Published April 13, 2023
Lambasting the sexual revolution is no longer the exclusive territory of social conservatives. These days, if you encounter a criticism of the post–sexual revolution world, there’s a decent chance it was written by someone who pursued the promise of feminism and found little fulfillment. With Feminism against Progress, Mary Harrington adds a noteworthy installment to this growing genre, offering a sharp critique of the culture unleashed by a half century of loosened sexual mores and shifting social attitudes.
These books and articles typically follow a common formula: The author explains how she once subscribed to a litany of left-wing notions or believed in the promise of women’s liberation as articulated by second- and third-wave feminists. She chronicles, though usually not at length or in detail, her lackluster or damaging experience dabbling in the sexual free-for-all normalized over the past several decades. And then: disillusionment.
For Harrington — who was so steeped in this worldview that she questioned her femaleness and, for a time, experimented with identifying as Sebastian rather than as Mary — the biggest mental shift came about with marriage and, in a particularly stark way, motherhood. Her opening sentence: “What started me down the path towards writing this book was feeling like I wasn’t a separate person from my baby.”
But the story of how she went from dutiful progressive to a thinker capable of writing a tome so provocatively titled is about more than changes in her personal life. Through careful scrutiny of her impoverished belief system, Harrington eventually arrived at the argument she makes in her book, which challenges not only what we might call modern feminism but also the fundamental logic of progressivism itself:
It’s not self-evident that humans have progressed, in some absolute sense. That doesn’t mean everything was perfect once and we’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But pick a subject, and you’ll find some things are better, while other things have become worse. If you’re going to believe in progress, you have to define what you mean by “progress.” More stuff? More freedom? Less disease? Pick any subject, and you’ll find that what looks from one vantage point like “progress” mostly seems that way because you’re ignoring the costs.
Her case against what we think of as feminism — and, more precisely, her case in favor of what she terms “reactionary feminism” — is enriched by this willingness to question its entire ideological inheritance, including the progressive philosophy undergirding it. As she rightly observes, feminism in the Western context has come to mean far more than pursuing basic civil and legal rights for women; it now fixates especially on sexual difference, which most feminists view as an imposition of unacceptable inequality. They do so, Harrington argues, in part because modern feminism is inextricably interwoven with the progressive vision of what it means to be human. These two belief systems share a series of foundational false beliefs: that human beings have no fixed nature, that to be human is to be infinitely malleable, and that we can and perhaps even must seek to transcend the limits of the human body through ever more powerful technology. In reference to this view and its practical outworkings, Harrington coins two striking phrases: “Meat Lego Gnosticism” and “cyborg theology.”
“Even as biotech promises total mastery of the bodies we’re trying to leave behind, these efforts to abolish sex dimorphism in the name of the ‘human’ will end up abolishing what makes us human men and women, leaving something profoundly post-human in its place,” she writes. “In this vision, our bodies cease to be interdependent, sexed and sentient, and are instead reimagined as a kind of Meat Lego, built of parts that can be reassembled at will.”
Of the primacy given to technology — governed by this “cyborg theology” — she writes:
The upshot is an order where matters once deemed the proper realm of philosophy or religious faith, such as questions of birth, death or desire, are subcontracted to the machine. That is: if we have technological control, we don’t need moral codes any more. Except what this produces is, in practice, a new moral code: a cyborg theology. . . . The end goal of cyborg theology is delegitimising the idea that we have a nature: liquefying perhaps the most fundamental social norm of all, and in the process opening profoundly disturbing new market possibilities.
Throughout, Harrington argues that what we now call “feminism” is deeply enmeshed with and defined by this overarching belief system. She more aptly describes this fusion as bio-libertarianism, “which is taking on increasingly pseudo-religious overtones.”
Nonconservative critics of the sexual revolution are typically far less willing than Harrington to criticize the entire philosophy that animates it. Her insights, as a result, are unique and crucial. Feminism, she points out, did not arise in a vacuum. It is not the product of some freestanding female desire for liberation. In an astute chapter, she chronicles how feminism as we currently understand it is largely a product of industrialization, a consequence of the sudden stark severance of home and work. As most economic production was removed from the home and propelled men out into public workplaces, women were left with far less economic and social power than they had enjoyed before the industrial revolution.
