The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 6, Men and Women Are Different

We now reach the second chapter of Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution entitled "Men and Women Are Different."

If you've followed this series we've mentioned a couple of times how Perry claims that the sexual revolution works well for men but not so well for women. The reason for this, according to Perry, is that men and women are different. Men and women have distinctive and unique sexual psychologies, and these differences intersect with the sexual revolution in particular ways.

Conservative Christians might be quick to jump in here to say, "Of course men and women are different! That's how God created them." But again, Perry isn't writing as a Christian. In this chapter Perry will describe the origins and differences between men and women by appealing to evolutionary biology. Which, I'm guessing, is not the move most conservative Christians would make.

Much of Perry's argument is well known. The basic idea goes like this. In the ancestral environments where human evolution occurred, men and women faced different adaptive challenges when it came to reproduction. Key to understanding these challenges is knowing that evolution is driven by reproductive success, creating genetic offspring. Survival of the fittest is more about having as many children as possible than about being strong or fast. 

If having as many children as possible is the driving imperative, men and women, due to their reproductive biologies, face different challenges. For example, women are biologically limited in how many children they can bear in a lifetime. Men are only limited by the number of sexual opportunities they have. In ancient cultures, a single woman could only ever have a handful of children. Men, by contrast, could have dozens, even hundreds, of children. For example, the Bible says Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. If we assume an average of one child per woman, that's the potential for 1,000 children. You can vividly see the reproductive asymmetry. No wife of Solomon could have 1,000 children. But Solomon could.  

Beyond reproductive capacity, another asymmetry women faced was the risk, cost and burden of bringing a child to term and raising it to independence. Before, during, and after childbirth women were in vulnerable situations. Less able to forage for food, travel, work, and generally fend for and protect themselves. Facing that challenge, it makes adaptive sense to look for a mate who will invest in protecting both you and your children. Putting all this together, evolutionary psychologists argue that women developed a sexual psychology biased toward relational intimacy and pair-bonding. An affectional bond with a caring and committed mate would help women solve the adaptive challenges of female reproduction in primitive contexts. Women who eschewed this psychology, by contrast, who were willing to have sex with any available man, were going to give birth to a lot of children she would be left to care for all on her own. That would be a reproductive disaster, for both the woman and her children. They would all die. And so, a sexual rule was instilled in female sexual psychology: Sex needs love. 

Male reproductive success, by contrast, was governed by different rules. If the goal is to have as many children as possible, then the male sexual strategy is straightforward: Have as much sex as possible. And given that males faced very little risk or burden in childbirth, natural selection provided little pushback on male promiscuity. If anything, promiscuity--because more sex equals more children--was rewarded rather than punished. I hope you see the point: male sexual psychology evolved in the exact opposite direction as female sexual psychology. For men, love doesn't need to be attached to sex as sex itself created the opportunity for reproductive success. Even worse, linking sex to love will limit your reproductive opportunities. Love is bad, given this adaptive logic. Sex, then, becomes decoupled from relational intimacy and commitment. 

In short, because of this evolutionary history, men and women are different. 

The critical point of all this for Perry's argument is to push back upon the "blank slate" assumptions concerning human nature often evoked by liberal feminists. The female desire for intimacy, to be loved and taken care of by a committed partner, is taken as evidence that women have internalized patriarchal gender norms. Not so fast, says Louise Perry. Female desires for romantic intimacy aren't due to culture but are rooted, rather, in evolutionary biology. It's nature, not nurture. 

Liberal feminism rejects that view and suggests that human nature--female nature, in this case--is a blank slate that we can shape at will, like play-doh, if we just raise our girls differently. And there is a whole lot of good and necessary truth to that view. Culture can and does enshrine oppressive and patriarchal gender norms. Plus, the nature versus nurture issue is complex. It's not either/or. Human nature displays radical plasticity, but it can also be stubbornly resistant to change. 

Perry's argument is that the sexual revolution--our liberated and loveless hookup culture--is perfectly suited to male sexual psychology. Males thrive when there is more and more sex with fewer and fewer relational strings attached. Men today can even outsex King Solomon. Wilt Chamberlain, for example, reported in his autobiography that he'd had sex with over 20,000 women. As Chamberlain noted about his sexual history, "We're all fascinated by the numbers." I guess we are. Hugh Hefner was more modest in his estimates, claiming he'd slept with over 1,000 women. And while we might question the accuracy of Chamberlain's memory, he's making the biological point perfectly clear for us. For men, sex is a numbers game. The more, the better.

By contrast, argues Louise Perry, the sexual psychology of women is ill-suited to a sexual marketplace built for the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Hugh Hefner. The sexual revolution is forcing women to "have sex like men," which means "liberated" sex stripped of love, intimacy, and commitment. Given their sexual psychology, rooted in a biological past, women emotionally suffer in this environment. Sex, for most women, longs for love, for some intimacy and attachment. 

Which brings us to another sad irony about the sexual revolution. According to Perry, the great irony of liberal feminism is how liberal feminism shames women for wanting love. Liberal feminism tells women that their longing for love in sex hurts the cause. If women want to make progress in the world women need to stuff their feelings and have sex like men. 

And so, that is how we raise our girls today: You will be free if you have sex like Wilt Chamberlain and Hugh Hefner. And thus equipped with the enlightened advice of the sexual revolution, we send young women out into a world full of hurt, pain, and monsters.

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