What is it about sex that makes talking about it with political and moral honesty so difficult? It’s so easy to fixate on its purely political aspects, relying on the simplicity of a relationship with black-and-white consequences. It’s so tempting to reduce it to the absolutely personal, just someone’s preference, beyond anyone else’s understanding or judgment. Even among feminists, the tensions between the intimacy of sex, its potential for violence, and the fact that its participants, limitations, and consequences often fall under the supervision of public authorities are perennial sources of conflict.
In Amia Srinivasan’s new book, The Right to Sex, a collection of her essays, she tries to bridge these gaps, bringing the history of feminist political thought to bear on the most vexed discussions among feminists today. Srinivasan pulls especially, and unfashionably, from the women of the late 20th century—from those who rejected the “second wave” of feminism of the 1960 and ’70s, even at the time, and from those narrow thinkers themselves, who were nonetheless “unafraid to think of sex as a political phenomenon, as something squarely within the bounds of social critique,” as she writes.
The Internet, the university under Title IX, the carceral state: politics happens in places unforeseeable to those earlier writers, which can make it difficult to impose their diagnoses and prescriptions on today. In the titular essay, Srinivasan contrasts the demands made by self-described “incels,” on Reddit forums, with the grievances of people who feel their race and/or gender has made them sexually undesirable. The risky connection, as well as the careful and convincing distinction, are typical of the book and are expressed with historical depth and conversational frankness. I talked to the philosophy professor and author about consent, the need for internationalism, and moving beyond campus feminism. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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But that has to sit side by side with a recognition that who is, and is not, considered sexually or romantically desirable is shaped in part by systems of oppression—heteronormativity, racism, ableism, and so on. There are lots of examples of this: the romantic and sexual marginalization of certain women of color, the sexual fetishization of East Asian women, the racial discrimination that South Asian and East Asian and femme gay men often face from other gay men. These are all examples of what a political philosopher would call the maldistribution of sexual desire. The goal shouldn’t be to make sure there’s a hierarchy of desirability that doesn’t cut across racial lines; we should just stop thinking of sex as having a hierarchy at all. It shouldn’t be thought of as a good that confers status, but as an activity that we do with other people.
Some people have better singing voices, and I can’t carry a tune; there’s some way in which that’s cosmically unfair, but I don’t have a political complaint about it. There are lots of cases [when it comes to desire] where I think people do have a political complaint. The challenge is: how do you voice that complaint without getting into the territory where you think you’re entitled to sex or anyone else’s desire? Elliot Rodger cites his failure to live up to the demands of heteromasculinity and racism (he was part Chinese Malaysian) as the source of his sexual marginalization. This is certainly a misdiagnosis, as he was not just a misogynist but a terrible racist and totally convinced of his own superiority on class grounds, because he claimed to be descended from an English aristocrat. But in principle, such a diagnosis could be correct. The thing about incels is, they just want to be on top of the hierarchies. They are at once sniffing around and miles away from the feminist critique of the politics of desire.
NA: Could you talk about the different types of desire you touch on in the book: the desires we hope to have because of the way we want to treat other people; the desires that we have because of the way society works; the desires we’re allowed to express? Would you talk a little bit about those tensions in those desires?
AS:The question of what we desire as something apart from what we’d want it to be, politically speaking, has been a long-standing interest for feminist theorists, especially the theorists of the second wave in North America. Second-wave feminist theorists were very interested in the way the personal is political, and, inversely, the way the political is personal, if you were going to agitate for a genuinely egalitarian world, one that would demand you have genuinely egalitarian interpersonal practices. It wasn’t just about economic equality. It also demanded more egalitarian relations between individual people, especially between women and men. Feminists of that generation were rethinking the nuclear family, the structure and division of housework, but also the kind of sex they were having, and what sort of scripts they were following in sex with men. What other kind of scripts might they follow—could it be a lesbian script; could it be a script that was not a script at all? What other possibilities did they have for emancipating the personal from the grip of patriarchal politics?
