Upon opening Louise Perry’s new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century, I’m moved to tears by the dedication:
For the women who learned it the hard way
Unlike many other people who have read and reviewed Perry’s work, reading her book wouldn’t be some academic exercise in contemplating how liberal feminism has let women down. It wouldn’t be evaluating what those poor sluts over there have endured in the wake of the sexual revolution. Reading her book was personal.

I’m one of those sluts.

I’m a case study for her...

Upon opening Louise Perry’s new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century, I’m moved to tears by the dedication:

For the women who learned it the hard way

Unlike many other people who have read and reviewed Perry’s work, reading her book wouldn’t be some academic exercise in contemplating how liberal feminism has let women down. It wouldn’t be evaluating what those poor sluts over there have endured in the wake of the sexual revolution. Reading her book was personal.

I’m one of those sluts.

I’m a case study for her thesis. A cautionary tale. I knew this book was going to be difficult. And it made me realize it’s time to finish this essay — one I’ve been trying to write for four years.

It’s a tough needle to thread. I’m grateful for the ability to control my reproductive cycle and make my own money. But that freedom has come at a price. The dark side of the sexual revolution is that even though it liberated women, unyoking sex from consequences has primarily benefited men.

I was first inspired to write this piece when a nineteen-year-old woman I used to wait tables with asked me: “Bridget, have you ever regretted having sex with a man?”

I laughed. “Yeah. All of them.”

That’s not entirely true. There was my first love in high school. And my first husband. But if I’m honest with myself, of the dozens of men I’ve been with (at least the ones I remember), I can only think of a handful I don’t regret. The rest I would put in the category of “casual,” which I would define as sex that is either meaningless or mediocre (or both). If I get really honest with myself, I’d say most of these usually drunken encounters left me feeling empty and demoralized. And worthless.

I wouldn’t have said that at the time, though. At the time, I would have told you I was “liberated” even while I tried to drink away the sick feeling of rejection when my most recent hook-up didn’t call me back. At the time, I would have said one-night stands made me feel “emboldened.” But in reality, I was using sex like a drug; trying unsuccessfully to fill a hole inside me with men. (Pun intended.)

I know regretting most of my sexual encounters is not something a sex-positive feminist who used to write a column for Playboy is supposed to admit. And for years, I didn’t. Let me be clear, being a “slut” and sleeping with a lot of men is not the only behavior I regret. Even more damaging was what I told myself in order to justify the fact that I was disposable to these men: I told myself I didn’t care.

I didn’t care when a man ghosted me. I didn’t care when he left in the middle of the night or hinted that he wanted me to leave. The walks of shame. The blackouts. The anxiety.

The lie I told myself for decades was: I’m not in pain — I’m empowered.

Looking back, it isn’t a surprise that I lied to myself. Because from a young age, sex was something I was lied to about.

Long before I ever had sex, I felt ashamed of my natural sexual urges and awkward in my blossoming female body. Growing up Catholic, all I remember about sex was feeling bad about it before I even knew what “it” was. I only knew that sex before marriage was wrong. Even the thought of a sexual act or masturbation filled me with debilitating guilt. The first time I kissed a boy, I was convinced I’d be punished. Struck down by an angry, misogynistic God.

As I got older, I was told to guard my virginity. Well-meaning mothers and aunts were clear that I needed to withhold sex in order to get a man to love and respect me. Sex was a commodity, a priceless gem I had to hang on to that increased in value the longer I held it. It made me feel like property. And although I don’t think that was the intention of the wise women who had learned their own lessons the hard way, for me, sex became inextricably linked to my self-worth.

The shame and guilt I grew up with regarding sex felt oppressive. I resented the double standard that men could be promiscuous and it would raise their status and a woman would be slut-shamed for similar behavior. My burgeoning sexuality would unfold as a reaction to these repressive religious orthodoxies, old school notions of sexual status, and trauma.

I lost my virginity at seventeen to my boss at a restaurant where I worked. And a year later, I experienced my first sexual trauma. I felt damaged and dirty and I blamed myself. Everyone responds differently to these situations — I dealt with the overwhelming shame by becoming hypersexual and promiscuous.

The Culture was right there to pick me up and dust me off. I doubled down on being a proud slut and internalized the biggest and most damaging lie: that loveless sex is empowering. I basked in the girl-power glow of that delusion for decades, weaponizing my sexuality while convincing myself I was full of the divine feminine.

