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This includes the ebook edition of NT Wright & Douglas Murray’s discussion about Identity, Myth, and Miracles in the post-Christian World.
About this episode:
Is post-Christendom a brave new world or a culture in collapse? Can ancient wisdom still offer answers to the modern problems of life?
Rod Dreher is Senior Editor of The American Conservative and author of bestselling books including ‘The Benedict Option’ and ‘Live Not By Lies’. Louise Perry is a journalist and campaigner against sexual violence. Her book ‘The Case Against The Sexual Revolution’ explains why today’s liberal hook up culture has been bad for women from a purely socio-evolutionary perspective. They discuss Christianity, the sexual revolution and the future of the West.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead?
- Episode 3: Can Science and Religion Tell us What it Means to be Human?
- Episode 4: Do Consciousness and Near Death Experiences Point to an Afterlife?
- Episode 5: The Robot Race, Part I: Could AI ever replace humanity?
- Episode 6: The Robot Race, Part II: How should humanity flourish in an AI world?
- Episode 7: Is Religion Good or Bad for Society?
Justin Brierley (JB), Rod Dreher (RD) & Louise Perry (LP)
JB: Hello and welcome to The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable, in partnership with John Templeton Foundation. I’m your host, Justin Brierley. The Big Conversation is a show that brings you questions around science, faith, philosophy and culture with leading thinkers across the belief spectrum. Today we are looking at Christianity, the sexual revolution and the future of the West.
Rod Dreher is senior editor of The American Conservative and a noted journalist and public commentator. He’s the author of bestselling books including, ‘The Benedict Option’ and ‘Live not by Lies’. He thinks the culture wars have already been lost by Christians but believes that the Benedict option is best; building strong Christian communities as a bulwark against secular culture.
Louise Perry is my other guest. She is a journalist for the Daily Mail and Unheard and a campaigner against sexual violence. In her new book, ‘The Case Against the Sexual Revolution’ she explains from a socio-evolutionary perspective why todays liberal hook-up culture is actually bad for women and, as a modern secular feminist herself, she has come to some surprisingly traditional conclusions around marriage and relationships.
So today we’ll be asking whether post-Christendom is a brave new world or a culture in collapse and whether maybe ancient wisdom still has answers to the modern maladies of life? So, welcome to the show Rod and Louise.
Rod, we’ll start with you. You’re not the most optimistic of people when it comes to popular culture, the modern world. Tell us what’s led you to the point where you are now basically saying Christians need to build rock solid defences against a coming totalitarian state? I mean, it sounds quite alarmist at one level.
RD: It does sound alarmist but there’s a lot to be alarmed about. In my book, ‘The Benedict Option’, I talked about how in the West today, the post Christian West, we no longer have a transcendent story that unites us, that tells us who we are, that gives us a foundation for ethics. And so, unsurprisingly, everything seems to be falling apart. You now actually have people wondering what is a man, what is a woman, and not being able to give answers. That is indicative of a much deeper sort of decadence.
The more recent book, ‘Live not by Lies’, I talk about the coming totalitarianism. I call it a soft totalitarianism. It’s not Stalinism 2.0. But I was tipped off to this by people who came to the West escaping the Soviet Bloc and now they’re saying that things they see happening in the West today remind them of what they left behind. What are they talking about? They’re talking about cancel culture, they’re talking about the way the ruling class in every society in the West has a single narrative that you must follow and it always involves identity politics, the sexual revolution and so forth. And if you don’t agree with this they can come after you for your job. In the UK they can come after you if you tweet out something mean that offends against a sacred minority and so on and so forth.
I believe that the root of all this, unlike Orwell who came up with the totalitarianism that depends on fear and terror to get people to conform, this is much more like Aldous Huxley’s, ‘Brave New World’ where people are compelled to conform because they want to live in a more comfortable society. They want to have a therapeutic totalitarianism. All of these things are social realities now, a lot of Christians don’t want to see them but we had better wake up.
JB: So there may be a number of Christians who share some of your concerns but not necessarily your solution, the Benedict Option. In fact, when I told one person I was coming to speak with you he said, he said, “Oh, the author of the Benedict opt-out!” was the way he called it. This idea, some people think of it as basically raising the drawbridge and saying, we’re just going to stay in our safe Christian huddles until the war… and it’s not about actually engaging the culture anymore. Is that a fair critique?
RD: No, it’s not. And usually the people who say that are people, I can be sure, have not read my book. Look, I don’t believe that any Christian has the option of heading for the hills. Some might do it, but you have to be Amish to do that. I’m not called to be Amish, neither are you. But that doesn’t mean that we can just say all is well. The Benedict Option – and Benedict is Saint Benedict of Nursia, the founder of western monasticism – the Benedict Option is about how we can live as faithful Christians in the post Christian world and deal with these constant assaults on our faith. To deal faithfully, without losing our hope, without losing our faith or compromising it out of existence.
I like to tell people that the Benedict Option is somewhere between Jeremiah 29 where God, speaking through the prophet, told the Israelites to settle in Babylon and pray for the peace of the city but also the early chapters in Daniel where they tell the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were Hebrew slaves, well embedded in Babylon, but who, when they were put to the test, never forgot who they were. They were even willing to die before abandoning God and betraying God. We Christians in this post Christian world have got to figure out ways to live in which we can not only ground ourselves firmly in the faith so when we go out into the post Christian world we can present the true face of Christ and pass the faith on to the children. We can’t be business as usual.
JB: Ok. Well thank you for joining us today, it’s going to be an interesting conversation I think. And probably a lot of shared ground and complentarity between you and Louise who joins me on the show as well. Louise, welcome along.
Tell us a little bit about your background because you’ve got a fascinating back story to what led up to you writing, ‘The Case Against the Sexual Revolution’, working actually in a Rape Crisis centre?
LP: Yes, so the story I like to tell about my upbringing is that we used to get two copies of the Guardian delivered every day because my Dad would take…
JB: We know where the political leanings…
LP: Yes, that’s why it’s a useful short-hand for my secular, liberal, urban upbringing. To me, completely boring, basically everyone in journalism has the same background. But also informed my thinking around sexual ethics in particular and in general I just had the normal opinions of my class. And so I went to university, I studied Anthropology, I studied Women’s Studies. I then worked in a Rape Crisis centre afterwards, partly by accident, I was volunteering there and a job became available. But it was a real confrontation with reality. Which is not to say that everyone who works in the women’s sector ends up reaching my conclusions, they definitely don’t. But for me, looking at the gap between what I was experiencing doing frontline work and what I had been taught as feminist theory, shook my faith in feminist theory. Irreversibly as it turned out.
