It shouldn’t have taken Russell Brand to reveal the ugly truth about the sexual revolution

It didn’t occur to some feminists until too late that there was little that was feminist about adopting a male paradigm of commitment-free sexuality

Russell Brand once said in a video clip, “It’s not my extremism I need to protect, it’s my mundanity.” He then went on to make jokes about raping a girl and killing her.

And Brand was in many ways mainstream. While he may have patented a form of bohemian, Essex boy, degenerate toxicity, he was simply an extreme version of so-called bad boy behaviour. He became wealthy and was feted for it.

For example, when Brand and Jonathan Ross phoned elderly actor Andrew Sachs and Ross shouted into the phone that Brand had slept with his granddaughter, the thousands who hadn’t seen it but complained to the BBC were written off as “a bunch of sanctimonious crybabies indulging in a wretched form of masturbation” by comedian and Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker.

Georgina Baillie, the young woman who had been publicly shamed, was just collateral damage.

When denying that he had ever done anything criminal last week, Brand said that he was “very, very promiscuous”.

There has always been a double standard about sexual behaviour, where men who were sexually active were lauded as studs while women who were sexually active were shamed as sluts. Nonetheless, even with those double standards, men as promiscuous as Brand were once seen as scoundrels – not loveable rogues, but predators who had lost all sense of acceptable behaviour. Yet he was lauded and indulged for his appalling, if allegedly consensual rampages.

One response to the sexual double standard for men and women was epitomised by Germaine Greer in 1970 in The Female Eunuch. She urged women to engage in “deliberate promiscuity” – that is, something quite different from “compulsive promiscuity or inability to say no”.

How did that work out? Virginia Ironside, agony aunt and doughty secularist, described living through the early years of the sexual revolution as “an endless round of miserable promiscuity, a time when often it seemed easier and, believe it or not, more polite, to sleep with a man than to chuck him out of your flat”.

Greer, who was a clickbait expert before the internet was invented, later changed her mind and began bemoaning the downsides of promiscuity for women. By 2018, while also making controversial statements about rape, she was musing that “lovemaking is not a matter of an organ, it is a matter of communication, and somehow we’ve got to rescue it”.

It did not seem to occur to some feminists until too late that there was little that was feminist about adopting a male paradigm of commitment-free sexuality, instead of modelling a way that works best for both men and women.

The idea that strangers can exchange sexual intimacies, without any potential harm to either party provided both are consenting, free adults, is a bizarrely disembodied notion – as if our bodies are just convenient containers for our semidetached brains and their desires. But to paraphrase another influential feminist text, our bodies are ourselves.

All the weird outcomes of this worldview are visible around us, from the tiny minority of incels bewailing being cut off from the sexual marketplace to the pornification of our culture. Violent, misogynistic practices have been normalised.

Sex is now primarily about pleasure, not emotional connection, much less commitment. Anything goes between autonomous individuals. The only judgment to be passed is on those who are judgmental. The #MeToo movement exposed just how much misogyny was concealed beneath alleged sexual freedom.

However, a cultural change is slowly happening.

Dating apps, epitomising the peak of hook-up culture, are declining in popularity. That is no surprise, given the amount of ghosting (suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication) and benching (keeping a romantic partner at arm’s length) that go on, not to mention the downright cruelty of being judged and dismissed in seconds.

Writers such as Louise Perry are now publishing books about the downsides of the sexual revolution (some of us were dismissed for decades for highlighting the same thing). It probably helps that she grew up in the kind of secular, liberal environment where, as she says wryly, two copies of the Guardian were delivered every day.

Perry was driven to re-evaluate her whole attitude by her work in rape crisis centres and by research into the amount of times the “rough sex” defence was used to exonerate men who had killed women during sex.

There is still a wearisome tendency to dismiss anyone who dares to suggest that our current sexual mores have serious negative consequences. The usual accusation is that critics want a return to either the 1950s or the Middle Ages. Funny how those two eras are most regularly invoked as a warning by those who worship the current status quo. The reality is that serial encounters based on relentless exploitation, even when it is mutual, corrode all that is best in men as well as women.

How about reinstating norms about people waiting before having sex, and establishing whether there is a basis for a relationship of mutual respect and tenderness? How about practices that are potentially life-threatening, including strangulation, being properly categorised as such and therefore permanently removed from the menu?

Sexual encounters are not doomed to be crass, cruel or cold. Most people still aspire to loving relationships. Human beings deserve sexuality that is, at the least, humane.

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