Few people, if they’re being honest, will say they are truly satisfied with the world left to us by the Sexual Revolution. That’s the takeaway from two new books critiquing our sexual culture: The Case against the Sexual Revolution by UK writer Louise Perry and Rethinking Sex by Washington Post columnist Christine Emba.
Though both books offer valuable anecdotes and data, their big-picture observations won’t be surprising to conservative readers: casual sex is more enjoyable for men than for women, pornography encourages objectification and worse, putting an end to sexual violence will require more than consent workshops, and so on.
Their proposed solutions are similarly predictable for anyone conversant in traditional views about sex. As Perry puts it in her conclusion: “We need to re-erect the social guard rails that have been torn down. And, in order to do that, we have to start by stating the obvious. Sex must be taken seriously. Men and women are different. Some desires are bad. Consent is not enough. Violence is not love. Loveless sex is not empowering. People are not products. Marriage is good.”
Both Perry and Emba counsel individual discernment as an antidote to the excesses of the hookup scene. “Holding off on having sex with a new boyfriend for at least a few months is a good way of discovering whether or not he’s serious about you or just looking for a hook-up,” Perry writes. Emba confesses that she herself has adopted precisely this practice, wondering aloud, “What if the answer was to have less casual sex? For that matter, what if the answer was to have sex under the standard of love?”
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To these sorts of observations, I found myself able to muster only a rather tired though quite sincere, “Welcome to the party,” a kinder cousin to the far less charitable, “Told you so.” You can almost hear the socially conservative reader respond, “Yes, of course . . . haven’t you been listening?”
But while the arguments will be familiar to readers of a certain stripe, these books nevertheless present a real point of interest, if only because of their authors. Neither is in a rush to label herself a progressive or a feminist, but neither considers herself a dyed-in-the-wool conservative either, and certainly not a social conservative. Yet both describe their deep disenchantment at having lived through or witnessed negative aspects of the world created by the Sexual Revolution.
Their critiques are interesting not because they’re fresh—they’re decidedly not—but because they’re coming from the sort of people who aren’t often found critiquing feminist dogma or casual sex. Little chinks are appearing in the dam, and perhaps a bit of light is starting to shine through.
Much about these books is strikingly similar, but it would do them a disservice to conflate them entirely. The titles alone hint at distinctions in tone and substance: The Case against the Sexual Revolution is rigorously documented and sharply argued, while Rethinking Sex is a narrative, interweaving stories from Emba’s interviews with her musings about what might make for a better sexual culture.
But their paths intersect on many points, and they are particularly illuminating taken together. These are two modern women, purportedly the primary beneficiaries of the Sexual Revolution’s loosening of mores, who instead are preoccupied by what they’ve come to see as its significant flaws.
Both books are particularly strong in their critiques of “consent,” the reigning orthodoxy that governs us in the morass of sexual behaviors our society has licensed. “Did everyone say yes?” and “Did anyone say no?” are the only moral guideposts we’re permitted for discerning whether a given sexual interaction was trifling or criminal. Stronger pronouncements would require us to evaluate someone’s desires, an impossibility in our autonomous free-for-all. As a result of the Sexual Revolution’s individualistic philosophy and its accompanying impoverished morality, “nonconsensual” is the only kind of misconduct we’re able to identify. Bad sex, lack of commitment, and emotional unavailability aren’t crimes, so malcontents should take their complaints elsewhere.
Each author in her own way punctures enormous holes in this doctrine, revealing it as a shallow and unsatisfactory marker for whether men and women are flourishing—though neither book uses that language, pointing to something of a deficiency in both.
Perry argues that the logic of the Sexual Revolution, championed by self-described feminists, has actually bolstered a social scenario that benefits men at the expense of women. The horrific examples she offers from the pornography and prostitution industries are particularly helpful in demonstrating how power and class dynamics complicate what it means to give real consent. Emba, meanwhile, deems consent the floor and not the ceiling when it comes to governing right relations between the sexes, citing Thomas Aquinas and calling for a return to a conception of love defined as “willing the good of the other.” Both authors deserve credit for recognizing that we can consent to things that harm ourselves and others, and that society should recognize and care about that reality.