JB: Explain that. What is the feminist theory? What is the received wisdom, if you like, about sexuality, and relationships and so on and what did you see that seemed to push up against that?
LP: So I’d say the first… well, actually, the first domino to fall in terms of bringing me to the point where I wrote a book called, ‘The Case Against the Sexual Revolution’ was to do with the trans movement which I think Rod mentioned briefly already. It was a very, very hot button issue when I was at university. It was very difficult to express any public scepticism about the claims of trans activists. I privately began to have my doubts and I think that it was an important moment for me in the sense that once you think that one element of your ideology is flawed it becomes much easier to think that other elements are as well. So, for instance, one of the dominant ideas in feminist thinking around sexual violence from the 1970s onwards is this phrase from Susan Brownmiller, that rape is not about sex it’s about power. So the idea is that sexual violence is used by men as a tool to supress women and it has nothing to do with sexual desire, it’s all about dominating other people. There clearly is a degree of truth to it, for instance, sexual harassment in the workplace is almost always perpetrated by someone more senior to their victim and clearly there is… you don’t see lots of junior men sexually abusing their female seniors. So clearly there is a little bit of truth to that. But I think, in a fundamental way, it is wrong. And one of the things that made me think that it was wrong was looking at the age profile of the victims that I was dealing with and the age profile of the perpetrators. The age profile of victims perfectly tracks the peak of female sexual attractiveness and the age of profile of perpetrators perfectly tracks the peak of male sex drive. You cannot explain that kind of data… (JB: Purely in power terms?) No. And I suppose once I’d started off on that more data driven road I ended up writing this book ten years later.
JB: And just sketch out a little bit the nature of the sexual culture that we’re living in and why you think it ultimately favours male sexuality actually more than female sexuality?
LP: So the premise that I start with – which is a very controversial premise in feminist land but is probably less so in the rest of the world – is that men and women are fundamentally different in some very important ways. Some of those differences are physical and some of those differences are psychological. And the psychological differences are average ones and there are outliers. But they are nevertheless real and they are important at the population level. So, for instance, men are higher in the term that psychologists call ‘sociosexuality’, which is one’s desire for sexual variety, essentially. A drive towards having casual sex and so on. There is overlap but in terms of the whole population of men and women men are further towards the unrestricted and sociosexuality spectrum. Which no one I think should be surprised to hear because that obviously should hold true in our experience of the world but it’s just very, very difficult to say in progressive circles where the blank slate doctrine dominates.
But I start with that controversial premise and from there I say, ok, well, what we’ve seen post sexual revolution has been a rejection of Christian sexual ethics and an embrace of freedom per se as the ultimate good. And the popular progressive narrative around the sexual revolution is that you shake free of these old oppressive norms, you inject more freedom into the system and expect people to arrive at more harmonious sexual relationships. I don’t think that’s what we’ve seen at all. I think that what we have essentially seen is that the… women have been encouraged – not by conspiracy, generally, but a new kind of culture, a new kind of incentive structure – to imitate male sexuality, to imitate that more unrestricted sociosexuality.
JB: Sex in the City type, Jessica Parker sort of stuff?
LP: Yes. So, hook-ups, watching porn, experimenting with fetishes, all these things, which suit the interests of people who are naturally more sexually adventurous but don’t, I think, suit the interests of the vast majority of women who are not naturally that way inclined but are encouraged, I think, to see that as aspirational.
JB: Because it’s purportedly a liberating form of sexuality?
LP: Exactly. And the only reason you wouldn’t want to do those things is because you still have hang ups derived from the old traditions.
JB: So you’ve noticed this… the book, as I say, comes to some surprisingly traditional conclusions in that sense, essentially saying by the end chapter, well, perhaps we need to reconsider going back to what we had before the sexual revolution; the idea of monogamous marriage. I mean, that’s a pretty stark conclusion to reach! How has that been received by people, by your peers?
LP: A lot of my critics agree! Yes, so a common view among feminist friends and colleagues is that they love it right up until the last chapter where I make the case for monogamous marriage. But what I try to do in that chapter – it is the controversial chapter – is to make that argument in entirely secular terms and to use as much data and… as up to date as possible (13:19?)
JB: Well I think that’s what I really appreciate about the book is you’re not writing it from a “Christian” perspective. It’s very much about the data and about the culture and obviously the experiences that you’ve encountered as well among women.
Rod, you reviewed the book, what did you think?
RD: Oh, I loved the book. I thought it was bang on all across, in every chapter. In fact, I even bought a copy for my 16-year-old daughter. You know, I’m a Christian, I’m an orthodox Christian, we raised our children Christian but I wanted her to know that it’s not simply a Christian critique to say that sexual revolution, the culture of the sexual revolution is a bad thing. One of the things that really stood out, Louise, as I was reading the book is something that Phillip Reef said. Phillip Reef has been largely forgotten today but he was a really influential and insightful social critic. He wrote a book in the 1960s called, ‘The Triumph of the Therapeutic’. And Reef was not a believer at all, he was a non-believing Jew, but he said there was something about… at the centre of the Christian sexual ethic or the Christian social ethic that had to do with restraining and redirecting sexual energy. He said it was so close to the centre of Christianity, it came out in the early church and that, said Reef, has fallen. He said churchmen – again, this was the mid 60s at the start of the sexual revolution – he said churchmen don’t realise this yet but when the sexual… the forbidden things… when Christian sexual morality falls apart so too will Christianity. This man was prophetic. And I don’t believe that we can get back to the kind of sexual ethic that you correctly think will be healthy. I don’t think we can get back there without a reconversion because human sexual desire is so overwhelming that you need to ground any sort of resistance to it in an attempt to control it and contain it in some sort of transcendent morality, I believe.
JB: To that extent, a lot of people who pre this sexual revolution kind of had an inherited ethic. They weren’t necessarily because they were devout Christians themselves but it was culture insisted upon and society and so on. As those barriers got removed obviously a lot of people felt, well, now all the fuddy-duddyness and the shame and everything else is being removed and we can be free at least. And what, for you… do you see that there were any advantages in that sense to the sexual revolution in that it actually did enable some of the overreach, if you like, of that kind of morality to be loosened?
