Sep 16 • 1HR 25M

Louise Perry On The Sexual Revolution

The post-liberal feminist has a new polemic against casual sex, porn, BDSM, dating apps and prostitution.

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Appears in this episode

Andrew Sullivan
Unafraid conversations about anything

Louise Perry is a writer and campaigner against sexual violence. This year she co-founded a non-partisan feminist think tank called The Other Half, where she serves as Research Director. Her debut book is The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on whether Perry finds it suitable to watch porn while married, and if gay promiscuity is more harmful than straight promiscuity — pop over to our YouTube page.

In honor of Queen Elizabeth II, we just transcribed our episode with Tina Brown on the Royal Family, a conversation that aired in May. Here’s a snippet of audio:

Next up, a fan of last week’s episode with Matthew Rose on the philosophers of the radical right:

It was fascinating to listen to this conversation in the same week that Britain is mourning the late queen and rallying to a new king — with much of the world (including, to a perhaps embarrassing extent, this American) right alongside them. What is this British monarchy if not exactly what this episode was about: the ritually sacralized center of a civic religion that stretches back deep into the mists of medieval history, the ongoing value of which is its ability to bind together a people as a nation in a transcendent traditional order that appeals viscerally to most people? It’s hard not to be drawn into that drama and the sense of meaning it offers.

The episode with Matthew Rose is one of your best yet. I found myself stopping the player every minute or two to process another profound truth or insight. The closing discussion of how liberalism is vulnerable to its own ideals was the cleanest formulation yet of an idea that keeps coming up on the Dishcast (e.g. in the Fukuyama episode), and your guests’s citation of Strauss on the need to engage with our primordial illiberalism in order to preserve our liberalism is brilliant. I’ll be ordering a copy of Rose’s book.

Most interesting of all was Rose’s insight into what America’s two parties would be if stripped of Christian and classically liberal influences. It made me wonder: if the primordial Right is driven by a deep-seated need for loyalty and belonging, which can pathologically become chauvinism and authoritarianism, what non-Christian and non-liberal emotional needs drive the primordial Left’s obsession with perfect equality at all costs? I wonder if it’s a combination of compassion and guilt in the face of the unfairness of the world. 

If that’s correct, we’re looking at two different primordial temperaments: one that prioritizes loyalty and belonging and is willing to rationalize unfairness, and the other that feels compelled by compassion and guilt to try to make the world fair and doesn’t care if all sense of community and identity is dissolved in the process.

Another fan of the Rose pod:

Not to diminish your other episodes, but this one is my favorite. It is not too complicated, as you worried, so please do not try to simplify the future episodes (though I know you won’t).

The praise for Rose continues:

With the exception of the rasp in your voice and the anxiety I feel listening to you struggle for breath, this episode was one of the best and most crucial you have recorded. Thank you for exploring the new right (including the episodes with Sohrab Ahmari and Michael Anton). I think they will have a dangerous influence on the future of American politics and believe that people need to be educated immediately.

Earlier this year I wanted to understand where people on the far right are coming from and took a deep dive. I have worked my way through Carlyle, Spengler and Burnham up to the current Neoreaction, including Curtis Yarvin and Bronze Age Pervert. It has been a six-month project, has consumed all my free time, and I am just starting to feel like I understand the intellectual underpinnings of the far right.

I have found myself both attracted and horribly repulsed. The desire for social order, meaning, and safety hits deeply primitive impulses. But I also feel like I am playing with intellectual fire. These are dangerous political theories that inevitably lead to authoritarian ends.

Whenever I discuss the new right with others, I always come off as a kook. It’s difficult to give an historical and philosophical background for why current parts of our citizenship think there will be an American Caesar in the near future. Eye-rolls abound.

You and Matthew Rose do the impossible and get to the core of New Right beliefs, lay them out logically, evaluate the pros and cons, and discuss the value of understanding them to strengthen our own belief in liberal democracy. All done in a little over an hour! I will recommend this podcast as a primer for anyone who wants an easy introduction into the far right mindset.

