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The Right to Sex – Amia Srinivasan
Illustration Callum Abbott

Amia Srinivasan on why we should dwell on discomfort in feminism

The philosopher’s debut, The Right to Sex, deftly unpacks the politics of sexual desire, the nuances of the call to ‘believe women’, and fulfills our need for a deeper interrogation of modern feminism

In the preface of her debut collection of essays, The Right to Sex, philosopher Amia Srinivasan warns the reader that she will “dwell, where necessary, in discomfort and ambivalence”; that her essays “do not offer a home”. At a time when mainstream feminist readings are 240-character tweets compacted into one brightly coloured picture book, to say that Srinivasan’s challenging, complex, and – for some – controversial essays are a must-read is a colossal understatement.

Across six radical essays – which tackle rape and sexual harassment, porn, the politics of sexual desire, teacher-student relationships, and the criminalisation of sex work – Srinivasan unpacks, as she calls them, the “finickity” questions that many feminisms would prefer to ignore. 

One of these is the title of her 2018 London Review of Books essay, “Does anyone have the right to sex?” – the jumping off point for her book – which examines how oppressive political regimes, like racism and ableism, shape sexual desire, and how this relates to the phenomenon of the incel (involuntary celebate).

Another probes the #MeToo movement’s call to ‘believe women’, interrogating whether it serves justice when certain women are believed more than others. “You only have to think about the long history of false accusations by white women, or by white men on behalf of white women, to recognise the complexities of a norm like ‘believe her’,” Srinivasan tells Dazed. “Women of colour, especially Black women in the US, have been trying to have more complicated conversations about the economy of belief as it relates to sexual assault for a long time, and their voices have not been adequately heard.”

At the heart of The Right to Sex is the urgent call for an intersectional approach to feminism, which is the only way to build an equal society for women. “A feminist movement that only thinks about what all women have in common will never address the things that make the worst off women the worst off,” says Srinivasan.

Below, Dazed speaks to Srinivasan about her extraordinary collection of essays, why people are tired of girlboss feminism, and whether we will ever truly be sexually free.

What first attracted you to philosophy?

Amia Srinivasan: As a child, I moved country every three or four years, and when you do that – especially as a young person – you’re constantly being confronted with the way in which our worldviews are radically shaped by the contingencies of culture, language, history, and family. So I craved a view from nowhere – a way of making sense of our relationship to the world that somehow transcended the specificities of culture and history. I mean, I’ve come to the conclusion that philosophy doesn’t actually give you that, right, because philosophy itself is a product of cultural history. But philosophy for me was a way of meditating on that desire and ambition to transcend, even if it wasn’t ever going to deliver.

What then drew you to write about sex as a political phenomenon?

Amia Srinivasan: My experience teaching feminist theory to my students. One thing I do in the classroom is have my students read texts that were produced in the American British women’s liberation movement from the late 60s into the 70s. The feminists of that generation were unstinting in their willingness to subject every aspect of life – including sex, sexual desire, and sexual practices – to political critique. That has since gone slightly out of favour, in large part because we’ve become wary of the idea of inquiring into people’s sexual desires, practices, and orientations – for very good reason. But it means we’ve got to this place where people assume that so long as sex is happening between two consenting partners then it’s OK.

But when I teach my students these texts from the 70s, it really resonates with them. They want to talk about the extent to which a certain kind of heteronormative or patriarchal script still instructs the kind of sex they have. They also want to talk about the way that things like racism, ableism, or homophobia shape which bodies are considered sexually attractive. And so working through that problem, and how it related to this new subcultural phenomenon of the incel, was really the jumping off point for The Right to Sex.

The book comes at a time when girlboss feminism is many people’s only point of reference. Why do you think that now, in contrast to that, a lot of people are looking for a deeper interrogation and a philosophical analysis of feminism?

Amia Srinivasan: Part of the reason has to do with the very long shadow of the 2008 economic recession and crash, as well as the pandemic, which have made many people acutely aware of the extent of forms of racial and capitalist domination and exploitation. Huge inequalities, stagnating wages, and precarious work are increasingly the norm for people – especially young people – and that economistic system is affected by patterns of race and gender domination. As we’ve seen in the pandemic, women and people of colour have been on the sharp end of precarity, not just in terms of sickness and death, but also job loss and increased amounts of domestic labour. 

So there’s been a broader sense of social dissatisfaction and a sense that people have been sold a lie – (namely) that they exist in a system where if they work hard and play by the rules, they’ll have lives worth living. The girlboss feminism is part of that lie, which says that all women need to do is just lean in and be tougher. This is true for some highly privileged women, but it doesn’t even begin to touch the vast immiseration of most women who have no table to lean in to. The anger at a system of profound inequality has led to a veil being pulled off this kind of girlboss feminism.

“The anger at a system of profound inequality has led to a veil being pulled off this kind of girlboss feminism” – Amia Srinivasan

The book is based on your 2018 essay of the same name, which you say in chapter four drew its fair share of criticism – why do you think it was so controversial for many?

