The New Politics of Desire

The Contours of Desire

Amia Srinivasan and the politics of sex.


In March 2018, nearly four years after Elliot Rodger murdered six young people and wounded 14 others in Isla Vista, Calif., before killing himself, Amia Srinivasan published an essay on the horrible episode in the London Review of Books called “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” In it, the Oxford philosopher described how so-called incels—involuntary celibates—spoke about the event. Everyone, they insisted, has a right to sex, and the women who denied it to Rodger were ultimately responsible for his homicidal spree. Nearly everyone else pointed out that no one has a right to sex and that people should not be required to sleep with someone they don’t personally desire; Rodger’s actions were his responsibility alone. Srinivasan agreed with the second camp, but she was surprised by how few feminists acknowledged that sexual desires and their fulfillment are political questions that cannot be easily dismissed. The fact that Rodger desired conventionally attractive women—white, blond, “hot”—was, for Srinivasan, a “function of patriarchy,” as was the fact that these women often “don’t as a rule date men like Rodger”—nerdy, effeminate, biracial—“at least not until they’ve made their fortune in Silicon Valley.” The incels weren’t correct about the right to sex, but according to Srinivasan, they had intuited something about the way sexual appeal intersects with social hierarchies.

For Srinivasan, the question of how sexual hierarchies replicate other kinds of hierarchies—racial, class, and gender among them—is a question with which feminists must engage. In the rest of her essay, she examined how romantic coupling doesn’t simply reflect idiosyncratic personal desires. Rather, she argued, people desire the bodies that patriarchy tells them to and scorn those whom patriarchy deems unattractive (not coincidentally, usually people oppressed on other axes). She offered as an example the relative undesirability of Asian men on gay dating apps and argued that this phenomenon reflected an exclusionary, racialized concept of masculinity. At the same time, she added, Asian women are often sexualized or fetishized against their will. For this reason, Srinivasan suggested that today’s feminists should not take sexual desire for granted—that is, consider it “natural” or immovable—but instead should investigate the forms of oppression that shape it. If we don’t, we risk “covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanisms of ‘personal preference.’”

Some contemporary feminist thinkers insist that feminists should primarily concern themselves with the prevention of nonconsensual sex. But as Srinivasan noted in a follow-up essay, questions about sexual desire “point to what is ugliest about our social realities—racism, classism, ableism, heteronormativity.” Only through questioning our own desires and giving ourselves room to desire differently will sex—and people—truly be free.

“Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” was a shrewd yet compassionate essay, marked by rigorous thinking as well as the hope that we might make room for desires that don’t follow patriarchy’s scripts, without blaming people for desiring what they’ve been told to want. Srinivasan gestured in the essay toward a new feminist perspective, one that would draw on the work of the second-wave feminists of the 1960s and ’70s, who took questions of sexual desire seriously, without replicating some of their blind spots concerning race and class. Such a perspective would also preserve aspects of more recent feminist thinking—an emphasis on individual freedom, an awareness of the ways different forms of oppression intersect—without suggesting that desire is inherently good or just. Her aim was not to legislate anyone’s desires—that would be authoritarian—but rather to encourage readers to question their sexual preferences, to see their own desires as a starting point for inquiry rather than its end. There is no right to sex, she wrote, but there may be “a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires” so that they better align with our political goals

In her new book, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, which takes its title from that essay, Srinivasan expands on her ideas about sexual politics in a set of essays about pornography, sex work, teacher-student romances, and the supposed “conspiracy against men.” Writing from an unmistakably feminist perspective, Srinivasan reiterates a number of arguments that have become axiomatic in some feminist circles: Teachers should not sleep with their students; sex work is work; and there is no feminism that is not intersectional. Yet more than many contemporary feminist thinkers, she draws on the work of second-wave feminists, including those with whom she disagrees. Her aim is not to rehabilitate these thinkers but to preserve some of their key insights about gender and power and to marry such ideas with more recent ones about race, class, and capitalism. For Srinivasan, it is only by building on the most useful ideas from each generation of thinkers that feminism will be able to move into the 21st century and, ultimately, create a new world. “What would it take for sex really to be free?” she asks. “We do not yet know,” but “let us try and see.”

