Challenging the Comfortable

M. Colleen McDaniel

Posted April 19, 2022

The Right to Sex:
Feminism in the Twenty-First Century
By Amia Srinivasan
Macmillan: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 304 pages, $18 paperback.

Amia Srinivasan University of Oxford

AMIA SRINIVASAN’S THE Right to Sex is a riveting retelling of feminist theory on sex and sexual liberation. In a collection of essays following a 2014 publication (also titled “The Right to Sex”), Srinivasan asks the questions: “Who has a right to sex?” and “What does it mean to have a right to sex?”

Her 2014 essay was written in response to Isla Vista mass shooter Elliot Rodger’s incel (“involuntary celibate”) manifesto, which claimed that “hot blondes” must die because they refused to have sex with him, leaving him sexless and alone.

Srinivasan’s primary argument in her book speaks far more broadly to the contemporary feminist movement. Srinivasan states that it is not her goal to sit in the comfortable. Rather, she wants her readers to be uncomfortable — perhaps a reflection of recent movements, especially the 2020 BLM uprising, whose messaging centered around the idea that liberation and allyship are uncomfortable.

Srinivasan’s primary goal in the book seems to be framing the current state of sexual liberation — not synonymous with a right to sex — in the lens of intersectional feminism. Feminist theory, she argues, is based on women working together to “articulate the unsaid, the former unsayable;” but this theory too often ends up leaving out the particulars of everyday life, instead acting as a perspective “from on high,” leaving what I read to be the “Ivory Tower” to tell women about what their lives really mean.

This bold yet credible statement claims that real women don’t have time for a theory that comes from on high, nor for a theory with which they cannot relate. Each essay of the book evidences this by pointing out the major gaps in leading feminist theories, which reflect predominantly white and largely either straight or cis-lesbian perspectives.

Addressing Women’s Real Lives

Srinivasan’s assertation evokes Audre Lorde’s many critiques of academic feminists, particularly Lorde’s commentary on (white) academic feminists’ nasty tendency to avoid differences among women.

Have feminist theorists, or perhaps has feminist theory itself, become so “on high” and removed from real women that we do not want our theory to apply to the real everyday experiences of real women? Or do white, cisgendered feminists not want all women to have the access to share in our understanding of sexual oppression?

Srinivasan concludes that feminism cannot just be about redistributing and taking power, but also must be about what we do with that power. In being a doctoral candidate myself, and therefore frequently exposed to the academic feminists “on high,” I can certainly attest to her argument.

I have heard it directly from some academic women’s mouths, asking why we should bother sharing the academic literature with the general public when “they do not trust us” or “cannot ever really understand because they do not have the training?”

The Right to Sex is, at its simplest, a challenge to competing feminist theories on sex and sexual liberation in understandable terms. However, at a greater depth, Srinivasan’s perspective on sex and desire opens a much broader conversation that contemporary times are demanding from feminist theory. We need a canon that portrays a more meaningful, more applicable truth about our potential (read, “not yet achieved”) sexual liberation, meaning one that can be devoted to and practiced by all women.

Throughout these essays, Srinivasan shares how recent sexual movements are not only rewriting politics, but also rewriting and redefining what it means to be a person with sexual desire who also wants to be desired.

In revisiting conflicting feminist theories of the past and present, men’s rights activists’ arguments, and the individual feelings of real women and men, Srinivasan addresses what a feminist theory of sexuality that applies to all women could look like.

This needed conversation asks, when we look at where feminism has been in moments throughout history, does our theory apply? Can we bring these theories into an intersectional feminism? Does bringing past theories together into conversation reveal something new through an intersectional lens?

I read Srinivasan’s answer to be “yes.” By this very argument she indirectly writes a new feminist theory canon of sexual liberation — one that applies to real women with many different interconnecting identities.

Who Has a Right to Sex?

Sexual assault is the best place to start answering this question, as it would seem to have the most obvious answer. When asked, the majority of people would say they agreed that rape is not acceptable (except maybe the incels, but we will get to them).

Sexual assault is paradoxical in that most people may agree that rape is bad and causes harm, yet we cannot agree on what qualifies as rape, who can rape or can be raped, nor who gets to be punished for rape.

Therefore we have a system that does not believe white women’s accusations, does not count Black and brown women’s accusations, refuses to punish white men even when they admit to rape, and believes that Black and brown men who rape are just doing what is expected of them.

To Srinivasan, rape is the assumption of a right to sex. This is why men identified in #MeToo were so infuriated. Their claim to the right to sex was called out and put to trial (not literally of course, because few white rapists go to jail).

A lack of actual punishment for powerful men who are “disgraced but loved, ruined but rich, never to be employed again until they are employed again” (Srinivasan, 31) is a stance from Patriarchy and Capitalism in the Post-#MeToo era that rape may be bad, but that these men do not deserve punishment for it; thus men do indeed have the right to sex.

Of course, as previously stated, Srinivasan asserts that no one has a right to sex. Anyone who has taken Women’s Studies 101 knows the irritating necessity of the clause that must always follow this assertion: not even those men who feel entitled to it have the right to sex.

Srinivasan’s essays emphasize this clause by juxtaposing men who feel entitled to sex (for example, incels or men who are otherwise not aligned with the norms/expectations of hegemonic western masculinity) with men who do not feel entitled to sex, but who are systemically labeled as sexually undesirable (brown, Black, disabled, fat, gay…).

