By Eleanor Hallesy
The philosophy of sex in the 21st century.
The Right to Sex
Amia Srinivasan, Bloomsbury, 2021
The Right to Sex wants to inhabit the ‘uncomfortable, unsafe politics’ of the truly inclusionary. Its author, Amia Srinivasan, states that she will dwell ‘if necessary, in discomfort and ambivalence’. Srinivasan’s book, a collection of six short pieces which cover various aspects of contemporary sexual mores, has been met with little less than adulation. A Sunday Times bestseller, Judith Butler has called the collection ‘a strong intervention in the field of feminist philosophy’. But a feminist work claiming to embrace discomfort has big shoes to fill. Andrea Dworkin, writer of the seminally uncomfortable Pornography: Men Possessing Women, a painstaking and painful analysis of how the common tropes of pornography diminish all women, notoriously kept a poster above her desk that read: ‘Dead men don’t rape.’ Feminists have long sought to uproot our sense of what can be said, imagined and, eventually, overturned. For all that The Right to Sex has been hailed as ‘daring’ (Jia Tolentino), one senses a certain hesitation to stray too far into the radicalism that has defined so much of feminism’s past.
Srinivasan’s achievement in this book is her insistence that feminists should not only be unafraid in addressing the public at large, but also in speaking frankly to themselves, and thinking critically about their own accepted wisdoms. Butler calls this the ‘slow demolition of bad popular arguments’ and it is often accomplished by the patient and relentless scrutiny of a thesis through an intersectional lens. She criticises, for example, the plea to ‘Believe Women’ (about claims of sexual assault) for too readily giving cover to the stigmatisation of black men, who are more likely to be unjustly accused of rape. In her final essay, she considers how carceral punishment of sex offenders from marginalised groups works to further disadvantage the wives and partners they leave behind.
The headline argument of the book, that the ethical and political dimensions of sex must go beyond yes/no, consensual/non-consensual, is a vital intervention. She argues forcefully that we must reopen the question of what constitutes consent under a patriarchal culture that means women’s choices are never really free. It should be noted that this insight is far from new. Cambridge philosopher Clare Chambers, for example, in her 2007 work Sex, Culture, and Justice: The Limits of Choice, puts forward a comprehensive argument on how cultural conditioning constrains autonomy. Long before this, Shulamith Firestone, in her ground-breaking The Dialectic of Sex, writes: ‘Women everywhere rush to squeeze into the glass slipper, forcing and mutilating their bodies with diets and beauty programmes, clothes and makeup, anything to become the punk prince’s dream girl. But they have no choice.’ It is notable that Srinivasan does not draw on recent academic literature on sexual ethics, which is increasingly nuanced on this point. (Elise Woodard, for example, distinguishes between three different forms of ‘bad sex’ — defining bad sex as sex that is consensual but nevertheless for some reason unethical.) But if Srinivasan’s intervention tilts the balance further in favour of a re-examination of the idea that as long as a woman has consented to something then it must be unproblematic, then so much the better.
Srinivasan is at her best as a social historian of feminism. She skilfully places the problems she considers in the wider context of feminist thought: who argued what, when, and how that has contributed to the feminist consensus today. Her final chapter on anti-carceral feminism — the most interesting in the book — delineates how female thinkers have clashed on whether sex work is best met with abolitionism or empathetic acceptance. She is persuasive in arguing for acceptance, taking us through the unexpected outcomes of various forms of regulation and criminalisation. Paraphrasing Silvia Federici’s 1975 manifesto Wages Against Housework to show how ‘calling something work [has often been] the first step towards refusing to do it’, she argues sex work should be fully decriminalised to allow it to attract the same legal protections as other jobs.
Though she is not afraid to demonstrate her sympathy for certain radical positions, her proposals can fall short of the specificity that would lend them force. By her own admission, Srinivasan offers ‘a feminist utopian response to our current situation’. But as she puts it elsewhere, ‘Feminists need not be saints. They must only, I am suggesting, be realists.’ What would it add up to if we accepted all of her arguments? We would conclude that when it comes to false rape accusations, there is no conspiracy against men; that we all basically agree porn is bad but that we probably shouldn’t ban it; that we should listen to marginalised women in thinking about how we wield feminist power; and that we probably shouldn’t sleep with our students. Are you feeling uncomfortable yet?
Many of the essays show a dissatisfaction with the state on the grounds that it cannot be trusted to apply its force evenly to all groups: ‘once you have started up the carceral machine, you cannot pick and choose whom it will mow down.’ Sceptical about state intervention as a means to solve the problems confronting feminists, at times Srinivasan appears to be instinctively attracted to solutions centred on the moral responsibility of the individual. She is squeamish, for example, about blanket bans on professors sleeping with their students. Instead, she appeals to the idea that professors just shouldn’t:
Some professors find it difficult to resist the temptation to try and assimilate themselves to their students. But it seems obvious to me — not as a general moral precept, but in the specific sense of what is called for in the moments of confrontation with our own past selves which are part of what it is to teach — that one must stand back, step away and leave them to get on with it.
She is succinct on one of the fundamental problems facing the movement, that we must choose ‘which forms of inequality we will use the law to address, and which forms are susceptible only to the forces of social change.’ But effecting bringing about social change is not easy. People who advocate state intervention don’t do so because they want to have a more constraining state; they do so because, in the face of overwhelming concern around the negative impact of a particular persistent behaviour, they see no other way to make change happen. Simply hoping that men will be decent enough to ‘do the right thing’ with respect to women hasn’t cut it for the past few millennia — why would it be sufficient now?
Simply hoping that men will be decent enough to 'do the right thing' with respect to women hasn't cut it for the past few millennia — why would it be sufficient now?