LP: I suppose a fundamentally conservative insight that I have come to accept is that everything has trade-offs and there are clearly trade-offs to a conservative system of Christian sexual morality and similarly very much so to our post Christian social culture as well. The question is which trade-offs you can stomach which is a legitimately very difficult question. And it depends as well on which particular groups you are talking about, which individuals. It was very tough to be an unwed single mother in the era when you might see yourself consigned to Magdalene Laundries, say. It’s very tough now to be an unwed single mother too, it’s never been easy in either system.
RD: For different reasons.
JB: But there was, in a sense, that great cultural cost to stepping outside of the boundaries of what was considered proper sexual ethics. Nowadays those boundaries really don’t exist in the same way. To that extent, your book is just as counter cultural as someone who maybe did flout those laws in the past because you’re asking people to return to something that’s quite restrictive. To say, actually maybe we shouldn’t immediately be getting into bed with each other on first dates, maybe there is some sense in actually waiting and so on.
I guess my next question is; is it realistic? Without some kind of moral, spiritual inward change can we just say to culture, hey, we need to rethink this?
LP: That’s a big question. I mean, I wrote the book with the knowledge that what I was really appealing to when I write about the virtue of restraint and fidelity, chivalry even at one point, I wrote that fully in the knowledge that I was appealing to cultural Christian ideas that I would expect my readers to be at least familiar with and to have some emotional resonance for them. But that many readers… I mean, my experience since it’s been published is that lots of Christians have read the book, lots of non-Christians have read the book, and everyone seems to be able to genuinely take something away from it that’s positive.
On an individual level it does seem to be the case that people are capable of still holding to Christian virtues and will still find these kind of arguments persuasive without actually believing in the theology, without there being anything upstairs. The question is whether or not on a societal level we can continue to maintain Christian ideas without anything upstairs and I don’t know the answer to that.
RD: If I could jump in here. In my own case I became a Christian in my mid-20s but I had become an apostate from the sexual revolution just before my own conversion because I had lived it out in college and right after college and I kept digging myself into really deep holes. There was a pregnancy scare at one point, thank God she wasn’t pregnant, but you know… and there were broken hearts. I got so disgusted with myself for instrumentalising sex and instrumentalising these women, it was a casual hook up culture, I wasn’t a cad, really, but I was ashamed of the way I was behaving because it was dehumanising. And when I became a Christian, I became a Catholic at the age of 26, I thought I was entering a culture of the church where I would get help in living out chastity before my marriage. I didn’t find it. It’s incredible to me how so many in the church, church leaders, are ashamed of the churches teaching. For me it was so up-building to learn how to be chaste and learn how to surrender my own desires…
JB: Is the normal pattern then in your experience perhaps in the Catholic church, I suppose it varies from place to place, that a blind eye is turned to those kind of moral issues that it’s accepted that people are going to have sexual partners and so on?
RD: When I was coming into the Catholic Church, older Catholics said, oh, well, you know they’re obsessed with sex. No they aren’t! I was Catholic for thirteen years, I heard exactly three sermons about sex, two of which were complaining about the homophobia of the Catholic Church. If you are a single person – at least in my generation when I was younger, maybe things have gotten better – but if you were a single person trying to live out the Catholic Church’s teachings you were on your own because most priests didn’t want to have anything to do with it. And I have to say, being orthodox for sixteen years, I’ve never heard one homily about Christian sexual teaching even though it is at the centre of so much despair and disorder today.
JB: Now that might not be true in more evangelical circles where there might be more of a willingness to talk and to preach and so on, on the sanctity of marriage or whatever it might be. But do you think that, Louise, the church should be more vocal – just as someone from outside the church – do you think there’s a role there that is being missed?
LP: Well, the impression I’ve got over the last several months since the book was published is that people are absolutely desperate to speak about this. And people who have faith and those who don’t equally. Which I suppose does suggest that they’re not finding it in the usual places which historically would be the church. And now I suppose, I mean, the problem is that now we basically just have a vacuum when it comes to sexual guidance. The dominant message is prioritise your own freedom, your own pleasure and consent. Well that’s the only limiting factor; as long as you consent and the other person consents and you are all adults, etc. then it’s all fine. I think that’s a completely inadequate ethical system. I think removing the social guardrails was dangerous. There are some people who I think are doing fairly well in the new sexual culture who don’t have any need of guardrails. Those people are unusual. They are almost entirely male. And what works for them does not work for the culture as a whole.
JB: It’s interesting though because I can understand fully why a number of religious Christian people would be very enthusiastic potentially of something coming from outside the church to sort of essentially… sympathetic to traditional Christian sexual ethics. But even non-religious people, they’re saying, I needed to hear this, or, at last, someone is saying what I’ve been maybe thinking or didn’t have the words for it sounds like?
LP: Yes, that’s probably been the most common response I’ve had from readers; I’ve been thinking this and it’s so good to see someone writing it down.
JB: Which suggests that… I don’t know, do you think we are due for a bit of a push back? You talked about the fact that obviously the first issue that brought this up for you was the trans issue and it’s interesting because you’ve seen that swing now of those – J K Rowling obviously leading that – but lots of these gender critical feminists pushing back against that particular ideology. Do you think that maybe sex in general is the next thing where people might start to rethink and say, hey, did we go too far? Do we need to push the pendulum back again?
LP: There does tend to be a little bit of a pendulum swing effect historically. I mean, what’s unusual about our swing towards the permissive post 1960s is that it was fixed by technology in a way that it couldn’t be historically because if you… you know, you maybe have periods say, the 1920s or Georgian Britain where you have slightly looser sexual morality but you still have the very hard stop of pregnancy interceding and meaning that most respectable women are never going to participate in that kind of culture for very obvious practical reasons. Which, of course, isn’t true for us because we have the pill arriving in the 1950s and 60s and that’s completely transformative.
My suspicion is that probably we do have a reaction against the 1960s underway but I am sceptical about how successful it will be primarily for the material reasons, for the fact that the pill can’t be un-invented now.
JB: The genie is out of the bottle?
LP: I think so. I think that our material circumstances are just now so different in really important ways from those of our ancestors.
