Just Think About The Average
by Dominic Fox
Polity Press, 200pp, ISBN 9781509549993, £14.99
I was once acquainted with a man who was known to have violently choked, non-fatally, at least two women, the second of whom was his girlfriend at the time. Easy-going, with a charismatic twinkle, he was also as it turned out a frighteningly mean drunk: a real Jekyll-and-Hyde character. Once you knew it was there, you couldn’t help but see it behind the everyday mask of agreeableness. I particularly remember the steeliness with which the latest of his choking victims, faced with an impromptu intervention by friends and colleagues, refused to consider separating herself from him. Theirs was, as far as she was concerned, an unbreakable bond.
The author of The Case Against The Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry, has worked with and campaigned on behalf of survivors of this type of violence: women choked, beaten and violated by male sexual partners, who in addition to physical injury, humiliation, and terror will often have experienced the disorienting effects of intense psychological manipulation. She is concerned with the conditions that enable such abuse, and has a proposal for how to constrain it. The topic of concern is as serious as can be, but the proposal is both ill-considered and a Trojan horse for a political agenda that does not, as it turns out, have the interests of the most vulnerable members of society at its heart.
The moving parts of Perry’s argument are as follows. Men and women are different. A permissive sexual culture, premised on the ability of men and women to act with equal freedom in the sexual arena, takes insufficient heed of women’s particular vulnerabilities and liabilities, and thereby strengthens a libertine male prerogative while weakening women’s moral and practical defences against predation. A culture of comparative restraint — caution for women, chivalry for men — would better protect the vulnerable, and enable the flourishing of women’s real sexual interests, in which safety and loving regard play an essential role. Cultural forces which erode this restraint, such as ubiquitously available pornography, should be abjured if not actively suppressed. Stable heterosexual unions, backed up by the social technology of the marriage contract, should be sought out and supported. The average man will be better-behaved, and the average woman safer and more fulfilled, under this arrangement.
Alongside this argument run two supporting narrative rails. The first is an account of sexual difference drawn from evolutionary psychology, which purports to join the dots connecting distinct bundles of physiological characteristics to the distinct bundles of attitudes, dispositions and preferences which define the respective male and female main characters, whom I shall call averageman and averagewoman, in the story being told. The second is an account of how liberal feminism, in a somewhat nebulous alliance with commercialism, queer theory and averageman’s irrepressible horniness, represses the hard truths of biological reality in favour of a fantasy of self-realisation without practical limit. As with Fredrik de Boer’s The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice (2020), which argues from hereditarian premises against the belief that all should be held innately capable of equal educational outcomes, the grand theme is the impossibility of equality as liberal ideology frames it; that is, as the equal ability of abstract agents, unmoored from history and unstained by nature, to participate in a social order pictured as an idealised marketplace. The true law of this arena, as Perry and de Boer both aver, is that the devil takes the hindmost.
So, this is an argument of a certain genre: liberal mugged by reality. Perry tells us how she, too, once believed that sexual inequality was due to differences in socialisation, for which the effective remedy must surely be a moral pedagogy aimed at correcting regressive male attitudes and encouraging women to venture forth more boldly into the world. It’s notable that in spite of abandoning this belief, in the face of the egregious and unrelenting harms endured by women at the hands of violent male partners, she retains the underlying faith in moral pedagogy as a means of repairing the world. The radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, whose unwavering pessimism regarding heterosexuality as an institution of male domination supplies Perry with some resonant lines about male sexual malfeasance, used to talk about machine-gunning misogynists; she wasn’t exactly joking. But Dworkin was also a profound optimist about sex, and about the possibility of real sexual equality, given the revolutionary overthrow of the entire material apparatus of male power. Perry, persuaded by Thornhill and Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (2000) of the inevitability of male sexual aggression, settles for chiding boys to be good and girls to be careful.