Srinivasan doesn’t always offer firm answers to the questions she poses in the book—about whether to consume porn, or how to prevent violence against women—other than to emphasize the inadequacy of carceral solutions. In part this is because, while she marshals the tools of analytical philosophy in The Right to Sex, she also works as a historian. Discussing a range of feminist writers and activists from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, she engages not only with the arguments of Angela Davis, Andrea Dworkin, bell hooks, Selma James, and Ellen Willis but also with the historical and political settings in which these arguments emerged and evolved over time. For her, the effort to liberate people from patriarchy requires a refashioning of the feminist tradition, not a clean break with it. By closely studying the past, we may develop new ideas for the future. As a result, The Right to Sex is an exciting example of new thinking in feminist political theory as well as a work of feminist intellectual history—a project of recovery and preservation, like so many feminist projects before it.

Although the history of feminist thinking about sex is a long one, Srinivasan begins in the 1960s and focuses on certain debates that emerged in the North Atlantic. It was then, she writes, that American and Anglo feminists began to offer a “political critique of desire,” one that suggested that “sexual desire—its objects and expressions, fetishes and fantasies—is shaped by oppression.” Contrary to the Freudian thinking dominant at the time, which saw sex as “natural” or beyond the social, these radical feminists argued that sex was, in Srinivasan’s words, “marked by male domination and female submission.” It is “patriarchy that makes sex…what it is,” she writes, paraphrasing the feminist position at the time.

Even if they agreed about the problem, feminists disagreed about the solution. Srinivasan outlines two different approaches. She summarizes the position of the “anti-sex” feminists, who argued that women could not experience true sexual freedom while living under patriarchy and thus encouraged women to stop sleeping with men entirely. They disagreed with the “pro-woman” feminists, who argued that the solution was not to “change ourselves”—that is, to suppress sexual desire or to alter sexual preferences—but rather “to change men”: to fight for a world in which male superiority and violence was not the norm. They argued that a broader social revolution was needed and that focusing on what was then called the “personal solution”—an individual woman’s choice about whether to have sex with a man—was inadequate.

“As the women’s liberation movement unfolded through the 1970s and into the 1980s, these battle lines hardened,” Srinivasan writes. Speak-outs and conferences gave way to factionalism and internecine conflict. This intra-feminist fighting had peaked, Srinivasan notes, by the early ’80s, especially between those feminists defending women’s sexual preferences—including the preference to be dominated in bed—and those arguing that feminists should engage only in perfectly equitable sex. At the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, the organizers planned a panel discussion on pornography and “politically incorrect sex” featuring “pro-sex” feminists like Gayle Rubin and Carole Vance. The panel was met by protests from anti-porn feminists, who, while not necessarily opposed to all heterosexual sex, insisted that dominance and submission, in a sexual context, were always anti-feminist. Showing up at the campus on the day in question, they wore shirts that read “For a Feminist Sexuality” on the front and “Against S/M” on the back and insisted that the conference had been organized by “sexual perverts” who supported patriarchy and child abuse.

As Srinivasan tells it, the “pro-sex” or “pro-woman” position, represented most notably by the activist and writer Ellen Willis, carried the day. “Since the 1980s, the wind has been behind a feminism that does not moralise about women’s sexual desires, and which insists that acting on those desires is morally constrained only by the boundaries of consent,” she writes. “Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic: it is instead merely wanted or unwanted.” Srinivasan compares this logic to that of the capitalist marketplace: As long as buyer and seller are in agreement, one needn’t wonder why a person might need to sell her labor or why another might have the means to buy it. But for Srinivasan, it is imperative that, while embracing a pro-woman position, we still investigate the conditions that give rise to sexual relations, even when consensual, and that we try to better understand what she calls the “political formation of male desire.” While she does not want to shame anyone for having a particular desire or to stigmatize any sexual behavior, she does want us to examine how sex and sexual desire as we know them arise and to ask how their formative conditions might be changed.

To accomplish this goal, Srinivasan revisits the supposed losers of the feminist sex wars: the anti-sex and anti-porn feminists. She’s especially interested in the work of Dworkin and the legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon, both of whom gained prominence in the 1980s by centering their feminism on a militant opposition to porn and sadomasochism. This narrow focus led Dworkin, MacKinnon, and other anti-porn feminists to make strange alliances with the political right. When the Reagan administration convened a commission on the dangers of porn, both Dworkin and MacKinnon cooperated, providing expert testimony that porn harmed women.

