Asked by The New York Times at the age of 83 if he regretted any of the “dark consequences” of what Playboy magazine set in motion, Hugh Hefner was sure of his innocence: “It’s a small price to pay for personal freedom.”
When Hefner died in 2017, the Huffington Post wrote of the original playboy’s “contradictory feminist legacy” and the BBC asked “was the Playboy revolution good for women?” One British journalist even argued that Hefner had “helped push feminism forwards,” given his public support for contraception and abortion rights.
Not one of these eulogists seemed to recognize that Hefner’s commitment to weakening the link between sex and reproduction had nothing to do with women’s well-being. Hefner never once campaigned for anything that didn’t bring him direct benefit, and when fear of pregnancy was one of the last remaining reasons for women to refuse sex, he had every reason to campaign for “personal freedom” — by which he meant, of course, more freedom for men like him.
The feminists of the 1960s and 1970s were right to argue that women needed contraception and legalized abortion in order to give them control over their reproductive lives, and their campaigning success has freed modern women from the body-breaking work of unwanted childbearing. These are rights that must still be defended, as the overturning of Roe v. Wade shows us.
But the story of the sexual revolution isn’t only a story of women freed from the burdens of chastity and motherhood, although it is that. It is also a story of the triumph of the playboy — a figure who is too often both forgotten and forgiven, despite his central role in this still-recent history.
I do not think that what women have seen over the last 60 years has been a process of relentless improvement. In fact, our lives have been made worse in some important ways.
Women are still expected to please men and to make it look effortless. But while the 1950s “angel of the house” hid her apron, the modern “angel of the bedroom” hides her pubic hair. We have gone from one form of feminine subservience to another.
In our present-day “liberated” sexual culture, adolescents are watching violent porn beamed into their smartphones by multibillion-dollar global corporations and then going out into the world and enacting these sadistic fantasies on each other. In just 20 years, the proportion of young men who suffer from erectile dysfunction has risen from one in 50 to as many as one in three as porn has deadened their responses to real people.
We are supposed to believe that a new culture of no-strings-attached sex offers women the opportunity to revel in their sexual autonomy, but the survey data tells a different story. Unlike men, the vast majority of heterosexual women do not orgasm during one-night stands. In fact, they are more likely to feel pain than pleasure. And most experience a sharp dip in self-esteem afterwards, suspecting — correctly, if we go by counterpart surveys with men — that they have been used for sex by partners who do not respect them.
The fleeting thrill of feeling sexually desirable does not make for lasting happiness, and young women mostly say that they would prefer a committed relationship to a hookup but that this choice is not available to them, since so many men are satisfied with the status quo.
Some feminists argue that all of this unhappiness is a consequence of the fact that we are not yet liberated enough — that the process of liberation has only just begun and that we ought to redouble our efforts to tear down the few sexual norms that have survived from the era before the sexual revolution.
I disagree. I think that what we are witnessing is the inevitable consequence of liberation hurled at a society in denial about the differences between men and women. There is an inherent asymmetry between the sexes that will never be overcome, despite the existence of modern contraception that offers a brittle illusion of sameness. Some of the differences between men and women are physical, but there are also some psychological differences that we can no longer afford to ignore. The research is clear: We know that men, on average, prefer to have more sex and with a larger number of partners, that sex buyers are almost exclusively male, that men watch a lot more porn than women do, and that the vast majority of women prefer a committed relationship to casual sex, if given the option. In other words, most women are just not very interested in enjoying our sexual freedoms, due to innate differences between the sexes, and yet we must bear (literally) all of the costs of this freedom.
What’s to be done? We must accept the fact that men and women are different and that we need social norms in place to protect the physically weaker sex against the stronger one. Chivalry is good. Restraint is good. We were foolish to think that we could do without these supposedly old-fashioned virtues. We cannot keep sending young women out as cannon fodder in the battle against sexist double standards and then, when they return wounded, decrying sexism all the louder.
Women are starting to wake up to the con of sexual liberation. On TikTok, teenage girls are swapping their war stories and decrying a “sex-positive” culture that sets them up to fail. On Reddit, a group called Female Dating Strategy offers tips on how to survive in a dating culture that is fundamentally hostile toward them. Some women are opting out of sexual relationships altogether and adopting labels like asexual or “femcel” (female celibate). There has even been a rise in millennial nuns.
These women are fighting back against an ideology that has always best served the likes of Hugh Hefner. The problem is not that the sexual liberation project of the 1960s is unfinished. The problem has always been the project itself.
Louise Perry, a writer based in London, is the author of “The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century.”