Understanding this historical reality, in Harrington’s view, is necessary for ameliorating feminism’s more damaging forms and for restoring some semblance of sex realism to its efforts. Her “reactionary feminism” places a high priority on reconnecting the spheres of home and work, as much as we can in a postindustrial society. In one of her concluding chapters, she showcases women who have found freedom and fulfillment in marriages that meld economic and personal flourishing within the home and take advantage of remote work, the “gig economy,” and other positive outcomes of digital advancement.
On the whole, Harrington’s argument offers more meat than do typical critiques of feminism, especially those on offer from the Left. To take one example: In Rethinking Sex: A Provocation (2022), Washington Post writer Christine Emba gathers interviews from her peers and suggests that many young people — women especially — find something amiss with the interpersonal dynamics unleashed by the sexual revolution. In a more ambitious work, The Case against the Sexual Revolution, writer Louise Perry argues that, far from liberating women, the revolution’s logic produced a social scenario that benefits men at the expense of women; her book was noteworthy for its full-throated denouncements of pornography and prostitution.
While both Emba and Perry offer valuable insight into the thought of sexual-revolution survivors, who seem to be growing more numerous, neither presents an argument as coherent or compelling as Harrington’s. Feminism against Progress does more both to dethrone the reigning feminist orthodoxy and to articulate what a realistic feminism — respectful of sex and of both sexes — might entail.
Crucially, Harrington rejects hormonal birth control: “A feminism against progress, in other words, is feminism against the Pill.” She advocates “rewilding sex,” which includes doing away with oral contraception not only for the sake of women’s health and the environment but also as a vote in favor of reclaiming meaningful sex. As she puts it, the Pill is “a crucial precondition for bad sex, because it de-risks casual hook-ups. . . . Consensual, genuinely consequential sex is profoundly intimate: not least because a woman who refuses birth control will be highly motivated to be choosy about her partners.”
She goes so far as to praise natural family planning from a secular perspective, commending how it increases women’s awareness of their bodies and makes for better sex. On this point she cites Abigail Favale, author of the recent The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory, which like many books against the sexual revolution includes a chronicle of the author’s journey from progressive feminism. Grounded in the Catholic account of human anthropology, Favale presents a powerful argument not only against an anti-woman feminism that seeks to erase the human body but also in favor of embracing the givenness of our bodies as a crucial step toward flourishing.
Harrington’s exploration of the shortcomings of modern feminism is nearly flawless, and in her case for reactionary feminism she offers a concrete and appealing blueprint for social change. She’s on the right track in noting that human beings have a real, fixed nature as embodied creatures. But ultimately, no case against feminism is complete without both the kind of anthropology that Favale outlines and a related understanding of how we are called to live as a result of our createdness.
The Genesis of Gender succeeds where others in this genre fail, as the case against the sexual revolution must go deeper than identifying harms and solutions. The best argument against our present sexual landscape is a positive argument for a holistic account of what it means to be human, a union of body and soul, created male and female in the image of God. It is an argument for the goodness of sex as an act of self-gift, meant to express unity and love within the context of an exclusive, fruitful, lifelong commitment between husband and wife. Within marriage, sex communicates love between persons, who are called not to take each other as objects but to receive each other as a freely offered gift. This holistic account of the human person is the fullest rejection of sex as an act of objectification, use, or abuse; it is the ultimate repudiation of progressivism, the sexual revolution, and all they entail.
Yet Harrington can’t be faulted for failing to present this argument, and we would be mistaken to dismiss her perspective or others like it merely because their dreams of a better world are incomplete. Rather, we should embrace them as allies who have emerged on the other side of the sexual revolution and testify to the harm that modern feminism has done to the very people it promised to save. The incompleteness of her account, in other words, is less a deficiency than an invitation. She has done readers a real service, not only by exposing the incoherence of the progressive-feminist worldview but also by offering us an opportunity to present a yet more holistic vision of what it means to be a human being, created out of love, for love.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing writer at National Review.