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What lies behind sexual violence in intimate relationships?

I recently read this compelling article about Perry's book

The Case Against The Sexual Revolution - Louise Perry. Published by Polity

A review essay of Louise Perry's latest book, by Grant Wyeth

The 17th Century political theorist Thomas Hobbes famously described “the state of nature” – a thought experiment about life before organised society – as being “nasty, brutish and short.” For Hobbes the state of nature was one of constant fear and danger – a state of total war. Therefore, what humanity required was a strong state to remove some “natural rights” from people in order to establish societies of safety and trust. Where this balance of rights lies is our permanent political debate. Hobbes’s work has been central to both political philosophy and international relations.

Reading Louise Perry’s book The Case Against The Sexual Revolution I have been thinking that although we now have strong states, with laws and conventions to govern our behaviour and limit wholesale violence, this relative safety is not evenly distributed. While men still suffer violence, this is often violence of choice due to the way men conduct themselves around other men. Men also have a state that is willing to respond to their interests. Women, however, have a far more dangerous social environment, one where violence is a permanent and unknown possibility, and where the state is often unresponsive to this violence.

What makes women’s lack of safety unique is that much of the violence they experience doesn’t come from what we would recognise as conventional enemies, it comes from people who claim to either love them or at the very least be attracted to them. For women there is a distinct Hobbesian Dilemma – a relationship with a man is instinctively deemed required in order to gain protection from other men, but the most dangerous place for a woman is the home environment with this man.

Perry’s book argues that rather than freeing women, the cultural shifts and contraceptive advances that began in the 1960s – and have accelerated in the past two decades – have only further complicated this terrain for women. She argues that women have gained neither greater freedom nor safety. Instead what has been created is a cultural machine that not only predominantly services male pleasure, but also encourages the worst excesses of masculine impulses - domination, misogyny and violence. The sexual revolution has simply replaced one form of patriarchy with another – but one that doesn’t come with the social obligations on men that were present in previous generations.

Perry’s primary argument is that modern feminism has contributed to this new environment for women by embracing “sexual disenchantment” - the attempt to disassociate sex from meaning that was the core ideal of the sexual revolution. She illustrates that due to immutable differences between the sexes this ideal is a far more difficult proposition for women than men – making the outcomes of sexual freedom more emotionally and psychologically fraught.

Perry describes the female embrace of these norms as a problem of “liberal feminism.” While she acknowledges that what is meant by liberalism is highly contested and this may leave some people unhappy, I find it a less than accurate term as although liberalism obviously privileges freedom, human choice and often mistakenly sees all change as progress, it doesn’t free people of personal responsibility.

A core tenet of liberalism should be a trust in our ability to be cooperative across groups. Although we do require laws and governance, social harmony still lies with our personal ethics and behaviour towards others. Unlike Hobbes, liberalism believes that we have the capabilities to create social goods without being coerced. Although I do take Perry’s point that modern liberalism is often values-free. Or in the case of the sexual revolution, it has become mired in a warped set of values that privileges things that are individually and socially damaging.

The question therefore Perry poses – and one that Hobbes would agree with – is that maybe human beings are incapable of adjusting ourselves to the trust liberalism provides us? The more excessive forms of liberalisation that we advocate for the less likely we are able to handle their consequences – I have made a similar argument myself in an essay on the conservative ideology of Fusionism and its obsession with ever-freer markets.

However, we should not just see the sexual revolution as simply one of women being less able than men to adjust to greater sexual freedom – the real issue is men refusing to take responsibility for these freedoms. Seeing them as opportunities to abuse, and opportunities for abuse.

This is why I’d like to focus on one particular chapter titled Violence Is Not Love. This is the most confronting and frankly harrowing chapter of the book. It deals specifically with the normalisation of sexual violence, or what is nowadays being referred to as “rough sex.” It is a phenomenon that not only sees violence and sex and intrinsically bound, but promotes and celebrates this. In particular the chapter focuses on the now common practice of strangulation or “sexual choking.”

