The sexual revolution has been a disaster for women – that was the provocative case set out by Louise Perry in yesterday’s Daily Mail.
Here, in a second extract from her powerful new book, she takes on feminists who deride marriage. Yes, it’s hard work, she says, and most don’t live up to a romantic ideal, but it still offers the best protection possible for a woman and her children.
The institution of marriage is now more or less dead. In 1968, eight per cent of children were born to parents who were not married; in 2019, it was almost half. And now in this country there is a divorce for every two marriages.
It was not meant to be like this. Proponents of the 1969 Divorce Reform Act – the key piece of liberalising legislation – believed the changes they argued for would be an act of kindness towards a smallish number of unhappy people stuck in wretched marriages, and lift the stigma from the then tiny minority unfortunate enough to have been through divorce.
‘This Bill does not open the door to easy divorce,’ announced the attorney general of the time. And yet open it did.
There was always a threshold of marital dysfunction above which a marriage was considered beyond saving, and reformers intended to nudge that line only a little.
Yet each marginal divorce made the next one more likely, and the one after that more likely still, with the result that the threshold went hurtling downwards at great speed.
Over the next decade, divorces trebled and then kept rising, peaking in the 1980s. Since then there has been a slight decline in the rate, not because of a return to marital longevity but because you can’t get divorced if you don’t get married in the first place, and marriage rates are at a historic low.
As many as half of divorced people in the UK report in surveys that they regret it. But the mood that it’s better to cut and run is catching, and in a culture of high divorce rates even marriages that last will run the risk of being undermined, writes Louise Perry
It’s right, of course, that some marriages should end, particularly where there is violence, and in those cases the liberalisation of divorce laws was a blessing. But most modern divorces are not a consequence of domestic abuse.
Rather, they are the result of a fundamental change in attitudes as British society entered the era of self-expressive marriage. Self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth became the key markers of a marriage’s success. Before then, couples who were not ‘irreparably unhappy’ tended to remain married. Now they usually don’t.
If a couple have grown apart, fallen out of love, they try for a fresh start, even though it’s a step that doesn’t always deliver. For many divorced women, the promise of happier alternative relationships remains unfulfilled – they are more likely than men to remain permanently single afterwards.
As many as half of divorced people in the UK report in surveys that they regret it. But the mood that it’s better to cut and run is catching, and in a culture of high divorce rates even marriages that last will run the risk of being undermined. With wedding vows no longer truly binding, and marriage accepted as impermanent, couples become less confident in their relationships and the institution as a whole changes in ways that no one could have imagined.
But reform of divorce laws was not the sole cause of the death of marriage. They formed part of a suite of factors, the most important of which was the contraceptive pill.
The Pill – along with the decriminalisation of abortion, which provided a back-up option – ended the taboo on pre-marital sex. From the 1970s onwards it became much less common for women to wait until marriage or engagement before having sex. In theory, they still had the choice to refuse, but in practice it became much harder to do.
‘It often seemed more polite to sleep with a man than to chuck him out of your flat,’ said the social commentator Virginia Ironside, reflecting on her past. ‘Armed with the Pill, and with every man knowing that, pregnancy was no longer a reason to say no to sex. And men exploited this mercilessly. Now, for them, no always meant yes.’
Thus motherhood became a biological choice for women – but that also meant fatherhood became a social choice for men.
Before then, only the most flagrant cad would refuse to acknowledge and provide material support to his children if he was in a recognised relationship with their mother at the time of conception.
The institution of marriage is now more or less dead. In 1968, eight per cent of children were born to parents who were not married; in 2019, it was almost half. And now in this country there is a divorce for every two marriages
Now, deadbeat dads are commonplace. In the UK less than two-thirds of non-resident parents, nearly all of them fathers, are paying child support in full. Not only are record numbers of children growing up without a father at home, but many of them don’t even get any money out of these absent men.
This has consequences. Research shows that, despite the often valiant efforts of single mothers, children without fathers at home do not do as well as other children on average. Fatherlessness is associated with higher youth offending and incarceration rates for boys, higher rates of teenage pregnancy for girls, and a greater likelihood of emotional and behavioural problems for both sexes.
This is not only because children are denied the material support their fathers might have given them, but also because single mothers are obliged to take on the almost impossible task of doing everything themselves: all of the earning, plus all of the caring, socialising and disciplining of their children. There is also the sometimes malign influence of step-parents to consider. A step-parent is 40 to 100 times more likely than a biological parent to kill a child, and stepfathers are also far more likely than genetic fathers to sexually abuse children.
