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Sex Positivity Was Fake, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone
A new book takes a grim look at sexual freedom.
Early on in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, his autobiographical account of New York’s gay cruising scene in the 1970s and 80s, Samuel R. Delany takes his lesbian friend, Ana, to one of the porn theaters that then lined 42nd street. Ana had been intrigued by Delany’s description of anonymous gay sex in the theaters, and reading his book, I get why she wanted to go. Delany writes like he’s composing a eulogy for a lost utopia. In Delany’s mind, the old Times Square offered a democratization of sexuality, a kind of fucking that was momentarily unburdened by anxieties of performance or status.
But the gay cruising scene of that era was also unburdened, we should note, by the reality of sex inequality. Ana comes with Delany to a theater, and they stay for about an hour, Ana mostly watching. When they leave and walk out into the bright afternoon, Ana recounts a few exchanges she had inside. Men had issued occasional insults and backhanded comments, the sort of thing meant to make her aware that she was a woman in a place for men. One passerby called her “fish.” Maleness served as both armor and passport in this world of sexual freedom, and Ana has neither.
But Ana also seems surprised, by the fact that among the men, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly calm and civil, even polite. She recounts turning down a man who had propositioned her in an aisle, only to have him shrug, and smilingly walk away—without recrimination, or threat, or evident resentment. “’You didn’t tell me …’ She paused. ‘Didn’t tell you what?’ “—that so many people say no. And that everybody pretty much goes along with it.’” This is the part that seems so foreign to a woman’s experience: that sexual pleasure might be simultaneously available and also refusable.
But for the all the theater scene’s potential, to Ana, it still feels out of reach. “’Would you go again?’” Delany asks her. “‘No.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Well … I was scared to death!’”
Delany chafes at this. Why not? What’s she so afraid of? He doesn’t want to see the difference between them, doesn’t want to admit that there is a difference. But of course women can't cruise—not with anything like the casualness and gamely curiosity that men do. Women have to worry about rape.
I think of this scene from Delany often, explicitly for this exchange: The woman, bearing witness to male sexual license, both admires its freedom, and knows that it is not available to her. This knowledge of circumscribed sexual possibilities provokes a range of feelings in women, from rage and shame to jealousy, resentment, obsession, striving, and grief. The problem of how women can pursue sexual life, in a world where sex is so often used to punish and control them, remains something that even the most gifted and intrepid writers on women’s lives find difficult to understand, perhaps even more difficult to tell the truth about. Maybe it’s because so many of these feelings are ambivalent and incriminating. After all, in so much of sexual politics, women are permitted to say only two things about sex: yes or no.
One of the writers who has failed to tell the truth about women’s frustrations with sexuality is Louise Perry, in her new book Against the Sexual Revolution. Despite the title, the book dwells very little on the 1960s. Instead, the book is quite narrowly contemporary, with Perry identifying what she feels are problems of modern sexual culture. Perry, a young Brit who writes for places like the Daily Mail, presents herself as a kind of convert, someone who once held Ana’s optimism and yearning for an anonymous and unburdened sexuality, but has since come to see sexual utopia as a childish fairy tale. Now, she believes that the untethering of women’s sexual life from marriage, monogamy, and procreation has been a disastrous mistake, an ultimately doomed project that was undertaken by naïve feminists under the delusional premise that women, contrary to their nature, could “have sex like men.” Much of her book is an attempt to debunk that premise.
If the question of how to pursue sexual life under patriarchy is a problem for women, then the solution, in Perry’s mind, is not for women to embark on a feminist effort to change bad conditions, but instead to accept them as unchangeable. Things can’t be otherwise, she insists; women need to seek out the greatest possible protection they can find under a sexual regime of male domination. To this end, she instructs young women to pursue a return to heterosexual marriage, the strategic postponement of intercourse, the abandonment of prostitution and pornography, and the cultivation of sexual “repression” (her word) in men. A digressive thought exercise about whether or not transgender children should be allowed to play school sports arrives with the grim predictability of an algorithm.
But Perry’s book might be useful as a measure of the discontent with sex positivity, the sense that feminism’s most well-worn prescriptions for women’s sexual freedom are a bit simplistic—perhaps overly deferential to men’s interests, or too convenient for the status quo. Perry’s objections to sex positivity are not even wrong. She finds understandable discomfort in the proliferation of online porn—particularly the violent kind, which she fears is inculcating men to fetishize hurting women. She is alarmed by what she claims is the ubiquitous popularity of strangulation as a sex act. She points out the degradations and bad pay in much of the sex industry, and calls out feminists for ignoring them. These, at least, are fair criticisms, and at times Perry can be incisive in her diagnosis of feminism’s fears and failures under the sex positivity regime. It is true that porn and its influence has been insufficiently analyzed by a feminism afraid to critique it. It is true that much of feminism has treated sex workers as a monolith, ignoring the industry’s exploitations so as to not seem puritanical. It is true that kinks that eroticize women’s subordinate social position also reenforce and entrench that subordinate social position. It is all true. But if Perry’s diagnoses often seem reasonable, her prescriptions are backward, bizarre.
