. Some men have small noses.
But in concert with all of these features arranged on a single face you can, 99 times out of 100 plus, immediately identify whether someone is male or female. And personality sort of has the same effect. You do sometimes have people who have unusually feminine or masculine personality slash faces, and you will sometimes have one element of your personality which is not in keeping with what’s typical of your sex, but normally in concert, these things hold true.
And actually the entire personality of a man or woman is normally much more typical of their sex than not. Obviously, there are exceptions, and at the population level, they’re very obvious, depending on the trait you’re talking about. But anyway, yes, I mean, in conclusion, I completely agree that the idea that any of this would’ve stopped above the neck is absurd.
Your question about technology. Yeah. I think in general that I think of it as the great woman theory of feminist history, the idea that the key thing that’s driven all of this has been particularly charismatic, influential writers and campaigners. Clearly such women have existed and have sometimes had an enormous impact, but they normally have achieved things only when the material groundwork has been laid. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the suffragette succeeded only at the end of the first world war, which had demanded female participation in the labor market and was also hot on the heels of industrial development, including the invention of the internal combustion engine, which just completely transformed the role of male physical strength in the economy. So.
I think in general, as a rule, we should look less at feminist campaigners and more at things like the washing machine and the Pill and the disposable nappy and all of the other things which have really radically transformed women’s lives and allowed us in general to spend less time keeping our household warm and fed and more time in public life, with various legal barriers removed at the same time. And I think that in terms of the sexual revolution, as it relates to sexual culture, rather than the workforce, the Pill is the technology shock. It’s the thing. It’s such a big thing that we call it the Pill with a capital P, because it is for the first time in the history of the world, a piece of technology that allows women to suspend their fertility in a way that women can control and can do so invisibly.
And I think it is not a surprise that that would’ve had a transformative impact, although some of its effects are surprising. Who would’ve thought for instance, that the invention of the Pill would lead to a huge spike in the number of single mothers? It seems completely counterintuitive. But I think it’s because what the Pill did effectively is it undermined social structures that had been in place to stop young horny men and women being unattended, essentially all these things that existed to try and prevent illegitimacy, because illegitimacy is a problem for community, not just for couples and their families.
And so you have all of these things in place, which do oppress female sexuality as has been pointed out by many feminists, but also oppress men. Chaperones and sex segregation and marriage, and all of the various tried things which were designed for exactly this purpose, to try and control young people’s fertility, essentially. Suddenly if you have a piece of technology that does that for you, why do you need a shotgun marriage? And so all of those things fall away very, very rapidly after the Pill is made available to unmarried women.
And that’s why, for instance, you end up with this … The reason I think that you end up with this huge rise in single mothers, which you wouldn’t have expected, is because the Pill undermines all those social systems, but isn’t actually effective enough to prevent unwanted pregnancies all the time, because the Pill is only about 91% effective in typical use. And so you end up with an absolute rise in the amount of sex outside of marriage that’s happening. And in say 9% of those cases per year, you’re going to expect an unwanted pregnancy. And there will always be some women who don’t want to have an abortion and would rather be single mothers. So it’s a perverse outcome, but it does make sense when thinking about the complexities of societies and how they actually work at scale.
Yeah. I mean, it also has an effect on women’s choices of partner. One of the things that I always have had kind of argued back to me by the left was, well, this is actually not new. A large percentage of women had sex outside of marriage in 1945, according to surveys. But that sex was genuinely premarital.
Yeah. Yes. [inaudible 00:31:53] It’s engaged people. It’s completely different.
But I think in that context, if pre-Pill, to the extent that illegitimacy or out of wedlock … I don’t even want to say out of wedlock births, but sex before marriage happened, it was really before marriage in a context where at minimum, these people are seeing each other, they’re [inaudible 00:32:16] want to use the ’50s thing, going steady. It was pretty rare for women without the Pill to have sex with someone that they weren’t at least interested in marrying.
And it seems to me like that, for example, with the Pill, even having something like the shotgun marriage norm would work out very badly because you’re not talking about, I mean, it really wasn’t that … The shotgun was only speeding up what would’ve happened anyway. The pregnancy was speeding up, and maybe not in every case, but these two people were at least compatible enough to want to see each other on a regular basis. They’d know more about each other. They’re interested more about each other. The standard, if you can at least mentally take pregnancy off the table. It seems to me that there are many, many more incompatible couples having sex than before the Pill. Because it just takes that burden away from the woman of considering whether the person that she’s having sex with actually would be at least a decent husband and father.
