Discover more from Thing of Things
The Case Against The Case Against The Sexual Revolution
Louise Perry's feminist ideology is weird and her arguments are sloppy
Louise Perry’s The Case Against The Sexual Revolution represents a commendable return of trans-exclusionary feminists to critiquing other people’s sex lives instead of being upset about the existence of trans people. Unfortunately, this is the only thing commendable about it.
Perry argues about sex, because sex is interesting and everyone likes arguing about it and only the socialist feminists are ever virtuous enough to keep attention on labor where it belongs, but her actual beliefs are more interesting. She is deeply opposed to liberalism.
Liberalism is an extraordinarily diverse set of beliefs, which have in common the idea that people should be basically free to make their own choices unless they’re hurting other people. It is probably the most common political philosophy among people in the Anglosphere, in its philosophically disreputable variant People Can Do Whatever They Want, Unless Of Course I Happen To Find It Especially Gross. Liberal feminism applies liberalism specifically to gender. Today, liberal feminists tend to concentrate on issues like workplace discrimination, contraceptive and abortion access, the equal distribution of domestic labor, and sexual harassment, which they believe limit women’s choices. Liberal feminists can be found saying “it’s fine as long as a woman freely chooses to be a housewife.”
Perry argues for an illiberal feminism grounded in innate male and female psychological differences. Because men and women are different, with different needs and preferences, the purpose of feminism should not be women’s liberation; it should be advancing the interests of women as a class. Women, she argues, are not well-served by liberalism in general and liberal feminism specifically. Instead, society should more sharply limit the choices of both men and women, in a gendered fashion, in order to advance women’s interests.
Honestly, I kind of dig it. Too long have trans-exclusionary feminists stuck to beliefs like “it is gross when people we think are men have weird sex" and “it is oppressive to parents that sometimes their adult children do things they don’t like”. Pseudo-Marxist evopsych feminism is novel! I have never heard of anyone having those beliefs before. I think someone should go bite some tasty, tasty bullets about it.
Unfortunately, she mostly does not bite any tasty bullets and instead just uses it as an opportunity to complain about James Damore’s firing and the fact that people think Friends is fatphobic, and to tell people to listen to their moms. But in principle! In principle it’s cool.
Unfortunately, The Case Against The Sexual Revolution is profoundly sloppy. For example:
Let’s start with some of the physiological differences. Adult women are approximately half as strong as adult men in the upper body and two-thirds as strong in the lower body. On average, men can bench press more mass than women can by a factor of roughly two and a half and can punch harder by a similar factor. In hand grip strength, 90 per cent of females produce less force than 95 per cent of males. In other words, almost all women are weaker than almost all men.
The evidence presented only establishes that this is true for grip strength. If you know that the average adult woman is only half as strong as an average adult man, you don’t know that almost all women are weaker than almost all men unless you also know the standard deviations. If the standard deviation is high enough, then a significant minority of women can be stronger than the average man, and a significant minority of men can be weaker than the average woman. Her conclusion does not follow from her evidence.
As another example:
In the present day, we know that men with heavily muscled upper bodies are considered more attractive to straight women from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, and we also know that men with this body type have a fighting advantage – both against other animals and against other men. It is impossible to explain this fact [men’s greater upper body strength] unless we recognise that fighting must have played an important role in men’s evolutionary history.
Actually, it is perfectly possible to explain men’s greater upper body strength without assuming that fighting plays an important role in men’s evolutionary history. If straight women like heavily muscled upper bodies, maybe muscles are sexually selected for like a peacock’s tail. Maybe muscle is useful for hunting or something else men typically did in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness.
I think that this point is notable because she’s actually right: in animal species where the male is bigger than the female, it is usually because the males are fighting each other a lot. Because she is right, it would not have been at all difficult for her to present evidence that made her point. Instead, she presents evidence that goes against her point? If women prefer muscular men, that’s evidence for the peacock’s tail hypothesis and against the fighting hypothesis. Men who get women by beating up everyone else who wants to have sex with the women tend not to have much interest in whether the women would prefer an emaciated kpop star instead.
Or, for a different form of sloppiness, consider her discussion of liberalism. As you might have guessed from my above discussion, liberalism is perhaps one of the most important concepts for Perry’s book. However, she doesn’t discuss John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, or anyone else one might naively expect to be cited in a discussion of liberalism. If I’m dreaming, we might even include some liberal feminist philosophers in our discussion. Like Martha Nussbaum! She’s very readable.
Unfortunately, instead, Perry’s definition of liberalism relies almost exclusively on the illiberal writer Patrick Deneen, as follows:
Post-liberals such as Deneen draw attention to the costs of social liberalism, a political project that seeks to free individuals from the external constraints placed on us by location, family, religion, tradition, and even (and most relevant to feminists) the human body. In that sense, they are in agreement with many social conservatives. But post-liberals are also critical of the other side of the liberal coin: a free market ideology that seeks to free individuals from all of these constraints in order to maximise their ability to work and to consume. The atomised worker with no commitment to any place or person is the worker best able to respond quickly to the demands of the market. This ideal liberal subject can move to wherever the jobs are because she has no connection to anywhere in particular; she can do whatever labour is asked of her without any moral objection derived from faith or tradition; and, without a spouse or family to attend to, she never needs to demand rest days or a flexible schedule. And then, with the money earned from this rootless labour, she is able to buy consumables that will soothe any feelings of unhappiness, thus feeding the economic engine with maximum efficiency.
There is a slight of hand here between:
This is what liberals actually believe.
Under capitalism, however idealistic liberalism is, it winds up having certain effects because of economic pressures, etc.
Look, I’m not saying you can’t talk about the second thing! Talk about the second thing all you like. The unintended consequences of ideologies are important. I am just saying that it behooves you to acknowledge that no major liberal thinker has ever argued that people shouldn’t have spouses.
Of course, if you pinned Perry down, she would probably say that she didn’t literally mean that famous utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill literally thought that, ideally, people shouldn’t get married so that they could work weekends. That is as absurd to her as it is to everyone else.
It’s just, well, she’s sloppy. Her editors, reviewers, and readers aren’t going to call her on it if her evidence doesn’t back up her claims, or if she says things are impossible that you can easily do in thirty seconds, or if she fails to distinguish between “what liberals believe” and “the effects of liberals’ beliefs” and accidentally makes astonishing claims about the beliefs of nineteenth-century philosophers. So why would she bother? It’s not like anyone cares. Carefulness in argument takes valuable time away from complaining about people complaining about having to talk to their racist uncles at Thanksgiving.
Which is sad, because I think if someone does a careful pseudo-Marxist evopsych feminism then the book is going to be wild.
The Case Against The Sexual Revolution, by Louise Perry. Published 2022. 256 pages. $48.00.