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Louise Perry on motherhood, consent and the case against the sexual revolution

Louise Perry on motherhood, consent and the case against the sexual revolution

Elizabeth Oldfield speaks to writer and campaigner Louise Perry. 15/12/2021

Louise is a writer and campaigner. She has a weekly column in the New Statesman and is press officer for the campaign group ‘We can’t consent to this’, which documents cases in which UK women have been killed and the defendants have claimed in court that they died as a result of consensual rough sex. She has a book out next year on the case against the sexual revolution. 

In this episode Louise speaks about motherhood, sex, consent and the outworking of the sexual revolution. Please be aware that the conversation features criticism of the surrogacy industry and references to sexual violence. 

Louise’s six month old was in a sling during the interview, so you might hear some very charming baby noises.

Each episode in this series includes an additional reflection from Elizabeth at the end, so keep listening if you’d like to. We are also publishing full transcripts of each episode so scroll down on this page if you’re a reader rather than a listener.   

You can read a full transcript of the episode here: 

Elizabeth
Hello, and welcome to The Sacred. My name is Elizabeth Oldfield, and this is a podcast about our deepest values and the people behind the positions in our public conversations. Every episode you’ll hear a conversation with someone who has some kind of public platform – artists, academics, Archbishops, entrepreneurs, politicians and I’m realising, having looked back at the list recently, a lot of writers – probably because writers are always the most keen to speak about themselves and their work. Our guests come from all kinds of tribes and positions religiously, politically and the big idea is that in an age of filter bubbles, a term coined by one of our guests, Eli Pariser, it is really easy only to listen to, or read people we already agree with, or who are like us in some way, who we don’t find challenging, or annoying, or just illuminating even. And there is good evidence that this tendency, which I think we’ve always had, but is being really exacerbated and exaggerated, is driving division. We’re losing the habit of being able to tolerate differences and disagreements, our technology is designed actually to feed our deep in group and out group instincts. And it’s not just our tech, ‘the big sort’ is what sociologists call the ever increasing ghettoization of society. We’re just less likely to live with, work with or even marry someone who’s different from us. And of course, it would be very, very grandiose to think a podcast is going to fix this. But we hope that in some small way, listening deeply to a range of people, people who we don’t usually hear, who we might not naturally come across and listening to a conversation in which they don’t start with their arguments or their positions, but with their values and their story, that this might help us build the muscles we need to sustain a common life. And we hope we can deliver this all in a warm, smart, easy to digest way, so it doesn’t feel like homework. So here’s my challenge. Don’t flick down the list of episodes looking for someone you already know you like, listen on double or 1.5 speed if you have to, to somebody you’d never normally hear and maybe whose very name or position makes you feel that instinctive negative rejection that we do with people,

I’m delighted to let you know that we now have transcripts available for all episodes in this series. So if you miss a reference or a book, or you want to quote a guest, because they say so many great things, it’s much easier. And you can find the link to that in the show notes. And a big big thanks to Abbie Allison on the production team who’s made that happen. This series I’m also doing a bit of verbal downloading at the end of the episode, reflecting on what the interview has made me think about. And this is an experiment for this season, for the series. So we’d love your feedback. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Maybe you hate it. But maybe also it has made you think about something else that’s set you off on a train of thought. As always, please do rate, review and share the podcast.

In this episode, I spoke to Louise Perry. Louise is a writer and campaigner. She has a weekly column in the New Statesman and is press officer for the campaign group ‘We can’t consent to this’, which documents cases in which UK women have been killed and the defendants have claimed in court that they died as a result of consensual rough sex. She has a book out next year on the case against the sexual revolution. And we spoke about motherhood, sex, consent and the outworking of the sexual revolution. And there are just a couple of things it might be good for you to know are coming – Louise is pretty critical of the surrogacy industry. And we also speak in a very non graphic way about sexual violence because of her campaigning work. And the final thing to note is that Louise’s six month old was in a sling during the interview, so you might hear some very charming baby noises. That’s all for me, I really hope you enjoy listening.

Louise, we’re gonna jump right in the deep end, quite deliberately. And it’s okay if it feels a bit odd. But it certainly hopefully moves us into a slightly different gear than we sometimes start with, with strangers. We don’t really know each other. So forgive me if this feels, you know, presumptuous and forward. But I want you to tell me what you think your deepest values might be. I frame them as sacred, just because it’s a bit, slightly less overused as a word but things that you’ve tried to live by, values if someone offered you money to give up or compromise on, you’d feel that kind of eternal internal ick factor, feel some conflict around. What came to mind?