Yeah. I also find it kind of annoyed when people say, “Oh, but look at this historical example of [inaudible 00:33:33].” I know. I know. I mean, the billions of humans who’ve existed, clearly there have been all sorts of unusual exceptions to historical rules. I do not think though, there has ever been a period in human history before now where female virginity is considered to be a burden, right? I mean, it’s been very common for young men to be anxious about sexual inexperience before marriage.
But now when you have teenage girls who are 14, 15, 16, and are anxious about being virgins and this being embarrassing, low status, they’re frigid, they’re prudish, they should be more sexually experienced than they are. I really don’t think anyone would’ve felt that way in the period before contraception, because it is so clearly in a young woman’s interest and in her family’s interest for her to have sex in prudent circumstances.
Which yes, does mean often having sex during a period of engagement. The baby arriving five months after the wedding day is something that you will see in [inaudible 00:34:46] census records. So it was not as though people always exactly stuck to the no premarital sex convention. But the convention nudged people in that direction. And there were exceptions and there were institutions designed for those exceptions, which were often horribly cruel, mother and baby homes, for instance, where mothers and children were abused. I want to be, I’m not defending that kind of institution or those kind of solutions to the problem of regulating heterosexuality.
What I’m highlighting is the enormous difference between what’s considered normal now and what has been considered normal in pretty much every culture before the late 1960s. And it is not obvious to me by any means that our culture successfully manages the inherent problems that we face as a species better than every other. I think the pattern that we have seen in the last 60 years has been women encouraged by men, by each other, by the culture at large, to imitate masculine sexuality, the worst kind of masculine sexuality, the kind of voracious casual loveless style of masculine sexuality as a supposed route to liberation, and to reject everything of the past as inherently oppressive to women. And I think that has been a disaster.
Do you think monogamy is natural? And I guess by that, I mean, this norm that you’re referencing where both men and women constrain and, in your words, oppress, I would maybe use the word suppress instead of, or what’s the Freudian word, repress.
Some kind of pressing. Yeah.
With both men and women repress their sexuality to some extent, women perhaps more before marriage and men in marriage, is that natural or is that a construct, a societal construct? Because unlike some of the other biological differences between men and women, it doesn’t seem clear to me what the answer is. Because there’s certainly been societies that are essentially harem based, right? There’ve been a lot of them.
So about 80% of societies on the anthropological record have been polygynous, so men taking multiple wives, and about 20% have been monogamous. There are almost no polyandrous societies and those, they tend to have a strange sets of environmental pressures on them. And polyandry normally looks actually like women marrying two brothers. This isn’t some sort of sexual paradise for women by any means.
It does seem as if polygamy is our default setting. Normally not very, very extreme polygamy, not the vast harems of history, but normally high-status men having, say, two or three wives and low status men having none. And women, not necessarily having a great deal of say about who they marry.
And I think that one of the pieces of evidence that suggests that polygamy is probably our default setting is the fact that we seem to drift back towards it on dating apps, where there is no monogamous institution sort of forbidding high status men from having multiple partners simultaneously or consecutively. What the monogamous restriction does, and it does have to be imposed. Left to their own devices, people will not generally settle at that kind of wide scale monogamous system, even though it is generally what women want. And it is better for societies in general. It reduces crime and domestic violence and sexual violence. And there are all sorts of unwanted outcomes associated with polygamy.
But the reason that the monogamous marriage system, when it’s imposed, works, is because it does seem to produce healthier societies, even if it’s not actually what the high-status men want. I have heard it described as sexual socialism, just like tongue and cheek, but also it does describe something true and interesting, which is that high status men would prefer to have multiple wives, but when they are prevented from doing so, it is actually better for both low status men and for women and for children. So monogamy is not natural, but it is better. And I think that those two things, I think that’s completely, I’m rejecting the naturalistic fallacy. Those two things are completely compatible.
