“The class has abandoned the feminist image”: Amia Srinivasan on The Right to Sex

“Sex is unlike anything else… There is nothing else so tied to politics and yet so inviolably personal,” writes Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan in her new collection of essays. The right to sex.

“When I say sex is political,” she told me when we spoke in her study at All Souls College, “I’m showing how this phenomenon that we see as intensely personal is shaped by broader social and political factors. forces.”

Srinivasan, 36, who took office at the prestigious Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory last year, emulates the proactive approach to political theory of his Chichele ancestors, including Isaiah Berlin and GA Cohen. His work is not stifled by the sometimes stereotypical abstraction of analytical philosophy, but straddles different traditions and draws on history, literature and current affairs.

Srinivasan, the first Chichele chair with a strong intellectual interest in feminism, believes her appointment signals a broader appreciation that social movements produce remarkable work in political theory. “When I teach the great texts of feminist theory to my students, they have the same mind-blowing experience as when they read Plato,” she said. “These are big, tough, imaginative, weird books that don’t just offer some sort of party line.”

Raised in Singapore, London, Taiwan and New York by Indian parents, Srinivasan began to read Hindu philosophy to understand the meaning of Sanskrit prayers. Before going to Oxford for her postgraduate studies, she went to Yale, where she “liked to write in that broad, humanistic way that was accessible to a large intellectual audience”.

This is an approach made necessary by the subjects of The right to sex: consent, pornography and sex work – after all, Srinivasan believes that feminism is not a philosophy or a theory but a political movement. His writing revolves around questions, which often express his most critical and insightful thoughts. In her essay “We can’t sleep with your students,” for example, she asks curtly, “Is it too sterile, too boring to suggest that instead of sleeping with your student, this teacher should have been – education sa? ”Added to this is a resistance to drawing premature conclusions and a refreshing tendency to“ dwell where necessary in discomfort and ambivalence ”.

[see also: Whose freedom?]

Understanding how social change occurs is crucial to Srinivasan’s work. Where does she think the feminist cause is right now? “Progress is undeniable in certain dimensions of social and political life,” she said – her carefully chosen words bending in a soft American accent. “But these things come with forms of regression, and I think it’s just kind of a general historical pattern: things are getting better in some dimensions and getting worse in others.” She warned that the focus on women’s legal equality over the past decades had distracted attention from “the plight of the most disadvantaged women and men” and lamented that “class economic analysis has disappeared. of the feminist picture ”.

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Feminists, she writes, must ask themselves if “punishment produces social change.” She is skeptical that legal mechanisms can achieve social progress, and an anti-authoritarian tension – or, at least, an awareness of the limits of authoritarianism – runs through. The right to sex. Take the law of consent: Srinivasan says increasingly stringent laws cannot address the underlying “psychosocial” problem that sex is “motivated by a desire to subordinate, not performatively, but actually subordinate. And you can’t write that in law.

“Having said that, young people, and the young people I teach, definitely make me more optimistic,” she added. “Because even though they all seem pretty pessimistic about their sex lives, as a rule, they seem so much more aware of the script they’re supposed to be playing.”

Young people certainly occupy a paradoxical position. In a sense, their lives are saturated with sex – or, at least, images of sex. Porn is no longer limited to seedy theaters or high-end magazines, but is invading the internet and therefore the lives of many young people. Yet studies suggest that young people have less sex than previous generations. “While filmed sex apparently opens up a world of sexual possibilities,” writes Srinivasan, “too often it turns off the sexual imagination, making it weak, dependent, lazy, codified.” The rote preoccupations of the sexual fantasy are not the same as the creative possibilities of the sexual imagination. While she is generally pessimistic about the transformative power of sex education, Srinivasan argues that she needs to teach young people that they have the power to decide what sex is.

Srinivasan’s belief in the power of culture to change people’s behavior underpins his hope for the future. She happily speaks of a “feminist revolution” which would mean the “total disruption of all hierarchies of inequality” and believes that if we are to solve the psychosocial problem, a substantive change is also needed. She resists the claim that some men will always have a part of their psyche fixed on subordination. “The feminist question is not: what are women and men now under patriarchy? she said. “The question is: what could they be if things were different?

[see also: It’s still possible to “cancel” gender-critical feminists, but this strategy won’t work]

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