Bodily autonomy is out, it seems. In a New York Times opinion piece published shortly after Roe v. Wade was overturned, anti-abortion legal scholar Erika Bachiochi exhorted us to reject “the concept that a rights-bearing person is fundamentally self-owning and autonomous.” Professional edgelords Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, hosts of the once nominally left-leaning podcast Red Scare, have also jumped on the anti-abortion bandwagon. In an episode of the podcast titled “Handmaid’s Fail,” Nekrasova — a recent Catholic revert — remarks, “I do believe our impulse for personal autonomy should die a little bit every day.” Khachiyan agrees: “When you get pregnant, you cease to be autonomous and it becomes somebody else’s body. That just how it be.”
Bachiochi and the Red Scare women are associated with a loose collective of writers, cultural critics, and micro-influencers who dwell somewhere between Lower Manhattan, Bari Weiss’s Substack, and Compact Magazine. The denizens of the “dissident right” fashion themselves as iconoclasts, bold truth-tellers in a world paralyzed by “cancel culture” and “woke” pieties, and peddle a brand of right-wing populism just a touch sharper and more urbane than the frothing jingoism of MAGA Trumpism.
“The Marxist Case Against Abortion,” published last year in Compact, exemplifies the dissident right’s signature fusion of anti-capitalist critique and traditionalist conservatism. The article makes the case that abortion is a tool used by the ruling class to maximize women’s productive labor, resulting in wide-scale wage depression and the disintegration of the social fabric.
The putative “fallout” from feminist gains like legalized abortion and no-fault divorce is a recurring topic of discussion in dissident right circles. The question is taken up in two new books, Louise Perry’s The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (2022) and Mary Harrington’s Feminism Against Progress (2023). Both books differ in tone and substance, but they dovetail into a single political project: capitalizing on the failures of liberal, you-go-girl, sex-positive feminism and the panicked alienation of tech-saturated capitalism to eliminate reproductive rights and forcibly return women to the domestic sphere.
Get ready to trade in your heels and blazer for bare feet and a mantilla: we’ve entered the era of the tradwife.
Bourgeois feminism’s consistent failure to center class critique has provided ample opportunity for misogynists to seize the moment. Stripping feminism of its class dimensions results in a shallow identity politics that’s easily appropriated by cynical, virtue-signaling establishment Democrats and corporations looking to whitewash their greed and malfeasance, or to simply make money. The “future is female,” but only if you have a white collar executive job, ample disposable income, a loving heterosexual monogamous marriage, and healthy children.
Positioning equal participation in the job market, the marriage market, and the military-industrial complex as our political horizon means overlooking the exploitation of a less privileged class of women to sustain these systems. But liberal feminism’s valorization of personal empowerment and choice is disadvantageous to even bourgeois women. “Choice” proved to be a flimsy ground on which to defend the right to abortion. And in the realm of dating and romance, “choice” manifests as a sex-positivity that refuses any critique of sexual desire, behavior, or power and resorts to infantile platitudes like “don’t yuck somebody’s yum.” Saying “yes” can function as a legal contract, leaving no space for complex feelings like shame, repulsion, or even love.
When we’re sold a version of the good life attainable only by the rich and privileged and our most intimate relations are structured by the logic of the market, it’s no wonder people feel disempowered, exhausted, and alienated. Yet it’s specious, and just plain misogynist, to blame this state of affairs on liberal feminism alone; the shortcomings of liberal feminism are also the shortcomings of neoliberal capitalism. But on the dissident right — and in certain sectors of the left — the girl-boss is a metonym for everything that’s wrong with liberal democracy.
In their books, Perry and Harrington vacillate between plausible good faith critique and old-fashioned misogyny served as a “just the way the world is” realpolitik. As their point of departure, both authors argue that men and women are immutably different, both physically and mentally, and that sex difference has little to do with the material basis of patriarchy, or the patriarchal dimensions of capitalism. They borrow heavily from the controversial field of evolutionary psychology — evopsych, in internet parlance — which attempts to understand human cognition and behavior through the lens of natural selection and the long history of human adaptation to changing environmental conditions.