RD: Similarly, the internet can’t be un-invented. I’m so grateful that I grew up and went through my teenage years before the internet because I’m raising boys and the things they have to deal with, with the ubiquity of hard core pornography. To call it a game-changer is to radically understate the truth.
I remember going a few years ago to an evangelical Christian college in the US talking to some of the professors about what are the things you’re most concerned about with your students? And they talked about pornography and pornography as destroying the ability of these young people to not only form stable relationships but in turn to form stable families. And, again, this is back in 2014 so almost ten years ago. We had some of these professors who were talking about how troubling it was to them to see young women starting to watch hard core porn because they were told that this is what you have to do. And where is the push back coming from? I think in this country, in the UK, you’ve been fortunate on the gender critical feminism, which we don’t have in the US at this point, and I think that’s one reason the whole trans thing continues in the US to go on largely unchallenged is because opposition to it is tied to Christianity and you didn’t have that in the UK and I think that’s why you’ve done…
JB: We don’t have a religious right to speak of in the UK so it’s been interesting that, to me, that there’s been interesting bed-fellows made between certain secular gender critical feminists and so on and potentially more conservative Christian perspectives. And it feels like as the culture moves and shifts suddenly the alliances change and I’ve seen this just in – I’ve hosted a lot of Christian/Atheist discussions over the years and it used to be you could tell who was on which side but increasingly I meet atheists who are saying, well, now I’m more concerned about the direction of cancel culture and I’m aligning myself with Christians more than my secular brethren. So there’s a bit of a changing landscape isn’t there, Louise? Is that something you welcome? Is that something that you feel is… that it could actually help women ultimately that people are now starting to, I guess, question a lot of the normal sort of liberal perspectives on sexuality and everything?
LP: Yes, I agree with Rod that I think that part of the reason that the gender critical movement here has been so successful is because we don’t have a Christian right and because you had lots of women like J K Rowling who could participate in this without fearing association with Christian right which, of course, to the secular left is social death.
I do think that, at least in this country – and I hope at some point in America – feminism is unmooring from the Left. And I think that actually it has often… I mean, I think that it is much more instructive to use the word feminist in a very loose sense just to mean any sort of campaign on behalf of women. And if you look at it in those terms you can suddenly reveal a much richer feminist history. You know, temperance was a feminist movement, I would argue, for instance. It was an anti-domestic violence movement dressed up as an anti-alcohol movement. The first female MP in this country was conservative, the conservative party has often enacted what I would say is feminist legislation. It has never been a clearly partisan project, certainly in this country. There is also a tradition of pro-life feminism which has been largely forgotten. So I think it’s perfectly plausible that mainstream feminism in this country could move rightwards and probably is moving rightwards and I think the reason for that is partly to do with the internet. That it is suddenly become possible for women who previously could not really participate in public life because they had children to participate in public life. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that the problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. And feminism has always had the same problem; that you have to go to street corners and rallies and, you know, political meetings and so on.
JB: There has been the democratisation of the internet in that sense?
LP: Yes, and one of the – I mean, I think the internet comes with a huge amount of evil – but there are upsides too and one of them is now that mothers can now participate in public life on their smartphones in a way they couldn’t previously. And that has been the thing in gender critical activism successfully pushing back against trans activism.
RD: I think, Louise, that there is an even deeper question that we’re all going to have to deal with which is: How do we think about sex and the sexual revolution in feminism after liberalism, that is to say, after classical liberalism which seems to be dying? Patrick Deneen, the American academic, wrote a really good book called, ‘Why Liberalism Failed’. And his thesis is that liberalism failed because it succeeded so well in separating the choosing individual from any unchosen obligations and limits. Well, when that happens it turns out you can’t have a liberal society; it’s a paradox. And we have enculturated several generations of people in the West to believe that freedom is the absence of limits. Well, that doesn’t actually work as we’re discovering. So, I think it’s going to be fascinating to see what happens in the coming decades as the sort of foundational beliefs of classical liberalism no longer have a hold on the minds of young people who are trying to find some stable and meaningful way to live. And finding out that classical liberalism only really seems to work within a generally Christian society. I mean, this is something that Tom Holland, the historian, found out in his book, ‘Dominion.’
JB: We’re going to go to a quick break and we’ll come back. I want to talk about pornography again because you devote a chapter to that as well, Louise, and Rod’s already raised that issue. But we’re talking today on the show about Christianity, the sexual revolution and the future of the West. This is The Big Conversation. My guests today are Louise Perry and Rod Dreher.
Hello, and welcome back to The Big Conversation. We’re talking about Christianity, the sexual revolution and the future of the West. My guests today are Louise Perry and Rod Dreher. Just in that last segment, Louise, Rod raised the issue of porn again, something that many people of a certain age didn’t have to deal with growing up but which young people are exposed to from a very early age now. How much has that shaped sexuality in relationships would you say in the present culture?
LP: Enormously. One of the ongoing arguments between defenders of online porn and critics of it is to do with empirical evidence of its effects it’s just very, very difficult to study these things in really rigorous scientific ways because you don’t have… you have to rely on natural experiments. You can’t really do controlled experiments. But I think there is very good evidence to suggest that this is affecting the sexual culture, as you would expect it to. I mean, the average man in Britain watches 70 minutes of porn a week and 2 per cent of men watch 7 hours of porn a week. There are men who don’t watch porn. Like a surprisingly large proportion. But in terms of the impact on the population at large how can that not be having an effect given that it’s not just… this isn’t just beamed into our eyeballs in the way that all online culture is, it’s also reinforced by orgasm. You have this particularly aggressive dopamine feedback loop which, of course, the porn industry intends it that way.
JB: To the extent that it’s creating medical issues for people who are unable to sustain normal sexual relationships because they have somehow become dependent on that kind of an input?
RD: And men in their 20s, early 20s, who are impotent. Has that ever happened in human history?