Louise
Interesting you mentioned money because I was thinking this morning out for a walk about the thing it made me think about was this piece of writing by GK Chesterton. I don’t know if you’ve read it, it’s called ‘I begin with a little girl’s hair’. So he’s responding to a, a directive from a group of senior doctors who have noticed the fact that a lot of children living in Victorian slums have lice in their hair. And their response to this public health problem is to advise all children living in the slums to have their hair shorn. And Chesterton is appalled by this directive. And he describes seeing a little girl who clearly lives in one of these slums and has the most beautiful, red curly hair. He describes her walking past his house, and he thinks that girl’s hair is beautiful, right? She’s right to think of herself as having beautiful hair, her parents are right to feel pride in her hair. The idea of cutting her hair off is appalling, because it’s so beautiful. It doesn’t have any market value, right? I mean, you can sell hair, I suppose on the market. But lice ridden hair is not going to fetch anything. It’s not worth anything in terms of money. But it’s worth everything in terms of that girl’s regard for herself and her parents regard for, you know – just the idea of something so beautiful being destroyed for no reason. And so he says, Okay, if we start with the principle, that we should not cut this little girl’s hair off, just because she’s at risk of lice, then what follows? Okay, so then she has to have a clean home, where she’s not at risk of these diseases. So that means that she has to – that means that landlords who keep dirty premises must be stopped, right? And it means that she must have a mother who has the time to keep her clean and to brush her hair. So okay, that means that a mother shouldn’t spend every waking hour working a factory job. And if that’s the case, then you need the father to earn enough money at his job so that he can support his wife and child without having to send them out to work. And that means you need a living wage. And that means that you need, you know, affordable, affordable housing that means everything and obviously, Chesterton’s a Christian socialist –that’s where he ends up politically. And I think it’s such a beautiful lesson, it’s always stayed with me, because it’s that idea of… there are things in the world which are worth nothing, but are also worth everything. And the market doesn’t have any respect for them, and the market will bulldoze them, if given the opportunity. But I guess where my sacred politics lies, is in the idea of preserving those things that don’t seem to be worth anything, but actually are. And so I guess that generally comes down to loving relationships that we have with one another, and beautiful things, and the sort of the emotional stuff of being a human, which can’t, can’t be quantified, but it also makes life worth living.

Elizabeth
Yeah. It’s a beautiful answer. Can you think of an example where that has driven your decisions or your kind of direction?

Louise
So I’ve always been critical of the surrogacy industry and always felt really queasy about it. Initially, from a radical feminist perspective – generally, the radical feminist criticism of the industry is to say that it exploits women, exploits poor women, that it uses women in a sort of mechanistic way, it turns their wombs into commodities, turns children into commodities, you know, all of that sort of stuff, which is all true, which I totally agree with. But the response that you sometimes have from people who defend the industry, is to say that that there are instances where that’s not the case. So they’ll say, Well, yes, it is bad when you have this sort of in baby farms in places like India or Thailand, where women are paid a pittance and the children are whisked away from them brutally. And, you know, yes, that’s bad. But what about altruistic cases or what about, you know, the sort of, like, organic version of that? The highest quality of service, isn’t that fine? And I still have a lingering feeling of like – I don’t, I don’t feel like it is fine, but I can’t quite, I can’t quite articulate why. And then when I had my own baby who is in the sling on my chest right now, and sometimes making his presence heard, that period immediately after a baby is born, it’s so animalistic in a way that you’re just overwhelmed with feelings of love and fear. For this little, this little being who has just come into the world and is entirely your responsibility. It’s the most astonishing emotional experience that you can kind of describe. But if you’ve not experienced it personally, it’s quite difficult to really envisage. And I thought, what surrogacy does, the central thing that it does, regardless of how much a woman is paid, regardless of the circumstances of how the industry is run, it separates the mother and baby. That’s what that’s what it has to do. Because the whole point of it is to remove the baby from the woman who has just given birth to it. And I thought I can’t, I just couldn’t, I just I can’t bear it you know. If you start with the principle that it is good for mothers to love their children – And yes, there are cases where that won’t be true. And yes, there are cases where women have postnatal depression or, you know, there are always tragedies in which that ideal won’t be met. But if we if we can’t agree that women should love their children, I don’t think we can agree on anything. So you start with that principle that I think we can all agree on. And then you get rid of all the tribalism, which normally leads this kind of decision making, then you can’t let the surrogacy industry stand.

Elizabeth
I want to just get a feel of your journey and where you’ve come from and your formative influences. So tell me a bit about your childhood. Were there any big ideas in the air, political, philosophical, religious – paint me a bit of a word picture?

Louise
So I grew up in London, middle class family, my mum is an academic, my dad’s a lawyer. Very, very Guardian read–y in the sort of Alan Rusbridger ages. There was a period when I was a teenager, and we used to get two copies of The Guardian delivered to our house every day, because my dad would take one to work, and then my mum would read one at breakfast, and I would take it to school to read on the train. So like, about as intensely Guardian read–y as you can get in that sense. It’s funny, I was listening to your interview with Miriam Cates because I know Miriam, I was listening this morning. And she mentioned listening to Radio 4 aged 11. And I laughed because I also listened to Radio 4 when I was 11. I remember in fact, talking to my RS teacher about listening to Moral Maze in year eight, so I would have been like 12. And she was amazed, it was a weird thing to do in retrospect. So yeah, I guess sort of, I guess the intellectual journey that I’ve gone on is that I, I’ve, I’ve strayed a bit from the kind of typical views of people of my background and my class. Sometimes people describe me as a conservative, I don’t think that’s quite right. I actually feel as if I’m still very much within the old traditions of Guardian reader, you know, and I’m a member of the Labour Party, and I’ve never voted Tory in my life. But I think in a sense, a lot of the Left has moved away from me. And so I’ve ended up in this slightly odd No Man’s Land politically, which is fortunately an interesting place to be in terms of writing material and so on, but sometimes a slightly lonely place to be


Elizabeth
Were you writing as a teenager, like when did using your voice in this particular way, in a written form, kind of crystallise as something that you could do for a living?

