Andrea Dworkin didn’t say all sex is rape, something I learnt in my first encounter with feminism in the early 1990s. She was, however, completely bonkers, her madness nonetheless allied to the ability to put a sentence together. In this, she was unlike Judith Butler, who I read during the same period.
For Butler, I adopted what I came to call “the marijuana measure of intellectual quality” or “The Bong Scale” for short. This referred to the amount of cannabis I smoked first to make her witterings intelligible and later to write about them under exam conditions.
The feminism I was stoning my way through was but one among various newly compulsory “Theory” subjects bolted onto my arts degree. Unlike the UK or US, it’s normal in Australia for lawyers to study what’s called “arts/law,” starting at 18 and graduating with two degrees in five or six years. The regime represents a compromise between American generality and British specificity: adding theory to the Geography or Greek of a traditional arts degree was supposed to make the experience richer and more varied.
Unfortunately, the “theory” was nonsense. Feminist theory especially so.
I still recall the seminar where ten or fifteen of us were presented with Susan Brownmiller’s claim that “no zoologist, as far as I know, has ever observed that animals rape in their natural habitat.” I remember it because every 18-year-old in that room who came from outside a capital city fell about the place snorting with laughter.
The young “townie” woman teaching us stopped, shocked.
“What’s so funny?”
Me: “this isn’t true.” A grazier’s son: “you do know why cattle cockies often prefer artificial insemination, surely?” A young woman who would later be a champion equestrienne: “there’s a reason stallions and fillies have to be kept in separate paddocks.” Someone else started muttering darkly about otters and orangutans. “Bet you think milk comes from bottles and not cows,” rumbled up from the back. The class dissolved in recrimination.
Pseudoscience Taught as Truth
Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century is a counterblast to the braindead feminism I encountered at university. Pseudoscientific feminism never took me in, but Perry, a townie, was persuaded. Her book, as much as anything, is about the process of disenchantment, of discovering everything she once believed was nonsense.
Nonetheless, Perry remains a feminist. The Case Against the Sexual Revolution represents a sincere attempt to anchor feminism in reality. For my part—while I welcome a numerate and scientifically accurate work of feminist scholarship—I’ll stay clear for now. Feminism is the mother of awful public policy going back to Prohibition and needs to learn humility if it expects to have policy influence.
After graduating in anthropology and women’s studies (from SOAS, one of the UK’s wokest universities), Perry worked for some years in a rape crisis centre. Already uneasy with bits of left theory, the experience of practical compassion and a desire to stop rape rather than blethering on about stopping rape led her to do what no feminist theorist has done before: take biology seriously.
At its core, this means she treats man as an animal like other animals, subject to the same pressures over millions of years as every other species and sharing many traits with his fellow Hominidae, the Great Apes. This means that men and women are not only physically different but psychologically different: evolution operated from the neck up as well as the neck down.
Perry accepts that Homo sapiens are much more cognitively dimorphic than many people realise. 70 per cent of men have a pattern of personality traits that no woman has; 70 per cent of women have a pattern of personality traits that no man has. She explains with clarity and élan how, for obvious evolutionary reasons (the elevated risks of pregnancy and childcare and the need to invest in emotionally intense relationships to sustain child-rearing) women are systematically more neurotic, more agreeable and more concerned with propriety (moralised status) than men are.
Perry wants to persuade leftie readers (along with fellow feminists), so she piles up a mountain of scientific evidence to buttress her case. She is also a clear, orderly writer. This has the effect of demolishing not only Brownmiller’s reputation but that of Cordelia Fine, a philosopher now notorious for trying to edit science to fit in with feminism.
I was educated at a (posh) Lutheran school, so was alert to the theology on which feminism draws when it argues that humans are “made” by dint of socialisation. Perry fingers “a furtive form of human exceptionalism, by which we are understood to be both uniquely detached from the normal processes of natural selection and uniquely corruptible by cultural influence.” This, of course, is close to the Catholic doctrine of special creation, where Homo sapiens is unique in having a spiritual and immortal soul. Back in the 90s, I pointed this out, receiving support from Christians (and one Muslim). Then, when one of the rural kids again argued that rape is an evolutionary by-product, the lecturer bit his head off: “so rape is natural, which means good!”
Me: “that’s an example of the naturalistic fallacy”.
