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Louise Perry: the feminist telling women to switch off porn and get married

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She’s a women’s studies graduate and left-wing columnist who believes a third of men would consider rape. So why is she telling women to practise chastity and self-control?

Louise Perry: ’I get called vanilla and frigid, but that doesn’t sting’
Louise Perry: ’I get called vanilla and frigid, but that doesn’t sting’
TOM STOCKILL
The Sunday Times
The sexual revolution of the 1960s has long been seen as bringing liberation for women. Suddenly they could prioritise careers over a family, choose who they wanted to sleep with — and when, if ever, they had children. Perhaps most of all, it made sex fun.
Louise Perry doesn’t see it that way. In her book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution she sets out to convince young women that these freedoms have hidden costs, and that they should recover the almost extinct values of chastity, dignity and self-control.
Her mission is to make women — and men — “happier and saner people”. To do this she believes we need to reject our hook-up culture, which normalises sleeping with a new person every week, stop watching porn and choking each other in bed, quit pretending that prostitution is a job like any other, and re-establish marriage as a serious, lifelong commitment.
It’s a combination of beliefs that will outrage almost everyone. Radical feminists, the old-guard 1960s firebrands, will agree with her on porn, but be aghast by the chapter on marriage; social conservatives will love the marriage chapter, but bristle at Perry’s approval of abortion; the new generation of liberal feminists, who have known nothing but sexual freedom, may well despise it all.
When I meet the 30-year-old writer, though, she seems calm about the torrent of criticism she’s about to face. “In the earlier stages of writing I had that feeling of walking on eggshells and being worried I’d piss off everyone . . . But in the end I just wrote what I thought was true.”
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution is explicitly directed towards young women who have grown up in a world of PornHub, OnlyFans and Tinder; 21st-century sexual freedom has not been liberating for them at all, but instead benefited men, Perry believes. She provides a list of 11 rules for young women in the epilogue, including: “Get drunk or high in private and with female friends rather than in public or in mixed company”; “Avoid being alone with men [you] don’t know”; “Hold off on having sex with a new boyfriend for at least a few months”; “Don’t use dating apps”; and “Only have sex with a man if you think he would make a good father to your children”. I can almost hear the cries of outrage from my female friends.
Perry didn’t always hold such conservative beliefs. The New Statesman columnist went to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Britain’s most radical university, where she gained a degree in women’s studies. To begin with she conformed with the standard feminist views of her peers: porn is great, BDSM is fun, sex work is work. But then she started volunteering for the National Rape Crisis Helpline. “That was a turning point,” she tells me. All the feminist theory she was studying had “no relevance . . . there was nothing in there about sexual violence, it didn’t map on to reality.”
Now Perry is offending both liberal and radical feminists with her belief that rapists are born, not made. She links the crime back to biology, rejecting the prevailing view that our sexist culture encourages men to rape. Evolutionary theory, she explains, shows that rape confers a selection advantage on men, giving them more opportunities to pass on their genes. In other words sexual violence is rational. It’s no coincidence, she says, that women are most likely to be raped between the ages of 12 and 30 — their fertile years.
That’s a horrifying thought. But, bringing together various surveys, Perry reckons about 10 per cent of men are actual rapists, and about a third of men exist in a grey area where they would consider rape if they knew they could get away with it. A scary figure, but she reminds us that it also means that two thirds of men would not consider rape.
How to deal with the ones who do? Perry, whose husband is a police officer, is very clear: prison — for life, if needs be. When it comes to prevention, Perry thinks consent workshops, which teach young people how to check that their partner really wants to have sex, are useless. “If we think that the problem is young men being really horny and larger and more aggressive than young women, then things like gender-neutral bathrooms in school are the stupidest things ever.”
Perry also wants to turn back the clock on casual sex, pornography, sex scenes on TV and prostitution. Naturally her mission draws comparisons to a certain conservative activist who from the 1960s onwards started trying to get sex off our screens, but was also virulently homophobic. “I’m not Mary Whitehouse,” she says laughing, and she’s not. Perry isn’t religious or homophobic, and besides, she looks nothing like Whitehouse. “I get called vanilla and frigid, but that doesn’t sting.”