You could also think about the demand to emancipate desire not just from patriarchy but also racism, ableism, transphobia, and so on. We don’t like to admit it, because we like to think of our sexual desires as being very personal and specific to us, but all of these ugly political forces shape who is and is not desired, what kinds of bodies are desired, and what is desire, or at least what kind of bodies are thought of as desirable. There are lots of cases where we might think there is a gap between the actual facts of who is desired and what we would want politically to be the case. So that leaves us with an interesting conundrum.
NA: You describe the limits of consent in the book. Could you elaborate?
AS: Certainly consent is a very useful juridical notion. For a long time, sexual assault was defined legally as sex with the threat or presence of violence. Women and men who froze in terror, or just went along with a sexual act because they were afraid of the consequences of not doing so, were, legally speaking, not victims. Legally, it’s a great achievement to move from that conception of sexual assault to a sexual assault that is defined by the absence of consent.
When consent becomes the sole criterion for distinguishing between ethically permissible as opposed to legally permissible or impermissible sex, we start getting into trouble, and often lose our ability to say ethically nuanced and interesting things about certain sexual encounters. For example, there are a lot of sexual encounters which are consensual but ethically problematic, and the grip that the consent paradigm has on us often pushes us in the direction of saying those cases are non-consensual. You see this in the case of professor-student sex: most universities in the US have prohibitions on teacher–student relationships, and they almost invariably justify those prohibitions by saying that the difference in power between professor and student doesn’t allow for consent on the part of the student. I just think that’s wrongheaded. Yes, sometimes the professors manipulate or coerce students into having sex. But in lots of cases you have two consenting adults having sex—but there’s still something problematic.
What’s problematic is that professors should be teaching their students rather than having sex with them. A good teacher/student relationship generates very strong feelings that, as a professor, you can very easily redirect into yourself and take as an occasion for a romantic or sexual interaction. But what you should be doing, what you owe to your students, is taking that kind of quasi-erotic exuberance and redirecting it to the student’s betterment as a student, toward knowledge and understanding. Thinking merely in terms of consent doesn’t get us that far.
NA: Lots of relationships that feel icky don’t cross a legal line—some interracial relationships, some inter-class relationships, as well as inter-age. What makes those feel icky?
AS: “Icky” is an instinctive feeling that leaves open the question of what normative judgment, if any, we should make about it. When two people have a relationship that crosses a major line in power, whether that’s age, race, position, we worry that this differential in power is essential to the relationship; it’s not just a contingent feature. If not for that difference, the relationship wouldn’t happen. It would be a huge mistake as a feminist to morally prohibit all relationships that cross these power differentials, not only because you’re going to inappropriately make incursions into people’s personal lives, but also because ruling those out by fiat cuts down on the space of possibility for two people to achieve interpersonal equality in the face of a political system that doesn’t want them to have it. And those acts of mutually achieved equality are very important, very precious, and any feminist should want to hold open that space.
NA: You quote Juliet Mitchell, who writes: “Women come into the movement from the unspecified frustration of their own private lives, find that what they thought was an individual dilemma is a social predicament and hence a political problem.” Young people have come into a world where those patriarchal frameworks are often visible or much-discussed, and our impulse is often to trace them to the personal; so that when I’m talking about feminism with other people, it often devolves into talking about personal experiences because that’s where it makes a difference for privileged people. Could you talk about how to resist this move toward individualizing feminism?
AS: The most privileged women, insofar as they want to engage with feminist politics, end up talking about experiences of misogyny in very specific places: being talked over in a seminar, being passed over for a promotion. These are all very real phenomena and come under the rubric of a feminist struggle but they shouldn’t be the central focus of it. My students often crave a feminist consciousness-raising experience. They feel quite primed for that, so they come into a class about feminism, and they anticipate that’s what it’s going to be—sitting around and talking about their experiences. There is some of that, but the first thing I try to do is show them the radicalism of the project of especially early second-wave feminists, who were interested most fundamentally in a critique of capitalism, a critique of imperialism.
