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Sex and agency
Louise Perry’s "The Case Against the Sexual Revolution"
APOTHECARY: My poverty, but not my will, consents
ROMEO: I pay thy poverty and not thy will
Romeo and Juliet, Act V, Scene I
In sweet contrast to last week’s kvetch, hook-up culture is a great example of anti-feminisation in society. Hook up culture has transfigured the mating market to suit men —
despite because of the feminist cloaks of “consent” and “empowerment”. Women are stuck in a competitive market driving them relentlessly into the maws of commitment-less and lascivious male cads. Perry (citing
Incidentally, the trans movement is also an example of anti-feminisation. Yes, it is the literal feminisation of men — but it’s also the elevation of men, or at least a eunuch class of men. Men take out Woman of the Year awards, LARP as women, are featured on coveted magazine covers, and rampage through women’s sport. In my youth anorexia and self-cutting were known mental ailments of young women — and were treated as such. But today the loudest dysphorics are men and so we valorise their mental illnesses. What’s more patriarchal than that? Women are still cutting themselves — their breasts and god knows what else — in a new trans direction, but they seem to be discarded into the same sad heap as the anorexics that preceded them. It’s all rather grim and enough to radicalise even crusted-on conservatives towards feminism.
But back to Perry. She sees that women are caught in a game rigged towards men’s sexual preferences and consent is the inviolable lube that keeps the gears grinding. Perry valorises chivalry as a constraining ethic on bad male conduct. Women may like to be choked — beg for it — but you ought not to choke them. Porn stars might beg for it, but you ought not trust them. Even if they are not being coerced in the moment (which they often are) — they may regret it in future. And even if they do not regret it — it is fundamentally degrading. And men know this. Perry asks male readers to ask themselves:
Have you ever had sex with a woman you’d be embarrassed to introduce to your friends?
Have you ever failed to contact a woman after sex?
Have you ever suspected that your casual partner was becoming emotionally attached to you and failed either to commit to or break off the relationship?
Have you ever encourages a woman to do something sexually, even though she showed reluctance?
Let him who is without sin cast the first stone etc. This is the lay person version of the same sins that porn stars are subjected to. Porn stars may scream consent and empowerment until they are blue in the face, but the blokes who handle and degrade them see the farce for what it is. The daily sexual interactions in the mating market may be less extreme but they are the same in kind.2 Men know this and can’t believe how gorgeously attuned the entire system is towards them: women ingest body-altering chemicals to prevent pregnancies, impose minimal commitment costs (forget unfashionable marriage! ew kids!), and deliver themselves up to your door with the swipe of a finger. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Half the charm of Perry’s book is how she details in considerable fidelity the psychology of men — presumably for the benefit of her female readership. Men are hornier and prefer casual sex (are you taking notes?). They immediately categorise women into two kinds: wife potential and… not. The wife has basically one threshold test: will she embarrass him before his peers? It’s fun to read these things because they echo almost verbatim the conversations bandied about amongst teenage boys. Perry repeats herself again and again because she knows her female readership may simply not believe it — so alien is the male psyche to women. A particularly brutal observation about some minority of men:
“They care about youth, and they care about looks, but otherwise they don’t care who they’re ejaculating into, and they certainly don’t care if that person is enjoying themselves. If given the chance, these men will treat their sexual partners as unfeeling orifices…. That is the punter’s view of the matter.
Some of her tale is anthropological — this is how the male thinks, beware! — and some of it is just delivering the harsh facts of life. This was a good zinger:
OnlyFans is to the marriage market as a criminal record is to the jobs market.
A man reads her with mixed reactions. It starts with don’t women know this and quickly moves to are you sure you should be telling them until finally you feel like Perry’s lifted the covers off a cage surrounded by women who gasp and grimace at the horror within — you. Like, seriously, who told her about the “embarrassed to introduce her to your friends” thing? Snitches get stitches!
I recently tweeted that it’s immoral for men to date women into their thirties without committing to marriage / children. I know of many such cases, and the poor woman just bears it. Again it’s one of those things where she might say it’s fine or I don’t want kids anyway. And no doubt there are cases where that is literally true and never changes. But there are far more cases where that is a cope and ends ruinously. And it is a tragedy from which there is no going back. Some commenters are angry at me — agency, they cry. Women have agency! They choose to spend their thirties in that way. Yeah, well… Women also suffer husbands who beat them. They shouldn’t but life is complicated and still men should not beat their wives. Perry applies this logic more broadly across the dating market: women simply do not act in their own interests. And that’s the rub. The flipside to the inadequacy of consent is the abrogation of agency — and in hookup culture, female agency in particular.