Framing her account of the deleterious effects of sexual permissiveness in terms of a conflict of interest between averageman and averagewoman, personae assembled from statistics, Perry takes injuries and injustices in the sexual sphere to originate in averageman’s having things too much his own way: his wishes unduly indulged, his convenience unduly prioritised. Her way of doing feminism is then, in a useful phrase of feminist legal theorist Janet Halley’s, one of ‘carrying a brief for women’; or rather, for averagewoman, which does not amount to the same thing.
The reductiveness of this approach is illustrated by the way she pictures violence and extremity in pornography as directly serving male sexual desire and as naturally disgusting and alienating to women, who must traduce their instinctual revulsion in pretending to find it acceptable and arousing. This presupposes that men like violence and extremity in porn, which they often do not, at least on first exposure; they may however like the illusion of being let into the secret of what women want, especially if that secret is counter-intuitive and thrilling and gives them something important to do. Perry further insinuates that women who say that they do like such things are mendacious ‘Cool Girls’, lying to men and to themselves about what really turns them on, rather than sincerely trying to navigate the complexity of their own desires with the aid of the tools available. Also in play is the desire for novelty in itself, which is quite distinct from desire for the specific novel thing that momentarily captures one’s attention. As with other kinds of internet usage, much porn viewing may be driven by a gnawingly futile and exasperating dopamine-hunt. All this (and more) is flattened into a claim that violent porn manifests and caters to ‘a darkness within human sexuality — mostly, but not exclusively, within men’.
That ‘mostly, but not exclusively’ is characteristic of Perry’s way of having her cake and eating it with generalisations: the empirical diversity of human being and wanting is constantly being bundled up into bell curves, with everything within one standard deviation of the mean taken as ‘the rule’ and all outlying instances acknowledged, but also dismissed en masse, as ‘the exception’, to be lassoed onto the stage, briefly handwaved around, then hastily shuffled out into the wings before it has an opportunity to speak. (If however it should happen that male and female bell-curves overlap significantly, as they do in the case of ‘sociosexuality’ — sluttiness — then the opposite rule is invoked: now it is the outliers, the hyper-sexed and the ultra-chaste, who define what men and women are in their particular maleness and femaleness.)
Typical of Perry’s handling of ‘exceptions’ is the way she talks about women who take the submissive role in BDSM, whom she paints as overly-literal romantics, aroused by the same image of virile attentiveness as Mills and Boon-reading averagewoman but fixating (probably due to trauma, poor things) on the violent expression of dominant traits. It doesn’t help that her motivating example is E. L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey (2011), a benighted piece of metastasised Twilight fan fiction about which something like that theory might actually be true. Masochism perplexes me, a simple soul who likes nice things, but the submissive women who’ve been kind enough to try to explain their kinks to me have said next to nothing about the mesmerising aura of the domineering macho. Chosen passivity in the face of safely-bounded physical and emotional extremity can bring profound calm; one person said it helped with their dyspraxia. In a piece on the artist Marina Abramovic, the writer Juliet Jacques describes ‘wilfully submitting’ to the threat of injury as a way of breaking the bonds of anxiety, passing initiative to a top so that they can ‘smash the tension out of me, little by little’. This is very clearly not the same as ‘consenting’, through gritted teeth, to the brutality of a male partner because they like it and you, poor thing, find the attention validating. Perry wants to understand why some women stand for such treatment, which I sympathise with, but whatever explanation you have for that is unlikely to serve you well in trying to understand a BDSM subculture devoted to practical techniques for bringing about desired states of depersonalisation and release. She approaches this subculture with the haughty incuriosity of one whose ‘I reckon’ — bolstered by a hasty bit of pop culture analysis — has already supplied all the answers.
