debate club

Scenes From the End of the Sexual Revolution

Bari Weiss, Sarah Haider, Grimes, Anna Khachiyan, and Louise Perry at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. Photo: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The question “Has the Sexual Revolution Failed” contains within itself a number of other questions (failed at what? Failed whom? Why are we talking about this?), precisely none of which were answered Wednesday night at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where 1,600 plaid-skirted e-girls and be- khakied normies and the aspiring canceled paid as much as $165 a seat to hear a British ideologue, a deft Dimes Square shape-shifter, an ex-Muslim podcaster, and Techno Mechanicus’s mother debate the resolution. You can’t really fault the organizer, even if the organizer was Bari Weiss. It ought to have worked. An ill-defined proposition, half of Red Scare, a random British lady very upset about BDSM, and Grimes? No notes.

Perhaps the packaging overpromised: The Free Press PR styled like old-timey boxing posters (Fight 7pm), the reminder, when informed of the location of the exits, to leave should we be offended by the fearless exchange of bold ideas. A late-breaking special guest was announced: the comic Tim Dillon. A friendly Free Press staffer sported a pink dress with the words SHADOW BANNED embroidered across the chest, and the room cheered when a projection of Camille Paglia popped onto the stage, as perfect an example of a brilliant woman willing to say crazy shit as one can conjure.

The alt-right’s inchoate longing for sexual repression in the absence of religion remains mysterious. Fifty-six percent of the audience, polled beforehand by text at an event featuring four ambitious women and moderated by a queer married media mogul, agreed that the sexual revolution had “failed.” The debate was drawn from Louise Perry’s book, serviceably titled The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, which takes as its presumed reader an extremely credulous liberal raised up in isolation from any information beyond the feminist blogosphere circa 2004 and who needs to be informed, at truly extraordinary length, that men are, on average, physically stronger than women. Women have been pressured to “fuck like men,” a situation that leaves alpha males very happy but all women depressed, abused, vulnerable, and commodified. If there is nothing here that went unsaid by Kay Hymowitz or Christina Hoff Sommers in the dark heyday of the hookup-culture think piece, at least everything sounds better in a British accent.

Perry struggles with specifics but seems to genuinely believe we would be happier with mid-century sociosexual norms (let’s assume it’s a kink), so it was simultaneously unfortunate for her and very funny that her more capable co-debater, Anna Khachiyan, refused to defend the proposition. Khachiyan could not “with a straight face” argue that the sexual revolution failed. She thinks sex is “cool and fun.” “The idea that we live in a society where men are in charge,” she said through a cloud of vape smoke, “is funnier than anything Tim Dillon has ever said.” She “low-key agreed” with the other side’s Sarah Haider, who made the sensible point that having to marry to achieve economic stability was also a form of sexual commodification. The problem with the sexual revolution, Khachiyan said, with destigmatizing all the stigmas, was being left to make do in a society in which “there’s no one to blame but yourself.”

Men in my vicinity were betting that Grimes would not show, but there she was, chaotic neutral, tasked with defending 63 years of presumptive progress. “I’m really bad at reading from a paper,” she said underneath her nymphcore bonnet, and later, speaking for all of us, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be rebutting.” She suggested, promisingly, that we “rebuild civilization.” Her suggestion for a better civilization: free child care at work.
Prompted by Weiss to debate porn, not one of the four, not even Grimes, would defend it. Asked about abortion, no one, not even Perry, wanted to ban it. In their closing remarks, the women all agreed that mothers are undervalued (all four are boy moms) and it would be super-great if we had, as Grimes had suggested, more intergenerational housing.

Banality is like entropy; everything collapses into it in the end. And so the organization premised on relentless self-congratulation for the capacity to offend leaves us with this: respect mothers. Once, at a transhumanist conference, I listened to a man with magnets in his fingers bemoan the conformism of even those brave enough to radically alter their corporeal selves. The world provides infinite ways to modify the human body, he was saying, but all anyone wants are bigger breasts and bigger muscles. A debate requires a pose, a character, a strong narrative presence separate from the speaker’s well-armored sense of self. It’s a performance, not a reveal; theater, not therapy. What would Paglia say about this soft chthonic inability of four women to disagree with one another? Are we fated to meld into one sensible neoliberal? Faced with infinite choice, will we retreat to the safety of steroids and breast augmentation?

There was a darkness in the room destined to remain untapped by talk of multigenerational housing. The person reliably in character was Tim Dillon. His targets were the “unhoused” (a word he said just as you imagine he would say it), the Ukrainian people, and trans children. Onstage, he mocked the idea that L.A.’s 70,000 homeless were suffering because of housing policy or the economy. “You’re going to give that guy a job?” he asked, and he began to shake, as if he were a mentally ill person with a tic. The Ace Theater boomed with laughter, a thousand bodies convulsing right back at him, blonde beach waves straight from the dry bar bouncing with mirth. That energy hit the stage. He kept shaking. This was not the sound of “offense,” but its opposite, the release of people hearing something they had long wanted to say, reassuring themselves that they are not culpable for the misery they Lyft beyond. The problem with all this freedom is the problem Khachiyan identifies, the problem that the sadness you feel is your own, and the broken society in which you live is a world your choices shape.

Scenes From the End of the Sexual Revolution