Louise
I did a bit of writing for sort of the university newspaper and things like that. But I actually kept it a deadly secret that I wanted to be – that I aspired to be a writer professionally, for ages, because I just thought it was such a ridiculous thing to aspire to. I didn’t think it was practical. I kind of vaguely thought maybe in the future, I might do another career and then sort of like arrive at writing in a retirement kind of capacity. But I thought the idea that I would earn a living writing just seems so stupid, I wouldn’t even I wouldn’t share it with with anyone, really. So I did bits and pieces. It was actually the editor, a fellow student, who was the editor of the newspaper that I was writing for. She was actually the person who said to me, you should think of doing this for a living. I don’t think anyone had ever said that to me before. And it did stick with me. I was really – I forgot her name. But it was really nice to say. So after university, I worked at a rape crisis centre. And it wasn’t until I left that job and I was kind of in the lurch. And I hadn’t yet had another job lined up. And was doing bits and pieces of other paid work that I thought maybe I should give this a go. So I tried writing some stuff on spec and sent it to people and the vast majority didn’t get back to me. But I did, I got you know, I got my first paid gig. And then I got my next paid gig. And then it sort of snowballed from there. And then amazingly, I was offered the New Statesman contract, like two years, 18 months or something after that.

Elizabeth
And so you have a weekly column. And you also write pieces elsewhere, and it’s sort of wonderfully… it kind of speaks to this sense of political, political, homelessness that you write for the Critic and for Unherd and the New Statesman, but I’d love to hear what you think the role of a columnist is. Now, I’ve spoken to a few on the podcast, and I’m so intrigued, because when we talk about the public conversations, in some ways, the columnist is like the high priest of the public conversations, they listen to the kind of roiling, burbling and then try and condense it into, you know, this is my perspective on this idea of the moment. I’m going to take the temperature of what’s going on and I’m going to put an argument forth, it feels to me high pressure, and ethically very interesting because of the role that you have in other people slightly outsourcing their opinions. How do you frame it? Is it a vocation? Is it just a job? Where does it sit?

Louise
So interesting you use the word priest in relation to this, because I’ve always thought, though I’ve never written this, that the opinion column is basically a sermon, it has the structure of a sermon. Because you start, there’s some, like, you know, like snazzy opening, right?

Elizabeth
Give it a nice hook

Louise
Depending on your, flavour of vicar, right. And then the, in the case of the Gospels, you have some news events as your peg, and then you expand from there. And it’s weekly, and it’s a little sort of, like, rounded off kind of morsel of…

Elizabeth
Intellectual wisdom

Louise
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And in some ways, it feels that it kind of fills that void in a way and given that so few of us go to church now, it provides that guidance, in terms of the news events, it’s something I feel quite mixed about, in a way because I didn’t really go into this intending to be an opinion writer. What I wrote initially was reviews. I am, I’ve always been an opinionated person. As my mum will tell me, I was one of those little toddlers who got bored really, really quickly and would get frustrated, and I couldn’t do things and was like, you know, really vocal and whatever. And now I myself have a baby who is like this. And my mother looks on! I really hate that way that the news media tends towards like, churning through and then forgetting events, that you have that terror, particularly when something tragic happens, an awful happening in the news. And then you have like, the round of opinions, and then you have the round of counter opinions, and then it’s and then it’s gone, right. And then like a week later, it’s sort of, it’s sort of being forgotten. And everyone moves on, and everyone just slots into their, like, predictable tribal groups, I always find it quite depressing. I don’t like that. So I do say I am on Twitter, and I absorb all of the news through Twitter, as so many people do because it is the it is the place to go if what you’re interested in is views and opinions. But I also don’t like it. And I also try and use it sparingly because I think it has a tendency to really flatten, flatten thinking and encourage the worst in us. So what I try and do as far as possible in the weekly column is to sort of, to resist that pull towards being really angrily polemical. And to try and like, try and chew on things a bit more slowly.

Elizabeth
But there are pressures, right, it…That the sort of dreaded phrase is about, I guess, that piece did very well, which means because people felt strongly about it, and shared it. And so nuance is sort of an Achilles heel, in a column. Do you have conversation with your editors about it, conversations with yourself about it? Like, I actually don’t feel that strongly as I put it on the page. But for clarity, I have to push it a bit.

Louise
I haven’t had this at the New Statesman. But definitely there’s that thing where you try and give a sort of softly, softly opinion. And then the headline doesn’t represent that at all, because that’s not what gets clicked. And, yes, I mean, I think that there are – there is obviously that segment of the industry, it’s an incredibly capitalist industry, right? Like I obviously, I often have criticisms to level at capitalism and the effect it has on all of us in terms of values. And, and I’m obviously doing that from within an industry that is ruthlessly capitalist and has an incredible amount of inequality in terms of earnings of people in the industry, you know, you’ve got a vast, you’ve got a sort of Pareto principle where you’ve got loads and loads of people, particularly in the internet era, earning almost nothing. And then you have the incredibly highly paid economist at some outlets. And, you know, and it is all about the columnist as brand. So I’m, I’m, I’m aware of that. And there is obviously a route, you can go down in that, that that ends up making you into a sort of 2D parody of yourself. And I think the longer you do it, the more that becomes a risk, potentially because you’re playing to your audience. I mean, I know what’s going to get clicks. And I know the sort of tweets that go viral. I deliberately don’t do or do them very sparingly and selectively and only at times when I feel like it’s appropriate. And I hope that – it’s this funny thing when you write for print magazine that you, you might not get a lot of response online. And you might not get huge number of letters, but there are people who read it every week. And I know I’ve like – I’ve met neighbours in the street who will say, I read you every week and so on, which is such a nice thing to hear. And it gives me the encouragement to not go for those clickbaity pieces because actually there is value in being the old reliable every week, offering a little bit more thoughtful. And that you know that that exists is a niche within the industry. It’s just it’s in competition with other niches as well.