Today many of the arguments that Dworkin and MacKinnon made in the 1980s have come to seem outdated, if not downright anti-feminist. But Srinivasan insists they are worth revisiting, not because she agrees with them in all instances but because she finds in their thinking—particularly MacKinnon’s—important challenges to current feminist thinking about sex. Srinivasan is compelled by MacKinnon’s argument that the proliferation of porn shapes sexual desire, and not always for the good. Her undergraduate students at Oxford have convinced her that mainstream porn has been a major and limiting influence on their sexual imaginations. She also agrees with MacKinnon that many authority figures—teachers, counselors, judges—have themselves been shaped by patriarchy and are thus in a poor position to adjudicate sexual conflict or to help young people develop a liberated sexuality. But most significantly, Srinivasan shares some of MacKinnon’s fundamental premises: that patriarchy dictates sexual experience and that much of the sex we have is not joyful, liberating, or equal but painful and dehumanizing. Sex, for MacKinnon and Srinivasan, is not primarily a biological experience but a social one, shaped by the forces of oppression. As such, it’s something that could be shaped differently—if we choose to do so.

The logical question, then, is how we might reshape desire and produce happier, more equitable sexual relations. On this question Srinivasan and MacKinnon diverge. MacKinnon has long advocated disciplinary or carceral solutions to the problem of patriarchal sex—that is, legally prohibiting porn and sex work on the grounds that they perpetuate women’s suffering at the hands of men. In a recent New York Times op-ed, MacKinnon reiterated a call for the legal prohibition of sex work and called decriminalization—a political goal shared by many sex workers—a way of legitimizing “sexual abuse as a job.” For Srinivasan, a focus on punishment—of sex workers or even their clients—will never lead to gender equality or sexual liberation: “The criminalisation of sex work does not, on the whole, help sex workers, much less ‘save’ them.”

In the book’s last essay, “Sex, Carceralism, and Capitalism,” Srinivasan expands on this position. She is against what Elizabeth Bernstein has called “carceral feminism,” a “politics that looks to the coercive power of the state—police, criminal courts, prisons—to achieve gender justice.” The state, Srinivasan argues, will always use its powers to punish the most vulnerable—queer people, poor people, sex workers, people of color—such that even an ordinance designed to “protect” women will be used to harm them. You cannot free women from patriarchy by imprisoning them or those they love. “Once you have started up the carceral machine,” she warns, “you cannot pick and choose whom it will mow down.”

For Srinivasan, this is one of the challenges 21st-century feminists face: How can they move beyond the consent paradigm without becoming moralizing—or, worse, authoritarian? How can they combat patriarchy without punishing those who are ultimately its victims, too? They should not appeal to the law, she insists, or to the state, or to a given university’s Title IX office, which will simply mete out punishment to vulnerable students (usually poor male students of color) and focus on protecting the university’s reputation. Her students think better sex education would help, but Srinivasan doesn’t have much faith in “a formal program of teaching conducted by schools.” “Who teaches the teachers?” she asks, assuming many teachers watch porn themselves. Can a program that appeals to students’ rational minds really combat porn, which appeals to their lizard brains?

Srinivasan suggests instead that the best way for feminists to fight the patriarchal ideology that porn disseminates is to fight against capitalism. Like the socialist feminists before her, she contends that only through a socialist agenda that develops “the social and political arrangements to meet the needs” of women and children will women have the power to put an end to “interpersonal violence.” With universal access to housing, education, child care, well-paying and respected jobs, environmental protections, and a guaranteed basic income, women will be lifted out of poverty and empowered to make decisions freely about romance and family. But a redistribution of wealth alone will not fix sexism and racism, Srinivasan adds. We also need to adjust the way we think about bodies, sex, and desire.

Srinivasan is certainly right to argue for cultural change in addition to economic transformation. Intriguingly, her suggestions about how to enact cultural change are sometimes at odds with the rest of her argument. Though suspicious of liberalism, which puts the onus on the individual to solve collective problems, Srinivasan nonetheless maintains a certain faith in the individual’s capacity for change. Several times in the book, she suggests that individuals might be able to free their erotic imaginations from the constraints of patriarchy. At the end of her chapter “The Right to Sex,” she advises readers that desire, notoriously unruly, might lead them away from socially approved forms of sex and love and toward something different. “Desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself,” she concludes.

In another chapter, Srinivasan discusses a letter from a gay man who related how he’d “deliberately and consciously” worked to see his fat partner as “sexy.” In his words, “we can…displace what might be getting in the way of erotic excitement.” Srinivasan seems to agree: At the end of one chapter, she envisions a kind of “negative [sex] education” for students, one that would “remind young people that the authority on what sex is, and could become, lies with them.” It’s a version of negative capability: Young people—and, ideally, adults too—must be allowed to dwell in a space of ambiguity and uncertainty in order to discover what they truly desire.

