Review: Amia Srinivasan’s feminist book, “The Right to Sex”

On the bookshelf

The right to sex

By Amia Srinivasan
FSG: 304 pages, $ 28

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“The Right to Sex,” an essay collection by Amia Srinivasan, sounds a bit like old news. This is not a shot at Srinivasan, professor of social and political theory at the University of Oxford, but rather a reflection on how quickly the discourse on feminism and trans rights has evolved since the author published the essay that anchors the book – “Does Anyone Have a Right to Sex?” – in the London Review of Books in 2018.

Srinivasan drew his headline sentence from the aftermath of Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage in 2014, after which his fellow Incels promoted a “misogynistic right” to sex. Since then, the “right to sex” has evolved from a literal definition (through issues of consent and the #MeToo movement) to a philosophy of freedom.

A succinct and clear writer, Srinivasan defines her terms in useful and revealing ways. For example, “incel” or “unintentionally bachelor” was coined by Alana, a “nerdy queer woman” and blogger, in the 1990s. Not all readers may be familiar with the idea of ​​”prison feminism. ”, And Srinivasan explains it well:“ a policy that relies on the coercive power of the state – police, criminal courts, prisons – to achieve gender justice ”.

Another key concept for Srinivasan is intersectional Marxist feminism. She is at her strongest when she demystifies him as a cadre who attacks the system rather than “men” as a group. His most provocative arguments stem from the idea that sex politics cannot be fully explored without telling the truth about race and class. When we talk about the need for #believewomen, “Who are we to believe,” asks Srinivasan, “the white woman who says she was raped, or the black or brunette woman who insists her son is in. being trapped? ” To take the murder of Emmett Till as an example: “Carolyn Bryant or Granny Till?

The author complicates the punitive impulse of #MeToo by noting that “a black man serving time for sexual assault is 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than a white man” with the same conviction. And these white men (she takes comedian Louis CK as an example) “do not deny the truth of the allegations made against them, nor even the harm they have caused. What they deny is that they deserve to be punished. This question, for Srinivasan, is directly related to race and class; it is about “the possibility that the law treats rich white men as it regularly treats poor black and brown men”.

Things get more murky when Srinivasan turns to the politics of desire. In the chapter “Talking to my students about porn,” she writes, “sex for my students is what porn says” – a rather alarming statement. Porn is everywhere, but the argument that it has poisoned an entire generation, preventing them from thinking about sex for themselves, seems too broad and ill-substantiated. Feminism’s attacks on porn in the ’70s and’ 80s (via Robin Morgan, Andrea Dworkin and others) now seem joyless. Even the concept of “sexual positivity” seems outdated.

Some of Srinivasan’s claims about pornography are bluntly blunt: “Women also watch pornography; According to PornHub, 32% of all its users are female. (Again, who said women can’t be misogynistic?) ”; “While filmed sex opens up a world of sexual possibilities, too often it closes the sexual imagination, making it weak, dependent, lazy, codified.” Said who?

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Just as I was about to write that Srinivasan relies too much on heteronormative ideas, his essay, “Sex wars: resolving the trans conflict of feminismAppeared in the September 13 issue of The New Yorker, answering many of my questions about his dependence on the genre binary. All of the strong writing that Srinivasan displays in “The Right to Sex” is applied to a more current and heated debate in this play.

“Such feminists tend to despise non-binary people,” Srinivasan writes of the TERF (Radical Trans-Exclusionist Feminists), “who, in their denial of the distinction between the sexes, claim to be the real vanguard of the ‘abolition of gender’. This inclusion of trans and non-binary people in a discussion of feminism is what you would expect from a book that claims to discuss feminism “in the 21st century.” Many of the points she makes in “The Right to Sex” also appear in this essay – and are best used.

In the last chapter of the book, Srinivasan returns to his strong point, the limits of white feminism, while addressing sex work. “The belief that a sex worker will be helped by the criminalization of her profession is based on the assumption that she has other choices available to her,” she writes. “Whether it’s prostitution, rather than, say, poverty law or immigration, that’s its fundamental problem.” Feminism fails the majority of women around the world because it is based on the demands of the privileged. While #MeToo is a good start, “for many women,” Srinivasan points out with devastating effect, “being sexually harassed isn’t the worst thing about their job.”

The #MeToo juggernaut will continue to resonate in 21st century feminism. But the emergence of a writer like Srinivasan, who asks feminists to go further, is a huge gift to the discourse. Her New Yorker essay expands on the evidence she presents in “The Right to Sex” in which feminists delay or complicate progress through their own internal struggles. Audre Lorde, in “The Cancer Journals,” wrote about feminism’s tendency to bicker over the experience that is most important or essential to the group’s goals. Such arguments were symptomatic, Lorde writes, of “the endless ways in which we deny each other.”

It is obvious that Srinivasan is a thinker whose ideas can evolve, as they should. Here it is, still in the New Yorker, on the potential alliance between feminists and trans people: “It is true that a very small percentage of human beings feel enough distress about their bodies to need intervention. hormonal or surgical. It’s also true that many non-trans women know something about the heartache caused by a betraying body – weighing you down with unwanted breasts and hips; which transforms you from an agent of action into an object of male desire; that is, in a mortifying sense, not a reflection of who you really are. . . . What might a conversation between women, trans and not, look like if it started from a recognition of such continuities of experience? “

As the fight to define “the right to sex” rages on, one thing is certain: Amia Srinivasan has entered the chat.

Ferri’s most recent book is “Silent Cities: New York”.

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