I read Perry’s book recently at the invitation of a friend, who wanted to know what I thought of it. I can see why Perry’s work brought me to mind for her. Against the Sexual Revolution diagnoses some of the same problems I’ve seen, in my own work, with so-called “sex positivity,”—a complicated and contingent phrase, but one which broadly serves to describe the dominant position of feminist sex politics since the second wave era. Sex positivity began as an appropriate phase in feminism’s intellectual maturation. That sex was per se good, and should be treated as a social good, seemed like both the lesson of the ‘60s sexual revolution—with its long-overdue disposal of moralistic, sexist, and retrograde gender codes; and also the correct retort to the ‘80s era of conservative reaction—particularly its cold, judgmental, and murderous condemnation of gay men in the AIDS crisis. Hegemonic forces opposed sexual pleasure, then; sex positivity was a useful rubric for resisting them.
But as sexuality became less inhibited in the 21st century, sex positivity lost some of its usefulness as a corrective. In a context of already destigmatized and open heterosexual expression, sex positive thinking could begin to look like a mandate towards women’s sexual availability; not a defense of women’s sexual freedom but a reassertion of men’s sexual entitlement. This was unsustainable; there was always going to be a turn away from sex positivity in feminist thought. But some form of it was a prerequisite in feminist circles from about 1982—the year of the Barnard Conference on Sexuality that ignited the infamous Sex Wars—until 2017, and the mainstreaming of Me Too. Even now, the dominance of sex positivity has only begun to crack.
But Perry’s problem with sexuality is not coercion or force; her problem, she says, is “disenchantment.” Perry has an array of culprits for this “disenchantment.” Sometimes men are sexually violent because they are naturally hard-wired to be, by evolution; at other times, they are sexually violent because exploitative tech and porn industries have corrupted and addicted them, making them unable to control themselves. Never does men’s sexual aggression or opportunism seem to be their own fault.
Women, too, are wrong about their own professed desires. For a book that’s supposedly so much about the gendered pitfalls of sexual permissiveness, Against the Sexual Revolution spends almost no time on Me Too. When Perry does turn to the movement, she trots out an old misogynist trope: that women who claim to have been sexually violated are really complaining about their own unrequited love. “There were a lot of women who described sexual encounters that were technically consensual but nevertheless left them feeling terrible,” Perry asserts, “because they were being asked to treat as meaningless something that they felt to be meaningful.” But this misunderstands Me Too’s central complaint. The problem was never that women found sex too casual; it was that they found it too unkind. Courtesy, attentiveness, respect for refusal, an investment in someone else’s good time—these are what I hear women looking for in their sexual utopias, and none of them require a diamond ring. The problem expressed in much of Me Too was not that committed straight love was too hard to come by. It was that sex had become much more available, but it had not become more refusable.
If Ana was scared in the movie theater, it’s easy to imagine Perry as an enthusiastic scold, interrupting the furtive blow jobs in the rows of seats to tell the patrons to stop deluding themselves, and admit that what they really want is to settle down and get married. “I am critical of any ideology that fails to balance freedom against other values,” Perry writes. What other values? She doesn’t say.
Part of why Perry’s book seems like a wasted opportunity is that other writers have engaged with the failures and inadequacies of sex positivity in much more productive terms. In the years since Me Too, there has been a groundswell of feminist writing that grapples with the social and political dimensions of sexual dominance in ways that are braver and more truthful than what might have been possible back when sex positivity went unchallenged. Books by lucid, compelling, and often productively uncertain writers have emerged: I’m thinking of Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, and Lorna Bracewell’s Why We Lost the Sex Wars. Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex is an idiosyncratic critique of sex positivity on both radical feminist and Christian theological grounds. Nona Willis Aronowitz, the daughter of the influential sex-positive feminist Ellen Willis, has written a surprisingly emotionally honest book, Bad Sex, which mixes memoir with feminist history to examine how, and whether, her mother’s ideas are applicable to her own life. These writers are drawing on a long history of feminist critiques of the sexual revolution, critiques that examine men’s sexual opportunism and force without ceding women’s claims to freedom, or denouncing sexuality’s utopian potential. There’s the incendiary Andrea Dworkin, or the compassionate visionary Audre Lorde, or the singular genius Catherine MacKinnon. Few of these women would agree with each other, but all of them take positions that could be called sex-negative. None of them accept sexual inequality as inevitable.
Conservatives like Perry, by comparison, don’t seem alert to sex’s pleasure or potential at all; they don’t seem to really think that much of value is lost, or violated, in sexual violence. But I guess this makes sense. If you think of the whole sexual sphere of life as corrupt and degraded, full of broken delusions and corrupting vanities, then rape, or coercion, or any of the other kinds of sexual cruelties that men inflict on women, might not seem so terrible. They’re not an insult to what sex could be, but merely the logical conclusion of what it always has been.
But for all Perry’s cynicism, it seems like we may be returning to the kind of world she would prefer. A creepy, tech-savvy version of gender conservatism among women is gaining ground. Social media is awash with clips of tradwives and “stay-at-home girlfriends,” performing a choreographed pantomime of hyper-stylized 50s femininity, including cooking and waiting for men to come home. Peter Thiel is bankrolling a women’s media company, “Evie,” that advocates for gender “complementarianism.” Like Perry, they issue dark warnings about hormonal birth control. Roe is gone, and abortion has been outlawed in large swaths of the country; unless something dramatic changes in American politics, a national abortion ban, and the rollback of contraceptive rights, are coming, too.
It’s possible that no woman has ever had real access to sexual utopia. It’s possible that all of them, like Ana, have found that exposure to absolute sexual freedom, such as it exists under patriarchy, often leaves them alienated and scared. In that sense, sex positivity may have always been inadequate, partial, a fantasy. But it seems tragic to give up the progress we’ve made, and cowardly to abandon the fight. Maybe sex positivity was always fake. But I think we’ll miss it when it’s gone.