Image: John Watson

Louise Perry: ‘I start from feminist priors and end up with socially conservative conclusions’

The author argues that women are beginning to appreciate the downsides of the sex positivity movement
June 16, 2022

Louise Perry does not just question the orthodoxies of mainstream feminism in her new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. She takes a sledgehammer to them. 

Her thesis goes something like this: the advent of the contraceptive pill was supposed to set women free by allowing them to have consequence-free sex. But Perry reckons there is no such thing—that liberation is just “an illusion.” In reality, liberal feminism—supposed to empower women—has failed them. It propagates uncritical sex positivity; sees women adapt their sexual preferences for the benefit of men; encourages women to emotionally cripple themselves at the altar of so-called hook-up culture; and permits acts of sexual violence under the banner of “consent.” It foments a growing distrust in the institution of marriage, too. 

Perry’s somewhat traditional worldview seems far removed from the values she held in her youth. Over coffee in Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road, Perry recalls that as a teenager her family got two copies of the Guardian delivered to their house every day. So where did this socially conservative thinker emerge from? 

Perry’s opposition to the liberal feminist zeitgeist was set in motion as a student. But it was after university, when she worked in a rape crisis centre, that she felt her resolve hardening. Meeting women who had been prostitutes allowed Perry to see first-hand the immense hardship they faced. Meanwhile, she noticed that the positive way the industry was represented in student circles could not have been farther detached from reality. “That was the death knell for me,” she says. It seems the link between mainstream sexual liberalism and its downstream harms was too direct to ignore. In a similar vein, Perry makes a convincing case that the rife abuse of porn stars is an unavoidable by-product of society’s permissive sexual mores. 

Perry is at pains to insist she is not an anti-liberal. And she is equally quick to fend off an accompanying allegation that she is inherently conservative. “I start from feminist priors,” she explains—like an interest in protecting women and girls—“and I end up at some socially conservative conclusions.” She is ardent in her defence of marriage. Her belief in the importance of chivalry stands out too. 

Perry thinks it has taken time for the downsides of the sexual revolution to play out

Perry is not on her own in her apparent iconoclasm. Plenty of thinkers and writers are beginning to lament prevailing orthodoxies. Christine Emba’s book Rethinking Sex tracks much of the same ground as Perry’s. Kathleen Stock, a prominent academic who has received protracted public attention for her views on transgender people, celebrates Perry’s “fearless” contribution to the conversation. But what is a movement without a name? “You might call us post-liberal feminists,” Perry tentatively suggests.

If this is an identifiable and cohesive intellectual movement, why now? Perry thinks it has taken time for the downsides of the so-called sexual revolution to play out, and for women to appreciate its full impact. Millennials represented the high-water mark of the sex-positivity phenomenon. Generation Z, Perry claims, are increasingly voicing their unhappiness with the status quo. 

But if Perry is right, and the pendulum is swinging, we might ask if it is going too far the other way. At the end of her book, she suggests that young women—in the name of protecting themselves in a hostile sexual climate—should not get drunk in the presence of men; that they should withhold sex for the first few months of a relationship; and that they should avoid dating apps. Some of the advice would not be out of place in the 1950s. 

Her conclusions may be extreme, but Perry is clear sighted and morally consistent. And we would be foolish to dismiss her ethics as old fashioned. This could be a movement in its nascent days.