The Meaning of Sex
Sad Love: Romance and the Search for Meaning, Carrie Jenkins, Polity, pp.200, 2022, £14.99
The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry, pp.200, 2022, £14.99
There has never been a time in history when love and sex, their conduct and protocols, were as extensively theorised and politicised as they are now. To be sure, erotic relations have always been subject to the strictures of religion, the prejudices of their surrounding societies, the predilections of families and the interventions of law. Nor were these influences necessarily always obstructive of human happiness. Today, more than ever, though, there are good reasons to be mindful of who wants to sleep with whom and why, and what they expect to be able to do, or what further call they intend to make on the other’s attention, if any. Consent is a major issue in the present enactment of physical relations between people, but the deeper questions of how it is obtained, by what means, what behaviour it is assumed to license and for how long, are often buried under the brute fact, or the mere assumption, of a simple ‘Yes’. Whether consent always has to be verbal, contractual even, and what ought to happen when it is not forthcoming in a situation that had appeared to be leading up to it, have become crucial factors in deciding not just the legality or otherwise of particular episodes, but the entire moral atmosphere in which intimacy of any sort takes place. Or, quite as importantly, has taken place. Not the smallest achievement of the #MeToo movement has been to encourage women to look back over the ways they have been treated in the past, identify them for what they were, and begin to establish parameters that will help them avoid being the victims of exploitation and outright crime in the future.
…….The latest two books that Polity is bringing out in what has become a crowded sector of the publishing market – books by women writers that principally address the problems women face in today’s romantic and sexual contexts, by appealing to all proclivities and genders alike – represent two very different facets of the current debate. Carrie Jenkins wants to liberate love by subverting the ideological paradigm of life-changing, happily monogamous romance, opening ourselves up to sadness and disappointment as unavoidable, but potentially enriching, influences in human affairs. Louise Perry emphatically contends that liberation is what there has now been quite enough of, and that a counter-movement of ethical and interpersonal retrenchment to the imperatives of the pre-1960s era would save women from brutal, often violent, exploitation, reset men’s morbid fascination with the pornographic perversion of desire, and lead to happier, more stable families.
…….Jenkins is a philosophy professor in Canada and brings a light-touch speculative idiom to her ruminations, although her book has the air of an extended blog. She is concerned to subvert the false dialectic of feelings and thought, the idea that the two are fundamentally antithetical being one of the pernicious ideologies that have led to the widespread dissatisfaction with what love turns out to be. To this end, she cites a truly dreadful e. e. cummings poem, and essays a reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 – ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments’ – that skewers the changeless essentialism that it sees in a love that is not ‘Time’s fool’. Instead, Jenkins proposes a theory of love as one of the uniquely human daimons that can energise a life. Lest we run away with the idea that daimons are a girl’s best friend, this is more of a Nietzschean move, in which everything that happens – the crashing sorrows as much as the ecstatic flights – are to be welcomed in. Jenkins’ own practice of eudaimonic love, which forms a structuring pillar of her argument throughout, is a polyamorous personal life, in which she has a husband and other male partners.
…….Although the book invests a risky degree of trust in statistical social science research, it has critical points to make about the static assumptions that often govern such research and the interpretation of its findings. Jenkins sees a fallacious opposition between what are termed ‘maximisers’ and ‘satisficers’: broadly speaking, the former want only the best in life, while the latter will settle for ‘good enough’. That doesn’t, it seems to me, condone her assumption that the latter are any less choosy than the former, but what people are suffering from, Jenkins argues, is an excess of the wrong kinds of choice. The role of consumable commodities in matching people up to each other, according to their tastes in films, music, travel destinations and so forth, make for what she astutely calls ‘shared passivity’ rather than active mutual discovery, but she hits a false note in claiming that choice overload is also the experience of dating apps. What makes dating apps so corrosive to the human soul is the dreary uniformity of what other people appear to want. That, and the fact that most people on there look unpleasant.
…….If the advice to accept sadness as an essential aspect of existence seems sound enough as a piece of grown-up wisdom, it is also the case that everybody on earth will learn it anyway, and in the present age, it scarcely sounds like liberation. There seems a fundamental tension between Jenkins’ advocacy of a love-life without limits and her strenuous insistence that regular misery is worth accepting. The brittle anti-utopianism of Sad Love is less a clarion call than a series of parps on life’s klaxon, and we leave the author ruminating, horrifyingly, that ‘existentialism feels like it’s due for a comeback’. At that point, I will want airlifting out of Saigon.