Amia Srinivasan: I think the essay was controversial because it began from a claim that many incels – and Elliot Rodger in particular – made about themselves. Rodger didn’t simply assert his vile entitlement to women’s bodies, attention, and minds, he claimed that he was marginalised within the sexual economy and the economy of desire because of his race and because he didn’t satisfy the demands of heteronormativity. I don’t think this is true – his account of himself is a bad one. Women probably stayed away because he was a delusional creep and homicidal maniac, right? But in principle, this idea that some people are sexually and romantically marginalised because of oppressive political regimes, like racism or ableism, is true. It’s the sort of thing that Black women, Asian women, and femme gay men have all been saying for a long time.

So, the reason this is controversial is because the moment you start to entertain this question of, ‘Why are some people not desired?’, it raises the spectre of this idea of having a right to sex. Of course, there’s some sense in which people do have a right to sex – people have a right to have sex with themselves, they also have a right to have sex with consenting adults who want to have sex. But the question that the incel wants to raise is, ‘Do I have a right to have sex even if no one wants to have sex with me?’, and the answer, obviously, is no. But that recognition has to sit side-by-side with an equal recognition that sometimes people are sexually or romantically marginalised for bad reasons – because of the workings of racism, homophobia, ableism, and so forth. 

I was trying to take up this ambivalent space where I try to deny on one hand male sexual entitlement of any kind, while on the other making space for a more critical interrogation of the politics of sexual desire. A lot of people are freaked out by that because they think that trying to inhabit this space at all puts you into the logic of the rapist.

One thing that stuck out for me in the book is your discussion of how the predictions of anti-porn feminists of the 80s and 90s have effectively been realised via a younger generation of porn watchers, who – despite their left-leaning political views – hold conservative opinions about the effects of porn. Why do you think this is?

Amia Srinivasan: My students have inherited a view of pornography that comes from previous generations, which is a sex positive understanding of pornography. What is interesting about my students is that they came of age sexually with pornography – their first experience is internet porn, so ubiquitous pornography. Their formative years are bound up with the constant watching of pornography, or, for many girls, their first sexual experiences are with boys whose understandings of sex are shaped by pornography. That’s what gives them, in a sense, a conservative view of pornography.

But I would say that it’s not actually conservative because they don’t think that all pornography does this – they recognise the existence of queer and feminist porn, but what they’re talking about is mainstream porn. And the reason they talk about that is because that’s what’s free, so that’s what they watch. They have a sensitivity to the way that film establishes deep grooves in the psyche – they understand its unparalleled power – so that’s why they have that picture of pornography’s power. At the same time, they never even think about the possibility of trying to censor pornography – they know that legislation against sex work typically harms the women who work in sex. What my students are typically interested in is sex education; what they want is a counterweight to pornography, some other authority offering them a different vision of what sex can be.

Without porn literacy in sex education, can it ever be exhaustive?

Amia Srinivasan: Sex education even when it’s not great is valuable, but when we think about something like pornography, there is a limit to what sex education can do. We can’t look to it as this total panacea; for one thing, teachers have to teach sex education, and it’s not like the state is going to give its teaching staff a full feminist consciousness raising to equip them. But (porn literacy) does make sense as an idea, and there are some relatively good programmes out there, but there are structural issues – how can you watch films that you’re not legally allowed to show students?

“A feminist movement that only thinks about what all women have in common will never address the things that make the worst off women the worst off” – Amia Srinivasan

In chapter one, you unpick the #MeToo movement’s call to ‘believe women’, and reflect on how this doesn’t always serve justice and isn’t applied to all women. How can feminists make their feminism truly intersectional?

Amia Srinivasan: Some feminists want to see women as a single category of women and men as a single category of perpetrator, without thinking about the complexities of race, class, nationality, caste, and so on. An intersectional feminism is not just about caring about race, class, and gender, which is how some people talk about it in the mainstream, it’s really about the following observation: if what we do is focus on what all members of a given oppressed group have in common, we will end up improving the lot of the best off members of that group.

Basically all working women have experienced sexual harassment in one form or another, so you might think from that, ‘Our feminism should focus on sexual harassment because it’s what all women have in common’. That will only take you so far, because for the worst off women, their work is also precarious, they might be undocumented migrants, they’re being exploited – the sexual harassment is just one part of a broader matrix of domination in the workplace. So, a feminist movement that only thinks about what all women have in common will never address the things that make the worst off women the worst off.

At the end of chapter four, you briefly discussed the sexual revolution, saying that it never set us free as many people purport that it did. Do you think we can ever be sexually free?

Amia Srinivasan: Yes! I don’t know what it looks like. Political freedom is itself a horizon that we work towards, and it’s not really clear what the end state will look like, or how political liberation will transform us personally. But also I don’t think that even the removal of domination and oppression would make us all personally free or sexually free. Each of us has our own drama to work through. No amount of political revolution is going to set us free from the fundamental drama of being here.

The Right to Sex is out now