Fruits of sex
Rediscovering the telos of gender
Several recent books from avowedly feminist writers invite readers to reconsider “hook-up culture” and its philosophical priors, including British journalist Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. Perry rejects the premise of sexual intercourse as purely physical, non-mystical and even transactional. This “disenchanted” view of sex, she defiantly writes, “isn’t actually true, and we all know it”.
Perry’s credentials are unimpeachable. Schooled in liberal-feminist thought as an undergraduate, and later working as an advocate for rape victims, she challenges the sexual revolution’s creed because, not in spite, of her training and experience.
Perry offers some thoroughly unorthodox prescriptions and unambiguously defies numerous sacred liberal-feminist dogma: “Sex must be taken seriously. Men and women are different. Some desires are bad. Consent is not enough.” The central purpose of her book is to ask “why so many women desire a kind of sexual freedom that so obviously serves male interests? What if our bodies and minds aren’t as malleable as we might think?” Yet, this is not a repudiation of the sexual revolution. She is avowedly “not an anti-liberal … Women have every reason to chafe against the constraints imposed on us by our societies and our bodies”. Perry sees in the sexual revolution an uneven, woefully incomplete and often destructively contradictory work of emancipation.
Perry’s accounts of women’s experiences are deeply moving. She argues compellingly and her concluding advice will convince many readers. But she offers no particular theory as to why our bodies and minds are not — being merely physical — as malleable as some would have it. In a review for The Critic, Lola Salem commented that “if liberal feminists … are in fact part of the disease, Perry’s work cannot satisfy itself with being a mere diagnosis embellished with a few rules. The Case must be carried further.” Salem likely does not have in mind here a critique of liberal feminism in light of Roman Catholic biblical exegesis and philosophy, but that is what Abigail Favale offers in The Genesis of Gender: a Christian Theory. Like Perry, she questions cultural norms wrought by the sexual revolution. But this is not the sole or even major focus of her work. Favale first asks, “What is a woman?” She then traces the many implications of her answer, necessarily including carnal relations between the sexes.
Favale identifies an internal paradox of feminist thought which she terms “the nominalist-essentialist loop”. As an undergraduate, she writes, “I was first drawn to feminism by an avowedly essentialist impulse: I saw my womanhood as an integral part of my identity, and [longed] to embrace my dignity as a woman specifically.” She soon found, though, that “in feminist thought … essentialism was an unforgivable sin”. In fruitless, circular discussions with classmates, Favale struggled to find a universally applicable, ideologically acceptable definition of “woman”. Rules addressing biology invariably met with exceptions: “Are women who have hysterectomies no longer women? I could see the idea was clearly absurd, but I couldn’t articulate why.” One day, she unburdened her secret doubts to a fellow student. “His response was incredulous: ‘You can’t think that! That’s essentialism!’” Favale notes “the irony of having a male classmate reject my perspective in order to toe the feminist line”. But here she was, a newly-made feminist “and already … a heretic”.
Despite her doubts, Favale completed doctoral work in Gender Studies and feminist literary criticism before embarking upon a promising academic career. As a graduate student she experienced periods of intellectual confusion that sometimes lasted for days. As a young tenure-track professor, she excitedly attended a conference keynote address by Judith Butler. As she “frantically scribbled notes … trying to track with the string of ten-dollar words echoing from the podium”, Favale realised: “‘I have no idea what she is talking about.’” At the time, she dismissed such bewilderment as signs of her own inadequacy, assuming that she “would have to meditate carefully … to discern [Butler’s] meaning”.
Favale drank deeply from the intellectual wells of feminism
And she did meditate. Unsympathetic readers might suppose that Favale’s “conversion” from her girlhood fundamentalist evangelicalism to a functionally atheist feminism was never genuine. Not so. For fifteen years as student and teacher, Favale drank deeply from the intellectual wells of feminism and gender theory. Her book’s third chapter surveys major trends in this scholarship with a concision and accessibility suggestive of thorough expertise. She remains respectful of formative scholars in this field (Judith Butler is “an intellectual heavyweight”, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectional theory rests on a “straightforwardly true … insight”). But the early seeds of doubt, first felt as a closeted essentialist undergraduate, flowered in her experience as a teacher. Favale saw her own students “readily embrace [Butler’s] idea of gender as a performance”. The idea of gender performativity named and explained many of their struggles and frustrations. But in their intuitive eagerness “they didn’t fully recognize that Butler asserts that gender is only a performance, that women don’t really exist, and that any truth claim is ultimately an exercise of power”. After one class session, Favale asked herself: “Is any of this true?”
Favale has written in Into the Deep: an Unlikely Catholic Conversion of her spiritual odyssey — a process which outpaced her parallel intellectual journey. She embraced the mystery and ritual of sacramental theology before arriving at a fully-formed theory of gender. This she later found in Aristotelian teleology as transposed into Christian tradition by Thomas Aquinas.