“Sex work” — the warped modern euphemism for prostitution currently preferred by feminists — is another area Perry cordons off from consent. Women can’t choose whoredom, Perry says, because “emotionally” it is indistinguishable from rape.
The whole point of paid sex is that it must be paid for: It is not mutually desired by both parties — one party is there unwillingly, in exchange for money…
But isn’t that the nature of most work and all transactions? As succinctly summarised by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet as Romeo buys a vial of poison:
APOTHECARY: My poverty, but not my will, consents
ROMEO: I pay thy poverty and not thy will
I’m very open to the idea there is something special about sex. But is it more special than life itself? We ask (mainly) men to risk their lives for money all the time — in the army and any number of dangerous professions (construction, mining, etc). And not so long ago, the day-to-day life of women in the West has also been maximally grueling — literally at their physical limits in coal mines3 or on pre-electricity homesteads where their lives resembled those of Medieval serfs. I suppose prostitution might be worse? But I wouldn’t feel too noble kicking a woman out of a brothel and into a coal mine. Is it really beyond a woman’s ken to choose one of those lives over the other (in lieu of starvation)? Perry’s idealism may be laudable but avoids the realities of the harsh trade-offs of life. It’s hard to avoid a deep paternalism in Perry — women’s own interests are hidden from them, they are special princesses to be loved and adorned, not beings with agency to engage in the kind of uncouth trade-offs men must in order to provide for themselves and their families. This is effectively the world of The Sopranos I described in my ode to daughters:
Daughters stand apart in The Sopranos. They are beloved, quasi-angelic figures. Sons are degenerates and disappointments.
This is because daughters (and women) don’t have agency in The Sopranos. Daughters are a light unto a man’s soul. Sons are expected to have agency, force of will, ambition. They fail.
Perry’s worldview seems remarkably close to this. I am not necessarily critical of this position (I’m just hear to listen) — and Perry does not say this explicitly — but I’d be curious what her response might be.
In another delightful insight, Perry notes:
[Consent] cannot convincingly explain why a woman who hurts herself should be understood as mentally ill, but a woman who asks her partner to hurt her is apparently exercising her sexual agency.
It’s a good point, and goes back to the cutting trend from my youth (is it still around?). But note again how she cordons off another portion of female agency — to mental illness. And it’s a compelling case! I just note that in Perry’s account there seem to be an awful lot of moments where we ought not to trust women. Does this only apply to the sexual marketplace? Why? Perry argues that the asymmetries in the mating market arise from the fundamental biological asymmetries in men and women (I’m sold). They are constitutional and defining. So how far does that thread pull?
Perry occasionally riles herself up into a Dostoyevskian zeal,4 and veers into the Quixotic. She rails against the voracious appetites of soldiers — from British soldiers in India who effectively enslaved local girls, to the “R&R” (colloquially Rape & Run) stops of American soldiers in Bangkok during the Vietnam War. She overlays a racial critique, which hardly seems necessary. Prostitution is about as old as war itself, and its racial demographics incidental. In a colourful passage from S.C Gwynne’s Hymns of the Republic, this is Washington DC during the winter of 1863–64 in the grip of the Civil War:
Because of these soldiers—unattached young men, isolated, and far from home—a booming industry had arisen that was more than a match for its European counterparts: prostitution. This was no minor side effect of war. Ten percent or more of the adult population were inhabitants of Washington’s demimonde. In 1863, the Washington Evening Star had determined that the capital had more than five thousand prostitutes, with an additional twenty-five hundred in neighboring Georgetown, and twenty-five hundred more across the river in Alexandria, Virginia. That did not count the concubines or courtesans who were simply kept in apartments by the officer corps. The year before, an army survey had revealed 450 houses of ill repute. All served drinks and sex. In a district called Murder Bay, passersby could see nearly naked women in the windows and doors of the houses. For the less affluent—laborers, teamsters, and army riffraff—Nigger Hill and Tin Cup Alley had sleazier establishments, where men were routinely robbed, stabbed, shot, and poisoned with moonshine whiskey… Many of these establishments were in the heart of the city, a few blocks from the president’s house.