Of course it is sometimes better for children not to live with their genetic fathers, or even have contact with them, particularly if those men are abusive or dangerously unstable. And of course there are plenty of devoted stepfathers and stepmothers who make exceptionally good parents. But there is no doubt the presence of a step-parent in a young child’s home increases the risk of bad outcomes.
Despite all these caveats, for some people the death of marriage is a good thing. Opposition to marriage was a common theme for feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, Germaine Greer and Kate Millett, all arguing for its abolition.
But it’s no coincidence that most of the feminists who opposed marriage never had children of their own. They have not put to the test the key question: how are women supposed to reconcile their search for freedom with a condition that necessarily curtails it?
Because having children changes the whole dynamic. If you value freedom above all else, you must reject motherhood, since this is a state of being that limits a woman’s freedom in almost every way.
Many feminists described their goal as ‘women’s liberation’ – womankind was in chains, they said, and those chains had to be broken. And that goal was not without merit, given that women are still too often consigned permanently to the role of ‘someone’ – always caring, never cared for
This clash of priorities has never really been addressed by feminists. They shut mothers out, with motherhood discussed in just a tiny percentage of research papers, academic journals and textbooks on modern gender theory. The whole topic has slipped out of sight. And no wonder, since the logic of individualism collapses upon contact with motherhood.
The pregnant woman’s frame contains two people, neither of them truly autonomous. The unborn baby depends on the mother for survival, and the mother cannot break this physical bond except through medical intervention that will result in the baby’s death.
And then, after birth, mother and baby remain a unit, tied together both emotionally and physically. As one leading paediatrician puts it: ‘There is no such thing as a baby. There is only a baby and someone.’
Acting as that ‘someone’ means giving away some portion of your freedom, which runs counter to what we women are supposed to want.
Many feminists described their goal as ‘women’s liberation’ – womankind was in chains, they said, and those chains had to be broken. And that goal was not without merit, given that women are still too often consigned permanently to the role of ‘someone’ – always caring, never cared for.
But the solution cannot be individualism, because being ‘a someone’ or needing ‘a someone’ is our instinctive lot as human beings. We have to find a way of being dependent upon one another.
Some see the State as the answer, providing assistance from outside the family. And indeed the State as back-up husband is tasked with providing institutional childcare in day centres.
Mothers can thus return to the workforce and put their tax revenue towards feeding the daycare engine. But such a model depends on physically prising apart women from their children, and that too goes against our natural instincts.
We are animals, descended from individuals whose offspring survived to adulthood, and natural selection therefore favours attentive mothers. This means that when social structures fall away, the result is generally that the person left literally holding the baby is the person whose instincts make her most devoted to the child. And without the protection of a marriage, she faces a struggle.
What I’ll tell my daughter about modern men and sex
All girls and women, but particularly those aged from about 13 to 25, should avoid being alone with men they don’t know or men who give them the creeps. Don’t ignore your gut instinct – it’s usually triggered by a red flag that’s well worth noticing.
Hold off on having sex with a new boyfriend for at least a few months. This is a good way of discovering whether or not he’s serious about you or just looking for a hook-up.
Have sex with a man only if you think he would make a good father to your children – this is not because you necessarily intend to have children with him, but because it is a good rule of thumb in deciding whether he’s worthy of your trust.
Chivalry is actually a good thing. We all have to control our sexual desires, and men particularly so given their greater physical strength and average higher sex drives.
Sometimes (though not always) you can readily spot men who are sexually aggressive. A handful of personality traits are common to them: impulsivity, promiscuity, hyper-masculinity and disagreeableness. These traits in combination should put you on your guard.
A man who is aroused by violence is a man to steer well clear of. He may use the vocabulary of BDSM (bondage and masochism) to excuse his behaviour, but if he can maintain an erection while beating a woman, then he isn’t safe to be alone with.
Trust your moral intuition and distrust any person or ideology that puts pressure on you to ignore it.
If you get drunk or high, do so in private and with female friends rather than in public or in mixed company.
Don’t use dating apps. Mutual friends can vet histories and punish bad behaviour – dating apps can’t.
Monogamous marriage is by far the most stable and reliable foundation on which to build a family.
Feminist analysis of marriage sees it as a method used by men to control female sexuality.
And it does do that, but that was never its sole function. There is also a protective function to marriage, but it makes sense only when understood in relation to children. In the era before contraception, a prohibition on sex before marriage served female – not male – interests, because it protected the people who bear (literally) the consequences of an extramarital pregnancy.