Various bowdlerized forms of evopsych have been a longtime favorite tool of anti-feminists and their white supremacist counterparts to argue that gender and racial hierarchies are biologically determined. These ideas have found a home in the so-called “pick-up artist” community, on misogynist corners of the internet, and in the works of Jordan Peterson. Though Perry acknowledges that evospych’s unfalsifiable “just-so” explanation for the oppression of women might be a tad unconvincing, she argues that feminists have made a serious mistake in rejecting the discipline.
In the opening of her book, Perry specifies that she is not concerned with how we can all be free, instead asking, “How can we best promote the wellbeing of both men and women, given that these two groups have different sets of interests?” But she takes care to distinguish herself from “those conservatives who are silly enough to think that returning to the 1950s is either possible or desirable,” lest the reader suspect that she’s carrying water for a retrograde political project.
Perry attempts to establish her credibility as anything but a privileged white Oxford graduate by claiming that she “worked” for a “short time” at a “rape crisis center” after she graduated university; she does not specify what work she did nor what title she held. She uses this dubious authority to contest the established position of most rape advocacy groups that “rape is about power,” reducing a complex formulation that theorizes rape as a pervasive tool of political violence, used in bedrooms and war zones alike, to a reductive battle of wills.
Perry instead turns to Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape (2000), which presents the largely discredited theory that rape is an evolutionary strategy for “low-value men” to reproduce. Notably, this idea gained traction on the the Reddit pages /r/mensrights and /r/redpill a decade later, when SlutWalk and discourse about “rape culture” entered the mainstream. Of course, this argument erases marital rape, date rape, statutory rape, rape by a teacher or male relative or coach or doctor or police officer, or virtually any rape by a non-“low-value” man. Men’s Rights Activists explain these forms of rape away as consensual “regret sex” or the fabrications of hysterical feminists; Perry blames date rape on the Sexual Revolution and the widespread availability of contraception for “taking away a woman’s last recourse to say ‘no.’”
For Perry, the pill enables men to objectify and discard women, and tricks women into believing they can participate in the sexual marketplace on the same terms as men. Borrowing again from evopsych, Perry informs us that men are inherently more “sociosexual,” meaning they seek out sexual variety and quantity, whereas women tend to prefer a smaller number of trusted partners, choosing sexual partners and “life” partners according to mostly the same criteria.
Perry was recently quoted in a viral Guardian article on the rise of “voluntary celibacy,” arguing that we can’t just opt out of pornography and casual sex, even if we don’t get much out of it, “because the nature of sex in general, and social relationships, is that they’re networked — you have sex with people who have sex with other people, who watch porn. Even if you choose not to do that, other people do it, and it changes the culture.” She argues that pornography and kink normalize violence towards women by presenting it as aspirational and liberatory, that women are practically expected to “enthusiastically consent” to being choked, spat on, and slapped by near-strangers from the internet in order to find love.
Perry is correct to critique the limits of liberal sex-positivity. Her views have found a home among the “femcels” community, which, like its “incel” counterpart, provides a haven for people who’ve become disillusioned with a sexual marketplace that serves more to facilitate casual flings than lasting romantic connections. But Perry’s insistence that women challenge “hookup culture” and start to ask themselves what they really desire is hardly the novel intervention she seems to believe it is.
In 1923, Marxist Alexandra Kollontai wrote that “the hypocritical morality of bourgeois culture resolutely restricted the freedom of Eros, obliging him to visit only the ‘legally married couple.’ Outside marriage there was room only for the ‘wingless Eros’ of momentary and joyless sexual relations which were bought (in the case of prostitution) or stolen (in the case of adultery).” Kollontai, and the second-wave feminists who followed, were extremely concerned with the basis of all desire — strict monogamy included — as a product of present material conditions.