I was worried that the episode was too esoteric — especially with my strained voice. So the response has been wonderful to see. I share with my reader this push-pull feeling of both attraction and revulsion. But I think better understanding the attraction is vital to resisting it successfully. The endless denunciations of “Nazis” is both ineffective and deeply boring.

Another listener recommends a future guest:

I really enjoyed this week’s episode, and I’m glad to see you turning some more focus towards the “post-liberal” right this season. Like one of your readers who commented (re: the Sohrab episode), I find their arguments very unpersuasive, but I’m glad to hear them aired. They help me reaffirm my own commitment to liberalism.

I also love it when your conversations touch on faith. Have you ever read Richard Rohr? He’s someone I’ve often thought you would have a great conversation with. He’s a Franciscan monk who has written many books that have been very helpful to those of us who have felt very alienated by religion, but who also feel a deep yearning for it. Through nearly every spiritual crisis in my deeply Protestant family, Rohr has been there like a kindly shepherd to help us hold on to some semblance of faith, even if it looks very different from how we grew up thinking of it.

He is definitely too liberal for the “post-liberal,” “trad-con” types, but he has dedicated his life to his faith in a way that few others can claim (he’s a monk, after all). When I hear you talk about faith, I often think about his writing, which emphasizes the need for institutions in shaping us, as well as the need to question, outgrow, and reintegrate them. He also talks about a lot of other topics of interest to you — crises of masculinity and fatherlessness, the spiritual concepts of the true self and resurrection, and the problems of political extremes (his book Hope Against Darkness: The Transforming Vision of St. Francis in an Age of Anxiety was written years ago, but is incredibly prescient).

Of course I have read a great deal of Rohr. He’s a kindred spirit, I feel. Thanks for the prompt. And speaking of the crisis of masculinity and fatherlessness, next week on the pod is Richard Reeves, author of the forthcoming book Of Boys and Men.

A listener dissents:

Toward the end of your interview today with Matthew Rose, you went full on about wokeism/left illiberalism. If I may speak for my wife (we discuss your writing and podcasts frequently), we find your emphasis on the dangers wokeism not particularly (at this point) informative, and frankly repetitive and uninteresting. Thanks to your earlier writings on the subject (along with, say, Sam Harris and Bari Weiss), we are now “converts” to the errors and “dangers” of wokeism/left-illiberalism/cancel culture. But while we agree that this is a problem, relative to many other societal issues we are facing (conspiracy dissemblers, election deniers, nationalists, white supremacists, a GOP that literally does not believe in the election process), this is — as they say — mice nuts.

Another minor peeve is your frequent statements implying the superiority and uniqueness of Christianity. I am truly happy for you that you have found and continue to find solace and wisdom in your faith. Your and Matthew Rose’s “Christian” upbringing seemed to ground you in thoughtful, spiritual, productive adulthood. But how is that different from my bourgeois upbringing in a Jewish community in western PA, or my friend’s similar middle-class community in Bengaluru, or another friend’s Muslim upbringing in DC, or my cousin’s atheist upbringing in New Jersey? During my 67 years on this planet, I have seen MOST people who had the good fortune to be raised in stable, secure communities (small towns to large cities) generally develop into fulfilled wholesome individuals. 

So my question is: How was your Christian community so determinative?

My own faith, I hope it’s clear, claims no uniqueness or superiority. Au contraire. I feel utterly unworthy of the faith tradition I was born into. And it’s a deep part of my faith — which demands spiritual and epistemological humility — that I fully and deeply respect other paths to the divine. With respect to the ultimate mysteries, we are all the same, doubting, frail mortals.

Next, a reader recommends more pod guests but begins with some Ukraine commentary:

First, my condolences to you and other Brits on the passing of the Queen. Second, welcome back. It is great to have the Dish back on Fridays; I did miss it during the two-week hiatus.