Single motherhood was a catastrophe, not just in the reputational harm it did, with mothers and their children stigmatised by their families and communities, but disastrous enough to result, for some, in a choice between prostitution and starvation. Or else other alternatives that were just as terrible – a dangerous attempt at abortion, the abandonment of a child to an orphanage, or infanticide.
The stigma around single motherhood caused a great deal of misery for its many victims, but it also existed for a reason: to deter women from making an irreparable mistake for the sake of a worthless man, a cad who would desert them after casual sex rather than take on the commitment of being a dad.
The problem for women, in the past and now, is how to persuade men into sexual continence. Because the fact is that the cad mode of male sexuality is bad for women.
The vast majority of women find it difficult to detach emotion from sex, meaning an encounter with a cad who doesn’t stay in touch is likely to leave a woman feeling distressed, even if she attempts to repress those feelings. Women did not evolve to treat sex as meaningless, and trying to pretend otherwise does not end well.
Then there are the physical consequences of sex, with the danger and pain of an unwanted pregnancy borne entirely by the woman. An abortion is not a good thing to go through, given the risk of uterine damage or sepsis, not to mention emotional consequences.
The task is to deter men from cad mode. Our current sexual culture does not do that, but it could.
In order to change the incentive structure, we would need a technology that discourages short-termism in male sexual behaviour, protects the economic interests of mothers and creates a stable environment for the raising of children.
And we do already have such a technology, even if it is old, clunky and prone to periodic failure.
It’s called marriage.
I accept that lifelong monogamy is not the natural human condition. Only about 15 per cent of societies in the anthropological record have been monogamous, and even within societies in which it is deeply embedded, plenty of people are defiant.
To date, monogamy has been dominant in only two types of society: small-scale groups beset by serious environmental privation and some of the most complex civilisations to have ever existed, including our own. Almost all others have been polygamous, permitting high-status men to take multiple wives.
But while the monogamous marriage model may be unusual, it is also spectacularly successful. When monogamy is imposed on a society it tends to become richer and more stable, with lower rates of both child abuse and domestic violence. Birth rates and crime rates both fall, which encourages economic development, and wealthy men, denied the opportunity to devote their resources to acquiring more wives, instead invest in property, businesses, employees and other productive endeavours.
A monogamous marriage system is successful in part because it pushes men away from cad mode, particularly when pre-marital sex is also prohibited. If a man wants to have sex in a way that’s socially acceptable, he has to make himself marriageable. That means holding down a good job and setting up a household suitable for the raising of children. In other words, he has to tame himself.
Fatherhood then has a further taming effect, even at the biochemical level. When men are involved in the care of their young children their testosterone levels drop, alongside their aggression and sex drive. A society composed of tamed men is a better society to live in – for men, for women and for children.
The monogamous marriage model is also the best solution yet discovered to the problems presented by child-rearing.
There was a wisdom to the traditional model in which the father was primarily responsible for earning money while the mother was primarily responsible for caring for children at home. Such a model allows mothers and children to be physically together and at the same time financially supported. In an age of labour-saving domestic devices it has become more feasible for mothers of young children to do paid work outside of the home, as most of us do and take pleasure from. But not during the early months of a baby’s life.
I know full well that I was irreplaceable as mother to my newborn child – not only because I was the only person who could breastfeed, but also because children have a relationship with their mother that cannot be handed over without distress to both mother and baby. If we want to keep that maternal bond intact, the only solution is for another person to step in during these times of vulnerability and do the tasks needed to keep a household warm and fed.
Perhaps we could call that person a spouse. Perhaps we could call their legal and emotional bond a marriage.
Which is why – as a feminist – the most important piece of advice I can offer to the young women of today is this: get married and do your best to stay married. Particularly if you have children. And if you do find yourself in the position of being a single mother, wait until your children are older before you bring a stepfather into their home.
These directives are hard to follow because we no longer live in a culture that incentivises perseverance in marriage. But it is still possible for individuals to go against the grain and do the harder, less-fashionable thing.
The critics of marriage are right to say that it has historically been used for the control of women by men, and they’re right to point out that most marriages do not live up to a romantic ideal. They’re right, too, that monogamous, lifelong marriage is in a sense unnatural, in that it is not the human norm.
The marriage system that prevailed in the West until recently was not perfect, nor was it easy to conform to, since it demanded high levels of tolerance and self control. Where the critics go wrong is in arguing that there is any better system. There isn’t.
© Louise Perry, 2022
Adapted from The Case Against The Sexual Revolution, by Louise Perry, published by Polity on June 2 at £14.99. To order a copy for £13.49, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. UK p&p free on orders over £20 until June 11.