Elizabeth
Yeah. And you worked at the rape crisis centre, and you are/were – I’m not sure – spokesperson for a group about sexual violence. You know, the classic thing about journalism is a bit of distance or objectivity. I think that’s less necessary with comment and opinion. But do you ever feel a tension between those two roles?

Louise
Um, I mean, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes feel reluctant to criticise MPs who I need onside for campaigning reasons.

Elizabeth
That’s helpfully honest.

Louise
Or whoever, other figures that you know, are friends with other figures or whatever, like, you don’t want to – I mean, I generally try not to slag people off in print anyway. But um, yes, occasionally that comes up. And I sort of reason that I’m not doing it – I’m not like a paid lobbyists for oil or anything like I’m, I’m, I’m advancing…

Elizabeth
You speak for women who have been murdered!

Louise
Yes. So I’m doing it for good reason. But yeah, there is sometimes that’s like, that’s like tension, or sometimes a feeling I’ve had that, that I shouldn’t write about anything too controversial, because I don’t want to impact negatively on the campaign. Although actually, I’ve not had that happen, surprisingly enough. And if anything, what’s happened more often is I’ve had people who like my writing, and who work in government or whatever, contact me and say that they are supportive of the campaign, you know, if anything, the two seem to have been mutually beneficial so far. And I do often often return to some of the themes that touch on the campaign. I should say, for listeners who don’t know, I’m just assuming, that the campaign that we run is called ‘We can’t consent to this’. We document cases where women have been killed, and their killers have claimed they died as a result of a sex game gone wrong we’ve been seeing that kind of defence tactic used more and more often in the courts in the last decade or so. And unfortunately, it quite often works in terms of getting defendants off with a lighter sentence or avoiding a murder conviction or whatever it may be.

Elizabeth
We’ll come back to that. And I want to talk about kind of consent as the key sexual ethic of the moment, but I wanted to stay on motherhood a moment now we’ve mentioned it because I’m interested. You’re one of the few people I’ve come across who write and think deeply about motherhood and fertility and the kind of politics of that. You started writing about fertility and maternity and motherhood long before you had your own baby, I gather it was your thesis topic. And what drew you to that subject before it had kind of personal resonance for you?

Louise
I’ve been interested in feminism for a long time. And I part of the reason I chose it as a thesis topic for both my undergraduate and my master’s thesis, is because no one else was really talking about it, there was like a massive gap in the, in the academic market, because there’s just almost no interest. I remember writing about – I did my undergraduate thesis on wet nursing historically. And I remember in a study group that we had, describing my research topic and one of the other students who was doing something incredibly like esoteric, something to do with like a theatre group in Palestine or something, describe my topic as niche. I was like, I mean, yeah, it is niche in the sense that like all of our research topics are niche, it’s kind of the point you find a niche has not yet been filled. But also it’s like we’re talking about not wet nursing necessarily, but everything to do with motherhood, we are talking about something that affects literally everybody because we were all babies once, and a little under half of us will be mothers at some point. And and yeah, it’s sort of treated like, funny, niche interest, which I don’t think it is at all. So I’ve always found it interesting for that point, partly just the fact that it’s so…it feels like the elephant in the room, particularly in feminism, which is, has always had a very vexed relationship with motherhood.

Elizabeth
Yeah, I have children, five and seven. And I remember on maternity leave being like, why are there no, why are there no books? Why is there no, why does this not show up in all the novels I love? This powerful mystical life changing experience is like – seems to be intentionally excised from the great body of art, about the human experience. And all the books are like ‘how to’ books, there’s very few women reflecting on the kind of philosophical, philosophical and existential elements. I feel like that’s changed even in the last five or 10 years. Do you see it kind of becoming more visible?

Louise
Yes. Although my only complaint on that is there have been lots more books on motherhood, and I’m really welcoming them. My only complaint is it still so often gets framed as a struggle and a burden. Which obviously it is. That is obviously one component of it. But it’s, I think the joys of it are quite rarely acknowledged. Yeah. I guess because often writers feel as though they’re sort of shadowboxing with this old enemy of the angel in the home. And this idea that we’re all supposed to be sort of these, like, joyous domestic goddess. Yeah, but I don’t feel like that’s been the dominant narrative for a very long time. That’s certainly not what – I grew up with this idea that, you know, it was always assumed that, that women would have careers and would you know, if anything, it’s motherhood that’s sort of the dirty secret now, in a sense, and once you encounter it, you think, oh, gosh, this changes everything.

Elizabeth
Yeah, it’s a very…this is, this is very niche but my husband’s a philosopher, and the metaphysics of pregnancy are very hot in philosophy right now. Very contested. What you decide is happening metaphysically in pregnancy has all kinds of political implications. But…

Louise
It absolutely does because the pregnant woman is not one person, right? She is two people in a sense

Elizabeth
Well that’s what’s contested.

