‘The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century’ by Amia Srinivasan reviewed by Conrad Hamilton


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

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2021. 304 pp., $28 pb
ISBN 9780374248529

Reviewed by Conrad Hamilton

About the reviewer

Conrad Hamilton is a PhD graduate from University of Paris 8. He works on the relation between …

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Over the past few years, the question of sex has undergone a remarkable politicisation. Not gender, not sexuality, but sex: who’s getting it, how much they’re getting and why they’re getting it. This owes, as all politics do, to an opposition between divergent factions. On one side are those who, clinging to the left-liberal consensus of the 1990s, see sex in essentially contractual terms. Sex is an agreement between two people. On the other side, and more ominously, are those who – having penetrated popular culture via septic Reddit subforums and ‘neomasculinist’ Word Presses – see in the politics of consent a conspiracy against men. In this tragic vision, what at first appears as equitous – sex between consenting parties – in fact turns out to be its opposite. For freed from traditional moral norms, the tendency of women is not to ‘provide’ sex to all equally. Rather it is to place themselves at the beck and call of an elite class of sexually prolific ‘alpha Chads.’ Under these conditions, so we’re told, most men become pitiable ‘incels’ – that is, involuntary celibates, with little to do but bemoan their conundrum by venting misogyny online. Or, perhaps, to foment a political revolt.

Of course, sex has always been political. But really, there is a difference. Debates over sex in the past tended to pit choice against moral custom. In the quintessentially Christian view of Saint Augustine, the problem with sex is that it distracts from the worship of God – even as it may find a legitimate outlet in marriage and the procreation of children. The incel argument differs from this not only in its economism – its concern with the inegaliarian consequences of cultural liberalisation, which at times seems like a parody of Marx. It also differs from it in its individualism. If ‘beta males’ must take the ‘black pill’ and unite to overthrew Chad and Stacy alike, restoring monogamy as a sexual leveler, this is not because the latter have profaned spiritual values. It is because liberal, consent-based positions have paradoxically revealed the incapacity of a politics of individuality to meet individual needs (or at least those of men).

That the demands of incels derive from a grotesque sense of entitlement doesn’t alter the fact that they pose a problem for contractualist consensus. To say that sex is simply a personal choice, to treat it as fundamentally apolitical, might be an expedient way of combatting both retrograde religiosity as well as moralistic and divisive strands of feminism. But it also flies in the face of reality, to a degree that makes it highly susceptible to just about any form of secular critique. Are we really supposed to believe that the same people who champion slogans like ‘Big Is Beautiful’ think people’s sexual choices are inscrutable? Or that the documented discrimination against black women in the dating market is somehow beyond reproach? And if we don’t, what does that tell us about incels? These questions are not merely academic: since Eliot Rodger murdered six people in his aborted assault on the ‘hottest sorority of UCS’ in 2014, there has been a steady increase in the number of terrorist attacks targeting women in North America. Unlike the more diffuse patriarchal violences of the past, these attackers overwhelmingly identify with the ‘incel’ movement.

It’s this complex conjuncture which Amia Srinivasan attempts to navigate in her new book, The Right to Sex. Srinivasan is that rare thing: a philosopher capable of compacting challenging ideas into highly readable think pieces. Chief among these is her March 2018 article for the London Review of Books, ‘Does anyone have the right to sex?’ Never one to let a clickbait title go to waste, in it she poses a number of pressing questions to a post #MeToo climate that pivots on the notion of consent. Attacks such as those perpetuated by Rodger represent, surely, extreme manifestations of a more pervasive social misogyny. But the ubiquitous tendency to assert in the face of them that no one is entitled to sex, or that sex is merely a personal choice, also suggest a striking unwillingness within contemporary culture to engage with the political character of desire. This owes much to the shift of the 1980s, in which pro-sex feminists like Ellen Willis, as a reproach to their more sanctimonious elders, made whether sex is wanted the definitive criterion of its political value (the binary logic of which, for Srinivasan, is today so commonplace that it can be seen in applications such as Tinder). But doesn’t this elide the fact that women’s choices are made within a context already shaped by patriarchy? And shouldn’t feminists be more ambitious than to simply ask that sex be formally consented to? Whatever their faults, earlier feminists were not – from Charles Fourier’s call for a ‘sexual minimum’ for all persons through to the porn wars of the eighties – afraid to politicise desire. Should we do this, we’ll find no one is innocent – certainly not straight men. But also not the ‘hot sorority blondes’ who exclusively date ‘alpha males’ (76), or the gay men who reliably eschew Asian partners on Grindr (or, barring that, contact them because they’re ‘Rice Queens’ who like Asians because they’re ‘good at bottoming’ (85))