If I were taking your heuristic for thinking about, rather than about ideas or activists, historical and economic circumstance, I would say maybe that polygamy is, or that kind of polygamous society that lends high status men to multiple wives, low status men with no wives, women primarily attracted to high status men, but then having to share them. I would say that that works probably much better in a more stable way in pre agrarian societies. In societies in which there is an outlet for all the excess men, which is war.
And so, I mean, if you look at some of the indigenous societies in the United States, I mean the raiding and the steal the women from the other tribe, you increased your tribe that way, but also both tribes need the warfare to siphon off essentially excess men in the society, to send them to die. Because the problem with polygamy when you stay put, unless you are a very small insular polygamous society inside of a larger monogamous culture, so here I’m thinking like fundamentalist Mormon compounds, right. They do the same thing. They just expel young men.
Right. I was going to ask, what do they do to their excess men? They join mainstream society.
Yeah. They just kick them out of the compound. Sometimes on explicit grounds, but usually on the basis of essentially fraternizing with the potential wives of the elders. So you need some, I imagine that actually is somewhat more of a stable … In a more tribal environment that might actually be a stable system. But as soon as you have longevity of men and you’re staying put in one place and you don’t really have any place to send all of these excess men, they get mad.
So I would imagine [inaudible 00:42:31] that might be perhaps how we started with some of this, is allows us to stay in one place and to build and to encourage men to build something of themselves in order to attain a wife. I can imagine those things having external positive influence on the society, even if they’re restricting the individual.
Our own monogamous system originates with the Romans, who had radically different sexual social ethics from us. I mean, this brings us on to a whole other conversation. But our sexual ethics are still largely derived from Christianity, in a complex and kind of patricidal way, which was of course not true in pre-Christian Roman society. But they did have a monogamous marriage system, which probably was one reason why they were as successful as they were as an empire, because monogamous marriage system is good for societies. It makes them more stable, more able to spread.
And yes, the issue of all the excess men is a really difficult one. Do you send them off to war? You send them to the salt mines. You make them into eunuchs and slaves. There are all sorts of horrible possible solutions. You turn them into incel gamers who live in their mother’s basements. Every polygynous society has to come up with something. That’s the solution that we are sort of drifting towards.
But yeah, because we have a choice. I had an interesting comment recently from Tom Holland, British historian, who wrote this tremendous book, Dominion, on the influence of Christianity on the west. And he suggested that it took a long time for people in the 16th century to realize that they were living through what we now call the reformation. And he suspects that in the future, we will recognize that the period that we are now living through is a sort of second reformation, except that instead of rejecting Catholicism, what we are rejecting is Christianity per se.
And this was a project begun in the 1960s, and we’re still feeling its reverberations. And there were reasons for people to do that. It was partly I suppose, about the destabilizing and horrible effects of the second world war encouraging an undermining of faith in the culture that had come before, that had produced something as dreadful as the second world war. And it was to do with affluence and economic growth and all of the radically destabilizing effects of technology, including of course the Pill.
Whatever the cause, I think that the 1960s, including the sexual revolution as one component of that, should be understood as basically a rejection of Christianity. And we are seeing that play out now, including for instance, a drift back towards a pre-Christian model of sexual ethics. But there’s a tension there, which I think is interesting. So on the one hand, we’ve got the rejection of marriage, we’ve got a drift towards polygyny.
I am sure that the next frontier is going to be a push towards polyamorous marriage. There are already some polyamorous who are pushing for polyamorous marriage to be recognized in law. And even though polyamory doesn’t always look like polygyny, I think it’s very likely that it would drift towards polygyny given that that is a human norm. I mean, admittedly, we have different conditions from our ancestors. We have the Pill, we have antibiotics. We have all of these things which do radically transform sexuality, but given everything that’s come before, I think it’s extremely likely that what polyamorous marriage would end up looking like was much more like polygynous marriage of the past and indeed of other cultures overseas.
So I think that what we have is simultaneously this tension between a feminist movement that wants to reject Christian sexual ethics, but a feminist movement that is also largely derived from Christianity because everything, the air we breathe is derived from Christianity. All of our moral principles are derived from Christianity, so much so that we don’t even know it. Ideas like humility and the protection of the weak and the whole idea of progress as a sort of historical project, looking to the future. These are all derived ultimately from Christianity, except that they are no longer explicitly acknowledged as being derived from Christianity, including feminism.
