Amia Srinivasan’s new book unboxes sex, politics and discomfort
Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan has published one of the most controversial books of the year and could change our view of feminism
It’s the start of the day in Oxford. Amia Srinivasan probably woke up early enough for our morning Zoom call, but she didn’t let it be heard. Her long loose hair and glowing skin, the Indo-American speaks with a cut accent, pausing between questions as she frames her answers. It’s easy to imagine the 36-year-old in the classroom at All Souls College, Oxford, where she teaches philosophy and holds the prestigious Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory (a statutory chair) since January 2020. Much has been written about her being the first woman, the first person of color and the youngest to hold this position, but it is evident that Srinivasan ignores these labels.
Now, with the launch of his first non-fiction book, The right to sex, we still write a lot about it. The Dividing Work – a six-essay collection that attempts to break the politics of desire, discusses the pitfalls of pornography, and asks questions about the right to sex in a world where the personal is political – has had wheelchair philosophers , feminists, LGBTQI + and even her peers criticize her for her cheeky approach to sex. But she is open to everything. “I like criticism; I think it’s an important part of the feminist tradition, ”she told me with a smile.
The book was born from an essay, Does anyone have the right to have sex? (published in the London book review in 2018), and was written over two summers in California, where as she put it The Guardian, she “got up at 6 am to surf before going to work”. It delves into uncomfortable questions: what makes one person eminently more desirable than another, who decides it, what is the relationship between feminism and state power, how consent works in this era. #MeToo. It’s also a heavily loaded weapon that challenges what many feminists and philosophers have said so far. Srinivasan addresses some of them in his conversation with The Hindu weekend.
what The right to sex does mean to you?
The notion that interests me is this idea rooted in male sexual law – that men have a right to have a certain amount of sex, whether women want it or not. You see this explicitly at play in the so-called incel subculture [involuntary celibates, who claim they are unable to get a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one]. These young men talk about themselves as if they are alone and sexually marginalized, but what really upsets them is that they don’t get their due, sexually speaking. [As Srinivasan explained in an earlier interview, they aren’t able to attract the sort of women that could confer a high sexual status on them.] It comes from an ideology of male sexual rights.
Feminism has been reused today to adapt to the world we live in.
I think the resurgence of feminism is a good thing, but I’m worried about some of the forms it can take. Globally, there is a certain type of dominant feminism that is fundamentally interested not in the critique of structures, but in the insertion of women into pre-existing structures of inequality. So while the question of how many women are on your board or how many women are in political leadership positions is important, it prevents us from considering whether the board is a good democratic structure to begin with. Should we have companies wielding so much influence in society? Does party politics, as it exists now, really liberate people, especially women? I think there may be a tendency to focus on middle class and wealthy women and not pay enough attention to the most vulnerable.
How does the politics of desire play out in deeply patriarchal countries?
There is a deep asymmetry in most societies. On the one hand, there is an implicit understanding, even though people objectively deny it as they do in the UK, that men, in a certain sense, have a right to have sex. For example, almost everywhere marital rape goes unrecognized, or was only recognized very recently. The whole point of the marriage contract is that men get their right to as much sex as they want. The flip side is that women are not allowed to have sex on their terms. They play out differently in different cultures, but I think it’s no coincidence that assertion of male sexual rights goes hand in hand with denial of female sexual agency, desire, and pleasure.
Why is open access to pornography problematic?
I wasn’t really concerned with pornography until I started teaching the debates feminists had in the US and UK, especially in the ’70s and’ 80s. And I found out that my students reacted very strongly, often siding with those who were very critical of pornography. I think the reason for this is that they belong to a generation that has come of age when online pornography is rampant. This mainstream porn doesn’t help set expectations, tell them the truth about sex, offer alternative perspectives. This is porn [that is limiting] which trains people to experience pleasure as acts of male domination and female subordination.
Many of the concepts you refer to are quite western. Who is the audience you wrote for?
I am a member of the Indian diaspora [born to Indian parents in Bahrain]. I grew up in the US and UK and therefore most of my focus points come from a feminist tradition in a sort of English-speaking tradition. I think some of these notions, like male sexual law and rape culture, travel quite well, but there are also important cultural and historical specifics that shape sexual rights regimes in particular countries. I don’t expect the book to have automatic meaning, and I don’t aspire to some sort of completeness or global reach. But hopefully this will contribute to a conversation.
Posted by Bloomsbury, The right to sex is ₹ 699 (delivered hardback), at bloomsbury.com.