I also try and show them that intersectionality, which they all sign up for in theory, demands a lot more than due consideration for race and class; it actually requires a very serious analysis of what makes the worst-off women the worst off, and it’s often not going to be the problems that afflict the best-off women.
I try to show them, maybe quite disappointingly, that a feminist struggle interested in the emancipation of all women will not be a feminism that focuses on what all women have in common. For my most privileged students, and that’s quite a lot of them, they’re going to not end up centering their own experiences in what feminist struggle should really be. That’s a hard transition, because people do come into feminist politics through the personal, and leaving that aside, making way for a truly internationalist, radical politics can be difficult. But it’s also exciting.
NA: What kinds of feminism can withstand the pressures that liberal universalism fails under?
AS: I have no doubt of the possibility of a truly internationalist feminism. We know that because we’ve seen it historically: those feminists of the second wave, who have been taken to task for not being duly intersectional, and in many cases they weren’t, were, however, very much in conversation with the women fighting for national self-determination in Asia and Latin America, and advocating for democratic accountability in Eastern Europe. There was this concept of feminism as a truly global project, which had nothing to do with bringing models of so-called Western feminism to other countries. The most exciting forms of feminism right now are in Latin America, or in the national strike in Poland, or the women farmers’ strike in India. These are things we should be looking toward, and they don’t require us to articulate a universal women’s experience: they require us to value coalitions against the various forces of unfreedom.
Do I think feminism necessarily has to involve a critique of capitalism or imperialism or racism? This is a methodological point, but I think of social movements not by what they say but what they do. In the US, there’s a long history of feminists who aren’t interested in a critique of imperialism, who are in fact very happy to be in bed with capitalism. What they’re interested in is gender-neutral inequality; they just want women and men to be represented at every level of a highly stratified society. I don’t want to say that those people aren’t feminists, because that move—saying those people aren’t feminists—is politically unhelpful. I think we should just say, “That’s a feminism I reject.” It’s not a feminism that’s interested in all women.
NA: Your book focuses much of its attention on the university, though it’s content is very unlike most mainstream talk about sex on campus, where it’s implied that it’s a particularly dangerous place for women or that it has made promises it can’t live up to about safety.
AS: The university is not particularly dangerous for women; at least in the US, women who don’t go to university are disproportionately the victims of sexual violence, not least because poor women are disproportionately at risk and higher education is punitively expensive for many people. This is hazarding a sociological guess, but one thought I had is that children of rich people, rich men, go to university, and the idea that you spend all this money sending your daughter to university and she’s subjected to sexual violence is appalling. I say this as someone who was an undergraduate in the US and was pretty shocked by what I saw, the level of sexual violence. But the factory is much worse, and the home is much worse again, and the focus on the campus is revealing of an unradical politics which is not really interested in all women.
NA: How can we move mainstream conversations beyond the campus, and bring the nuance of these discussions to a mainstream audience?
AS: I trace this resurgence of feminism to 2008 and the remobilization of a young left—the disenchantment a lot of women felt about the masculine nature of many of those conversations, and therefore a revitalization of the history of feminist thought—and then the mainstreaming of feminism in part thanks to #MeToo. Without having a fully Marxist or Hegelian theory of history, I think there are dialectics that need to play themselves out. My sense is, the conversation about sexual violence, class, and race is getting more subtle, in part thanks to the uprising of last summer. The call to defund the police is forcing people to reckon with American feminists’ favorite mode of tackling sexual violence, which is carceral, and also to think through some of the tensions between “believe all women” and anti-Black discrimination in the US. Another way of putting this is that mainstream feminism needs to return to the great feminists of color. We wouldn’t be in the place we’re in if we were all reading Angela Davis, and I’d like to think that US feminism is moving slowly in that direction, and there’s a stronger capacity for sexual politics.
