June 30, 2023
Rare glimpse into 21st century politics of sex and desire. The Right to Sex review
The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan | Bloomsbury Publishing
Writing about rape culture, student-professor relationships, prostitution, and pornography, Srinivasan is unafraid to linger near the precipice of taboo.
In each essay, Srinivasan presents arguments put forth by second-wave feminists, anti-porn feminists, lesbian feminists, pro-woman feminists, and a number of other subcategories that are often papered over as a single intersectional movement peddling female betterment.
The result, though dizzying and at times overwhelming, offers a rare glimpse into the concatenation of race, gender, and sexuality that constitutes the political nature of sex and desire in the twenty-first century.
It is the titular essay, first published in The London Review of Books in 2018, that most strongly relates to the political framework of sexual desire. Analysing the 2014 Isla Vista killings – a killing spree launched by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger – allows Srinivasan to reveal the issue of depoliticized feminism: a self-proclaimed ‘incel’ (‘involuntary-celibate’), Rodger wrote in his manifesto about his desire to punish the women who had denied him sex and locates his perceived sexual entitlement in white supremacism.
Srinivasan suggests that more attention must be paid to the way in which Rodger’s racism reveals “the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obliged to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question often answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion.”
In her essay ‘Talking to My Students About Porn’, Srinivasan dismantles and deconstructs the discursive binary that is inseparable from conversations surrounding the adult film industry — that porn commodifies and eroticises female subordination, legitimising male violence and thus acting as an agent of patriarchy, or that it conceptualises sexual liberation in an age where female promiscuity no longer need be stigmatised.
Srinivasan’s approach when exploring society’s various tokens of misogyny is to gesture towards an illusory indictment that is immediately undercut by further interrogation of the patriarchal structures of power.
Responding to feminist scholar Catherine MacKinnon’s hypothesis that porn is the antecedent to masculine violence, Srinivasan writes, “It’s a startling image: porn as a virtual training ground for male sexual aggression. Could it be true? Or is this image itself a kind of sexual fantasy, which reduces misogyny to a single origin, and its many, diverse agents to a single subject: the porn watcher?”
In the United States, the question of pornography is complicated by the constitutional right to freedom of speech. To exemplify this, Srinivasan describes the Supreme Court’s 1992 case R.A.V. v. St. Paul, in which the Court mobilised first-amendment rights to rule unanimously against a Minnesota crime ordinance that prohibited publicly burning a cross or swastika “in an attempt to arouse anger or alarm on the basis of race, colour, creed, or religion.” Similarly, the defence of free speech is levelled against anti-porn ordinances.
And yet, MacKinnon argues that representing the question of porn as a question of free speech reveals patriarchal sympathies.
MacKinnon presents a scenario in which a trained attack dog is ordered to kill a human being. The legal convention would treat the command as a criminal act — an attempt at murder. One would not expect acquittal on the grounds that the owner has a constitutional right to express their freedom of speech (in this case, the viewpoint “I want you dead”). The natural comparison to this is in the creation of porn, which invites violence against women, which itself is an order of an attack.
Again, Srinivasan marks her territory delicately, if deftly. After touching on subjects ranging from the racial fetishization that adult films reinforce to the harmful effects of criminalisation, Srinivasan concludes with a rather peripheral indictment of porn as a threat to sexual imagination.
In her characteristic inversion, she asserts that “[coaxing]” sex to “recall its lost power” must be a “negative education”, that “wouldn’t assert its authority to tell the truth about sex, but rather remind young people that the authority on what sex is, and could become, lies with them.”
This final verdict is agreeable, and cautiously optimistic, but its ambiguity is not lost upon the reader. If desire itself is constructed and regulated by the internalisation of the patriarchy, how is this “negative education” to be achieved in the contemporary political state?
The answer lies in Srinivasan’s radical implication that desire, which is inherently political in nature, can only be transformed by the upheaval of the “political, social, sexual, economic, psychological and physical subordination of women”. But a rejection of institutionalised notions of sex, she writes in the preface, depends on an “political movement” that will “transform the world beyond recognition.”
Srinivasan’s ambivalence is deliberate. It is not difficult to recognize that the kind of radical feminism that she prescribes is dependent upon a complete annihilation of taxonomic gender identities that rigorously cloister notions of womanhood.
If there is one axiomatic fact that echoes consistently in every essay, it is that gender relations precede the dimensions of economic and political oppression that nonetheless play a factor in sexual violence.
Whether the conclusions she arrives at are justified or overly attentive to heterodoxical positions, one can appreciate Srinivasan’s willingness for provocation and confrontation.
By looking beyond narrow requisites of consent and due process, Srinivasan avoids the kind of straw man fallacy that has come to overwhelm feminist discourse in a post #MeToo era. She is careful to treat even the most inflammatory arguments with sobriety, so her takedowns, which she is not so disinterested to preclude, feel judicious and well-deserved.
For those interested in unlearning their conformity, Srinivasan’s insights will be worthwhile.