I was full of shit.

I told myself that because I could seduce a man, I was powerful. But as Perry says in her book, “…women can all too easily fail to recognize that being desired is not the same thing as being held in high esteem.” Deep down inside, I knew that to be the case. But as a defense mechanism, I crafted a man-eater persona. My mantras were rigid.

  • You can either have a career or a relationship — but you can’t have both
  • Intimacy is creepy
  • Motherhood and children are a trap
  • Sex is only about power

Another set of lies built on lies built on trauma. Sex isn’t just about power — it’s also about intimacy and vulnerability and trust. Things I wanted nothing to do with. Because implicit in modern dating is a complete lack of expectations — especially those of chivalry.

Whenever a man wanted to pick up the tab or pull out the chair or open the door or pick me up or take me to dinner or see me during the day or wait longer than the first date to have sex, I was shocked and suspicious of them. Was he a serial killer?

Casual sex is fraught with insecurity and miscommunication; intimacy and love are punchlines. When a man I slept with had the courtesy to reach out, I mistook relief for happiness, rewiring my brain to be grateful for the bare minimum. The saddest realization is how low I set the bar.

A lifetime of allowing myself to be the other woman, taken for granted or treated like a doormat under the false pretense of being “empowered” came to a head one night with the arrival of a text message from an on-again, off-again lover.

“Goodnight baby I love you,” it said. Quickly followed by, “Wrong person.”

Rock bottom doesn’t always look like losing everything or ending up in jail. Sometimes it can be that sick feeling in your gut when you know, emotionally, you’re done. I wanted to be able to have meaningless sex like a guy, but it didn’t work. (After years of writing for Playboy, I’ve learned it doesn’t work for a lot of men either.) For years, I tried, unsuccessfully, not to “catch the feels” (even that expression is so telling about the way emotions are viewed regarding relationships, as if they’re a cold or the flu or some kind of sickness you need to get over).

I’m not speaking for all women. I know many women with a solid sense of self who happily have loveless sex. This piece won’t make them defensive. But a lot of women will read this and bristle, just like I did, when I used to read something that pushed back on the lie I’d built my entire identity around.

Or maybe you’re a trans or nonbinary person reading this, thinking “What quaint ideas about gender and sex this old trad con has.” And to that I’ll say, it makes sense to me that the generation of young women who have experienced and borne witness to some of the worst side-effects of unyoking sex from consequence and love that Perry meticulously outlines in her book, “rough sex, hook-up culture, and ubiquitous porn” — would take a look around and decide:

I’d rather be a man. Or more accurately, I’d rather not be a woman.

But maybe it’s the inevitable conclusion to the sexual revolution. Today’s youth are being fed an even more dangerous lie than the one that I was fed about loveless sex. I was told sex doesn’t matter. They’re being told biology doesn’t matter.

This is a tragedy.

I’m not suggesting we return to some Victorian era notion of sex or some 1950s era ideal about gender roles. I’m now forty-three years old and I’m in the first truly healthy, intimate relationship in my life with my (second) husband. We recently had a daughter. And in the wake of her birth I’ve been thinking a lot about the conversations I’m going to have with her and the conversations I wish I could go back in time and have with a young Bridget.

I’d tell her:

Sex can be empowering when you’re coming from a position of healthy self-esteem. If you’re coming from a place of trauma or insecurity, casual sex won’t heal that. In fact, it might set you back and undermine any progress regarding your feelings of self-worth. If you know your value, you’re less likely to sleep with someone who doesn’t value you. Cherish yourself and you will be cherished.

You shouldn’t have to withhold sex for a man to respect you; he should respect you regardless. Sexual empowerment has nothing to do with how many people you do or don’t sleep with — it has to do with how comfortable you are in your skin — no matter your decision. It’s not about waiting until you’re in love to have sex; it’s about making sure that first, you love yourself.

Don’t ignore that nagging gut instinct telling you “sexual liberation” leaves you feeling unfulfilled. You can still be sex-positive and accept that for you, sex can’t be liberated from intimacy and a meaningful relationship.

I regret being a slut. I regret it because I regret that those men can say they slept with me.

Still, that’s how I know I finally value myself.

Every woman should feel this way: sleeping with me is a privilege. And you have to be worthy.

This article was originally published on Beyond Parody, Bridget Phetasy’s Substack. Sign up here.