Has the Sexual Revolution Damaged Women?
A couple of years back I said this in a filmed interview:
Over the last few years, #MeToo has exposed us all to the damage that the Sexual Revolution, sexual promiscuity, has brought so many people in society, especially women.1
As often happens when I open my mouth and say something about sex, I received some pushback. Ever since, I’ve been pondering the focus of people’s criticism: that I was being too negative about the Sexual Revolution and unfairly damming it by seemingly equating it with sexual promiscuity.
Now when you are speaking unscripted in front of a camera there is always the danger of some careless shorthand. In the above sentence I think I was guilty of this as I lumped together the #MeToo movement, the Sexual Revolution, and sexual promiscuity as if they were all the same, or necessarily linked. In my mind, I was only targeting what I regard as the many negative changes in attitudes to sex and sexual behaviour in the West since the 1960s, but in the minds of others, I was unhelpfully disregarding what they see as a wider movement with more positive fruit – especially for women.
I now seek to be more careful by acknowledging the good that has come from the Sexual Revolution.
I now seek to be more careful by acknowledging the good that has come from the Sexual Revolution: I try and avoid using it as a catch-all phrase for all that has gone wrong in society today. Ironically this website wouldn’t exist if it were not for the Sexual Revolution: it is contemporary openness to talking about varied experiences of sexuality and sex that has made sharing our stories and views possible. There are places in this world today which remain untouched by the west’s Sexual Revolution, and they are often the places where my own openness about sex and sexuality would not be welcomed.
More significantly, many aspects or consequences of the umbrella term ‘the Sexual Revolution’ have been undeniably positive for women: access to effective contraception, a stress on the importance of consent in sexual relationships, the promotion of the joy of sex for more than just men, a greater equality for women in the family and society (and more). It was wrong for me to seemingly ignore all of this and just paint the Sexual Revolution as leading to sexual promiscuity.
But all of that said, I still want to say that many (if not all) of the changes in attitudes to sex and sexual behaviour brought about by the Sexual Revolution have damaged people, especially women. In fact, this conviction has only grown in the last couple of years as I’ve pondered what I said and the reaction and have then researched the impact of recent western cultural changes.
Two books have been most influential in my thinking. The first is Mark Regnerus’ Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Masculinity (OUP, 2017). This is an academic piece of work by a sociologist at the University of Texas. Drawing on numerous national surveys and interviews with women and men, he chronicles the effect of contemporary attitudes to sex and sexual behaviour. His central argument is that men are now getting ‘cheap sex’ (on their terms, in their self-interest) and women are paying the price (by having to accept the male terms, sacrificing their own self-interest). This is his worrying conclusion:
Women are learning to have sex like men. But peel back the layers, and it becomes obvious that this transition is not a reflection of their power but of their subjugation to men's interests. If women were more in charge of how their relationships transpired – more in charge of the "pricing" negotiations around sex – we would be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts by men, fewer hookups, fewer pre-marital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on (and perhaps even at a slightly earlier age too). In other words the “price” of sex would be higher: it would cost men more to access it. Instead, none of these things are occurring. Not one.2
This aspect of the Sexual Revolution is not working out well for women, and the statistics and stories that Regnerus shares painfully prove this reality.
Louise Perry, an English journalist and self-declared feminist, would agree. Her recent more polemical book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century (Polity, 2022) agrees with Regnerus’ more academic analysis:
We have smoothly transitioned from one form of feminine subservience to another, but we pretend that this one is liberation.3
The rest of her book makes a persuasive case against the Sexual Revolution being seen as a good thing for western women when it comes to sex and relationships. I have reviewed the book at Living Out website. It makes a sobering read and has strengthened my conviction that we do need to call out many recent cultural changes as damaging – most of all to women.
But as we do that, we need to choose our language carefully and avoid careless shorthand: celebrating the good, as well as highlighting the bad. In that video back in 2020, it would have better if I had said something like this:
Over the last few years, #MeToo has exposed us all to the damage that some aspects of the Sexual Revolution have brought so many people in society, especially women.
1 . ‘The Beautiful Story’, Church of England Evangelical Council. Accessed 27 August 2022. 2. Mark Regnerus, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage and Masculinity (OUP, 2017), p.214.
3. Louise Perry, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century (Polity, 2022), p.20.