But I think probably the best metaphor for understanding it is a sort of feminist movement that is soaring off the branch on which it sits and is potentially, unwittingly, as we’ve seen the trans movement paving the way for new post-Christian phenomena, which are actually radically anti women.
Yeah. This is kind of the argument that you made in Compact Magazine, and you use a jumping off point. You use Andrew Tate, who I had never heard of until a month ago.
Me either until I was commissioned to write about him. I think he’s a kind of … I’ve heard this theory, which is quite interesting, that he’s a slightly weird artifact of the TikTok algorithm in that he doesn’t actually have that many real fans. It’s just that he, for some reason, engaged the virality thing and ended up on everyone’s timelines. [inaudible 00:49:26] Andrew Tate.
But regardless of how he became TikTok famous, at least, you essentially argue, I would say, partially what you just argued, which is that feminism is reliant on certain Christian norms that are so ingrained in our society, that we don’t even see that they’re related. One of which, by the way, that you didn’t mention, but we’ve talked about at the beginning of this podcast, was, is the norm against sexually using children, which the Romans certainly had no norm, and the ancient world had had no moral qualms with doing. So I guess that goes under protection of the weak.
So the other part of your argument though, is kind of a, be careful what you wish for kind of warning that says to feminists, “You may not like the sexual world that you are constructing.” Already, I think we’re seeing a bit of a, I mean, even the New York Times has written about a sex negativity of Gen Z. I mean, how has your book been received? I mean, have you spoken to a lot of young women or young men? Because you must have gotten feedback on this from various readers.
And I’m wondering if you got the response you thought you would to this book or if you’re getting something that surprises you in the response, because it does seem like there is on both left and right and for different reasons, there seems to be a kind of consensus forming that the current state between the sexes is not good, as opposed to that late 1970s kind of promise of a sexual revolution. Everyone is going to be more fulfilled, more happy. We’re going to live more authentically in our sexual desires or whatever. And it seems like we have approached a point where even if we don’t agree on where we go from here, we seem to agree that this isn’t great. So I’m wondering how that’s factored into the response to your book.
Yeah, I would agree that that does seem to be the emerging consensus. So the response to my book has been a lot more positive than I thought it would be. I thought I’d get a lot more canceled than I have. And I haven’t. I mean, I’ve had very nice coverage in places like the New York Times and the Observer. I’ve been ignored otherwise, I would say. I haven’t really been the victim of any kind of cancellation campaign. What’s happened more often is that I’ve had a combination of positive coverage and just no coverage at all from the left, and positive coverage, exclusively from the right. With some criticism, obviously. I mean that’s fine. Criticism from every possible angle as well, which just suggests that I’m being original, even if I’m not correct. And yeah, the response I’ve had from readers in general, I’d say that the most common response from readers is something along the lines of, “Thank you for saying this. I’ve been thinking this quietly this whole time.” And that’s a response that is across age groups.
Although I think that the most, I would say that in general, the group who are most likely to entirely agree with my thesis are middle-aged women, particularly the mothers of teen-aged children. And I don’t think that’s a generational thing because generally we’re talking about Boomers, women who’ve been brought up very much within the kind of progressive ideological norms. I think it’s a life cycle thing. I think it’s because these are the women who have seen the downsides of the sexual relations themselves and are concerned for their children.
And these are women who are coming from pretty much across the political spectrum as well. Because as you say, I think it is so obvious that there are serious dysfunctions in our sexual culture and that the promise of the sexual revolution has not been realized from the left’s perspective. The question is just how we diagnose the problem and what therefore is the prognosis. And my prescription is definitely not for more and more freedom.
Well, aside from not going further down the freedom rabbit hole, I’d like to close by asking you, where do we go from here? Which I realize is a huge question. And I don’t expect you to have a 10-point plan or anything, but it does seem, and this is where I sometimes depart from … I’m pretty, extremely conservative, especially on social matters, but it also seems to me that it’s impossible to return in a certain way. So where do you think we go from here in terms of, let’s say the best-case scenario, we have a broader part of the public that recognizes that the sort of sexual free for all that we’ve built ourselves comes with serious costs and consequences. Well, how should we go about either rebuilding old norms or building new ones? I mean, where do you see this going in your most optimistic days?