LP: Not to my knowledge. And also becoming so… I think that there is a very dominant model of sexuality which I suppose probably comes from Freud in some way which sees us as having this fixed sexual energy that is fixed in both quantity and quality and what you have to do is just periodically vent it. And porn is one way to do this, prostitution is another way of doing this, hook-ups etc. And you sort of return to a happy equilibrium. But that actually doesn’t describe the truth of sexuality because there is feedback. What the use of online porn does, for instance, is it suggests new things, it channels uses towards more and more specific forms of content, more and more extreme forms of content too. And then it rewards that exploration and it embeds certain patterns of arousal, for instance, violent and aggressive patterns of arousal which are now ubiquitous…
JB: You give some quite disturbing examples of the sorts of types of sexual behaviour that it’s now normalising in a sense and many women and young girls feel like they have to do this because it’s what is expected because that’s the culture they’re surrounded by, that’s the pornography they are exposed to.
RD: And young men can’t have normal relationships, sexual or emotional with women because their brains have been rewired by constant exposure to pornography. I mean, it’s killing the capacity for romantic love between men and women and for the production of the next generation.
JB: I mean, you know, historically the Mary Whitehouse’s and so on, Christians of the past, have railed against pornography as a moral issue saying… and that’s more about saying it’s bad in and of itself. But it feels to me it’s not so much that you are railing against – not railing against, but critiquing it – it’s the social effects of it. It’s actually the fact that it is damaging people ultimately regardless of what you think of the moral status of creating pornography?
LP: I certainly object to the social effects and I think it’s fairly easy to make a persuasive case that the social effects are negative. I do think that there is also something fundamental about instrumentalising people and the nature of porn is that it trains the mind regards sex as a spectator sport and I think that that is dysfunctional in a really fundamental way.
JB: You quote someone saying that who was, I think, involved in the porn industry that it kind of reduced people to body parts essentially in the way that they started to think about people?
LP: Yes, by design. It’s interesting you mention Mary Whitehouse. I’ve obviously been compared to Mary Whitehouse a lot…
JB: A modern Mary Whitehouse. Is that a moniker you’re happy to wear?
LP: Well, I mean, I make a partial defence of Mary Whitehouse in the book because she was prescient about all sorts of things including she was one of the very few people in the 1970s who cared about child sexual abuse for instance at a period when we know that it was rampant and largely ignored by people in positions of power. So I think she’s been vindicated on all sorts of things.
There’s this video that I saw recently of her speaking at the Cambridge Union in I think the 1980s about pornography and making arguments and I’m entirely in agreement on. At least, the argument that she gave in that speech, I think she was completely right. And the students are jeering her, pandemonium in the Union…
JB: Just this old bigoted fuddy-duddy woman?
LP: Yes, they’re just not hearing it. And then I spoke on essentially the same motion at the Oxford Union, at the beginning of this year, and I very unexpectedly won and got no jeering, I got some quite tough questions from the floor but the mood was completely different and I don’t think that’s because I’m any more persuasive than Mary Whitehouse I think that’s because the mood among young people has shifted and I think that this generation who have now grown up with much, much more extreme material available to them and in a different medium…
JB: I think it’s the difference between what pornography in Mary Whitehouse’s generation you still had to go into a shop, reach up to something and buy something; it’s a completely difference scenario.
RD: It’s Playboy and Penthouse in the US which is incredibly mild compared to…
JB: In that sense it’s interesting though you won that motion. Is there any sense among – and that’s students, a younger generation – that perhaps there is a kind of change of thought on actually what makes sense when it comes to sexuality? Do you think that we might be seeing a little bit of a turning the tide there?
LP: There’s definitely a turning against porn. The nature of the diagnosis though is still up for debate and therefore the prescription is up for debate as well. So the view that I’ve had expressed to me quite often from liberal feminists is that the problem with the sexual revolution is that we never finished it; we never fully accomplished it. The project was all about liberating ourselves and we are not yet liberated and that’s why people are in pain and so we need to just continue the project right to the very end of the long, dusty road. And that any attempts to roll back that freedom project would be a mistake. I mean, so where I differ on that is I think that actually the project was fundamentally misconceived in the beginning and we are seeing the inevitable consequences of throwing freedom at a society that is in denial about the nature of social difference.
RD: You know there’s a line in Dostoevsky’s novel, ‘The Possessed’, where one of the characters says, starting from a position of absolute freedom you end with absolute despotism. And I would say the sexual revolution is in its despotic phase. Now, when you can’t question any of it or you can question very little of it without being attacked and maybe things are changing in the UK but in the US now this is the thing that you can’t touch; the idea that liberation, that the sexual revolution was all about liberation, and if you are not “sex positive” – to be sex positive means that you have to endorse every single thing that the progressive Left wants – and if not you’re seen as sex negative.
In fact, one of the things I like most about your book is you talking about sexual disenchantment; that we have disenchanted the sexual act and romantic love. I’m working on a book right now about re-enchantment, about generally the disenchantment in the West. One of the things I learned was from this German sociologist named Hartmut Rosa and the word he uses for enchantment is called ‘resonance’. He’s not writing from a religious point of view but he said that in a resonant world we feel at home, we feel that things have meaning around us. Well, the way he says to disenchant the world is to try to control everything, to bring everything into our field, to bound it and to instrumentalise it totally for ourselves. When I read that I said, that’s what Louse is talking about with sexual disenchantment; the idea that we believe that we can take this great and deep mystery that is human sexuality and bring it completely under our control with technology, by passing laws, by changing the way we speak about things, so we can denature it. Well, if that’s what you do then you get pornography; where human beings are turned into body parts.
JB: And to that extent are you in a… in some way in the book almost asking people to look at each other as if they have a soul? That they are not simply a kind of a set of body parts and as long as there is consent… are you asking people to change the way that they think about themselves even in just material terms?
LP: I don’t use the word ‘soul’, but, yes, essentially, yes. Treating people as…
JB: As is were, I suppose it borders on an almost religious kind of nature and, you know, I think you say towards the end, as you say in that final chapter, you say, well it turns out there has been a solution to the way… the best of all the worst alternatives if you like, the Judaeo-Christian conception of marriage, monogamous marriage, has been something that has put the guardrails in place and has been able to bring out the best, ultimately, in culture in both men and women and their sexuality.
But can you put that genie back in the bottle I suppose? Can you just at a social level encourage people to do that or is it about their soul ultimately? Do we have to go to that religious level in the end? What do you think?
LP: Well, I think one ray of light in all of this is that actually individuals still have an enormous amount of decision making power. It is completely possible for any reader of my book to just decide to live differently. The institution of marriage may be pretty much dead but people can still get married, people can still be monogamous, people can still forgo pre-marital sex…
JB: Chose not to look at pornography?