Louise
Exactly yeah, yeah. And it’s, it’s, it’s basically impossible to square with individualism. So as soon as motherhood collides with individualism, and I think, and I write about this in my book that, in some senses, what’s happened is that feminists correctly recognise the fact that individualism and motherhood are at odds with one another. And they said, right down with motherhood, then, and I say no – down with individualism.

Elizabeth
Yeah. And you are living it right now, for the last six months. What – have some of your assumptions been changed? What surprised you I guess?

Louise
I want to be with my baby more than I thought I would and more than I was told I would generally – not told specifically by the people around me, but sort of told by the culture. I had no idea how insane it was to think of putting a very small baby in daycare. And the fact that there are so many women who are forced to do that, particularly in America, where they don’t have maternity leave, it’d never occurred to me before that that was, how much of a wrench that is, for women, as well as for babies. And how different it is being a mother from being a father. I had a friend actually recently, who – we were talking about, she’s on the fence about whether or not she wants to have children. And she’s reflecting, she says, I definitely want to be a father. But I don’t know if I want to be a mother. And I thought that was such a such a beautiful way of framing it because – it’s totally different. It’s totally different. And motherhood, just there’s an asymmetry to it that you just cannot surmount, right? You can try and surmount it by things like formula and daycare and you know, like there are strategies that can that you can kind of use but you’re always sort of kidding yourself. Like it is just it is a totally different experience for the woman and always will be.

Elizabeth
So tell me about this thread that you’re pulling on around the sexual revolution and the kind of sexual culture that we’re in now and what it means for women? What made you want to write the book that you’re writing?

Louise
Um, I mean, largely because no one’s written it. And it feels sort of crazy that no one’s written it. Well, there have obviously been lots of really good radical feminists books written about the problems with sex positive feminism. And with sexual libertarianism in general

Elizabeth
Can you just define those terms, which some people were very familiar with, but sex positive, or sex positive feminism, just define it for me.

Louise
So sex positive feminism is a strain in feminism that emerged in about the 80s/90s. And it basically, it’s a reaction against both conservative and religious moralising on sex, and also on some feminist traditions, which have been very negative about heterosexuality. And what sex positive feminism does is it says, actually, there’s nothing inherently bad or shameful or whatever about sex. And as long as everyone is consenting, and has the capacity to consent, then our default state should sort of be taking a positive attitude towards it. And we should regard all of the like, the beautiful complexity of human sexuality, we should sort of celebrate it, engage in an open minded way, yeah. What it often translates to, in practical terms, is a, I would say, naive view of things like the sex industry, and of sadomasochism, and certain areas of sexual life, which are much more grim. And I will show I don’t think we should regard positively, I mean, I sort of regard it as being, I understand the sentiment behind it in terms of reacting against something that has often been very unpleasant, but it’s sort of like, describing yourself as food positive or something. It’s like, yes, you know, food is great. We all love food. But that doesn’t make anorexia a good thing, that doesn’t make McDonald’s a good thing. There’s a you know, like, it’s this absolutely huge area of human experience, which is very complex and very political. And I don’t think that the positivity is this should be our default state, I think being critical should be our default state.

Elizabeth
So tell me, what do you think the legacy is for women of the sexual revolution, I guess, historically, but particularly right now?

Louise
I think it’s very mixed. And the thing that I am, that thing that I really want to argue against in this book is the kind of progressive view of the last 100 years in terms of sexual culture, the idea that we’ve seen this, like steady upward march towards everything being much better for everyone. And it sounds a happy story ending, but it’s very far from the truth, this idea that people in the past were just wrong, and they were wrong because they were bad, or they were stupid, or you know, and that in some time around 1964 we all sort of woke up and decided that actually we’d been really silly, and that there are still some people who are catching up. And I just I, I used to totally buy into that into that narrative of history and not just related to sexual relations, but related to all sorts of things. This idea that we are as, as modern people, we are uniquely insightful. When you pause to think about it is actually nonsense, but it’s a very prevalent view. And the feminist iteration of it is well, which I think is particularly flimsy, is sort of like the great woman view of history, almost this idea that some feminists arrived, who were blessed with particular insight, and they sort of persuaded everyone. And this is where we got to, I think that there obviously have been extremely important influential individuals who’ve had a role in directing all these political movements. But I think, as you say, I’m a Marxist conservative in that, I think it all comes down to the material in the end. And what’s changed for women in the last 100 years is yes, the arrival of the feminist movement and all the important texts surrounding it and so on. But it’s also things like washing machines, it’s things like tampons, it’s things like the fact that we now have an economy which is much less based on human physical strength, which will obviously be be advantageous for men because they are much stronger than women are, it’s because we have the means of limiting childbearing, all of this. That’s what’s changed for women really. And then the politics comes after. 46.24 And I think the thing for the sexual revolution is the pill. And then the decriminalisation of abortion, which came subsequently. And I don’t think that we’ve really reckoned as a culture with what the pill did, because it’s only been 60 years, a couple of generations. And actually, its effect has been startling, that it’s just – I’ve read it described as being a technology shock, this thing that arrived in the world, and suddenly, you know…Because a young woman who appears fertile but actually isn’t – has her fertility suspended – is, in a sense, a totally different biological creature, from a woman who, who is fertile. And I think that some of the effects of that have been really good. And I think some of the effects of it have been bad. And I don’t think that we’ve spoken enough about the bad things. And that’s what I’m, that’s what I’m trying to do now. Because I think that it’s wrong to frame the consequences of the pill and everything that came with it as being unambiguously good for women. I think that there are some elements of it that were good for women. But I think actually, it’s mostly that the key winners of all of this have been a subset of men.

