Feminists on All Sides

Feminists on All Sides

Desire is shaped by social assumptions and prejudices, Amia Srinivasan argues in The Right to Sex. So what does one do about it?

Detail from Big Kiss, 2020. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Helen Beard.

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The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century
by Amia Srinivasan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 304 pp.

The Right to Sex has to have the cleverest title on the women’s studies shelf since Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. It’s bold and provocative, even a little shocking: “OK,” it seems to say, “so they’re crazy, misogynistic, and dangerous—but are those incels on to something?”

Maybe just a little, Amia Srinivasan suggests in the essay collection’s title piece. When Elliot Rodger killed six people in Santa Barbara in 2014, he left behind a 107,000-word manuscript arguing that beautiful blond girls rejected him because he was half-Asian (not because, as Srinivasan notes, he was “a creep”), and therefore those girls deserved to die. To incels—young, “involuntarily celibate” men who rage against women for not wanting to date them—Rodger is a hero. From this rather alarming starting point, Srinivasan develops a fascinating challenge to rethink the commonplace view of sexual attraction as fixed and not open to critique. There’s a tension, she writes, in current feminism, which rails against fatphobia but also forbids interrogating women about their desires: “The important thing now, it is broadly thought, is to take women at their word. If a woman says she enjoys working in porn, or being paid to have sex with men, or engaging in rape fantasies, or wearing stilettos—and even that she doesn’t just enjoy those things but finds them emancipatory, part of her feminist praxis—then we are required, many feminists think, to trust her.” But, as she points out, women’s desires (as well as men’s) are shaped by social assumptions and prejudices—about race, ethnicity, weight, height, gender presentation, disability, and so on. It isn’t some innate quality that makes Asian women desirable and Asian men not so much, or explains why Black women get fewer matches on dating apps. So what does one do about it?

As she often does in these essays, Srinivasan treads delicately. On the one hand, she writes that it’s wrong for trans women to try to bully lesbians into sleeping with them. On the other hand, she finds the “reduction of sexual orientation to genitalia—what’s more, genitalia from birth—puzzling. Is anyone innately attracted to penises or vaginas?” Well, sure, and moreover genitals are often attached to different kinds of bodies and even different sounds, smells, or other things that prompt desire beyond our control. That’s one reason the “political lesbianism” of the 1970s, in which lesbians pushed straight women to give up men, was not a lasting success.

Perhaps Srinivasan is right that we should all try to be more open. But who is going to hear this message? Women. They are easier to guilt-trip and/or bully into bed. Their lives are already overdetermined by fear, politeness, self-doubt, and the felt obligation to please others—the feeling, so common among young women, that one owes a man sex if he expects it and that the consequences of denial could be serious, even fatal. That was what Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story, “Cat Person,” was all about. Indeed, it is only now that many women can survive without marriage that they can seriously ask—and act on—what they do and don’t find sexually appealing.

Given her interest in incels, it’s odd that Srinivasan doesn’t mention the largest group of losers in the dating and mating game: older women. You would expect a feminist to have noticed that women over forty, let alone over sixty, are written off by many men their own age (or even older), while plenty of women are interested in older men. Srinivasan even uses the word “unfuckable,” seemingly unaware that its locus classicus is Amy Schumer’s famous 2015 skit in which a group of middle-aged actresses celebrate Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s “last fuckable day.” Interestingly, women who haven’t had sex in a decade do not go around murdering strangers. As far as I know, they don’t even set up online forums devoted to raging against their lot. They just get on with life, as women tend to do.