I agree with your latest take on Putin’s Economic WMD but wanted to flesh things out a bit further. I do not see how the EU and the euro survive this. I think the first domino to fall will be the Italian elections on September 25th. The populist right is heavily favored to win a resounding victory and one of the presumptive leaders of the coalition, Matteo Salvini, recently wrote an op-ed calling for the end of sanctions against Putin.

Italy is even more exposed to Russia shutting off gas than Germany is, so they have a strong incentive to act unilaterally. If Italy goes it alone, I would expect France and Germany to pressure the ECB to stop buying Italian bonds, which would lead to a blow out in interest-rate spreads between German bunds and Italian bonds. If the Italian 10-year rises above 4% for an extended period of time, watch out, as this could drive Italy’s Treasury into insolvency.

If the French and Germans use this weapon, it is not hard to imagine Italy retaliating by leaving the EU and eurozone altogether, since frontrunner Giorgia Meloni has flirted with leaving the EU in the past. Should that domino fall, the whole eurozone would likely crumble and Europe would face an unprecedented economic catastrophe. We would likely see a financial crisis, an energy crisis, a food crisis, a currency crisis, a sovereign debt crisis, an inflation crisis, and a refugee crisis all at once. The United States would not be immune to blowback if Europe implodes, because your average S&P 500 company collects ~25% of their revenue from Europe.

It feels to me that elites on both sides of the Atlantic — for the seventh or eighth time this century — have driven the West to the brink of a catastrophic but avoidable crisis.

Lastly, I know this is doomy and gloomy, but I would like to suggest some podcast guests that could dive deeper into this:

  • Peter Zeihan has just written a fantastic new book The End of the World Is Just the Beginning, which maps out a terrifying scenario of where we are likely heading. He has been ahead of a lot of these trends and has been sounding the alarm since 2014.

  • Javier Blas is a terrific energy and commodity columnist for Bloomberg and has been ahead of the curve and Western policy makers failure to grasp the magnitude of the energy shock that is coming.

  • Doomberg is a pricey but informative Substack that has been prophetic since it launched 18 months ago.

Sorry for the lengthy response, but I had a lot I wanted to get off my chest. I really enjoy the Dish so count me as a happy subscriber. Cheers and have a great weekend!

Thank you. I try to address these points in the main column today — and I see more reasons for optimism than I did last week. But I’m grateful for your catastrophist alternative. I do think it’s likelier than most Americans now believe. But I’ve been struck by how Putin’s brutal invasion really did shift views on the far right in Europe. He has made it much harder to support him as the Swedes and Meloni are showing.

Grateful as always for your pod commentary, and please keep it coming: dish@andrewsullivan.com. Lastly, some final reader dissents over MGM:

You wrote, “It removes the most sensitive portion of a man’s sex organ for good.” What the hell are you talking about? Maybe you have some special insight into your organ, but you sure don’t have insight into mine. If you think this as a procedure applied to newborns has no medical justification, and are skeptical of religious justification, that’s your privilege. If, however, you are suggesting that all circumcised men have lost some significant ability to receive and/or give sexual pleasure compared to all uncircumcised men, you just sounds nuts.

I’m not suggesting. It’s a fact. Sorry to break it to you. This next reader doesn’t sound nuts:

I’m a 69-year-old heterosexual Jew, circumcised soon after birth. In my 50s I had to quit using condoms. In my 20s, sex with a condom felt equivalent to a massage with a shirt on, but in my 50s it was like a massage with an overcoat on. So, if I could have a do-over, I’d tell my parents not to have me circumcised.

Another looks to the studies:

In 2020, a big systematic review of “46 publications containing original data, as well as 4 systematic reviews (2 with meta-analyses), plus 29 critiques of various studies and 15 author replies, which together comprised a total of 94 publications” concluded that male circumcision “has minimal or no adverse effect, and in some studies, it has benefits on sexual functions, sensation, satisfaction, and pleasure for males circumcised neonatally or in adulthood.” That sounds pretty convincing.