Averageman is quite a bit stronger than averagewoman, a fact which Perry wants us to consider consequential: ‘almost all men can kill almost all women with their bare hands, but not vice versa.’ We’re a tool-using species: most adults could murder most other adults given motive, opportunity, readiness-to-hand of a suitable blunt instrument, the element of surprise and the ability momentarily to overcome the usual inhibitions against fracturing another person’s skull. The fact that it is usually (by a ratio of around nine to one, according to the ONS) men doing the murdering, and more usually (by a ratio of around two to one) of other men than of women, requires explanation in wider terms than a bimodal distribution of muscle mass. We tend to regard violence by men against women and girls as especially morally aberrant, and worth campaigning against as a social issue, which suggests that specific social factors are in play in motivating and enabling violence of this kind. Perry’s model effectively holds that it will naturally flourish wherever it is unchecked, and that any easing of social restraints around sexual expression will inexorably release predatory ‘pikes’ into the water alongside the ‘minnows’ it purports to liberate.
At one point, this argument takes the ludicrous form of suggesting that, well, maybe you gotta hand it to Mary Whitehouse, the campaigner for public decency who for decades vexed broadcasters with complaints about such improprieties as the appearance of the word ‘knickers’ in the lyrics to the Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’. Whitehouse may have been (Perry allows, in one of her tactical concessions to reality) a vicious homophobe, but she also cared a great deal about the sexual abuse of children, unlike the BBC of the 70s and 80s which provided an untrammelled operating environment for the paedophilic predator Jimmy Savile. It is worth noting that Mary Whitehouse herself considered Savile’s broadcasting output sufficiently wholesome that her organisation, the National Viewers’ And Listeners’ Association, handed out an award for children’s programming in 1977 to Jim’ll Fix It. Savile did not benefit from an anything-goes attitude towards sexual expression, but from skilful gaming of the rules governing respectability, his indefatigable charity work building up a store of moral credit while the sleazy aspects of his character were hidden in plain sight through a well-rehearsed patter of jokes (weren’t they?) about schoolgirls. In retrospect it’s possible to see him as running the same con, on a larger scale, as the small-time abuser I mentioned earlier whose ready charm, and habit of handing out free pints while he was working behind the bar, curried favour he knew he would be able to draw on later. Perry’s answer to Savile’s decades-long campaign of systematised abuse and evasion of consequences? ‘Jimmy Savile should have repressed his desire to sexually violate children.’
In light of this, Perry’s advice to young women to shun the company of obvious creeps, trusting gut instinct to identify those who may wish to harm them, seems Pollyanna-ish if not outright dangerous. ‘Sometimes (not always)’ — there it is again, that tic of under-explored qualification — ‘you can readily spot sexually aggressive men’. This isn’t untrue, and some people do home in on such types like heat-seeking missiles, but ‘impulsivity, promiscuity, hyper-masculinity and disagreeableness’ can be the tells of incredibly fun people it’s delightful to hang around with, while caginess, jealous obsession with a single love-object, an air of wounded little-boy vulnerability, and fluency in fawning and exaggerated courtesy to others are all traits from which, in combination, I would suggest the reader run a mile.
This is the problem with Perry’s argument: its fundamental conformism, its linear association of deviant expression with injury and risk, scapegoats sexual minorities for forms of violence and exploitation which owe far more to the most entrenched and normalised inequalities in our society: those which mean that low-status victims are not believed, that swaddle those who project ‘star power’ with unearned credibility, that make masculine self-realisation dependent on women’s uncompensated collusion. In uncertain times, when the constitutive categories of our social order seem to be in flux, it is tempting to seek to establish normative figures of maleness and femaleness that can be set alongside each other in complementary, mutually limiting patterns: pieces that fit together nicely. Who in their right mind would want to be liberated from peace and harmony, besides restless egotists who cannot bear the thought of any limit? We are offered, seemingly, the bargain of safety, at the expense of a little wiggle-room. But as Andrea Dworkin observed in Right-Wing Women (1983), the deal is a dud: it binds women in subservience to men, in exchange for an empty promise of protection, while smearing everyone outside the blessed union as a moral criminal. Until all are free, the old Adam of male right will never be dislodged from its throne.