You know that sensation, if you are a child, when you’ve had an adult thought and recognised it as such? I was smugly pleased with my adult thought, because I’d known about the naturalistic fallacy for about a week. It’s taught to first-year lawyers in the UK and Commonwealth, typically as part of a subject called “legal method” or “legal reasoning”.
To be fair, it’s taught differently from Perry’s pithy formulation: “the false belief that because something is natural it must necessarily be good.” Among lawyers, what we call “the is-ought problem” is conveyed in parliamentary terms: it’s seldom the case that scientific knowledge can be combined with a widely accepted moral principle to produce a single, uncontested policy prescription followed by legislation.
Now it was on for young and old, undergraduate lawyers v. undergraduate arts. Australian university entrance is purely on school results and arts/law is hard to get into; lawyers have on average a couple of standard deviations’ IQ advantage over arts folk. As we walked out of the lecture theatre, the academic teaching it jabbed her finger at me. “You need to pull your head in,” she said, then gestured at another law student, a boy. “You’re all going to be filthy rich corporate lawyers anyway.”
Having criticised Perry for going into the workforce armed only with pseudoscience, I must also concede that I did, indeed, pull my head in. Weed assisted, I duly repeated a great deal of nonsense when examined, all so I could console myself with a First.
Mother Nature, the Bloody Bitch
Although Perry spends a few pages discussing the implications of male and female cognitive dimorphism more widely—pointing out that sacked Google engineer James Damore was right, for example—the great bulk of her book is focused on sex, and how male and female approaches to it differ.
Her core argument is that the Pill constituted a true “technology shock,” ending the widespread taboo on pre-marital sex. In economic terms, reliable contraception combined with legal abortion lowered the price of sex and undermined the social protection traditionally attached to long-term mating (i.e., marriage). At the same time, an entire, influential wing of feminism leant into the shock, promoting not only casual sex, but BDSM, porn, and prostitution.
Perry calls this “liberal feminism,” because it has roots in a stunted form of liberalism that, sadly, goes back to Locke and both Mills. She concedes that modern adherents often call it “intersectional feminism” and acknowledges how, coupled with leftist obscurantism, it’s birthed a monster. Nonetheless, the intellectual genealogy she assays is accurate.
The Pill led sexual liberals to the hubristic assumption that our society could be uniquely free from the oppression of sexual norms and could function just fine. The last sixty years have proved that assumption to be wrong. We need to re-erect the social guard rails that have been torn down. And, 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.
Perry wants to go back to suppressing short-term mating to protect long-term mating. Which is, well, the norm in most human societies.
At the same time, she is acutely aware the sexual revolution freed sexual minorities from stigma and often outright criminalisation. Meanwhile, for intelligent, highly sociosexual women, liberal feminism and the world it has wrought is like landing on “free parking” in Monopoly and provides a cornucopia of opportunity. Those women now dominate not only feminism but have parcelled out British public life between them along with able, high-status, sociosexual men. There is a reason gags about posh Continuity Remain women sending their Romanian nannies on the People’s Vote march bit.
The problem, of course, is that most women are not highly sociosexual. Interestingly, most men aren’t either, but because of large evolutionary differences between the sexes rooted in parental investment, there are many more highly sociosexual men than women. Here, Perry’s numeracy shines, and if I were teaching undergraduate statistics, I’d set her discussion of overlapping bell curves in week one.
Sociosexuality is not to be confused with sexual flexibility. Bisexual women are common. Perry’s acid observation that compulsory heterosexuality has been imposed on women is borne out in the historical record. Sociosexuality refers to what laymen consider promiscuity: people who want more sex, with more people, and who sometimes combine this with untypical sexual tastes.
Perry doesn’t want to tar and feather those who sleep around. Her book makes no policy recommendations, and much of the last third is self-help, albeit of high quality—a Jordan Peterson for girls. But she does want a system where women who don’t want to, don’t have to. She gets that intersectional feminism’s goal of a no-stigma society is nonsense. The trick is to make something decently workable.
She’s right that most women have jobs rather than careers, prefer motherhood to the office, and find casual sex rebarbative. She excoriates a trait common to all schools of feminism but notorious among the intersectional and radical wings of it: mistaking one’s personal preferences (and those of one’s group) for everyone else’s. My father, when I first described university feminism, used to adumbrate it thus: “that thing you like is wrong.”