NA: Your book includes quite a bit on right-wing Internet culture, but I’m curious about what you think the Internet means for the revitalization of feminism, particularly the creation of online feminist tendencies, like “tumblr feminism.”
AS: I don’t generally like the discourse of “echo chambers,” which [leads to] an equalization of left- and right-wing echo chambers, a typical liberal mistake. Sometimes there’s a lot of political productivity in hanging out with people who largely agree with you, battling out the more fine-grained questions. “Echo chambers” presumes that political understanding is always formed through oppositional clash, this liberal idea of how politics should proceed. That said, people of all ages, particularly young people who’ve lived their lives largely online, can, if they’re inclined that way, find spaces that allow them to take on feminism as an identitarian project and find people who will affirm them in that. There’s a general irony about the Internet, which is that it opens all these possibilities notionally, but it’s very easy to get stuck in one small corner and have all those possibilities foreclosed.
I was reading Sheila Rowbotham’s memoir, where she’s talking about working as a feminist and left activist in London in the ’70s, and feminists would come from the US or Germany or Vietnam and hand each other these written pamphlets. Each one was so cherished and seen as something that would tell us the truth about women and the future we should agitate for. Precisely because there was this paucity of material, it forced women to be constantly looking outside and beyond their horizons. There’s a glut of material on the Internet, and if all you do is go around looking for one very specific aspect of your experience, idealizing that as your entire political program, you can do that and are not required ever to be brought up short. That’s depressing.
NA: I’ve noticed, anecdotally in real life and on the Internet, women being much more vocal about desire than men. Obviously there’s a prominent genre of disgusting Internet men, but a lot of other men, maybe younger men, seem to be overcorrecting against that to the point where they’re afraid to talk about their desire, even for, like, celebrities; and then women who are very eager and ready to talk about sexual desire in a much more public and fluent way. Could you talk about this gap?
AS: It’s not easy to know how to be in the world, as a man really committed to sexual egalitarianism who believes the political is personal. There’s a tendency to water down what it means to be a feminist, and particularly what it means for men; so you’ll hear things like, “Just don’t be a creep.” If you want to stop sexually harassing people, it’s true—you should just stop being a creep. But if you’re really invested in taking on board the radical critique of power, desire, masculinity, and heteronormativity that feminism offers, it’s not totally clear to me where this leaves the—especially straight—man. It’s not that there’s no room for this. I have straight men in my life who struggle with this in extremely productive ways, and really do live out profound feminist commitments. But I think we are selling feminism short if we think it’s just straightforward and easy. Maybe what we’re seeing there is a lack of certainty about what it means to be a feminist man: what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.
NA: Is that a consensus that could be created politically or pedagogically, or is that something that every political person has to arrive at themselves?
AS: It has to be done in community; projects of remaking the personal dovetail with the neoliberal project of creating yourself as a perfect subject. There was interesting male consciousness-raising during the second wave, although men on the left on the whole were profoundly hostile to feminism in a way that we don’t totally remember. I mean, the second wave was in many ways a reaction to the sexism on the left, and then there was an intense backlash from leftist men. [But] there were male comrades, people like Stuart Hall, who wrote about the transformation they underwent as right-thinking men of the left suddenly brought up short by feminism, and, in Hall’s case, by the specific demands of his radicalizing wife.
NA: Are there works of art that engage with the power difference between men and women in ways you find interesting?
AS: The thing that’s coming to me is Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, which people think of as a horrific film and a very sexist one. I think that’s a profound misreading. I think it’s an extraordinary feminist text about men driving women literally crazy. I’m going to name something else by a man, Norman Rush’s Mating. Everything James Baldwin writes—Another Country is amazing on questions of race, sexuality, gender. The great women writers—I’m trying to think of the less obvious things, but I keep thinking of novels that don’t involve any men: Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy Baker, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, and Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning. These are just from the top of my head, but they all say something, I think, deeply true about gender.