Perry sees this violence as a new expression of “a culture that celebrates female submission and male domination” – something feminism should find abhorrent. What the sexual revolution has created is men’s “freedom to hurt, degrade and humiliate” women, while avoiding punishment. Perry believes that liberal feminism has unfortunately contributed to this culture by advocating that the only thing that matters in sexual relations is consent. This has developed within a broader culture that often sees “self-actualisation” as each individual’s only genuine purpose, not the pursuit of social goods. Through this lens sexual violence is merely a “kink” that shouldn’t be “shamed.”

But female consent doesn’t alter male intent. “Rough sex” may – inexplicitly –be pleasurable to some women, but female pleasure isn’t men’s objective, and consenting to men’s hatred of women won’t confine this behaviour to the bedroom. As Perry puts it “faith in consent relies on a fundamentally false premise: that who we are in the bedroom is different from who we are outside of it.” “Rough sex” gives men licence for this hatred to express itself through other forms of abuse. Men’s desire to hurt women through sex clearly says something about that man beyond sexual satisfaction.

Research cited by Perry indicates that “over half of eighteen- to 24-year-old UK women reported having been strangled by their partners during sex” - a frightening statistic that highlights how young men now see sex as an opportunity to commit violence against women. We have created a bizarro world where dating often now has nothing to do with seeking loving and supportive relationships and is instead a subterfuge for men to pursue what they see as the natural right to dominate and harm women. And the pleasure they derive from this.

Although women may believe they are consenting to strangulation, Perry provides evidence that there is simply no way for this to be done safely due to the fragility of the neck. This means that there is a stark difference between consent and informed consent. Most women would surely not consent to such acts if they understood how choking can lead to “cardiac arrest, stroke, miscarriage, incontinence, speech disorders, seizures, paralysis, and other forms of long-term brain injury.” As well as potential death by suffocation.

This creates the problem of how the law is meant to differentiate between consensual and non-consensual strangulation. Women may consent to some strangulation, but does this mean they are consenting if this choking creates injury or even death?

The We Can’t Consent To This campaign in the United Kingdom – on which Perry has worked – has documented sixty-seven cases where “rough sex” has led to the murder of an individual. Sixty of the victims were women, and all of the perpetrators were male. In around half of these cases the perpetrator has successfully used the “rough sex” defence to avoid conviction. Other cases have received far lighter sentences than one would expect for murder. The frequency of these types of murders has increased since the turn of the century.

Courts are now concluding that women are consenting to their own murder as a form of sexual gratification. Yet Perry explains that the idea of consent to acts of violence “cannot convincingly explain why a woman who hurt herself should be understood as mentally ill, but a woman who asks her partner to hurt her is apparently exercising her sexual agency.”

This judicial trend to excuse murder if it is committed “sexually” is not confined to the United Kingdom, with Perry stating similar cases can found in Canada, Germany, Mexico, the United States, Italy and Russia. This indicates there is now a new form of legitimisation of sexual violence within the modern psyche – beyond the effective decriminalisation of rape. This perspective exists within men who see violence against women as a natural right, and women who believe that submission to men is an unavoidable aspect of human relations.

There is a likelihood that many women are submitting themselves to this behaviour because our cultures remain dominated by a perceived need to facilitate men’s desires – with the sexual revolution enhancing this worldview. Many women may also lack the confidence or power in a relationship to tell men that violence is painful and frightening. Or, most disturbingly, women may “think strangulation indicates a man’s love, passion and desire” – an expression of how intense his interest is in her.

It seems likely that in order to pursue relationships with men that women often have to rationalise men’s violence in such a way, and there’s an instinct within all of us to avoid taking a critical eye to sex in case it leads to us missing out on it. But we should all stop and consider the extraordinary ruse that men have been able to sell their hatred of women as a form of affection or attraction.