Occasionally, Perry falls into this trap herself, especially when it comes to BDSM, which she clearly dislikes. I say this because the scientific evidence for BDSM’s popularity among women she recounts deserves to be better known. It’s true there are more female subs than doms because, for hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, women captured in war were so often parcelled out to their captors that those who didn’t mind it or even found it arousing had a selection advantage.
Mother Nature, the bloody bitch, red in tooth and claw.
Consent and Civilisation
This antipathy towards BDSM leads Perry to undervalue the importance of consent, key to much of the criminal law on sex offences. I accept her claim that consent can be a weak character test. However, it’s also true that entire civilisations never develop the concept. During my stint as an interpreter at the Home Office, I soon learnt one of the hardest things to get through to forced marriage victims was the idea that women can reject the men parents or kin have picked out for them. Consent does civilise, it’s just, sometimes, what it civilises operates from a low base.
The Romans were the first to insist on it in sexual matters, albeit only for citizen women. In doing so, they conferred a civilisational boon on the world.
It was Roman jurists who first developed the bright-line age of consent laws so familiar to us. And when modern people—often, as Perry points out, apologists for paedophilia—argue adolescents develop at different rates and that some can consent to sex at younger ages, they are unwittingly echoing the losing side in Republican Rome’s age of consent debate. Rape, too, was a crime against the person, not property. Meanwhile, Roman law mandated marital consent, and unlike in later Christianity (which took on some, but not all, of pagan Rome’s legal system), it was not irrevocable.
It’s also true that the law, like Perry, sometimes argues that consent is not enough. I say this because Perry also details her leadership role in a campaign to prevent men charged with the murder of their sexual partners from raising consent as a plea in mitigation. These pleas took a particular form: the death occurred due to “BDSM gone wrong,” but the woman in question had consented. The great majority of these cases involved choking. Among the Great British Public, such pleas came to be known as “The 50 Shades Defence.”
When successful, the plea meant any conviction secured was reduced from murder to manslaughter (the latter is often charged in the alternative) based on consent to the activity. Manslaughter carries a lower tariff at sentence. However, this should not have happened. It is not possible to smuggle in consent to unlawful killing by dint of consent to an activity and hasn’t ever been. In a sexual context, it’s not even possible to consent to anything worse than spanking.
This latter emerged from R v Brown, a 1994 House of Lords case involving a gay male BDSM orgy that, in my Oxford Evidence tutor’s words, “meant using tools in a way that would make an honest carpenter blush.” The court in Brown held that it’s not possible to consent to anything more serious than common assault (which covers spanking, but not choking). The orgy participants were convicted of malicious wounding and assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
Perry’s campaign was successful. R v Brown was put on a statutory footing. If BDSM “goes wrong” now and one of the parties dies, the (usually male) alleged offender is prosecuted for murder and cannot raise consent to the activity in mitigation. Thing is, R v Brown never stopped being good law and Perry’s campaign shouldn’t have been necessary. She blames the “normalisation” of BDSM in wider society, which probably did play a role. Far more important, in my view, was the Crown Prosecution Service’s failure to put valid, binding precedent before the courts.
All That He Wants
Perhaps aware she should have made something of 1960s de-Christianisation (when the Pill broke a historic convergence between women and the Church), in recent interviews Perry has discussed the contrast between Christian conceptions of monogamy and the monogamous system preceding it, pagan Rome’s.
She told Katy Balls of the Spectator how, “when Christian sexual ethics arrive in the Roman world, they are incredibly radical (…) the idea that high status Roman men shouldn’t be sexually abusing their slaves or their social inferiors was very much in women’s interests.” After noting “how many early Christians were women,” she observes that:
For all the downsides of the Christian system, which include women being shamed for not being chaste, or the fact that Christians have quite weird ideas about the unborn child—most cultures are much more relaxed about abortion than Christians are—we’re reverting to a more Roman system, where high status men can do what they want, and women are expected to behave more like men.
Now, the well-to-do, attractive man—like his Roman counterpart of old—gets all that he wants. A certain sort of able, career-as-opposed-to-family-oriented woman takes along with him. And yes, in the woman’s case, those of her type were often stigmatised and oppressed in the past. Together, they rule our roost. This isn’t all bad. Ancient Rome was one of only two great law-giver civilisations in human history (the other, of course, being England).
I wrote two books about that, pointing out in my author’s note how Roman sexuality and values comport readily with the sort of technology we have now. Which is unsettling. The Romans loved markets, and sex, and order. But they also loved surveillance, and conformity, and war.
Be careful what you wish for.