LP: Yes, all of these things. The issue, of course, is that none of this is mandated in society and we don’t have the cultural infrastructure that would reinforce those individuals who are making that decision. I find it very hard to imagine us going back to a more theocratic way of doing things.
JB: That was the word that leapt to my mind. Are you saying that we would need a theocracy to get back to something like…?
RD: Have we ever had that in the West, a rule by clerics? I think that religion certainly has to have more authority and that’s not to say political authority. I think, you know, there’s a reason, a very good reason, why the American founders separated Church and State and I don’t question that at all. But I think that we do have to have some sort of authority outside of ourselves to appeal to and to ground our own desires in and, crucially, we have to have meaning to suffering. We were talking earlier in our conversation about how, in the pre-sexual revolution days, a lot of men and women, especially women, suffered in bad marriages, even abusive marriages. And I think the sexual revolution was, in part, especially on the divorce front, to make that less likely, to give men and women who are miserable and suffering a way out. And I think that this was well meaning, certainly. But I think we have developed a culture now, a general culture, that is very therapeutic and it sees any suffering, even the most minute thing, is somehow bad and something to be completely avoided.
I write in, ‘Live not by Lies’ about a young woman in Budapest; she’s in her mid-30s, she was my translator when I was in Hungry doing research. And we were riding the tram through the city and she said, “You know, Rod, I really struggle as a Catholic to talk to my friends, especially my Catholic friends, about the struggles I have as a wife and mother of a young boy.” I’m like, what do you mean? She said, “Well, as soon as I tell them that my husband and I haven’t been getting along lately or our little boy hasn’t been sleeping well they cut me off and say, ‘well, get a divorce, put your son in day care, you’ve got to be happy’”. She said, I tell them, “Wait a minute. I am happy! I’m happy being a wife, I’m happy being a mum but a happy life doesn’t mean a life with no anxieties and no struggles.” But, she said, they can’t understand that life can be good if there’s any suffering in it. I looked at her and said, “Ana, it sounds like you’re fighting for your right to be unhappy”? She said, “That’s it! Where did you get that”? I pulled out my phone and went to chapter 17 of Huxley’s, ‘Brave New World’. That is the basis for the totalitarianism there; that the world controller tells John the Savage the dissident, he said, ‘Why don’t you want to join us? We offer you Christianity without tears’? And he says – John says – there is something about fulfilled human nature that requires tension, that requires suffering. So he does fight for his right to be unhappy.
I think, Louise, that ultimately this is why we’re going to have to have some sort of recovery, true recovery of Christianity and not just a moralistic, therapeutic deism that constitutes so much popular Christianity today because in the end if we are going to find a way to restrain our sexual desires and to sacrifice them to a greater good, the greater good which is love – not deny them but to purify them and raise them up – it’s going to have to happen within a theological context that gives meaning to suffering.
JB: What do you think of that? Because you give some advice and you say these are the things people can do. But for anyone to do that who has been raised in the sexual revolutionary culture that we have it is going to be incredibly hard. And without a whole community around you helping you to do that at some level I can imagine that you’ll feel very much like you’re sticking out in a culture that all around you is doing the opposite?
LP: Yes, Rod is completely right. We talk so often about the Orwellian dystopia that threatens us but we never really talk about Huxlarian dystopia but actually Huxley was far more (…47:41?) than Orwell on all sorts of things. And yes, we do essentially live in a culture which values the short term in every possible way. And there are certain things like, for instance, parenthood which you cannot do in a short term way. I mean, particularly from a female perspective, you really frontload the pain of having children. I mean, in a literal sense, in terms of childbirth but also…
RD: You can’t do cost benefit analysis either.
LP: No, because the costs are immediate and obvious and the benefits are delayed and amorphous. And that is exactly the sort of bargain that no one wants to make in a short termist culture.
JB: And people are delaying increasingly childbirth anyway. You actually were pregnant when you wrote the book and made it that much harder, I’m sure, to get that book out there and probably very difficult to do anything once you have a young child. But in a sense we’re living in a culture where childbirth rates in most western countries are dropping and people are postponing that and probably not realising actually how difficult it is to have children when you do reach a certain age, especially in female terms.
So what are you asking for? Are you asking for a wholescale reconsideration of not just sexual relationships but having children… do you feel like that is under threat as well with the sexual revolution?
LP: I mean, yes. It’s not just in a handful of western countries it’s everywhere except Sub-Saharan Africa are seeing birth rates plummet and there is lots of debate over what exactly is causing that. I think it has to come back to the pill. We invented, for the first time in the history of humanity, a means of suspending fertility and it turns out that people are very motivated to have sex and they are not necessarily very motivated to have children. And we didn’t know that before, we revealed it through technology. I think the medical technology is just so much at the heart of modernity, for good and ill. I mean, with the…
JB: But surely as a feminist you’re not saying, let’s roll back the pill. That surely is one of those things where most women would say that gave women the freedom, it freed them from a particular biological form of a cost that allowed them actually to go into the world and to have a kind of equality ultimately with men?
LP: The pill has brought innumerable benefits to women. I actually did… my alternative life course was doing a PHD on the history of the C-section, which I almost did, and I did my Master’s thesis on the history of the C-section. And reading accounts of women in the era before safe caesarean was available who could not possibly give birth to a baby because of things like pelvic injuries or disabilities which meant that the birth canal was completely obstructed and who were having terrible procedures performed on them in their pregnancies, and their husbands kept knocking them up. Accounts of women who died on their tenth pregnancy and… I mean, the problem is you look at a situation like that and the modern pro-choice feminist position which I on the whole hold to, with some reservations, is that you have to give these women the option of the pill because it’s the only way in these really most extreme circumstances that women can survive. But I also look at that kind of situation and I think what a terrible thing for those men to be continuing to impregnate women for who it was a death sentence and a death sentence for the baby to be made pregnant. And I think the risk is of just using technology to solve our problems, or seeming to, is that it really takes the onus off human beings to do the right thing. (RD: To be virtuous) And we seem to have just abandoned any effort to control men, basically. And to constrain male sexuality which has to be constrained for the sake of women.