The word “education” in this last example is telling. Srinivasan thinks good education—which is to say, education that is not merely a “formal program” created and disseminated by the state—can produce this negative capability. The classroom can be a space free from cultural pressures, one in which individuals can begin to think and feel anew. Under the guidance of a responsible teacher, students can read provocative essays, question what they’ve been told, understand their own lives differently, and, ultimately, make freer choices in their personal lives. (She relates stories from her own classroom that roughly follow this trajectory.) The classroom is something of a sacred space for Srinivasan; that is why it’s such a violation when a teacher mistakes a student’s desire for knowledge as sexual desire for him. The relationship between a teacher and a student, she argues, is not unlike that between a psychoanalyst and an analysand. Thus, it is the teacher’s responsibility to recognize a student’s erotic attention as a form of “transference” and to “redirect the student’s erotic energies from himself towards their proper object: knowledge, truth, understanding.” In so doing, Srinivasan contends, teachers might provide the “negative education” that allows students to free themselves.

Srinivasan’s vision of education is lovely, though, I would argue, somewhat idealized. As someone who has taught my fair share of undergraduates, I’ve found the relationship between teacher and student to be far more transactional than therapeutic. It also raises a question about the sites of feminist inquiry and who has access to them. If “negative education” is more likely to be found at Oxford or at an Ivy League university than at a public high school, then where might the “poor, abused women” whom Srinivasan discusses extensively go to free their minds and libidos? To adapt a sentiment from another letter Srinivasan received about her essay “Does Anyone Have a Right to Sex?,” in which a reader posited, with frustration, that “sophistication is a province found only in Caucasia,” we might ask, “Is liberation to be found only at Oxford?”

I don’t think Srinivasan would agree with this proposition. And yet her Oxford classroom is the only space of collective experience presented positively in the book. It’s juxtaposed with the many negative spaces of collectivity that most working people are exposed to: the public school classroom, the courthouse, the prison. Although Srinivasan defines feminism as “women working collectively to articulate the unsaid, the formerly unsayable,” she doesn’t offer much guidance on how to build the kinds of spaces in which these collective articulations can take place.

Srinivasan’s effort to mine the feminist tradition of the second half of the 20th century for intellectual insights serves as a good model for those looking for alternative spaces of collectivity. To better understand the relationship between collective action and collective thinking, we might return to second-wave feminism. As Srinivasan documents, second-wave feminists wrote books and law briefs, developed theories and gave speeches, staged conferences and produced pamphlets. But they also took to the streets. In February 1969, the radical feminist group Redstockings disrupted a court hearing on abortion law, where 12 men and a nun were in the process of legislating women’s reproductive freedom; one month later, they staged a speak-out in the West Village. The stories they told there, in public, about sex, pregnancy, and the medical establishment changed how the listeners thought about their own experiences. In August of 1970, women struck for equality all around the United States. In New York City, they marched arm in arm down Fifth Avenue, carrying banners and signs and urging observers to join them. Later in the decade, the first “Take Back the Night” marches were held in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, as women came together, sometimes in the aftermath of a violent event, to show that they had a right to move freely through public spaces.

Srinivasan doesn’t mention these actions in her book. But as feminists have demonstrated, and as Srinivasan herself argues, if women are to think differently about our lives, we have to change the spaces in which we think and speak, making private thoughts public and giving precarious groups a stable home. Second-wave feminists had many failings, as Srinivasan points out: They focused too much on the problems facing white, educated women; they were sometimes naive when it came to the dangers of relying on the law or the state. But one thing they understood was how coming together under new conditions could lead to new ideas and new social relations. This insight prompted their consciousness-raising circles and speak-outs, their sit-ins and women-only spaces. The second-wave feminists made political education a central part of their movement, something that happened alongside and in dialogue with political action. When they said that “the personal is political,” they meant not only that private life was shaped by political forces but also that supposedly personal grievances must be politicized—they must be aired publicly, made visible, taken from the home into the streets.

In a chapter that serves as a coda to the “Right to Sex” essay, Srinivasan draws attention to the “hidden, private mechanisms that enable and partly constitute” oppression: “the mechanisms of the club, the dating app, the bedroom, the school dance.” We might complement this list of private spaces with a catalog of public spaces, where women could gather to think with and learn from one another: the warehouse, the office, the child care center, the union hall, the apartment complex, the PTA meeting, the park. As Srinivasan demonstrates, we won’t think differently about sex and desire until a true sexual revolution has taken place. But we won’t get there by imagination and education alone. If we want to behave differently in the bedroom, we might start by behaving differently in the streets.

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