When Srinivasan’s article launched, it effectively broke the internet. For much of the Twitterati she was a rape apologist and shameless incel symp. For others, she had – like Bordo with anorexia, or Butler with drag – opened up a new continent for feminism. As this sort of controversy is a publicist’s wet dream, it’s not surprising that it also garnered her a book deal. So, does The Right to Sex live up to the article from which it takes its namesake? The answer is: sort of. The book is divided into six essays, which tackle topics ranging from #MeToo to pornography to student-professor relationships. In the best of these Srinivasan is able to condense her provocations into coherent theses. Just as often though they don’t reach climax, with the author either losing herself in a sea of qualifiers and digressions or narrowing in on ideas that don’t add anything to the existing discourse.

To be fair, Srnivasan seems to be aware of the problem. ‘On some matters,’ she writes in the book’s preface, ‘these essays are adamant.’ (xiv) ‘But’ she adds, ‘on others they are ambivalent, unwilling to reduce what is dense and difficult to something easier […] Feminism cannot indulge the fantasy that interests always converge.’ (xiv-xv) That’s a clever tact, to explain away an incapacity to formulate clear arguments as a consequence of intersectionalism. Its disingenuousness is already apparent though in the book’s first essay, ‘The Conspiracy Against Men.’ After raising a number of points about #MeToo of varying originality – that Brett Kavanaugh was shielded by allegations of sexual violence by his immense privilege, that conceptions of sexual violence are intrinsically racialised, that the notion men accused of sexual violence deserve the presumption of innocence beyond the court of law is a ‘category error’ – she hits on her most interesting idea in the essay; namely, that the injunction to ‘Believe Women’ runs awry of intersectional analysis. ‘At Colgate University, an elite liberal arts college in upstate New York,’ the author informs us, ‘only 4.2 per cent of the student body was black during the 2013–14 academic year; and yet 50 per cent of accusations of sexual violation that year were against black students.’ Should feminists then side with the women who are disproportionately accusing black men? Or should they reconsider whom to express ‘epistemic solidarity’ (11) with? This titillating point isn’t explored further – instead, she concludes the essay with a correct if unnecessary commentary on the refusal of men like Louis C.K. or Jian Ghomeshi to express meaningful remorse for their actions. For all Srnivasan’s talk of epistemic relativism, she jettisons it here at the first sign of danger.

The second essay in the volume – ‘Talking to My Students About Porn’ – is equally frustrating. It has a nice setup, with the author expressing surprise at the willingness of her students to acknowledge both the ubiquity of pornography in the digital age as well as its potentially negative effects on sexual behaviour. But the essay never gets beyond a basic aporia. Pornography is everywhere, she tells us, and has damaging effects – though these should not be exaggerated. At the same time, given its centrality to digital culture, it cannot be eliminated. The idea of a sort of pornographic a priori is an interesting one. But without any kind of thesis to cut through this morass, the essay succumbs to pointless retrospection: remember when radical feminists wanted to abolish porn? What a different world we live in today! Thankfully the essay is followed by ‘The Right to Sex’ – and given that it’s currently quasi-paywalled by LRB, it’s practically worth the price of admission itself. Though the same cannot be said of the ‘Coda’ on ‘The Politics of Desire’ she appends to it here. Granted, it’s amusing to see Srnivasan explain to her Twitter interlocutors over and over that she’s not opposed to consent. But it seems like a missed opportunity to address the most significant omission in her original essay – the socioeconomic causes of the incel movement. In recent years in the West, men’s incomes have become more polarised, with women’s higher educational levels helping them procure access to mid-stream professional jobs. Without diminishing the destructiveness of their unbridled misogyny, is it possible that this has contributed to the incel movement? Or that, as Alex Gendler has suggested, we may be seeing a return to a post-foraging sexual baseline in which the control of wealth by a small male elite meant women reproduced at far higher rates than men? Such arguments needn’t be anti-feminist – for Gendler, the paradox of incels is that they oppose the feminist policies and forms of wealth redistribution that would ameliorate their predicament. But either way, Srnivasan isn’t telling us.

