Amia Srinivasan’s book is a contemplation on sex and other consequences of modern feminism

The Right to Sex
Photo by: FarrarStraus and Giroux.
Copyright: Handout

The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

By Amia Srinivasan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp. $28

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The title of Amia Srinivasan’s “The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century” has a triumphant ring. When I picked it up, I thought of Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity,” in which the character Marie, asserting her freedom, says she doesn’t let heartbreak interfere with her “basic human rights” to jump into bed with someone. But because I read Srinivasan’s title essay when it appeared in the London Review of Books three years ago, I already knew that she doesn’t share Marie’s view. She emphasizes, on the contrary, that “there is no right to sex.”

Of course there isn’t. To claim otherwise is “to think like a rapist” – or like Elliot Rodger, the essay’s subject, who murdered six people in 2014 out of rage at the injustice of his involuntary celibacy. This is a standard operating procedure for Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at the University of Oxford: In each of her collection’s six essays on sexual desire, politics and morality, she takes ideas that sound like good feminist goals and asks whether that’s what they actually are.

Author Amia Srinivasan. Photo: Twitter @amiasrinivasan

In “The Conspiracy Against Men,” another essay named after something it disclaims, the dubious notion is the imperative to “believe women.” Her point isn’t that we shouldn’t. Rape and sexual assault are, after all, far more frequent than false accusations of the same. She thinks, however, that our belief should be “proportionate to the evidence.”

Take Harvey Weinstein: There is “strong statistical evidence” that men like him “tend to abuse their power,” not to mention the “compelling testimonial evidence of the women who accused him of doing so.” Conversely, at Colgate University, half of the sexual violation complaints during a recent school year named Black students, who made up 4.2 percent of the student population. Especially given White women’s history of falsely accusing Black men, Srinivasan suggests, “believe women” might not be the best blanket policy there.

But say we thought we knew a man was guilty. What should happen then? In “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism,” Srinivasan argues that feminists, especially White and wealthy ones, have been too quick to advocate for arrest and imprisonment. (This argument draws heavily on the work of police and prison abolitionists, articulating a position that seems increasingly common, and rightly so, among feminists on the left.)

Focusing on punishment ignores, and may worsen, the poverty and racism to which many women are subject. Stiffening the legal consequences for domestic violence can, for example, put poor Black and Latina women at risk of increased suffering. They might avoid seeking help for fear of losing a partner’s support or causing his incarceration. And those who do seek help might experience more retaliatory violence, which correlates with poverty and unemployment. Feminists would help more women, then, by advocating not for harsher punishment but for better housing, education, child care and jobs.

Better material conditions, though, are not enough. If sex isn’t a basic human right, it’s at least, for some humans, a basic desire. And for those who are “sexually marginalized or excluded,” that desire is unjustly difficult to fulfill. In “The Right to Sex” (and “The Politics of Desire,” the title essay’s 30-page coda), Srinivasan worries that reigning feminist ideas could compound this difficulty. “Since the 1980s,” she writes, “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.” She thinks that, as a result, we have blown past the moral and political stakes of what and whom we want.

While “grandiosity and homicidal rage” were probably the stronger repellents in his case, research has confirmed Elliot Rodger’s suspicion that U.S. women are more prone to reject men of Asian descent (like him). He himself preferred blondes, a propensity he shared with many non-homicidal peers. In sex, dating and desire, racism and rigid gender norms flourish unchecked, “protected by the logic of ‘personal preference.’ ” And while “no one is obliged to desire anyone else,” some of our moral and political goals (an end to racism, transphobia, ableism) cannot be achieved without our desires changing. Might we then have a duty to try to change them? The answer depends on whether it is possible to do so. Srinivasan convincingly argues that it sometimes is. But how?

Some of her suggestions are more promising than others. In “The Right to Sex,” she approvingly cites the tactics of body positivity movements among Black, fat and disabled women. The writer Lindy West, for example, has studied photos of fat women in the hope of “coaxing a gestalt shift from revulsion to admiration.” While such a shift is far from happening on a large scale, small increases in body diversity across advertising and other media make it hazily imaginable. The same cannot be said of the idea Srinivasan proposes in “Talking to My Students About Porn.” This essay suggests that Internet porn has done grievous harm to young people’s sex lives by training them in its patriarchal, heteronormative ways. In contrast to her approval of West, Srinivasan argues that “better and more diverse representations of sex” would not be enough to counteract the damage. “Rather than more speech or more images, it is their onslaught that would have to be arrested,” she concludes, the passive voice seeming to concede that no existing person or entity would be capable of such a feat absent the kind of legal restrictions she disagrees with.

However one goes about it, urging others to change their desires risks accusations of moralizing. Srinivasan’s willingness to take this and other risks is admirable, an enactment of her insistence that feminist politics are necessarily uncomfortable. “Feminism cannot indulge the fantasy that interests always converge,” she writes. Thinking your particular feminist goals are good for everyone might be a sign that you should think a little more.

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Megan Marz is a writer in Chicago.

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