The tide is turning against the sexual revolution – The Irish Times

Adonis himself might get jealous if he gets the chance to watch Love Island. A camera constantly ogles the golden skin and scantily clad bodies of the male and female contestants of the hit reality show, as they attempt the ancient ritual of mating under the beating Spanish sun. And through it all, the world’s sexual neuroses are airing on British primetime television.

But that sun might be about to set on the supernatural success of Love Island. And the enthusiasm for bringing the more sexualized aspects of popular culture into our living rooms may be on the wane. Sex sells, we’ve always been told. But we have more and more the feeling that something more calm, more traditional and much more conservative asserts itself in the air of time.

Despite their apparent iconoclasm, Perry and Emba are not subversive but in fact quite traditional

This year, two books aim to challenge the permissive sexual mores of the liberal West. More recently, in The Case Against The Sexual Revolution, Louise Perry argues that the sexual revolution – that is, the advent of the birth control pill, the resulting free love movement and its proliferation in society to the present day – has revealed its shortcomings, and women are feeling the brunt of it.

Perry sees the exploitative porn industry as a manifestation of society’s increasingly compromised sexual ethics; she argues for the beneficial role of marriage and the danger of losing it as an institution; and it is sounding the alarm about extremely disturbing acts of violence that may be permitted under the church’s broad “consent”.

Meanwhile, in Rethinking Sex, Christine Emba posits that “perhaps the best sexual world is a less free world”. She suggests there’s no such thing as casual sex, and the unattached mantra behind the so-called “hookup” culture has left us all, especially young women, emotionally bereft. Perry and Emba take issue with the meteoric rise of dating apps: Perry because they provide no mechanism for women to verify the character of a potential date; and Emba because they force us to organize ourselves for a “digital market”.

It’s hardly a rosy prospect. The focus on young women and their relationship with men means that this is an argument that only applies to heterosexual relationships. And despite their apparent iconoclasm, Perry and Emba are not subversive but in fact quite traditional.

Perry and Emba did not forge this gender-critical movement alone. In fact, there is a myriad of evidence that they simply reflect something that was set in motion a long time ago. One need only look at the rise and fall of lingerie company Victoria’s Secret to see that a conservative backlash to liberal sexual ethics may have been setting in for some time now.

How does he fit into a country like Ireland, somewhere that has staked so much of its identity on its recent and rapid liberalisation?

In 2015, its parent company, of which Victoria’s Secret generated the bulk of revenue, was valued at $28 billion. At the start of 2020, Victoria’s Secret was valued at just $1.1 billion. Her once world-famous fashion show drew nearly 10 million viewers in 2013, up from 3.3 million in 2018, and was permanently canceled in 2019.

“Victoria’s Secret has struggled to keep pace with changing consumer tastes,” CNN Business wrote, attributing its downfall to the fact that modern beauty standards were moving away from the hyper-thin, hyper-blonde ambassadors of the company. But we could attribute the collapse to something more fundamental. It may not have been because the women were too blond or too thin – although that is not an unimportant consideration – but because the discomfort associated with hyper-sexualization itself was becoming common.

Every action has its equal and opposite reaction. And, if Perry is right, and the ill effects of the sexual revolution have only recently become clear, perhaps she is also right that a correction was inevitable. And it’s part of a larger trend: the emergence of Catholicism as a fashion statement reflects a more deeply held traditional bent. Love Island could be the next victim. Dating apps are already adapting to accommodate a more complicated social landscape. And maybe things like Victoria’s Secret were always, teleologically, doomed.

But how does he fit into a country like Ireland, somewhere that has staked its identity so much on its recent and rapid liberalisation? It’s not even ten years since we legalized gay marriage and not even five years since we legalized abortion. As a nation, we rightly wear our socially liberal mantle with pride. And we do it despite being late to this game.

The two worldviews are probably not mutually exclusive. We can celebrate the progress made for gay men and women while acknowledging that hookup culture can have its damaging effects downstream; that marriage and the nuclear family are of central importance to many people in society, and that the empowerment of women takes much more complex forms than just sexual liberation.

In fact, finding a balance between these competing perspectives is probably the ultimate hallmark of a mature political culture.

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