Ginny Roth: A new type of feminism doesn’t turn back the clock but insists on common sense

The sex-realist feminists are serious about prosecuting the case against liberal feminism
People stage a rally supporting feminism in Seoul on Feb. 12, 2022. Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo.

Feminism Against Progress
Author: Mary Harrington
Publisher: Regnery Publishing, 2023

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution
Author: Louise Perry
Publisher: Polity, 2022

A new movement of young British and American women is challenging liberal feminist orthodoxy, exposing its inconsistencies, contradictions, and downright harms. Two prominent members of the movement, Mary Harrington and Louise Perry, published books in the last year and a half, each different in focus but with similar themes. In Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress and Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, both authors—one a Gen Xer, one a Millennial—explore the challenges with being a woman in the early 21st century, from the failures of consent-based sexual ethics to the commodification of female bodies (or the erasure of them).

They’re both clear that the freedom won for women by first-wave feminism, to be treated as equal to men, must be preserved and is crucial to female flourishing. But they also agree that any feminism for which the goal is to deny sex difference, whether in dating, the workplace, or parenthood, fundamentally fails women.

Harrington and Perry don’t describe themselves as conservatives, and while both are ardent anti-liberals who insist on a commitment to common sense, history, and the immutability of certain elements of the human condition, neither is seeking to turn back the clock. They are not the Phyllis Schlaflys of our time. Harrington describes getting a post-modern education and seriously questioning traditional gender roles and relationships through her 20s, only to realize after giving birth to her child that her biology was intrinsic to her motherhood and to her sex. Perry had a liberal upbringing much like I did, taught by Carrie Bradshaw and Sex and the City that female empowerment is about behaving in sex and relationships just as men do. She then worked in a rape crisis centre where she quickly learned that biological sex differences and centuries of evolution mean that in general, women neither want to have sex like men, nor benefit from it.

Perry’s focus on hook-up culture, the harmful impact of pornography, and the inadequacy of consent for sorting out the appropriateness and potential harm of a given sexual encounter are uncomfortable to confront. For women raised to be good liberal feminists, freedom trumps everything. We’re supposed to think of women involved in prostitution and pornography as empowered. To question their choices (or coerced “choices”) is to question their personal autonomy.

But Perry deftly confronts the reader’s discomfort, drawing on powerful research to show that real, meaningful differences between most men and women—their preferences, their physical attributes, and the power dynamic that results—make the harms caused by a libertarian approach deeply unethical. Perry’s response is not mass vows of chastity, but a practical (if rarely heard) call to women to get to know men before having sex with them and to seek out loving marriages. As if to prove just how serious she is about the suggestion, just last week, Perry hosted an actual in-person event to try to bring together like-minded men and women in search of a romantic partner and uninterested in the potentially harmful hookup culture that pervades the commonly used dating apps that many feel are their only option.

Harrington aims her critique at capitalism and the commodification of the female body. She pulls no punches, calling out companies offering employees egg freezing, the exploitative treatment of many birth surrogates, the proliferation of daycare for all, and the medicalization of so-called “gender-affirming care.” In her view, the aim of liberal feminism is to extract labour and money from female bodies, with no concern for the interests of women themselves. This despite the clear desire many women have to prioritize motherhood, even if they choose to work. Harrington attacks these trends, blaming technology and classism, explaining that wealthier women perpetuate liberal feminism because they have the means to avoid its downsides while lower-income women suffer its dehumanization.

Harrington is less clear than Perry in her prescriptions. She targets hormonal birth control and abortion as offending technologies but does not call for their banning, preferring a grassroots culture shift to top-down edicts. Her most compelling thinking is around a sex-realist vision for working women. She asks her readers to look not to the homemakers of the 1950s but to pre-industrial families where cottage industries allowed women and men to work in the home, and where labouring, earning money, and childbearing were all compatible at once.  

These books are primarily critiques, and for good reason. The liberal feminist paradigm has been so dominant that before it is replaced, it must be systematically dismantled. Harrington and Perry both do so quite convincingly. Evocative examples of the hypocrisy we live with, which champions women’s rights but stands idly by while female bodies are sold for sex, which calls out #MeToo-style sexual harassment but allows natal male violent offenders in women’s prisons, and which champions #girlboss feminism but seeks to split women off from pregnancy and mothering, treating children and motherhood as inconvenient inefficiencies.

Modern women will rightly question any worldview which might appear to want to turn back the clock and devalue their personhood. But the sex-realist feminists are quite serious not only about prosecuting the case against liberal feminism but about articulating new, better advice for women living in the world today, and for society at large to treat women ethically. It would be fair enough for readers to find their suggestions wanting—after all, they’re charting new territory.

But no reader will put these books down thinking the old orthodoxy, that women should just behave more like men, and that if we try hard enough, we can erase problematic sex differences and set women free, isn’t sorely lacking. 

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