Given how annoyingly indirect the bulk of The Right to Sex is, its final two essays come as a pleasant surprise – and a show of her potential. In ‘On Not Sleeping With Your Students,’ she flips Jane Gallop – a feminist professor who defended herself against charges of sexual harassment in the early 1980s by appealing to psychoanalysis – on her head. Freud, it’s true, did acknowledge ‘the patient’s tendency to unconsciously project feelings associated with significant figures from childhood (usually a parent) onto the analyst.’ (128) But Gallop’s argument that it’s normal if not desirable for transference to culminate in amorous relations with students conveniently ignores Freud’s dictum that ‘the analyst responds but does not respond in kind.’ The teacher must make use of the student’s desire. But they must make use of it to show that it’s a projection of something else – in Platonic terms, their longing for ‘knowledge, truth, understanding.’ (129) In ‘Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism’, she reproaches both anti-prostitution feminists and advocates of the #MeToo movement for subscribing to a ‘symbolic’, police-happy politics more concerned with punishing men than the plight of poor women. A ‘truly emancipatory politics’, she states, cannot confine itself to an ‘“anti-discrimination” paradigm’ (164) that leaves the market’s ‘underlying logic – that some people must sell their labour to survive – untouched.’ (173) Rather, it must be carried forth by a ‘working-class movement’ (175) that is both feminist and anti-racist – and that is not so paralysed by the threat of co-optation that it is unwilling to support ambitious policies like that of a universal basic income.

The Right to Sex closes with a rallying finisher. But as elsewhere, some of its arguments are closer to bunts than grand slams. Is carceralism for instance really as unable to deter prostitution as Srinivasan thinks? Taken as axiomatic by her is that, barring a revolutionary overhaul of our society, sex work will always exist. This is surely true; still, by converting a frequentist question (of the commonality of prostitution) into an ontological one (of the existence of prostitution), she’s able to dismiss the Nordic model without engaging with the strongest argument in its favour – that the punishment of johns strikes a balance between deterrence and the protection of sex workers. Perhaps Srinivasan isn’t bothered by this: what she wants is a politics that addresses itself to the practical challenges of the worst-off, rather than ‘holding the line for a better future.’ (159) But how would the revolution she calls for ever be achieved without a willingness to sacrifice the present? (tellingly, she uses the word ‘revolution’ in adjectival form when explicitly discussing politics – ‘revolutionary change,’ ‘revolutionary demand,’ and so on). Revolution is not a dinner party; it requires authoritarianism, and often leads to the mutual ruin of the contending classes. And so while it at first seems puzzling that Srinivasan describes her project as ‘utopian’ (121) while at the same time prescribing pragmatic policy solutions, the two are finally mutually reinforcing. A revolution cannot be built solely upon an aggregate of immediate, individual interests. If this is the only register in which one’s politics can speak – if, as she says, we can’t really know the future, so we should just focus on the present – then it will necessarily remain utopian, unable to square spontaneism with strategy.

In light of cop-outs like these, is it fair to say then that Srinivasan is a privileged dilettante, unwilling to get a red stain on her Oxford shirt? Some on the left will surely see it that way. If they do, it will not be without reason. But to prematurely dismiss Srinivasan would be to risk losing sight of her central provocation: the need for the left to re-politicise desire, retrieving the question of sex from a sterile contractualism it’s been bogged down by for decades. Who knows? Perhaps one day she’ll make good on her flirtation with Marxism, completing a work on sex at this higher level of intellectual and political density; a level where, presumably, she’ll realise that revolution, to ever succeed, must be more than a rhetorical question.

16 September 2021

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