One ray of light is that individuals do still have quite a lot of power to decide how they behave. I think that there is this sort of sexual counterrevolution happening, which has been written about in a lot of outlets, including on the left. And it’s generally an elite phenomenon, as indeed sex positive feminism was. We’re kind of talking about intra elite ideological battles here, but obviously ones that have serious effects for everyone in society.
You can still get married. You can still decide not to have sex before marriage. You can still decide to live quite a traditional life. It’s not the path of least resistance. And it’s strangely counter-cultural, given where we’re at now in the culture, but it is still available to people. So on an individual level, I think readers can feel like actually they have a great deal of power in their own hands.
It is more challenging to find a partner who wants to do that too. I would say that. Quite a common email that I’ll receive from young female readers is something along the lines of, “I don’t know how to find a partner in this kind of pornified dating market, where you are expected to have sex on a first date and so on.” And I agree that that is a really serious challenge. If, however, you are able to do that, then you have autonomy.
When it comes to the culture in general, I mean the sense of structure in general, I think that is much more difficult because the Pill’s not going away, even if we wanted it to. It can’t be uninvented. I mean it may be that … My friend, Mary Harrington, who’s got a book coming out next year. She’s a writer UnHerd. She expects there will be more of a swing back against the Pill, partly because of the environmental impact that it has on the UK system, which is quite severe.
So it may be that actually the idea of rejecting the Pill becomes, moves within the Overton window in a way that it isn’t at the moment. I don’t know. But in general, the radical material changes that we’ve seen are very unlikely to be reversed, which does mean for instance, that any kind of conservative fantasy of all women leaving the workforce en masse and everyone kind of going back to entirely gender segregated lives is very unlikely to ever happen.
I hope though, I mean, I didn’t write about policy in this book. I do care a lot about policy, and I have actually this summer founded, co-founded a non-partisan feminist think tank here in London, which is entirely geared around policy ideas relating to men and women and families and how to reconstruct the things that liberalism has destroyed. I didn’t go into them in this book though, because it was just completely beyond the scope.
I think though that there are old institutions, which I think we have only discovered their merits by attempts to destroy them. Marriage is one of them. And I have a chapter where I make a feminist case for marriage and say that it actually protects the interest of women and children far better than pretty much any … Not just pretty much, than any institution that we know of, that we’ve tried as a species.
Or say things like I think sex segregated schools is a really good thing, and I think the experiment with co-education has not produced very pretty results. I think that the protection of mothers’ and children’s interests has to mean not forcing women back into the workforce as has been considered this standard feminist policy prescription for the last half century, because there are profound differences between mothers and fathers and it’s not what women want. It’s not what is in children’s best interest in most cases. So then there needs to be a kind of negotiation with the material conditions we have now basically, but a pragmatic one. I hope.
Well, Louise Perry, thank you so much for coming on High Noon. It was a pleasure to have you. And go read, go buy The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. I think it really stood out to me as, because there’s a lot of these books that are in some way arguing against where we are at, but yours really stood out to me because again, as I opened this podcast with, you’re really grappling with the underlying … I feel like a lot of these books basically start and say, “It was fine in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s. And now we’ve just kind of gone off the rails. Maybe too much of a good thing, maybe whatever.”
And I really think the reality is perhaps harder to confront than that, that these sexual freedoms are in an inherent way tied to the downsides, which as you just said in a pragmatic way, doesn’t mean necessarily even the possibility of completely rolling them back. But it means we have to find a practical way to negotiate through those consequences and try to mitigate some of them in a real way, because it certainly seems that we’re more miserable than we used to be in this realm. And to the extent that one thinks that’s a bad thing, which I think most people do, we’d like to see it change. So thank you so much for coming on High Noon.
Thank you so much having me.
And thank you to our listeners. High Noon with Inez Stepman is a production of the Independent Women’s Forum. As always, you can send comments and questions to [email protected]. Also check out our other podcasts. We have a podcast called At the Bar, which I do with my colleague, Jennifer Braceras on legal and cultural issues. And also we have a podcast called She Thinks with Beverly Hallberg, which does a more day-to-day news and policy little download. I highly encourage you to check those out. For all of those things, please help us out by hitting the subscribe button and leaving us a comment or review on Apple Podcast, Acast, Google Play, YouTube, and iwf.org. Be brave, and we’ll see you next time on High Noon.