It is very convenient for Perry to insist that women who opt for hookups are brainwashed by liberalism, but that women who desire marriage, monogamy, and motherhood are driven by an immutable biological urge. One would think that parents are showing their daughters Kink.com videos instead of Disney movies promising happily-ever-after through an exalting kiss from Prince Charming, or that the state does not actively encourage and incentivize marriage by packaging it with financial benefits.
Perry presents marriage as a panacea for sexual disillusionment and havoc-wreaking male sociosexuality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she opposes no-fault divorce. She concedes that abusive marriages exist but then brushes the issue aside. And in the absence of physical or emotional violence — if a woman is simply unhappy — then, per Perry, she should remain married, especially if she has children.
But the border between “unhappiness” and “abuse” is not so clearly demarcated, particularly since abuse can be difficult to prove in a bourgeois court system that has a vested interest in upholding marriage. Perry invokes a conservative talking point that’s been in circulation for decades to advance her pro-marriage position: Children of single mothers, particularly in the Black community, have poorer outcomes than children living in two-parent households. But she’s silent about the wealth of research on other factors — social, political, and environmental — that complicate this reductive (and racist) narrative.
According to Perry’s view of the world, sexually conservative societies where marriage is the norm should be much safer for women. This is far from the case. The rates of sexual assault in Christian fundamentalist communities have been well documented. In 2022, an Italian court cleared a man of raping a woman in a bar bathroom because, by leaving the door open, the woman “gave him hope,” even though the woman asked, “What the fuck are you doing?” and repeatedly said “no.” That same year, India’s highest court finally banned use of the so-called “two-finger” test during trials for rape, a process that involved a doctor inserting two fingers into the claimant’s vagina to determine if she was “habituated to sexual intercourse” and had “lax morals” — in other words, unrapeable.
Perry, whose book is condescendingly dedicated to “the women who have learned it the hard way,” affects the tone of a gently remonstrating English grandmother whose wisdom may be hard to hear but is nevertheless intended with great care for her younger charges. She doesn’t seem too terribly concerned, though, about the women who have “learned the hard way” about how being married to a man doesn’t stop him from beating, raping, or killing you, or from abusing you financially, verbally, or emotionally, or from abandoning you for a 20-year-old once you hit middle age.
Perry can hardly restrain her gleeful mock-pity when she speaks about, for instance, a porn actress who committed suicide, or Marilyn Monroe. She opens her book by casting Monroe as a victim of the Sexual Revolution even though Monroe died in 1962 and was very much an icon of the highly conservative 1950s, her sexualized public persona in keeping with that society’s feminine ideals. The pill was not approved by the FDA until 1960; clearly, men didn’t need it to sexually victimize Monroe or any of the other women who had been exploited in Hollywood since its inception.
This particular erroneous framing characterizes the ahistorical, specious, and dishonest nature of Perry’s argument. It’s pure Victorian fantasy to imagine that an allegedly innate male inclination towards sexual exploitation and violence will disappear at the altar, tamed by wifely chastity and submissiveness. In reality, placing the onus of preventing sexual violence on women and reinforcing their legal and social dependence on men through marriage breeds domestic violence.
These beliefs psychologically damage women. These beliefs get women killed. Yet Perry would gladly have us shuttle back and forth indefinitely between the two ends of the deadly Madonna-Whore trap.
In contrast to Perry’s schoolmarmish air, Harrington assumes the persona of a post-left enfant terrible. In Feminism Against Progress, she describes an early adulthood of intellectual and social experimentation followed by rapid disillusionment. High off the techno-utopian ideals of the early internet age, she “messed around with gender roles” (to borrow from quintessential ’90s-era Britpop band James), briefly changing her name to Sebastian. “It all felt thrilling, liberating, revolutionary, and unambiguously like the ‘progress’ I’d always dreamed of,” she writes.
Then came the Great Recession and a bout of personal misfortune, and Harrington somehow found herself in the suburbs, living the staid sort of life she would have scorned in her 20s and early 30s. But aside from the loneliness she felt as a stay-at-home mother in a peer group of working women, Harrington was content in her new role and began to question received feminist wisdom about the drudgery of motherhood and domestic life. What if the problem wasn’t caregiving work itself, but society’s devaluation of it?