Elizabeth
Which subset? And then what are the ways that it’s been bad for women?

Louise
So I think that the group of men who’ve done really well out of the sexual revolution are basically the Hugh Hefners of the world, right? The men who are really interested in having a lot of casual sex, and are attractive enough to get it, and now don’t have to deal with the consequences of it in any way, and can and can basically regard sex as being a meaningless social interaction. Yeah, my friend who is an American writer, he coined this term ‘sexual disenchantment’, to describe the way in which our, our view of sex has changed in the post sexual revolution era. He takes it from Max Weber’s view of disenchantment of the natural world where, when the one consequence of the Enlightenment is that we used to understand the natural world as being sort of governed by supernatural forces. And then as we came to understand it in a mechanistic way, we let go of that. And we no longer understood it as being magical or like imbued with any kind of any kind of spirit. And I think that’s what we’ve done with sex as well, in that we used to understand it, for good and ill, as being, literally a sacred thing. And also sacred in a more abstract way, in that it was a means of creating new life, and the ideal, the ideal form of sexual interaction was creating new life within a loving partnership. And obviously, that didn’t always happen. Obviously, they’ve always been people who have not regarded sex in that way. They’ve always been, you know, the worst, worst possible examples of, of, of sexual misbehaviour. But when we discarded that, and we try to understand sex in a new way, as being something devoid of any kind of particular moral status. I think that we lost a lot and I think that women particularly lost a lot because actually, it doesn’t serve women’s interests to pretend that female sexuality is the same as male sexuality. It is different in some really important ways. And one of the ways in which it is different is that women find it much, much harder to detach sex from emotion and trying to do that results in all kinds of harms. It’s kind of like what we were talking about at the beginning of the very beginning of our conversation about, you know, starting with certain, starting with certain fundamentals, and then going from there. And I think that if we start, for instance, with the fundamental view that no one, no one actually believes sexual disenchantment. Like in practice, no one actually regards sex as being just like anything else. Even the people who say most strongly that they do, everyone sees that it has a special status, but it’s, it’s a special status that’s quite difficult to articulate. And it’s quite intangible. And because of that, it’s quite, it’s almost embarrassing to talk about it, to describe as being special, sacred or whatever, it sounds kind of namby pamby but everyone behaves as if it is like that, and yet simultaneously tries to sort of reason that away. The example I use sometimes is about #Metoo. I think that 51.09 I think that what happened with #MeToo, is it was an intense, and really just sort of distressed response to some of the fallout from the sexual revolution that hadn’t, that really wasn’t working for women, you know. The stories that you had coming out of #MeToo, were absolutely sincere in women describing their intense unhappiness in relation to sexual culture. But it didn’t go far enough in that it didn’t actually reflect on whether the the, the reasoning for most proponents of #MeToo was the sexual revolution was unfinished in some way. Rather than thinking that actually there have been premises right from the beginning that were false. And crucially, this idea of sex as being like – 5if we suck out all the meaning from sex, and if we stopped regarding it, in this kind of old–fashioned way, then everything will come right. And actually, that’s not true. And you see this for instance, with like, Harvey Weinstein and his his abuse of his subordinates. If sexual disenchanment were true, and if it were actually the case that sex is no more like innately imbued with meaning than any other kind of social interaction, then a lot of what Harvey Weinstein did wouldn’t have been wrong. I mean, he did commit crimes, but a lot of what he did wasn’t criminal, per se, and was actually much more to do with subtle coercion. And, you know, a lot of what was going on in Hollywood is that you had a lot of young actresses who were very beautiful, and were desperate to get ahead in the industry. And one way in which you could get ahead in the industry with the likes of Weinstein was by offering sexual favours, a horrible phrase. And if they had been doing any other type of, you know, advancement within their career, like doing overtime, or or offering to make coffee for their employer, any of these things that people do routinely? Yes, they wouldn’t be like strictly within the job description, but no one would think that it was abuse. No one would think that it was fundamentally wrong. But with sex, we know, we know that it’s wrong to feel that it’s wrong. And yet, if you try and sort of reason that away, then that becomes impossible to articulate. And all you’ve got left is talk of consent.

Elizabeth
Unpack that for me, because I was reading a little bit about the campaign ‘We can’t consent to this’. And the kind of pushback from very sex positive, kind of sexual libertarian groups is often this sense of – concern about anything that involves two consenting adults is just prudishness, or ‘kink shaming; is a new phrase I learned reading about you, you know, moralistic, repressed, all of these things. Because basically, anything between two consenting adults goes. And there are those I gather, that would say, even something, you know, to the point of really serious bodily harm, if it’s been consented to, then ethically, that’s fine. How widespread do you think this is as a position? Or is it just sort of part of the white noise that is showing up in unexpected places?

