Many years ago, I was writing for my college newspaper and was assigned a story about a new policy banning student-faculty dating. I dutifully set out to interview a few of my professors to get their reactions. I don’t remember much of what they said; I think they all agreed it was basically a good idea. I do recall that as I got up to leave the office of my government professor, he leaned forward and said, “I mean, of course, teaching is a very erotic process. But you can’t say that in your article. It’s too complicated; people won’t understand it.” Even then I knew enough to be put off that he was peddling a cliché as something forbidden and complex.
I thought about that exchange while reading Amia Srinivasan’s essay collection The Right to Sex. So often, arguments about relationships between professors and students — not to mention the countless, usually lifeless, depictions in novels, movies, and television shows — are marked by this gap. The “transgression” — and the debates that swirl around it — are not only familiar and banal; they are scripted in advance. So too with many debates around pornography, sexual assault, and the other questions to which Srinivasan turns her attention and immense talents as a writer and thinker.
The Right to Sex begins by declaring, “Feminism is not a philosophy, or a theory, or even a point of view. It is a political movement to transform the world beyond recognition.” Yet the book is not an analysis of existing feminist movements or a prescription for how to organize. Instead, it’s an attempt to reimagine familiar debates in a way that might serve a revitalized movement.
The Politics of Everyday Life
A philosopher by training, Srinivasan draws on writers like Adrienne Rich and Angela Davis who ask theoretical questions that aid movement work. When the book succeeds, it offers the vital energies of these writers at their best: arguments where something real is at stake, where “complexity” is a catalyst rather than a pose, where the thrusts and parries feel more like a debate with comrades than opportunistic fodder for the next round of takes.
Srinivasan’s starting point is the insight that the stuff of everyday life — sex, to be sure, but also desires of all kinds, family bonds, friendship, conversation, leisure, the classroom — is political and that our experiences are structured by our position in the world and its hierarchies. This is not a new insight. But it’s relevant to anyone engaged in radical politics, in any program to “transform the world beyond recognition.”
Srinivasan begins and ends the book with an unstinting examination of “carceral feminism.” “There is no general conspiracy against men,” she writes in the first chapter. “But there is a conspiracy against certain classes of men.” The anxiety among wealthy white men that they’ll be falsely accused of rape is in part “about the possibility that the law might treat [them] as it routinely treats poor black and brown men.” As with other forms of violence, the legal system is incapable of meting out anything like equal treatment, let alone justice.
And not just in the United States: Srinivasan looks at the case of Jyoti Singh, whose brutal rape and murder captured headlines and was treated as a symptom of Indian patriarchy. But the execution of several poor men for the crime, she argues, did little to change views about sexual violence. Its most tangible effect was to leave the widows of the accused destitute and outcast. In Brazil, the 2006 Maria da Penha law introduced mandatory prison sentences for perpetrators of domestic violence, resulting in fewer reports — not because domestic violence declined but because women feared that seeking help would get their husbands locked up, leaving them without economic support.
While feminists fight for the economic independence that would free women from violence, the record shows that the powerful will quickly embrace punishment as the sole solution whenever it is on offer. We might turn our righteous anger against the Larry Nassars and Harvey Weinsteins of the world, but, Srinivasan notes, “once you have started up the carceral machine, you cannot pick and choose whom it will mow down . . . feminists need not be saints. They must only, I am suggesting, be realists. Perhaps some men deserve to be punished. But feminists must ask what it is they set in motion, and against whom, when they demand more policing and more prisons.”
It is a mark of progress, and a great tribute to the abolitionist organizing of mostly women of color, that the core of this argument is now common sense to many on the Left. Srinivasan aims to remind us how we got here.
In the 1970s, many radicals who politicized rape — who fought to take it out of the realm of the private and into the public sphere — saw its elimination as possible only through, in the words of New York Radical Feminists, “a transformation of the family, of the economic system and the psychology of men and women.”
With the fading of these radical hopes and the backlash against feminism — as well as the failure of many white feminists, both liberal and radical, to grapple with the critiques of Angela Davis and other black feminists about sexual violence and the state’s role in enforcing it — many began targeting pornography as a symptom of the rotten cultural order. In the 1980s and 1990s, Srinivasan writes, large segments of the movement began pushing for a punitive program that ultimately endorsed everything from anti-pornography legislation to intensified criminalization of sex work under the guise of fighting sex trafficking.
In between these two chapters on carceral feminism, we get what sometimes feels like a different book: Srinivasan recounting discussions with her students about pornography, Srinivasan considering the questions raised by the incel phenomenon, Srinivasan arguing with fellow philosophers who, “used to wrestling with the ethics of eugenics and torture (issues you might have imagined were more clear-cut) think that all there was to say about professor-student sex was that it was fine if consensual.”
It’s a reversal of the familiar structure, where a litany of problems is followed by a list of sensible, if hard to realize, solutions. Instead, by starting and ending with a look at the damage caused by a failed solution, Srinivasan asks how feminists can think about such questions outside the realm of law.