Harrington has a point here. The United States does not guarantee paid parental or medical leave, making it a global outlier. Care work, from nursing to nannying, is some of the lowest-paid, most precarious labor, and is still largely feminized. Harrington’s retelling of the West’s transition to a market economy, women’s increasing circumscription within the domestic realm, and the devaluation of their labor, is standard socialist-feminist fare; she even drops the requisite reference to Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
But then Harrington veers off the metaphorical cliff, reducing the struggle for women’s liberation to a battle between “Team Freedom” and “Team Interdependence,” writing, “On one side stood a pro-women defense of care and the importance of the domestic realm, and on the other a pro-women dismissal of care as an unjust impediment to women’s capacity for self-realization on the atomized template of liberal personhood.”
Here Harrington reveals her rhetorical trick: Throughout Feminism Against Progress she clarifies that her critique is directed at liberal feminists, which allows her to gesture towards socialist-feminist thinking when it suits her purposes without actually engaging with it. She declares that the “feminist debate” between Team Interdependence and Team Freedom “ended in the 1960s with a conclusive victory for Team Freedom, thanks to the mastery granted to women over our bodies via reproductive technology.”
In doing so, she conveniently sidesteps more than a century’s worth of left-feminist theory on social reproduction by thinkers like Silvia Federici, Nancy Fraser, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Angela Davis, and others. She also blatantly disregards the political interventions of Black, Indigenous, and Latina feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, who critiqued the feminist movement for privileging bourgeois white women’s relationship to domesticity and labor outside the home, particularly with regards to abortion and contraception. It was Black feminists who developed the “reproductive justice” framework as we know it, drawing attention to the specific forms of reproductive oppression experienced by people of color — namely, institutionalized antinatalism, as evidenced by decades of widespread forced sterilization in the United States and Puerto Rico. These activists demanded that the right to have children, and to raise them in health and dignity, was a reproductive right as fundamental as abortion access.
But historicity is elusive to Harrington. It’s easier to condense decades of complex feminist struggle into an epic battle between child-hating corporate ghouls and stalwart defenders of the hearth, especially when your actual goal is just to own the libs.
Somehow Harrington exempts herself from the “laptop class” she so gleefully excoriates. White collar women, Harrington claims, are sacrificing their working-class sisters to “cyborg theology in the guise of ‘trans rights’” to gain cultural capital (no mention here of her stint as Sebastian). “The principal beneficiaries of this emerging order are elite professional women. Meanwhile, the costs get higher the further you go down the socio-economic hierarchy,” she writes, pointing to an alleged epidemic of violence committed by transgender women in women’s prisons, an argument she supports with references to a few lurid tabloid articles and a white paper written by a group of anti-trans activists. Harrington doesn’t have much to say, however, about the corrections officers and prison staff who routinely violate incarcerated women, in far greater numbers and with near-total impunity.
For as much as she castigates liberal feminists for failing to anticipate the market’s co-optation of their struggle (the pill supposedly turning women into ideal unencumbered workers), Harrington presents exactly zero viable political-economic interventions of her own. She has no advice for men, either; not even the modest suggestion that they step up around the house more.
We could work towards collective liberation from capitalist oppression, or, as Harrington ludicrously suggests, we could attempt to revive the pre-modern domestic economy, as if feudalism was a Chaucerian tableau of bards and bawdy tavern maids threshing wheat together in complementarian bliss. Instead of building solidarity and political power, women just need to get married — to men, no less, who’re supposedly hard-wired to rape. And when we have sex with these men, we’re supposed to eschew contraception and, in Harrington’s words, “rewild sex,” because without the risk of pregnancy, protected sex lacks a certain frisson; it’s a mere simulacrum of the real deal — “vegan bacon,” as she described it during her book launch.