RD: As you say so powerfully in this book, the whole sexual revolution has been a boon for caddish men. For the Hugh Heffner types. It’s justified by contemporary liberal feminist as being something beneficial for women but in fact those who have benefitted the most are the ones who have the most contempt for women.
LP: And I think that there is a defeatism in thinking that we can’t possibly constrain those men we just have to try and ameliorate the effects of their behaviour. And I think that’s a very sad move in feminism.
JB: Going back to the birth rates issue, Rod, what’s your perspective on this? Some people say that Islam actually is one area in the UK, for instance, where there are more children being born and some people say, well if the rates continue Islam may come to predominate just on the basis of purely reproduction.
You talk about this Benedict Option Christians need to, as it were, have strong communities where that particular spiritual life and prayer life is manifest so that it can hold out against what you see as this coming soft totalitarianism and so on. Is part of that encouraging Christians to be fruitful and multiply as well?
RD: Absolutely. It has been part of Christianity since the very beginning. We didn’t even… contraception was considered something taboo for Christians up until the 1930s. I think the Anglican Church was the first one to permit contraception. But I think that we need to establish communities of faith within which familyism – the idea that the family is something good and children are a primary good, they are not a good that’s justified by materialistic terms – but that supports the raising of the next generation. But this is something that is so counter cultural and can only be done, I think, within small communities.
That’s one of the things I really learned in my own Christian journey when I converted to Christianity, to Catholicism at the age of 26, I was living in Washington DC and I knew that, for me, the greatest dying to self that I had to do was dying to sexual activity. I knew I had to be chaste until I married. And I didn’t know if I would ever marry. That was so difficult to do because I couldn’t find any priest who wanted to help me, to help me walk the straight and narrow. I didn’t need to be told what the right thing to do was, I just needed help. They were embarrassed by the churches teaching. I found four years later when I did get married that I had grown so much spiritually and emotionally by those four years of chastity in ways that I would not have done had I not realised that if Jesus is going to be the Lord of my life he has to be the Lord of all my life including my sex life. But I have some bitterness that I had to do this almost entirely on my own because there was no help in my churches.
JB: And so is that part of the Benedict Option in a sense is being full and frank about the challenges and what it means to live a chaste life as far as you’re concerned? That the church needs to have those awkward conversations with people?
RD: It does need to have the awkward conversations and not be apologetic for what it teaches. Now, my wife grew up in a fundamentalist Protestant church where she said sex was talked about very negatively if it was talked about at all. Now, that’s wrong too. Sex, in traditional Christian teaching, sex is a good thing. But it has to be channelled in a way that is life giving and holy. The church knows how to do this it just needs to quit being so afraid of the Guardian and the New York Times and actually stand openly and unapologetically for the wisdom of the ages and the wisdom of scripture.
JB: But very often most people would think, especially here in the UK but I’m sure parts of the US as well, the problem with the church is it’s always seen to have been anti-this anti-that, prudish and reactionary and so on. And to hear Rod saying, well, we need to actually embrace the distinctives of the Christian sexual ethic a lot of churches and Christians might run a mile from that and say that’s not a way to engage the culture saying, we stand against this, thou shalt not and so on.
I don’t know whether you feel like that’s something actually, in a counter intuitive way, young people, today’s generation, might embrace being given the challenge of a quite traditional Christian sexual ethic or whether actually if people weren’t likely to darken the door of a church they never will if that’s what’s being put on offer, Louise? What do you think?
LP: The assumption from many British Christians and from the Church of England in general is that, yes, the church has to come to meet the progressive culture and that liberalising church teachings is the way to get people through the door. I suppose maybe in some circumstances that might be working but, you know, I know a surprising number of young Catholic converts, people who have felt so dispirited by mainstream culture and actually are longing for a more… something clearer and more deliberately rigid.
JB: Something that doesn’t just look like the culture around them in that sense?
LP: Yes, and that seems to offer access to the wisdom of the past, to kind of confidence… (RD: To something that calls them out of themselves…) Yes. So, whether or not that’s going to appeal to everyone, probably not.
JB: What’s making those people, you don’t obviously have to name any names, but is it coming from a dissatisfaction with their life as it stands and what is it that they are seeing in those quite traditional forms of Christianity that is obviously turning them towards it?
LP: A dissatisfaction with their lives, a dissatisfaction with the culture in general. I mean, I think we have basically run an experiment of sixty odd years of the sexual revolution and I think that it was probably more enjoyable at the beginning, from what I’ve read! I mean, clearly some of the most enthusiastic revolutionaries of the 60s and 70s had a ball. Or some of them did. But we’ve seen it play out now and many of these people will be the children of broken homes, will have been exposed to online porn from the age of 10, 11… I mean the paradoxical thing that we are seeing now among Gen Z is on the one hand hyper-pornified public life, astonishing exposure to sexual content that you will expect to see hundreds of thousands of adults having sex before you’ve even kissed another person is now just the standard childhood template. And then on the other hand we have people having less sex, delaying sexual relationships until ones 20s or 30s, not getting married, this withdrawing of the sexes actually and people having much more unhappily chaste lives because not chaste for any positive purpose but chaste just because they can’t form meaningful relationships.
JB: But the perceived wisdom is always that in culture you need to experiment and find who you’re compatible with. And the idea of not having a sexual relationship before you marry would just seem mind bogglingly bizarre and primitive to many people today.
So is there anything you can do to push back on that narrative if you honestly think that actually people have got that the wrong way around?
LP: There is an episode of Sex and the City – I’ve watched all of Sex and the City for my sins – and it comes up in the book because it’s such a cultural lodestone for all of this stuff. And there is a plot line when one of the characters decides not to have sex with a boyfriend who she then becomes to engaged to as an experiment – she’s obviously not a virgin. And then it comes to the night before their wedding and she discovers that he’s impotent. And it ends up destroying the marriage, it doesn’t last very long. And this is the nightmare scenario presented to people for whom the idea of not having premarital sex is bizarrely old-fashioned.