Morality, Consent, and Desire
At the heart of Srinivasan’s argument, and its knottiest element, is her questioning of the “fine if consensual” ethos. “Since the 1980s,” she claims, “the wind has been behind a feminism which does not moralize about women’s sexual desires, and which insists that acting on those desires is morally constrained only by the boundaries of consent. Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic: it is instead merely wanted or unwanted.” While recognizing the importance of freeing sex from shame and stigma, she nonetheless insists on “the convergence, however unintentional, between sex positivity and liberalism in their shared reluctance to interrogate the formation of our desire.”
But is this really the way the wind has blown since the 1980s?
Srinivasan begins her discussion of pornography by recounting the famous 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, where anti-porn feminists harassed the event organizers. That same decade, anti-porn legislation written by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin was passed in Indiana, signed into law by a Republican governor. Robin Morgan’s famous formulation, “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice,” found its way into right-wing attorney general Ed Meese’s 1986 report on pornography. The ’90s saw a visible return to a positive feminist agenda of sexual liberation, but this was short lived, and did little to stop the ramping up of carceral feminism.
Today sex workers continue to face prosecution and criminalization. And for many young people, sexual socialization comes not primarily through pornography or through feminism of any stripe but through conservative religious institutions and culture. (This may be less visible to Srinivasan, writing in England, than it is to readers in the United States.)
Srivinivasan knows all this, and recounts much of it herself. But in asserting that the wind has been behind sex-positive feminism, does she mean that the efforts to block pornography now seem doomed because of the internet? Perhaps, but she also notes that, in 2014, the British government passed a law prohibiting certain sex acts from being featured in porn — a list that unsurprisingly ended up targeting kink and queer sex. More likely, she finds it uncomfortable to seemingly bolster the forces that would coercively regulate sexuality. In presenting the sex-positive position as dominant, she risks downplaying the continued danger from the other side.
Srinivasan tries to escape the dichotomy between coercion and sexual freedom by drawing on Ellen Willis’s 1981 essay “Lust Horizons.” Willis, a socialist feminist who died in 2006, argued that we should accept the right of consenting partners to their proclivities, but that a radical movement should also look “beyond the right to choose, and keep focusing on the fundamental questions. Why do we choose what we choose?”
Srinivasan believes feminists can do both. Nowhere is this truer than in her title essay, an expansion of a London Review of Books piece exploring the incel phenomenon.
In 2014, Elliot Rodger murdered five people and wounded fourteen before taking his own life. He left behind a manifesto blaming women for condemning him to a sexless life, and feminists for defining the terms of his rejection. In a dark reflection of the evolution of the internet, the term “incel,” coined in the late 1990s by a self-described “nerdy queer woman” looking for a mutual support group, became the calling card of a central cultural formation of the new far right.
Srinivasan argues that incels have crafted a twisted version of what was once the province of feminists: a political critique of sex. Like others of the new right, incels point to the divergence between the liberal rhetoric of equality and the reality of its hierarchies. But rather than oppose those hierarchies, incels object only to their place within it.
Despite the provocation of her book title, Srinivasan suggests that the more useful question is not “should we redistribute sex?” or even “should we try to transform our desires?” but rather “what forces are creating ‘communities’ like this one?” and “what kind of world would lead to our intimate lives being richer and less marked by cruelty?”
In 2013, the journalist Katie J.M. Baker wrote an article for Dissent called “Cockblocked by Redistribution: A Pick-up Artist in Denmark.” Her subject was Roosh, then a star of the so-called seduction community. The “community” was a Ponzi scheme where gurus offered tricks based on half-baked evolutionary psychology. And yet, as Baker chronicles, Roosh found himself foiled in Denmark thanks to its robust welfare state: the less economically dependent women are on men, he lamented, the more freedom they have in their intimate lives. Free health care and education, it turns out, actually can change our desires.
An Ethics of Sex
The feminist tradition favored by Srinivasan prided itself on analyzing everyday life: examining not only sex but marriage, family structure, and gendered notions of work. She recalls the impact of an essay like Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience,” which spurred transformative questions about why women were taught to downplay their intimacy with one another, to experience it with shame, or to view other women as competition.
In the last ten years, a renewed socialist and feminist left has asked different but similarly transformative questions: Why am I ashamed to be in debt if everyone else is too? Why do I have no time to see my friends? Why does whether I have a romantic partner determine if I can see a doctor? Why do I have to have one of two stable gender identities?
Srinivasan is an elegant and persuasive writer, and if anyone can thread the needle of creating an ethics of sex without legalism or moralism, it’s her. But the political and intellectual traditions she draws on may be better served by turning to this new set of questions. There is no right to sex, as Srinivasan notes, but in thinking about the needs that give rise to the question, we might think about another set of rights. What might our analysis of daily life look like if we could acknowledge these rights: the right to recognition, the right to respect, the right for time for leisure and reflection, the right to care?