The instinct she displays at times towards a theory of change centred on individual responsibility rather than state interference sits slightly uncomfortably with the overt, if underdeveloped, critique of capitalism in the final chapter. She is at once sceptical both of state intervention and the free market. This need not be a contradiction, but it is one of the less pleasing aspects of the book that the socialist model she proposes at the end — guaranteed income, housing and childcare — is not more fully theorised across the course of the other chapters.
At times, too, there are odd lapses in the consistency of Srinivasan’s arguments. Part of the power of #MeToo, which she discusses at length in the titular essay on the incel movement, was that it offered a long-overdue opportunity both for specific, directed accusations to be heard and acted on, and for a broader re-examination of our collective responsibility; how had we failed to listen for so long? #MeToo allowed us to interrogate that ‘we’. Srinivasan rightly takes a hard line on men’s responsibility for their own inappropriate sexual behaviour, but in a way that allows little or no space for a collective failure to call them to account:
Those who insist that men aren’t in a position to know better are in denial of what men have seen and heard. Men have chosen not to listen because it has suited them not to do so, because the norms of masculinity dictate that their pleasure takes priority, because all around them other men have been doing the same.
Yet in a later essay, recounting the story of a friend of hers, a young male tutor, who is accused of looking inappropriately at his students’ legs, she has this to say:
No one had told this graduate student what it might mean for him, as a man, to teach under patriarchy: that if he just let his gaze go where it ‘naturally’ went, let his conversations and interactions with his students proceed as they ‘naturally’ might, he would likely fail to treat his women students on equal terms with his male students.
What happened to the zero-tolerance approach to those who claim men ‘caught out and unfairly punished for their innocent mistakes’ simply don’t know the rules? With what feels like a strangely uncritical acceptance of Freud, she laments that educators receive none of the therapist’s training in how to negotiate ‘the dynamics of transference’. We are left unclear what to make of this vignette; are we being asked to believe that it was purely accidental where his gaze happened to fall? Presumably this explanation would not have satisfied his accusers.
Bridging the gap between radical feminist politics and analytic philosophy is a vital task for contemporary feminism. Srinivasan admirably refuses to choose between the two, adopting a refreshingly forthright, straight-talking tone that represents a welcome addition to our toolkit in thinking about how to address audiences new to feminism. But for all that this is a lively and enriching book, I’m not convinced the balance she achieves as yet is quite right. At times, she risks settling both for arguments insufficiently rigorous to be persuasive and demands insufficiently developed to call us to action.
The essays spend far more time on nuanced intersectional reposings of the contemporary questions of feminism than they do in solutions. Take Chapter Five, ‘Talking to My Students About Porn’. The essay is guided by the interesting (if anecdotal) insight that, far from considering feminist arguments for banning porn old-fashioned, her students of both sexes are unanimous in their agreement on its harms. To solve the porn problem, Srinivasan suggests that we deploy a new kind of sex education that:
wouldn’t assert its authority to tell the truth about sex, but rather remind young people that the authority on what sex is, and could become, lies with them. Sex can, if they choose, remain as generations before them have chosen: violent, selfish and unequal. Or sex can — if they choose — be something more joyful, more equal, freer. How such a negative education is to be achieved is unclear. There are no laws to draft, no easy curriculums to roll out. Rather than more speech or more images, it is their onslaught that would have to be arrested. Perhaps then the sexual imagination could be coaxed, even briefly, to recall its lost power.
This suggestion (not concrete enough to be a demand or a proposal) gains much of its force from the deployment of a quotation from Dworkin brilliant enough to bear repeating here: ‘Imagination is not a synonym for sexual fantasy, which is only — pathetically — a programmed tape loop repeating repeating in the narcoleptic mind. ... The person with imagination is pushed forward by it into a world of possibility and risk, a distinct world of meaning and choice; not into a nearly bare junkyard of symbols manipulated to evoke rote responses.’ But a major part of the problem with porn, surely, is that so many men who ‘use’ it do continue to choose what the generations before them have chosen, its violence, its selfishness and its wilful exploitation of inequality. Perhaps all we need to do is ask them to imagine an alternative. Perhaps.
We find a similar proposition in the titular essay, where Srinivasan notes that the fact that society considers some marginalised groups as inherently ‘undesirable’ renders ‘fuckability’ itself political. Her proposed solution for this is that we should try to gently tweak whom we find desirable by ‘inviting and coaxing a gestalt shift from revulsion to admiration.’ Without, perhaps, sufficiently acknowledging the contentiousness of the statement, she states that: ‘the fact is that our sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own wills’. Though, she says, we must ask ourselves whether there is ‘a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires’, she falls short of explicitly claiming we have such a duty. Who gets to decide which groups we should redirect our desires towards? While she acknowledges the obvious critiques to be made of this proposal, both liberal and otherwise, she doesn’t go so far as answering them. Ultimately the essay concludes that our ‘best hope’ is that desire might ‘take us by surprise, leading us somewhere we hadn’t imagined we would ever go’. Is this really our best hope? Wouldn’t a pragmatic plan for how to improve the representation of marginalised people, for example, be better?
Srinivasan deftly explains the evolution of key debates in contemporary feminism and offers a timely reminder that we should not be afraid to challenge our own orthodoxies. But as the backslide on equality around domestic work during the pandemic has taught us, we also need concrete, pragmatic solutions supported by the development of a shared consensus on our collective duty to act. In the words of Greta Thunberg, ‘instead of looking for hope — look for action’.
Eleanor Hallesy is reading for a DPhil in French literature. She once checked a burrito into the cloakroom at Oriel College ball.
Art by Jemima Storey.