I mean I fundamentally disagree with the idea that sex is a skill that one ought to practice on people. I don’t think it’s something that you do to another person it’s something you do with another person. I think the idea of, say, quite a common article that you’ll see in women’s mags is sex tips from sex workers because the idea being that just having had a lot of sex and having had a lot of partners puts you in the best possible position to advise on technique and if you do understand it as basically being a matter of technique then that makes sense. This is the sexual disenchantment view that sex is basically like playing tennis in which case I suppose sex workers are professional tennis players. But that clearly just doesn’t… no one actually lives as if sexual disenchantment was true. No one actually believes that sexual disenchantment is really true. I think it’s a rhetorical device which has become very widely used. But people don’t behave in that way. People still do clearly feel that sex is different from playing tennis. They care deeply if their partners are unfaithful, they feel joy and distress in relation to their sexual experiences that they don’t find in any other part of life. I think that, I mean, in some senses the sexual re-enchantment process is pushing on an open door because it’s what people feel. The issue is just how to frame it in an ideological way that de-Christianised people could accept.
JB: I’m going to go to a final break and we’ll be concluding the conversation. It’s been a fascinating one so far but thank you so much Louise and Rod for being with me. We’ll be back in just a moment’s time with the final part of today’s show looking at Christianity, the sexual revolution and the future of the West.
We’ve been talking about Christianity, the sexual revolution and the future of the West here on The Big Conversation today it’s been so good to be joined by Louise Perry and Rod Dreher. We’ve just got a few more minutes just for some final thoughts really.
So, Rod, we’ve talked about; can we put this genie back in the bottle? If we do say that culture is going in an alarming direction what’s the solution? It doesn’t feel like necessarily everyone becoming Christians is an obvious thing that will happen barring some great miracle. But is Louise and her concerns coming at it more from a secular point of view, do you think that might suggest there is a changing of the tide in the way people are now thinking about sexuality and culture and so on?
RD: Well, I’m certainly quite encouraged to see Louise, Mary Harrington and other women of their generation actually coming out and saying the things they’re saying because I think it gives hope to a lot of people, especially younger people who believe that we’re in some sense living a false narrative but they’re afraid because there is so much intimidation out there in the media, by the gatekeepers in the media, entertainment media and in the government and in academia that keep people from asking these questions. That Louise and Mary Harrington and others are doing it is a hopeful sign.
In the long term though I don’t think that there’s any way to pull back fully without some sort of religious revival and I don’t see that coming in any mass way. This is why I talk about the Benedict Option, about forming these small traditional rooted communities that can be like arks to keep the church and the tradition of the West, the long tradition, alive throughout this flood of liquid modernity and that will be able in the future to settle down and re-evangelise the world. I don’t think I’ll live to see it but I think that’s the only hope for us.
JB: What do you think the future holds…? I mean, do you think it’s going to get worse firstly before it gets better maybe, Louise, if it does get better?
LP: I think that the fault line that is emerging already in culture and politics, and I think is going to become more and more marked as time goes by, is between people who want to embrace technology and people who are cautious about technology. I think that is… I mean, technology in the broadest possible terms; I don’t just mean computers, I mean things like the pill, all sorts of medical technology, sex reassignment surgeries are a really radical example of trying to remove this biological hard limits which have, until recently, entirely determined human life. And I think do entirely still determine human life because actually we still essentially have stone age brains, we have not, on a fundamental level, changed as a species, we have just had very, very rapid changes in our material circumstances which are likely to change still further.
The pill was this radical transformation which I don’t think we’ve ever really come to terms with, I don’t think that we’ve properly grappled with it on a social level at all. The nature of modern technological change is that the change becomes more and more rapid as time goes by and I think it is extremely likely that we will have new technology shocks, we will have new transformations of society – I mean Covid was one little taste of what might come from a world in which we are vulnerable to disease in ways that we have got used to not being vulnerable to. If we have, say, a world without antibiotics… if we enter a post-antibiotic world – which is a very serious threat and actually a lot more serious than something like climate change in many ways – that will have completely transformative social effects. There will be no more sex parties and prostitution in a world where we have antibiotic resistant gonorrhoea, which we already have. This is just one example of ways in which our material circumstances could change very suddenly. And I think in those circumstances it is plausible that we might return to some of the most durable ideologies available to us.
RD: Some people say this. Philip Longman, who’s a demographer and a liberal in Washington, has said that the future belongs to those who show up for it. And like it or not – and I don’t think he necessarily does – patriarchy came out of somewhere. It’s a way of dealing with the world that’s more dangerous, in a world of great limits and I think that the liberalism that we all like, even those of us who vote conservative, we like living in a liberal society, but reality may come back to force us, whether it’s antibiotic resistance, whether it’s economic loss… we’re talking now at the beginning of the winter by the time this comes out we would have gotten through the winter but I’ve been told – I live in Eastern Europe – that governments could fall all around Europe because of the energy shortage because of the Ukraine War. I mean this is the sort of thing that none of us would have seen coming but I think we are all a lot more perilous than we realise and our ability to control the limits is an illusion.
LP: And this perceived abundance that came out of the post- war period I think is almost certainly over and a feminism and more broadly a politics that was a result of that sense of abundance is going to have to change as well.
JB: Do you think that might ultimately push people back towards God? Sometimes it is the hard things that ultimately…
LP: I don’t think that any sociologists are settled on the cause of de-Christianisation. I’ve always thought, as a mother of a toddler, the drop in mortality must have been part of it. People must have been desperate to believe in heaven when they could expect half of the children to die before they could reach adulthood. I’m obviously not wishing for that by any means but it’s just an example I think of the way in which people find social means to cope with adversity.
RD: One quick thing before we go. I was told this past summer in Oxford by an Anglican ordinate that new atheism is dead in his generation – he’s 27 years old – he worked in advertising in London before he went to seminary and he said that he was the only Christian in his office, he said, but there were no atheists. Everybody else in the office was involved in one degree or another with the occult and there were even two open Satanists in the office. As a Christian that’s horrifying to hear but he said he actually found some hope in it in that there were people of his generation who are desperate for some kind of transcendence, desperate to connect with transcendence. He thinks – and certainly I do – that they’ve taken a wrong turn but the fact that they are not satisfied with materialism and consumerism is to him a sign of potential re-birth.
JB: Interesting. Well we all wait to see what happens in a perhaps a post-sexual revolution but for now it’s been fascinating talking about culture, post-Christendom and Christianity with you, Louise and Rod. Thank you so much for being my guests on The Big Conversation.
Well, who knows what the future may hold, whether is a post-sexual revolution, post-Christendom or perhaps some other alternative I’m glad that we were able to have this conversation at this time so Louise and Rod, thank you very much for being my guests today.