For somebody who wants to rescue us all from biofuturist disembodiment, Harrington has remarkably little to say about the real physical risks of pregnancy — particularly acute for poor people and people of color — except when she talks about her own, which she says would likely have been fatal if not for advanced biomedicine. Luckily for Harrington, the hospital wasn’t operating according to the theory of biological predestination that day, though many evolutionary scientists have proposed that childbirth is more dangerous to human beings because we’ve evolved to walk upright and have bigger heads. Like most reactionary evopsych exponents, Perry and Harrington cherry-pick technology as either benign or destructive based on ideological agenda and personal convenience.
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Ultimately, it’s not much more than an intellectual exercise to critique Harrington and Perry on their own terms because they’re so disingenuous and ahistorical. But their work — and the promotion of their work — exists within an accelerating political project which is determined to reinstitutionalize women’s dependence and re-establish Christian patriarchy.
Leftists need to be prepared to defend abortion rights against a growing tide of self-styled radicals who effusively thunder about their support for robust social welfare programs and labor rights — at the cost of women’s bodily autonomy and financial independence from men. The New York Times recently published a profile of Sohrab Ahmari, an anti-abortion co-founder of Compact, describing him as a conservative who is willing to bridge the aisle on “culture war” issues to find common ground with the left. Jacobin just published a very soft-touch review of Ahmari’s latest book, Tyranny Inc., which was blurbed by Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley. Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin and current president of The Nation, was a featured speaker at Ahmari’s August book launch.
But Ahmari isn’t some right-wing unicorn who finally dropped the partisan culture war stuff to get down to the business of fighting for the working class. His “pro-family, pro-worker” rhetoric is the same kind deployed by reactionary populist politicians like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who attended the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas and spoke about the threat of immigration to Hungarian racial purity (as an aside, Compact contributor Gladden Pappin seems to have a fixation on Hungarian social policy).
Last October, Ahmari helped organize the Restoring a Nation Conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio. In sessions like “The Perfect Society: Church, State, and the Common Good” and “Political Economy and Family Policy After Dobbs,” the self-proclaimed postliberals, Catholic integralists, and other champions of authoritarian democracy on the speaking lineup — described by conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg as “pro-life New Dealers” — called for massive public investment in pronatalist policy. Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, then on the campaign trail, delivered the keynote address; Vance has voiced support for federal abortion restrictions.
Ahmari and his ilk are very much concerned with sexual and reproductive politics. Their solution to neoliberalism’s erosion of the common good? Abolishing abortion and contraception and returning women to the home so that men can be paid a family wage, and women can be saved from the indignity of OnlyFans. The way Ahmari and his fellows tell it, you’d think Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority were hand-in-glove with Gloria Steinem, handing out birth control pills and cannulas like hot cakes as they broke the 1981 PATCO strike.
In an review of Erika Bachiochi’s 2021 Reclaiming the Rights of Women entitled “The Wrongs of Women,” Compact co-founder Matthew Schmitz gets straight to the misogynistic center of his project: “As countless feminists have pointed out, abortion backstops and guarantees women’s ability to participate in the labor force. It permits women to enjoy sexual relationships while pursuing professional careers.”
Schmitz is only stating the truth that “pro-lifers” have been trying for years to deny — that legalized abortion benefits women — with disingenuous “pro-woman” rhetoric.
Abortion bans and anti-trans legislation are currently written with a faux-feminist veneer of “protecting” women from the violence of abortion. Transphobes rely on slogans like, “protect women’s spaces” and the specter of “mutilated teenage girls” to pass a variety of draconian anti trans and anti gay bills, including, for instance, mandatory genital and endocrine exams for female athletes.
A number of “pro-life feminists,” including Bachiochi, filed an amicus brief in the Dobbs decision, consistently conjuring up the specter of abusive men forcing women to undergo dangerous abortions. Meanwhile, the National Domestic Violence Hotline reports a 100 percent increase in calls after Dobbs, because reproductive control is a key part of how abusive men exert control over their partners.