Louise
Um, I think that the people who push it hardest are a vocal minority. We’ve certainly found in the campaign that we’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response, including from just about, I think, just about every newspaper in this country has given us positive coverage, across the political spectrum. So I think that in terms of, you know, the majority opinion is definitely on our side. Having said this, I mean, the problem that we’re basically seeing that’s that’s been resulting in all of these men who have killed women relying on this kind of rough sex defense is that the cultural attitude towards this kind of violence and sex has changed. And it means that it is now – when defendants present these kinds of narratives, in court, or to police or whoever they are more often than not being believed, because it seems plausible to people. And it’s partly to do with, it has a lot to do with porn, the fact that you now have really violent porn on the front pages of some of the biggest porn platforms in the world being presented as being perfectly normal, just sort of another variety of sexual practice and so on. So, I mean, in a sense, what our campaign has done, is it – there’s always been this ongoing debate about the effects that porn has on people’s, on sexual culture and on people’s actual practices. And it’s been a very difficult one to resolve, because you can’t really do a double–blind trial in any way. In a sense, what our campaign has done, is it showing that actually, there is an effect, and it’s a bad effect. Because you are seeing this play out, outside of the bedroom. I mean, the thing that I would say to the people who say this is fine if there is consent – I mean, there were several things to say. But one of them being that the problem…

Elizabeth
To be clear, I don’t think anyone would argue – or very few people, that killing someone is fine if there’s consent, but they would say, yeah, almost any practice?

Louise
Yeah, there’s a very small minority who would say that you can kill someone with consent, but there they are, they are very unusual. What most people say is that something like strangulation, which is the cause of death in about, I think, two thirds of the cases that we found, and it has become a very surprisingly mainstream sexual practice, people say, Oh, whatever, it’s fine. You know, if everyone consents then no problem, to which I say, Okay, but what do you do when you have men, it’s always been men, we’ve not found a single case of a woman using this defence tactic, who kill their partner, and they say that it was a sex game gone wrong, and there are no witnesses, and the victim is dead. And that you know, that there’s no way of assessing whether or not that was true, like, how do you how do you deal with that, because if you want to tell me that it’s fine, as long as everyone’s consenting and accidents happen, and you know, then we very quickly will end up in a situation where no man who strangles his girlfriend or wife to death, is ever convicted of murder ever again, because they can so easily claim that actually, it was just sex game gone wrong, and no one can say otherwise. So there is there’s a really serious practical issue that you get to if you do start saying that people can consent to serious violence. And the other issue, of course, has to do with the fact that we do not make choices in a vacuum. And this is this has been very well understood by behavioral scientists. The government fully understands the fact that people’s choices can be influenced quite subtly, the reason that you have chocolate bars next to the checkout tills when you go to the supermarket, is because the supermarket knows that you’re more likely to grab it, if it’s if it’s next to you while you’re queuing. We are all enmeshed with one another, right? And that means that the choices that we make are influenced by the choices that are presented to us and the choices that have been made by people around us. And so it’s not, it’s not good enough to say that because someone’s choosing something that means that it’s good for them or good for anybody else. And that’s the kind of individualist message. But it doesn’t work, it falls apart really, really quickly. And I think that our campaign is kind of charting some of the, some of the consequences of that

Elizabeth
Right. So it goes so deep, right. You know, I’m a Christian I’m very formed by a Christian worldview, which I think naturally leans more communitarian, you know, a sense of persons, not individuals. But still I am formed by a culture whereby judging someone else’s choice, or saying there might be moral implications for me because of your free choice in your sex life feels so uncomfortable, and deeply anathema. No one, you know, people have the spectrum of you know, deeply authoritarian societies and morally repressive societies. We all watch – What’s the thing with the red hoods? The Handmaid’s Tale. What it feels like they perceived pure individual freedom on one side versus everyone giving up their rights, their conscience or whatever it is on the other. The idea there might be some space in the middle is really difficult. How do you make that case? What actually helps you engage across those differences and, and meet people across those divides in ways that feel more productive and less adversarial? If you have found things that help?

Louise
I mean, I start by saying that it’s not the case that we do – in practice in law and also more generally in popular discussion – we don’t, we’re not actually anything goes, like there are actually a lot of things that are either criminalized or, you know, we, the law has set a boundary and said that certain things are, certain sexual practices are not to be condoned, even when they don’t have an obvious victim, even when, you know, bestiality, for instance, is an example of something that is criminalized, even though the consent model is actually quite, it’s actually quite, I don’t want to go into details. But you know, we have set up and we’ve already decided that there are some things that actually we don’t permit. The question is where we set that boundary, every society sets a boundary, What’s difficult is deciding on where to set it. And absolutely, there are authoritarian governments that have set it far, far, far.

Elizabeth
Too, too restrictively.

Louise
Yeah, but we do say that, you know, sexual repression is not an evil, sexual repression is necessary. Everybody has to repress their sexual urges in some manner. Right? If you fancy someone and they don’t fancy you back, you have to repress that, the law tells you that you have to, the question is just how much repression we demand of people. One of the very common responses that we get to the campaign, and just generally to some of the discussions on BDSM, and also prostitution and so on, is people who say, What about women? Who, what about women who consent to being subjected to this? You know, what about women who ask to be strangled, and so on? And I find it quite helpful often to reply by saying, that’s fine. But what about the man who’s doing it to her? Is there not something a bit suspect about a man who is aroused by being violent towards his partner? Is this really something – even if it’s in play, you know, even if it’s basically what’s been advocated here is like, play–acting at domestic violence, even if you’re just play acting with domestic violence? Isn’t there something a bit concerning about a man who enjoys that? Isn’t that a red flag, you know, but then basically what you get down to in the end, and I wish someone would do a put some philosophical study on this one day, because I’m not equipped to, is that – I’m a virtue ethicist, right, is basically what it comes down to. And I just think, I think it is not virtuous to want to be violent towards your partner, I think it’s something that we shouldn’t encourage.