As efforts to chronicle the breadth of the problem, these books are nearly unimpeachable. But neither goes far enough in recognizing exactly how deep the rot of this ideology goes. Both Perry and Emba are reluctant to jettison or even criticize essential aspects of this worldview, which significantly limits their imagination when it comes to developing solutions beyond the obvious, such as temporarily delaying sex or eschewing pornography—though, to be sure, these are fairly radical ideas in the present landscape.
Perry, for instance, barely addresses the question whether widespread use of contraception and abortion is actually good for women, depicting these major changes as a ratchet that can only turn one way. Her ability to recognize that the Sexual Revolution’s world is built for men at the expense of women is admirable, but I found myself disappointed that she didn’t make more of an effort to grapple with these technologies that are so obviously dedicated to making women sexually available, over and against what’s best for their own bodies and souls. It’s hard to envision digging our way out of the Sexual Revolution if we can’t so much as question the technological dogmas on which the entire experiment is predicated.
The idea of more radical change, in short, seems almost inaccessible to both authors. The solutions they do suggest come across more as efforts to tinker around the edges of the problem or limit their harms at the level of the individual reader, which is fine as far as it goes. But when it comes to suggestions for positive change at the cultural level, both authors have little to say, often reverting to sentiments such as “the cat is already out of the bag” or “the traditional models of the past weren’t ideal either.” Neither of these assessments grapples with the possibility that our current scenario is rotten to the core, that its ill effects can’t be mitigated or refurbished but are instead an inextricable part of the deal.
Perhaps more to the point, neither author seems to have considered that there is an objective morality to help us govern the relationships between the sexes, and that, without such a positive moral vision, we will always lack wide-ranging solutions to the ills they’ve identified. Their arguments rely implicitly on the idea that some things are right and others are wrong, but they do little to explain the reasoning behind those assumptions. This leaves them in the awkward position of, for instance, criticizing consent-based sexual ethics while still believing that most sexual relationships are entirely unobjectionable as long as all parties consent and behave with some degree of kindness.
There is plenty of value in the recommendation to make careful and caring choices in the sexual realm. But social conservatives have been making a more coherent version of this argument for decades, most robustly in the holistic sexual ethic of the Catholic Church. Both books would have benefited from at least acknowledging that plenty of thinkers before them have chronicled the harms of the Sexual Revolution while also advancing a moral vision for what it means to be human and to flourish. The best case against the Sexual Revolution is ultimately a positive case, one that affirms the goodness of sex as a means of expressing unity and love, within the context of the exclusive, lifelong, and fruitful commitment between a husband and a wife. This understanding is the fullest response to the frequent complaint that modern sex is all too often an act of objectification or an act of use. Within marriage, sex is the ultimate bodily expression of vulnerability and love between two persons, who, rather than viewing one another as an object or an entitlement, each receive the fullness of the other as a freely offered gift.
If the Sexual Revolution can be likened to a decaying tree, as both authors seem to believe, then there is reason to believe the whole tree must be uprooted. But even as they identify the diseased roots and the rotten fruit, both authors seem determined to preserve some branches while sawing off others. This hesitation to throw out both root and branch gives the appearance of arbitrariness and ends up diluting the strength of their critiques.
These books are solid evidence that something is amiss, that the very people for whom the Revolution was supposedly designed are floundering in its wake, wondering what it might mean to take sex seriously, for it to matter. Might we wish for something more, and what might it look like? But a holistic response to those questions, sadly, won’t be found in their pages—a reality that is, in a sense, further confirmation of their arguments. The Sexual Revolution has robbed us of the moral vocabulary necessary to imagine a better world.