We take it as a given that heterosexual men are “attracted” to women. But this attraction for some men is not a fondness of women, it isn’t about enjoying their company or seeking to love and care for them, it is often the desire to dominate and hurt women. The attraction is one of predator to prey. The normalisation of sexual violence has made it far more difficult for women to distinguish between men who actually like them and men who are pursuing them in order to hurt them.

This has been further complicated by the now ubiquitous nature of porn, and the dissemination of violent tropes through social media. But as Perry writes “Strangulation is a fashion spread by porn, but it is an elaboration on a theme that the porn industry did not create. That theme centres around violent men who are aroused by domination and insecure women who seek it out.”

Yet the second component of this may be changing. Five decades ago Germaine Greer wrote that “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them." Of course, there is a strong incentive for women to avoid this reality. To accept an inherent misogyny within masculinity is to disconnect oneself from the potential joys and support of a loving relationship. Yet numerous recent reports indicate that Generation Z is having less sex than previous generations. There may be a number of factors contributing to this, but it is possible that the normalisation of sexual violence has made women less likely to place themselves in dangerous situations.

We can see that there are a whole suite of problems that makes dating a serious hazard for women, not just the prevalence of sexual violence and other forms of domestic abuse. In some states in the United States becoming pregnant may mean being forced to carry the foetus to term even if this is to the detriment of a woman’s own health. If you do have a child, the family court makes it incredibly difficult to protect children from violent fathers – often punishing mothers for reporting abuse. And speaking publicly about abuse can lead to defamation suits and public humiliation like we’ve recently seen with Amber Heard and Johnny Depp – a case designed to be a shot over the bow to all women.

Maybe young women are now making the very rational calculation that involvement with men is just far too risky? This calculation may be as influential in present low birth rates throughout the West and Asia as women’s education, the abandonment of religion, climate anxiety, and economic insecurity.

The male backlash to this female discernment is the rise of groups like Incels who believe that sex with women is a social right that exists outside of their own personal behaviour. Rather than these men improving themselves to become more attractive to women, there’s a belief that sex should be “redistributed” towards them. This has gained sympathy through the idea of a “right to sex” – another logical extension of the sexual revolution that centres on servicing men’s desires. Implicit in the “right to sex” is a perspective that men require female submission in order to prevent wider social damages – that men will become terrorist threats without sexual satisfaction. Obviously disregarding the intimate terrorism of domestic abuse.

For Perry, the social infrastructure that emerged from the sexual revolution has become “so normalised we can hardly see it for what it is.” Rather than freeing women from the confines of previous hierarchical social structures, these changes have simply created another cage that men have entrapped women within – one of enslavement to male desire, and placing women back into the state of nature where might is right and any form of social contact with men is potentially threatening.

The solution Perry offers is not one that would return the world to a culture of “traditional values” – these themselves are clearly objectionable and untenable in a world where female education is now increasingly outpacing men’s. Instead she believes that women have the agency to construct “social guardrails” that are to the benefit of women - to provide women with some greater surety in their relationships and to place greater social restraints on male behaviour.

The sexual revolution, and in Perry’s assessment, liberal feminism, has held a belief that “negative liberty” – in Isaiah Berlin’s construction – is an unambiguous good. This is the idea that an individual should have the ability to act in accordance to their own impulses without impediment - mostly from the state. Positive liberty, on the other hand, is the means and resources to pursue a good life. With this we should not just focus on material resources, but mental and social resources as well. What kind of social environments do we wish to construct that will improve our overall well-being? And do these environments require us to place constraints on our own personal behaviour?

For men the answer is an obvious yes. A masculinity that continues to be mired in misogyny, power-lust, domination and violence should be socially unacceptable in all its forms – sexual or otherwise. We should work towards a strong social expectation that men find their dignity in love, kindness, empathy and responsibility – a masculinity that has matured enough to transcend the state of nature. To create a world where men actually like, respect and care for women. Some might call that progress.

Originally published Oct 31, 2022, International Blue


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