Have we given up on sexual freedom?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


Sex has never been so fetishised. We hire experts to portray it ‘consensually’ on TV series, we plan classes on how to talk to our kids about it and we row, constantly, about what is the right way to have it. Sex is everywhere – from pop stars in bondage gear to podcasts about technique.

The question is, are we having any? The paradox of our over-sexualised lives is that fewer people – particularly the young – seem to be enjoying casual sex. Poll after poll shows that generation Z is shunning one-night stands in favour of more low-risk escapades, like sexting. With pornographic depictions of women available at the flick of a touchscreen phone, many young people begin their sexual lives already saturated with extreme material. Some argue that this is the fault of the sexual revolution – the mainstreaming of sex and loosening of morals has led to the pornification and sexualisation of childhood. As a result, some young men and women complain that this presents an impossible image to aspire to, turning sex into a disappointment instead of an adventure.

For some, the answer to our problem with sex is that we’ve simply had too much of our cake and eaten it. The self-titled ‘reactionary feminist’ Mary Harrington says that the sexual revolution has failed us. ‘What we need’, she writes ‘is not more freedom, it’s more and better obligations’. Many small-c conservatives claim that what a young generation really needs is less sex and more commitment. For them, high divorce and low birth rates reveal a problem with our relationship with sex. Louise Perry, whose debut book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution has been wildly popular, recently set up ‘Maiden Matchmaking’ events, where the rule is ‘no shagging on the first date’.

It’s not just the right who are worried about the sexual revolution and its consequences – the contraceptive pill is now almost as unpopular with feminist commentators as it is in church aisles. Even the most liberal commentators claim that there is a problem with sex being an ‘expected’ part of adult life – another job that women have to take on in a busy world. Following the MeToo movement, ‘safe sex’ is no longer characterised as concerns about STIs or pregnancy, but about the possibility of rape and assault. Many argue that sexual freedom didn’t equalise the bedsheets, but merely allowed more ways for men to get away with what they want.

Have we given up on sexual freedom? Is chastity really the only answer to a fraught sexual landscape, or are we too obsessed with theorising instead of doing? With all its flaws, didn’t the sexual revolution and reproductive technologies give women the ability to choose which and how many sexual partners they have? Does the backlash against sexual freedom risk turning back the clock on women’s freedom? And should governments, schools and institutions care about how often a nation is knocking boots?

Ralph Leonard
author, Unshackling Intimacy: Letters on Liberty; contributor, Areo

Nina Power
philosopher; senior editor, Compact Magazine; author, What Do Men Want? Masculinity and its discontents

Ella Whelan
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist; author, What Women Want

Rosie Wilby
award-winning comedian; broadcaster; author, Is Monogamy Dead? and The Breakup Monologues: the unexpected joy of heartbreak

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Strangers and Intimates (forthcoming) and Keeping Their Marbles