Favale could never shake off her discomforting sense in reading Simone de Bouvoir’s The Second Sex that the founding theorist of “second wave” feminism “hates being female”. She traces this underlying impulse forward to the famous assertion in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”. In practice, Favale writes, “too often, freedom for women is cast as freedom from femaleness … The only telos is an open-ended freedom, an endless journey of self-creation with no particular destination.”
If we instead “see the world as a created cosmos of which we are a part … this transfigures everything: embodiment, sex, suffering, freedom, desire”. Such a cosmology “imbues all-that-is with renewed significance”, and its profound implications necessarily touch procreation. “Female embodiment [is] a threat” to the central conceits of modernity, Favale argues: “Women’s bodies are too porous, too open to the selfhood of another. Pregnancy and maternity belie the modern ideal of the autonomous self.” Thus, with feminist encouragement, our medical establishment “pathologizes female fertility, viewing a woman’s potential for pregnancy as an adverse condition to be medically managed”.
Perry, too, finds this problematic. In a recent roundtable edition of Bari Weiss’s Honestly podcast, she insisted that feminism must take motherhood into account. Like Favale, she is an essentialist. In her book, Perry recounts the compulsive fascination with which she first read Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s book, A Natural History of Rape. Feminists condemned it as dangerous excuse-making. If rape is natural, is not in some sense good? If, as liberal feminists teach, rape is a socially-conditioned expression of power, it can be eradicated with a simple combination of public will and the right social reforms. But Perry suggests that Thornhill and Palmer “force us to reckon with a possibility that is a lot less appealing: What if hierarchy, and viciousness, and violence are baked in? What if feminism’s task is much, much harder than we’ve previously acknowledged?”
Perry, of course, is not excusing rape. She merely insists that any reckoning with sexuality must treat sex as an embodied fact. She differs from Favale, though — remaining here in the liberal-feminist mainstream — in finding no underlying telos in the fact of embodiment. Women are by nature childbearing; their sex-drive differs biologically from its male counterpart; differing sexual instincts can work in harmony or produce conflicting interests. From these premises Perry offers a withering critique of the sexual revolution’s unintended consequences for women. But she does not claim any underlying metaphysical significance for the embodied reality of gender. Men and women are what they are by nature, but we may draw only practical conclusions from the fact, not moral or spiritual ones.
If a reckoning is coming, how far are we willing to go?
The strength and appeal of Favale’s work (and the unacceptable “stone of offence” for those who will reject it) is her willingness to go further. Like Perry, Favale “finds it maddening to watch avowed feminists decry the rotten fruits of the sexual revolution whilst they simultaneously tend its roots”. But her antidote is more than some prescriptive advice, however prudent and salutary. She offers a vision of “wholeness” from the premise that gender difference “is complimentary, but asymmetrical”. Biblical cosmology “affirms a balance of sameness and difference … that is difficult, but necessary, to maintain. Most theories of gender lose that balance, veering into extremes of uniformity or polarity”. For Favale, such imbalance explains the obviously contradictory applications of current gender theory. If a young boy prefers ballet to football, he is really a girl; if a girl prefers motor cars to makeup, she must be a boy. Thus, in “a profound irony … when a girl recognizes that she does not fit the stereotypes of girlhood, she is now invited to question her girlhood rather than the stereotype”. Can gender hold profound existential significance, as most feminists claim, but also be intangible, subjective and personal?
What would it take at this point for us to rethink the new orthodoxy on gender, sexuality or both? Dissatisfaction with the fruits of the sexual revolution, perhaps. Or women’s frustration at being told that femaleness is not even real. If a reckoning is coming, how far are we willing to go? Regarding “hook-up” culture, Perry writes that her friend “the writer Katherine Dee has been predicting a change for some time. ‘I believe the pendulum with sexuality is going to swing, big time … The pot is about to boil over.’ Katherine,” Perry claims, “has a talent for noticing changes in the cultural winds.”
In 1963, Betty Friedan ignited the flame of second wave feminism in writing of “the problem that had no name”: “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered … Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she … lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’”
What would a contemporary vision of such powerful dissatisfaction look like — one powerful enough to drive women straight through Perry’s poignant critique and sensible prescriptions into Favale’s teleological theory of gender?
She wakes up in her flat, awkwardly aware of another’s presence: a young man she might describe as an acquaintance but hardly a friend. She likes him; she was having fun talking over drinks the evening before. Of course, she dreaded the inevitable awkwardness of the unspoken exchange: “will we, or won’t we?” “Do you want to, because I do?” She didn’t; not this time, not right away. But sex is “fun” and girls can have fun, too! Now she hopes he will leave quickly. She is reticent even to make small talk with him, though they so recently shared a far greater intimacy. Besides, her head aches and her dry-mouth tastes wretched. She shuffles to the bathroom to brush her teeth. She looks in the mirror. She asks herself, silently and alone:
“Is this all?”
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