…….Louise Perry’s book is a much more elegantly argued case for the reversal of what she sees as the Weberian disenchantment of sex that the free love era, with its mostly efficient oral contraception, ushered in. This has left us with ‘a society that (ostensibly) believes that sex means nothing’. The twin enemies of Perry’s argument are, principally, men whose ethical responsibility towards women is even more threadbare than Mary Wollstonecraft suspected, and – at a less reprehensible, but no less inimical, level – that strand of liberal feminism that believes that sex work is empowering for women, or even that rape survivors might productively get into BDSM as a way of taking ownership of the corrupted power dynamics to which they have been subjected.
…….There is much that liberals will consign to the rubric of gender essentialism in Perry’s book. Men are more inclined to violent behaviour through being physically stronger. They want more casual sex than women, and are much less satisfied to see committed monogamy as an ideal. Men are, on average, much less agreeable people than women, being less given to helping others, or even being liked that much. They are capable of instrumentalising sex to the extent of being turned on by looking at genitalia alone, rather than the whole person, and the universal availability of internet porn, with its relentless focus on brutality and the exercise of power, has resulted in a psychological version of the compulsive masturbator’s death grip syndrome, the besetting numbness of over-engorgement precipitating where spontaneous responsiveness once was.
…….Every one of these points is assuredly true in some degree, but the insuperable obstacle with the essentialist case is that there is, in one sense, no more reason to state that the female side of the equation has been more crucial to human development than the male. Only fifteen per cent of all societies have ever been monogamous. Perry mentions the matriarchal Na (or Mosuo) ethnic group of southwest China, who have never developed anything like an institution of marriage, and indeed deliberately suppress pair-bonding. Conception is a matter of ad hoc sperm donation, while fatherhood itself barely exists in any meaningful sense. It might be that the modern world of hookups, in-outs and one-nighters has only extended the anthropological reach of the Na worldview, patriarchalising it in the process.
…….Perry is not the first to argue that the liberations of sex that have taken place since the 1960s are developments that have disproportionately favoured men at the expense of women, and it is hard to disagree that sex without consequences, either gestative or emotional, is a central component of the ancient male dream of fair women. ‘Women have been conned,’ the author’s grandmother remarks. The desiderata that these conclusions lead Perry, herself a campaigner against male sexual violence, to propose will ruffle liberal feathers all over the coop. Get married. Stay married. Don’t have sex with a man until you have got to know him over a period of several months. Single mothers should wait until their children are grown before introducing into the family the drastic risk of a stepfather. Meanwhile, we seem to have skipped an obvious preliminary stage in the cautionary note that ‘If he can maintain an erection while beating a woman, he isn’t safe to be alone with’.
…….What is to be done? ‘A society composed of tamed men is a better society to live in,’ declares Louise Perry. If ‘tamed’ means giving up porn, the challenge already seems colossal enough, but are men who have also been tamed by socio-economic routine and the impositions of the competitive workplace still appealing to be with? Will a humbled man be in a better position to stand up for women? In her analysis of one piece of sociological research, Perry reports that the number of men who prefer the ‘sub’ position in sex – already a troubling nomenclature, if anybody would stop to think about it – is thirty-four per cent, which she appears to think is negligible. If true, one in three heterosexual men are not interested in dominating women physically during sex. Without the language of taming and subordination, that could be the fount of hope.
…….Certainly, it ought to offer more reassurance than the statement of the woman in a pub many years ago, who greeted the news that a male member of our group was about to be married with the lament, ‘Another good man down’. His untamed oat-sowing days were done. For now, at least.
Stuart Walton is a cultural historian, novelist and critic. He is author of In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling (2016), as well as A Natural History of Human Emotions (2004), Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs (second edn, 2016), Introducing Theodor Adorno (2017), and a monograph on the chilli pepper, The Devil’s Dinner (2018). His novel, The First Day in Paradise, was published in 2016. An Excursion through Chaos: Disorder under the Heavens was published by Bloomsbury Academic in February 2021.
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