Another dissenter turns to tradition:

My issue is with this sentence of yours regarding the origins of circumcision as a religious practice: “It’s rooted in a weird desert religion practice based on revulsion at sexual pleasure.” I suspect you’re projecting.

Before I get into why, a disclaimer: My wife and I had our first son, and third child overall, three weeks ago. And one of the first things to cross my mind after the joy and relief of seeing my healthy baby boy born, thank God, was dreading the bris. I viscerally hate circumcision per se and wish the architects of Judaism had chosen some other way of demonstrating our covenant with God. And if circumcision weren’t an absolutely foundational element of Jewish observance and communal belonging, there’s no f-ing way I’d do it.

With that out of the way, your glib assessment of the origins of religious circumcision is just flatly wrong.

As a general statement, both Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism (I can’t speak for Islam, but we’re talking about the origins of circumcision here) view human sexuality and sexual pleasure as natural and good — so long as they’re channeled in such a way as to elevate the dignity of man as created in the image of God and thus the sanctity of human life. Circumscribed, if you will.

The same goes, for instance, for the practice of saying a blessing before consuming food or drink: It elevates the basic, animal need to eat — which God intends for us, and on festivals even commands us, to enjoy — into an act of mindfulness, humility, and gratitude. And, as you know, religiously observant Jews can’t eat just anything. Our diet is circumscribed as a way not only of establishing communal boundaries, but of bringing awareness of our humanity and sanctifying the act of eating. Holiness, as you understand as a religious person, is defined by distinguishing the sacred from the profane — circumscribing what is deemed as sacred — even if such distinctions sometimes seem arbitrary.

So if circumcision indeed does limit male sexual pleasure (I haven’t read the studies), it does so in the same way kashrut limits gustatory pleasure: It circumscribes it, and in so doing raises our awareness of its basic goodness and even holiness — not its evil.

Judaism is not Christianity; the former places far less emphasis on the afterlife/world-to-come relative to the latter, and far more stress on the world we actually inhabit. Whereas, in my understanding, much of Christian theology and religious observance have to do with the denial of pleasure in this world, Jewish law encourages — commands — Jews to enjoy the pleasures of life as a gift from God and indeed a manifestation of God’s grace, even if its laws (you guessed it) circumscribe how we do so.

Jews believe God bestowed human beings with drives, urges, and the capacity for pleasure not so that we can deny and fight them as a means of meriting admission to some sort of more-real existence after life in this world, but rather to elevate and channel them into a holy existence in this realm.

At least that’s how the Rabbis classically interpret the meaning of the law of milah (the command to circumcise all Jewish boys when they’re eight days old), more or less. Of course on the level of the Biblical text, circumcision is simply the physical sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his offspring. This phenomenon of a single religious practice having multiple meanings, none of which is any more valid than any other, is a wonderful aspect of Judaism.

But again, what Jewish religious circumcision decidedly is not is a repudiation of human sexuality or male sexual pleasure. And as I said, I suspect you’re projecting Christianity’s discomfort with sexual pleasure, and worldy pleasures in general, onto a completely different religious tradition.

As a reader, I find it frustrating that you’d harbor such a basic misconception about something you purport to care so deeply about. As a Jew, I must say I’m dismayed that you so fundamentally misunderstand such a foundation of Judaism — and through it, the Jewish view of humanity and the nature of the relationship between human beings and God.

Maimonides recommended it to “quell all the impulses of matter” and “perfect what is defective morally.” Money quote:

Circumcision simply counteracts excessive lust; for there is no doubt that circumcision weakens the power of sexual excitement, and sometimes lessens the natural enjoyment.

I agree this is not rooted in deep Pauline hostility to sexual pleasure; but it is designed to lessen such pleasure, thereby circumscribing it, as you say. My only point is that this hideous practice has always been justified as a way to dull sexual pleasure. I have absolutely no objection to its use within the context of religious freedom. But most infants should be left alone, with their sex organs fully intact.