Elizabeth
Louise Perry, thank you so much for speaking to me on The Sacred

Well, Louise has really underlined my sense that there are really quite large numbers of people in the UK who do feel politically homeless. And my sense that this left/right binary is, if not useless, then certainly breaking down. But we haven’t found language that really helps us find alternatives to broaden the scale or complexify some of those categories. I think Louise would call herself a post–liberal. But yeah, anyone who’s doing interesting work on what the new tribes or positions are in politics in the UK, I’d love to hear about that. It does tend to be that the people I’ve spoken to at least are those came from a more specifically or more self consciously progressive or left wing household. I love that Louise was from a two copies of The Guardian household. And someone like Suzanne Moore would also be in that group. I spoke to Grace Olmstead, who is an American writer who’s very much been a conservative and a Republican, and now doesn’t feel like she can find her home on the right of the party either. I don’t think it’s a clustering in the centre, actually. But I’m interested in what is going on there.

I really enjoyed hearing her sacred value that some things cannot and should not be given a market value and it reminds me of Michael Sandel, who did the Theos lecture a little while ago, but his prior book, prior to his book on meritocracy, is about what money can’t buy, what the limits of the markets are. And we really do seem to have lost a language for talking about value that is not monetary. The alternative that we use is sentimental value, and that feels very patronising. I think there’s something deeper and fiercer about these things that we want to avoid being subject to those kind of market equations. But sacred is actually one way that we can talk about those things. But yeah, I feel the loss of it. I feel the difficulty of creating almost fences of protection against market value encroaching for things that we hold very, very deep and very, very dear.

I really like Louise’s point about an opinion column basically being a secularised sermon minus the sacred text. These opinion columns are like sermons within a monetized context, which creates some sort of pressures as Michael Sandel I’m sure would say, and obviously the major drawback that Louise mentioned is that novelty is so high value in this information age that if you’re a columnist or indeed anyone trying to make your living through ideas, you need to be constantly saying things that are new, that have a ‘newsy hook’ is how they used to talk about it in the BBC. And that really is a really is a problem actually, I’ve been reading Thomas Moore this week, who was an early modern thinker, he wrote Utopia. He was later a Catholic martyr for standing up to Henry the eighth. And he has this lovely quote, in this very kind of stark, mediaeval Christianity book called The Four Last Things in which he is saying, we need to meditate on the four last things which are death, pain, doom and joy, these very kind of hard edged things. But he has this lovely quote that we know many things we can’t remember. Basically, there’s a big, big difference between sucking in knowledge, raising things once, hearing someone once, having a kind of fleeting thought about something, and remembering them. And that when it comes to the soul, it’s only the things that we remember that really count and by remember, he means sort of consciously intentionally repeating that thing. So for him, it’s meditating on, you know, death and judgement and pain and joy. But I’m increasingly having this sense that I, and many of us, are just saturated by too much information and too many facts, and I almost want to sit down in 2022 and be like, what are the key things in my life? What are the ideas or the stories? Or the relationships that I want for me? And how do I just get over my need for novelty and keep going back? And of course, that’s what the best kind of actual sermons do. Most clergy friends joke to me, they’ve only got two sermons or three sermons. And we go to church to hear the same things spoken about again and again week on week in a way that we hope can form us. Yeah, and that’s hard for our opinion columnists to do, I like opinion columns, but I decided I like sermons more, as my conclusion.

It was really depressing to talk about the consent model of sex. And obviously, Louise is only one perspective on that, I’m sure a different guest would be more positive about sex positivity. And we’re hoping to have a guest on in the next series to talk about that. And I look forward to hearing from them, but certainly that phrase sexual disenchantment is really powerful as a summarising of what has happened with sex. I think I didn’t agree with Louise, specifically, when she said positivity shouldn’t be the default state, that critique should be our default state. I don’t think that’s necessarily helpful. I think it’s temperamental, but particularly in the kind of world of ideas where many of these people that we speak to on the sacred who have a public voice or public platform function, being a critic, critiquing other people’s views, saying, No, that doesn’t sound right, being suspicious, being sceptical, has a very high value. I’m increasingly interested in those who are encouragers and affirmers, and who name what’s good, and want to actually positively build something. It’s really clear in the world that we’re in that cheerleaders have a much lower social status than critics, that those who can see the floor on or the problem in someone else’s project or argument, social capital accrues to them. It’s one of the ways that we signal intelligence. And it’s good. You know, university education gives you this kind of mind. I don’t want us to be credulous, or gullible. But yeah, I could tell by my reaction to that line, that I do not believe that critique should be our default state. I want to seek out and pay attention to what’s good in the world, what is pure and praiseworthy and beautiful and fun, as well as the things that need correcting.

And the final thing that really stuck with me was the moment when Louise talks about her female friend who doesn’t know if she wants to be a mother but does want to be a father. It’s such a pithy summation of some of the tensions in that. That’s all for me. Please do get in touch if anything that Louise said, or any of my thoughts, struck a chord or set of a train of thought or you want to react with the other side of the argument. I’d be really interested to hear that. Speak to you soon.


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Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

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Posted 15 December 2021

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