Srinivasan, born in 1984, is the youngest and the first woman to be named the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, a chair formerly occupied by Isaiah Berlin and Charles Taylor, so maybe it’s not surprising that the issues that engage her most deeply are those of particular interest to the young, especially college students. There’s plenty about sex here—the book covers rape, sexual harassment, sex work, sexual preferences and behavior—and Srinivasan explores the ways these subjects have shaped feminism. Her approach is intersectional. As she writes in “The Conspiracy Against Men,” an attack on so-called carceral feminism, “a feminism that deals only with ‘pure’ cases of patriarchal oppression—cases that are ‘uncomplicated’ by factors of caste, race, or class—will end up serving the needs of rich white or high-caste women.” As with many of the claims in the book, I wish she had unpacked and complicated that insight. Isn’t it worth noting that second-wave feminists, who were laser-focused on sexism and misogyny, brought the lawsuits that opened up male-monopolized blue-collar jobs to women of all races?

Srinivasan is at her best when she sticks close to her own experience as an academic. In “Talking to My Students About Porn,” she argues that the ubiquity of internet pornography has fundamentally changed sex for young people who’ve grown up with it. None of the change, according to her students, has been for the better:

Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real, I asked? Yes, they said. Does porn silence women, making it harder for them to protest against unwanted sex, and harder for men to hear those protests? Yes, they said. Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalization of women, for sexual violence against women? Yes, they said, yes to all of it.

It wasn’t just the women students talking; the men were saying yes as well, in some cases even more emphatically. . . . My male students complained about the routines they were expected to perform in sex; one of them asked whether it was too utopian to imagine sex was loving and mutual and not about domination and submission.

Call it the revenge of Andrea Dworkin. Perhaps, Srinivasan suggests, the anti-porn feminists of the 1970s and ’80s, who predicted the sexual landscape evoked by these students, were not behind the times but ahead of them. It’s a bit disappointing that Srinivasan veers from this important point and ends the essay with a vague call for sex education that would endow students with “an emboldened sexual imagination.” I’m not sure what she means, but good luck with that. Here in the United States, kids are lucky if they learn that sex before marriage won’t ruin them for life, let alone about the many ways that couples can please each other. Perhaps there is no large-scale solution for the ubiquity of porn that promotes “violent, selfish, and unequal” sex. “Feminist porn” has been about to happen for about as long as the male birth-control pill. If it was ever possible to ban porn that caters to misogynistic or clueless men, which I doubt, the internet and the profit motive have made it impossible.

“On Not Sleeping with Your Students” is also informed by close experience, and it’s a delight. Here Srinivasan slyly cuts through mountains of twaddle that have been written in defense of this all-too-common practice. Pedagogy at its best is already erotically charged, the literary scholar Jane Gallop claimed when she was accused of harassing graduate students. What’s the harm in taking it a step farther? Male professors insist their female students come on to them constantly. Why not indulge? What about all the marriages that began as affairs between students and professors? And why should all those bureaucrats—layer upon layer of them!—be allowed to interfere with what were only yesterday perfectly normal ways of behaving? For decades, academia has wrangled over how much agency undergraduates and even graduate students really have, how much power professors have over them, and whether rules can really prevent two determined people from coming together. There have been feminists on all sides of these issues, and Srinivasan nimbly walks us through their debates. But, in the end, she points out what should have been obvious all along: you shouldn’t sleep with your students because they are very young and don’t understand that you don’t really love them, and because sexual relationships can interfere with students’ education. “Is it too sterile, too boring to suggest that instead of sleeping with his student, this professor should have been—teaching her?” Srinivasan asks.

