The right to sex – a woman’s power to choose
Sign up for myFT Daily Digest to be the first to know about Non-Fiction news.
“The whole new way of thinking is about loss / In this it looks like all the old thinking. I remembered these lines from the American poet Robert Hass, reading Amia Srinivasan’s collection of essays, The right to sexexcept in this case, the new thought, like the old one, is about power.
Srinivasan is a feminist professor of social and political theory at Oxford, whose essay “Does Anyone Have the Right to Have Sex?” first appeared in the London Review of Books in 2018. The article is inspired by the 2014 University of California Santa Barbara murders by a self-proclaimed “incel” (unintentional bachelor) Elliot Rodger.
Rodger’s murderous madness was a violent expression of male sexual rights (he hated women, and feminists in particular, because they didn’t give him the sex he wanted). But Srinivasan argued that there was a perverse logic in his rage against sexual hierarchy and marginalization.
No one has the right to have sex, or to be sexually desired, but there is a proto-feminist core in the idea that sex is an effect of unequal access to power and authority. . Indeed, this idea was at the heart of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Politics shapes sexual desire and “what is ugliest about our social realities” (Srinivasan cites racism and ableism as examples) shapes the hierarchy of who is and who is not “fuckable”. Srinivasan’s ambition in this book is, she tells us, to rethink sex as a political phenomenon and thus make feminism fit for the 21st century.
Like the second wave feminists of the 1970s and 1980s (she quotes among others Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin and Adrienne Rich), she insists on the link between the “public dimensions of their oppression” and the private experience of sex and relationships. But if the shorthand of the 1970s was “the personal is political,” Srinivasan’s argument might be condensed to the slogan “beyond the right to choose.” If choice (whether or not to have sex) is the marker of emancipation, what happens to all those for whom no choice is offered?
Here she takes the shibboleth of “consent” as a measure of good sex. The idea that the dividing line between good and bad sex is whether it is wanted or not – a central idea of the #MeToo movement – ignores the ways in which desire is already constrained by social and economic inequalities.
Srinivasan’s argument reaches its climax for current feminist orthodoxies when she questions the “believe in women” injunction that accuses men of sexual assault. False rape charges are rare, but in a society that jails disproportionate numbers of black men for sex crimes, feminists should be careful not to side with the prison state: “Who do we believe, woman?” white woman who claims to have been raped or the black or brunette woman who insists that her son is being tricked?
Srinivasan believes that our desires have already been imprisoned. In one of the more interesting essays, she describes teaching her students anti-pornography feminism of the 1970s. She expects the youth in her seminary to have little time for the 1980s slogan ” porn is theory, rape is practice, “which explicitly linked the degradation of women in porn to misogynistic violence. Yet she finds them receptive to anti-porn feminists.
They have come of age in the age of online pornography and feel disconnected from their own desires, which have been supplanted by the sex they see portrayed on screen. “The psyches of my students are the product of pornography. The warnings of anti-porn feminists seem to have been realized late: sex for my students is what porn says.
Srinivasan likes the distinction between radical (good) and liberal (bad). But radical politics demand a program. How to liberate sex from the distortions of oppression? If you truly believe that the psyche is a product of political power and can be made to conform to the dominant forces of social life, then real change is only possible through revolution.
Instead, Srinivasan alludes to the power of the imagination to redeem sex, suggesting that young people can create new sexual desires, “more joyous, more equal, more free.” Perhaps this performative gesture towards possibility is necessary to save us all from stifling pessimism, but the idea that the imagination can choose to make sex good again strikes me as decidedly liberal.
Or rather, it’s utopian. The Srinivasan case for the abolition of prisons and “a restructuring of economic relations such as crimes of survival – theft of food, crossing borders, homelessness – [are] useless ”, is part of a long and respectable tradition of utopian socialist feminism. As a teacher, Srinivasan needs to believe that arguments have real effects. But I still wanted to know why the radical feminists of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s did not win. Perhaps it was the lack of new and better forms of education that would free the imagination to restructure economic and sexual relationships. Or maybe those same arguments will be repeated in 50 years.
The right to sex by Amia Srinivasan Bloomsbury £ 20 / Farrar, Straus and Giroux $ 28, 304 pages
Clair Wills is King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge
Join our online reading group on Facebook at FT Books Coffee