Seizing on capitalism’s failures to provide for poor and working-class women, anti-abortion NGO Feminists for Life (FFL) claims to be “dedicated to systematically eliminating the root causes that drive women to abortion — primarily lack of practical resources and support — through holistic, woman-centered solutions. Women deserve better® than abortion.” (Yes, they actually trademarked the phrase, “women deserve better”.)
This particular framing mimics the logic of “sidewalk counselors,” anti-abortion activists who harass patients at abortion clinics and claim to be offering spiritual and material aid for desperate women. Some self-styled anti-abortion “leftists,” like Lauren Handy of “Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising” — currently on trial for her invasion of an abortion clinic — call this practice “mutual aid” and “community defense.” The “mutual aid” on offer, though, is usually no more than a twelve-month supply of diapers and assistance with applying for public aid. With less pseudo-radical set dressing, Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) have been using the same set of tactics for years: luring women desperate for material support into fake medical clinics in order to convince them to give birth, often with a big dose of Christian proselytizing.
In anti-abortion states, social programs can bear a striking resemblance to the CPC model. Mississippi, which has a near-total ban on abortion, recently invested $2 million into its Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies campaign, touting life-changing life-changing public assistance like “identifying family and community supports” and “referrals for services such as Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP) and WIC.” Nowhere amongst all this “identifying” and “referring” does it offer actual, material, long-term assistance for those who will now be forced to give birth, like the sixth-grader profiled recently in Time Magazine who gave birth this year after being raped.
Mississippi has exemptions for rape, but as Time pointed out, these exemptions are largely for show. There is no clear process for obtaining one, even if a police report is filed. The most prominent voices in the pro-life movement, like FFL president Serrin Foster, claim that abortion is a “second act of violence against a woman who is raped.” Rebecca Kiessling, a woman conceived through rape who is prominently spotlighted in FFL’s materials, is a strident anti-abortion activist who actively fights against rape exemptions. In a New Yorker profile published in December 2022, Kiessling states, “We do the hashtag all the time: #RapistsLoveAbortion, because it destroys the evidence.”
Kiessling, in all her zeal to protect women and girls, has no problem using any mechanism of the law available to personally force a child rape victim to give birth. She went so far as to file a motion to appoint herself guardian ad litem of the fetus in the case of a 12-year-old girl in Michigan, who was impregnated by her older brother, in order to force the girl to give birth two months prematurely (the motion was denied).
As the liberal consensus disintegrates and we are faced with the brutal consequences of a society that has presented individual choice and consumption as the pinnacle of human liberation and fulfillment, left feminists need to be prepared to take on those who claim to offer respite from the ravages of capitalism in exchange for the freedom of women and girls.
Harrington, for instance, sees liberalism as a wrecking ball that destroys the institutions, like marriage, that are supposedly designed to protect us from harsh and immutable power relations. This has always been patriarchy’s self-defense. And it’s an especially seductive line of logic to women for whom “being taken care of” is a primary indication of one’s worth — especially the downwardly-mobile white women who form the base of the reactionary feminist project. Never mind the women for whom relinquishing economic dependence and reproductive sovereignty would mean death.
We too, are disillusioned with the options on offer from liberalism. Pressure from Democratic politicians to donate money, vote, and place our faith in nonprofits, electoral politics, and the courts, are deeply unserious and insulting. Doubling down on “consent” as the beginning and end of our sexual ethics isn’t going to help us either. And while we should absolutely defend our right to individual bodily autonomy — some aspects of liberalism are worth saving, after all — we must do so with an eye towards collective liberation. If we don’t ask ourselves what, or who, feminism should be for, reactionaries like Perry and Harrington will be happy to answer the question.
Emily Janakiram is a writer and an organizer with NYC for Abortion Rights. Megan Lessard is an organizer with NYC for Abortion Rights.
Photo illustrations by Sharanya Durvasula; face original photograph courtesy of Gabriella Clare Marino / Unsplash; second photograph courtesy of Margot Noyelle / Unsplash.