The book’s concluding essay, “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism,” begins by considering sex work. It should be decriminalized, Srinivasan argues, because criminalization harms sex workers, who are mostly poor and don’t have a lot of options. Making their work illegal is symbolic politics; in real life, it merely makes the work more dangerous and puts sex workers at the mercy of the police, who can rape and brutalize them with impunity. That is a persuasive, fact-based argument that has been widely made. So too is the argument that, for hundreds if not thousands of years, sex work has proved resistant to laws against it, so why not just leave it alone and concentrate on giving women more choices and more support? Still, her argument would feel fresher if she engaged, as philosophers are supposed to do, with the strongest argument on the other side. That argument is not that men should be punished for their nefarious ways, as she claims sex-work abolitionists want, or that the existence of sex work degrades all women. Those convictions may be somewhere in the emotional mix, but sex-work abolitionists also have fact-based claims to make, such as that selling sex is rarely voluntary, even if it appears to be. They argue that only a very small percentage of elite sex workers freely choose their profession, and that those are the ones calling for decriminalization. The vast majority, they say, are trafficked immigrants or poor girls and women lured into the trade as teenagers and controlled by violent and/or manipulative “boyfriends,” pimps, and criminal gangs. Moreover, they claim, sex work is psychologically and emotionally damaging, as well as risky to safety and health in ways that cannot be fixed. Abolitionists tend to support the “Nordic model,” in which only the customer is subject to arrest (sex-work supporters reply that this too makes the work more dangerous). There are former sex workers on both sides. As with other topics, Srinivasan sets out what looks to be a robust piece of argumentation that could go anywhere, but she ends up taking the standard contemporary feminist view.

In that final chapter, Srinivasan comes out as a utopian socialist. Sort of. She critiques “mainstream” feminism for prioritizing the concerns and interests of white middle-class women, for promoting capitalist solutions to global poverty, such as microfinance, and for supporting carceral feminism—in other words, the prosecution of alleged rapists and batterers—which has disproportionately targeted men of color and sometimes proved harmful to poor women of color. She observes that male violence toward women is exacerbated by unemployment and poverty, and she chastises feminists for not focusing on economic measures, such as jobs and housing, that would make victims independent. But she also concedes that rape and abuse are not reducible to poverty—fraternities and sports teams are notorious perpetrators—so it’s a little hard to know what to make of her argument. Similarly, she’s sympathetic to prison-abolitionist attempts to deal with violence against women without calling the police—and also not quite persuaded that it can work on the necessary scale. But she doesn’t really get into it. As with other issues, she shifts between the utopian and the practical in ways that can seem a little evasive.

In the end, it’s not clear what socialism has to do with the topics of her essays. Under socialism, will professors not sexually harass or seek to seduce their students? Will people be more flexible in their choice of sexual partners? Will ethical, feminist porn be publicly funded, as one Dissent editor suggested to me? Actually existing socialist countries have tended, after an initial liberatory moment, to become sexist, puritanical, sometimes racist—and definitely carceral. Why is that? And why wouldn’t Srinivasan’s socialism fall into the same pattern? But then it isn’t clear what Srinivasan means by socialism: collective ownership of the means of production, a robust socially progressive democratic welfare state, something more anarchist?

The Right to Sex is clever, well-written, and worth reading, but I don’t quite understand why it’s received so much attention. Srinivasan was even profiled in British Vogue, hardly a bastion of socialist feminism. Perhaps her tendency to avoid hard conclusions is part of the appeal. Then, too, attacking earlier generations of feminists is always popular. As is sex. What is most striking to me about the book is the near absence of most of the issues that have historically been feminism’s major concerns. There’s almost nothing about marriage, motherhood, child care, equality with men in the workplace, domestic labor, political representation, reproductive rights, misogynist culture, women’s health, the medical pathologizing of women’s bodies and minds, the continuing power of sexism to shape women’s expectations and behavior from birth, and the myriad obvious or subtle ways so many women are pushed, little by little, into becoming the support system for a man. The urgent and growing threat of fundamentalist religion and semi-fascist nationalist movements around the world goes unmentioned, as do the millions of mothers who were forced out of their jobs, some permanently, when the pandemic closed day-care centers and schools. It’s a truism of reviewing that you have to permit a writer her choice of subject; you can’t blame her for not writing a different book (it’s also true that the overambitious subtitle “Feminism in the Twenty-First Century” is an add-on for the U.S. edition). Still, I found myself wondering if the most important issues in the lives of most women have been around so long, with so little fundamental improvement, that we’d just rather talk about something else. Like incels and pornography and professors who sleep with their students.

Katha Pollitt is a poet, an essayist, and a columnist for the Nation. Her most recent book is Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.