Mary Whitehouse in 1981
Mary Whitehouse in 1981
PATRICK MCGUINESS/SHUTTERSTOCK
When questioned on specifics, however, Perry’s views about on-screen sex are not that different to those of the evangelical Whitehouse. We are being exposed to more and more explicit content in our everyday lives — everything from lingerie and perfume adverts to Fifty Shades of Grey — and this deadens our responses to actual sex, she argues, destroying our romantic relationships.
Should we ban it, then? She pauses. “I’m not sure if I want to bring back the old classification board . . . but either you have centralised censorship or you have a free market, and the free market is producing this horror show.”
Perry is dismayed that the #MeToo movement has not put people off watching sex scenes. “I really feel for actors. Who would have thought 20 years ago that signing up to be an actor would mean basically signing up to be a porn star?” The difference, of course, is that the sex isn’t real, but Perry doesn’t back down. “From what I’ve heard it’s not far off. And it clearly is sometimes a source of distress for actors and an opportunity for sex pests.”
Perry is right that Hollywood has a huge sexual harassment problem — #MeToo has shown us that. But wouldn’t censoring films and TV shows, like the wildly popular Normal People, for instance, remove the opportunity for women to express their own sexual desires? Reading Perry’s book it can be easy to forget that women enjoy sex at all. “I find the ‘women have desire too’ thing a bit boring,” she says. “We’ve been banging on about it for 70 years . . . That battle has been won.”
And yet Perry is clearly uncomfortable with the darker side of female sexuality. The erotic bestsellers women are reading today — Fifty Shades of Grey for mums, and Sarah J Maas’s sexy fantasy fiction for their daughters — are heavily focused on BDSM, which Perry believes is little more than abuse. She helped to found the campaign group We Can’t Consent to This, which aims to eradicate the use of “rough sex” defences to the killing or harming of women.
Perry is eloquent, empathetic — and very persuasive. I was surprised to find myself agreeing with her on most things: porn is clearly a dangerous, exploitative industry; prostitution isn’t just a normal job (or else why would we be so outraged by landlords asking for sex as payment?); and hook-up culture has practically no benefits for women (only 10 per cent of women orgasm during a one-night stand; no prizes for guessing that figure is much higher among men). Then I got to the final chapter, entitled Marriage Is Good, and I bristled.
Perry argues that while it is important to have divorce as an option for people in terrible, abusive marriages, the easy availability of divorce under any circumstances has killed off the institution of marriage — and that’s bad news for women. She has a piece of simple advice for the young women reading her book: “Get married. And do your best to stay married.”
What happened to decades of feminist work to ensure marriage was not the only option? Why would you tell young women to get married, rather than, say, pursue careers? “This idea that marriage is inherently oppressive to women I don’t think is true,” Perry says.
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In her book she races through statistics highlighting the benefits of marriage: almost half of divorced people in the UK regret it, fatherless boys are more likely to go to prison, and fatherless girls are more likely to become pregnant in their teens. She even lauds the hidden benefits of shotgun marriages and the stigma around single motherhood. “In an era without contraception,” Perry writes, “a prohibition on sex before marriage served female, not male, interests.” I’m not sure how Ireland’s mother and baby homes, for example, which locked up unmarried mothers and removed their children, served female interests. Perry nods. “What haunts me is: do we have to choose between Magdalene laundries and PornHub?”
Neither system is good, on that we agree. But the alternative isn’t clear, and for Perry that question has become even more personal. She had her first child while writing the book. Has that altered her perspective? “Yes, to the extent that I had a baby boy. It made me think a bit more about the way that men are harmed by this culture.”
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution is unapologetically focused on improving women’s health and happiness. Will it work? The tide does seem to be turning in our attitudes. Young people are having less sex; they’re worried about age gaps and power imbalances in their relationships; and a recent BBC documentary on Mary Whitehouse even asked if she was ahead of her time. Perry may have predicted a new age of sexual puritanism, and perhaps it will make us happier. But I don’t think I’ll be following all of her rules: can’t there be room for a little bit of fun as well?
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution is published on Friday by Polity at £14.99
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