It’s not entirely clear what Perry proposes to do with prostitution. I suppose the abolition of prostitution including its use en masse by the soldiery would hardly be less unprecedented or dramatic than the ending of slavery itself. Yet Perry is hardly convincing men — the consumers of women’s bodies — with her railing against the commodification of women’s bodies. They demonstrably don’t care. The real audience for her wrath are progressive feminists who, if not men, should be on her side rather than flanking her and enabling the enemy with ideological cover. If prostitution is inevitable, Perry seems to say, at the very least feminists need not feed their own into the grinder. “Empowerment” and “consent” idolisation have been a trap, and the friendly fire makes it worse.
Perry is wise, of course, to impart basic sense to young women today. And she follows in the path of other wise voices who also discard the false premise of individual liberty and urge a re-sanctification of the relationships that really define us: husband and wife, parent and child. These include — drawn only from my recent reading list — Yoram Hazony in The Virtue of Nationalism and Sebastian Junger in Freedom.5 But Perry is sharp, funny, and a woman: her message is personal, and she targets a particularly enormous and frenzied injustice that preys on her target audience, young women. She addresses these women directly at the end of her book with some common sense wisdom, advice I’d impart to my own daughters. Although arguably she does not go far enough. One does get the sense that she pulls her punches to appeal to her mainly liberal audience. I wonder what she would really say over a beer.
I recommend the audiobook by the way — Perry reads it charmingly.
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Perry even gives a moment to polygyny in a contrast that cracked me up (read Part I of my four part series on polygamy). She notes the male northern elephant seal, found in the eastern Pacific Ocean, is three times heavier than the female and inseminates as many as fifty females in a mating seal. The male harbour seal, found along Arctic and European coasts, is a similar weight to the female and is mostly monogamous. Which way Western man?
One question I have for Perry. She represents strangulation as a male domination kink that has been thrust on women. Her argument, again, is that female consent does not excuse it. My impression is that women are the ones who ask to be choked. I suspect there is a sizeable population of men to whom it would have never occurred but for having been asked. This is quite a different dynamic to the one described. But my impressions are anecdotal and I’m open to being rebutted with data.
You can find the Smil quote on women who carried coal at the link, but if you want the way he calculated literally the maximum of human capacity, here you go:
Assuming a body weight of 60 kg, a daily lifting of 1.5 t of coal from a depth of about 35 m would alone need about 1 MJ, and including the cost of carrying the coal horizontally, or on a slight incline—belowground to the pit’s bottom and aboveground to the distribution point—and the cost of return trips would bring the daily total to about 1.8 MJ. Assuming a labor efficiency of 15%, an adult female bearer would expend about 12 MJ of energy, averaging about 330 W during a ten-hour day. Modern measurements of energy expenditures in heavy labor confirmed that work at the rate of 350 W is sustainable during an eight-hour shift, but only rarely can it be exceeded (Smil 2008a). Clearly, the bearers were operating, day after day, many for years—they entered this work when seven years old, and frequently continued till they were upward of 50—near the maximum of human capacity.
Once you permit the idea that people can be products, everything is corroded
is (intentionally?) reminiscent of the Ivan Karamazov’s line:
If there is no God, then everything is permitted.
On Junger, I can’t help but share with you one of the most beautiful and striking things I have ever heard someone say on a podcast. The year was 2016 and this quote has haunted me ever since (you should listen to the whole thing):
Tim Ferriss: What do you think your 70 year old self would give to your current self as advice?
Sebastian Junger: I think I would say to myself that the world is this continually unfolding set of possibilities and opportunities. And the tricky thing about life is, on the one hand, having the courage to enter into things that are unfamiliar.
But to also have the wisdom to stop exploring when you found something that’s worth sticking around for. And that’s true of a place, of a person, of a vocation. In balancing those two things, the courage of exploring and the commitment to staying, it’s very, very hard to get those two, the ratio, the balance of those two things right. And I think my 70 year old self would say really be careful that you don’t err on side or the other because you have an ill conceived idea of who you are.