She asks, “when is being sexually or romantically marginalized a facet of oppression, and when is it just a matter of bad luck, one of life’s small tragedies?” (115)

Feminist Discourse on Desire

Srinivasan reminds us that although harmful norms from systemic oppressions determine who is and who is not sexually desirable, these norms do not necessarily determine who is or who is not having sex. Elliot Rodgers and a disturbingly long line of murderous incels to follow never made this distinction.

There is still not a right to sex, although we can call attention to how certain groups of people are not systemically seen as desirable because of the existing oppression (Patriarchy, White Supremacy, Capitalism, Abelism). If only these men could see that their proclaimed involuntary celibacy was drawn up by the same violent masculinity they uphold.

Feminists who read this book may feel that the arguments I’ve described so far are not at all shocking. Many of us, especially those of us who are subscribed to a socialist publication, may already feel familiar with the argument Srinivasan presents. Admittedly, I felt this way when reading the first essay on sexual assault.

However, Srinivasan dares to go into more murky territory throughout her essays on pornography and student-teacher consensual amorous relationships.

In her discussion of pornography, Srinivasan leans into her insistence that feminist theory must be for all women. She details that feminists have historically been wrongly placed into separate camps: pro-porn or anti-porn. In reality, a close look at these supposedly “opposing” views demonstrated that most pro-porn feminists have not felt that porn was necessarily good, but rather that legislation is not the ideal way to confront the problem that porn poses.

It is indeed this legislation (and the men in power who determine it) that poses a threat to the end of women’s subordination. Many of the legal regulations actually harm the women who work in porn, rather than regulate the male-dominated industry and the men who lead it.

Srinivasan points out that the harms of porn are not in the BDSM and kink-oriented porn. The subordination of women is in the cum-shot and the normalization of (some) women’s bodies as “fuckable.” We have also passed the point of no return in regulating porn — it can and will continue to be made and easily accessed.

Women’s sexual liberation, in the time of mass-produced pornography, relies on reclaiming our own desire. Srinivasan states that although it is currently unclear how to achieve it, we are in need of a “negative education” — one that tells young people that “the authority on what sex is…lies with them.”

In doing so, we redefine desire. Redefining the bounds and limits of desire, she argues, is where the feminist movement needs a radical pivot.

I have to admit that I felt extreme validation in her argument. For the past few years, I have taught the Psychology of Human Sexuality to undergraduates, and consistently feel the irony of the feminist movement’s views on sexual desire and gender.

I spend the entirety of my semester convincing my class that biological sex and gender are two distinct identities, and that in many ways, both are socially constructed.

At the start of biology week, I begin with diagrams of fetal development of genitalia to show my students how similar all of our bits and pieces are, followed by videos of intersex individuals’ experiences of being forced into binary sexes via genital mutilation surgeries.

Then I get into the binary gender socialization of boys and girls throughout development. The classic Psychology 101 mantra of “everything is influenced by both nature and nurture” guides us. However, when sexual orientation week rolls around, I find myself clinging to the politics I was raised in: “we can’t control who we love,” “love is love,” “I was born this way.”

Srinivasan’s theoretical argument sets a new path for feminists to forge: desire is not innate, rather it can be shaped and molded by our socialization and politics. She poses the question, “Are we first attracted to ways of being in the world, including bodily ways, which we later learn to associate with certain specific parts of the body?” (110)

While Srinivasan is drawing a philosophical question, as a psychologist I will rephrase it to ask, “Is desire also socially constructed?” She gets at an answer to this by drawing on the radical self-love movements from black, fat, and disabled women.

These movements ask “not whether there is a right to sex (there isn’t), but whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.” Lindy West for example argues that we must change our perceptions, “looking at certain bodies — one’s own and others’ — sidelong, inviting and coaxing a gestalt shift from revulsion to admiration.” (90)

In my undergraduate Psychology of Women class, a fellow student member of our campus’s Gay-Straight Alliance profusely argued “you can’t choose to be gay” and stormed out of lecture after my professor described a study of a sample of late-life lesbians who actively chose to be with women over men. I wonder how she would handle Srinivasan’s argument that our sexual desires can and do change, sometimes even at will.

Distinguishing Desire from Systemic Harm

Srinivasan points out the “ugly” reality that oppressive systems “[shape] who we do and do not desire and love, and who does and does not desire and love us.” (95)

She argues that a feminism that uncovers liberated sexuality embraces the experiences and truths of many queer individuals that “our sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own wills — not automatically, but not impossibly either.” (91)

This nuance is promising for me as an educator. How can I claim that “nature and nurture” are a balance, but then cling to biological essentialism only in discussions of desire?

In “On Not Sleeping with Your Students,” Srinivasan explores bans on student-teacher consensual amorous relationships as a contemporary fight against sexual harassment — a policy I have been pushing on my campus for the past two years of my doctoral program.

Srinivasan shares that some feminists have teamed up with the narcissistic male ego to argue that these policies are merely a control on adult sexual desire and are thus demeaning and moralistic.

Srinivasan critiques professors who argue that their students truly desire them, pointing out that most often, such interpretations are perverse, a pornification of mere student admiration. She argues that students’ desire and admiration for their professors are misplaced for the desire to learn and become the teacher.

Challenging a professor who claims his student desires him, Srinivasan states, “Perhaps the student simply admires and wants to be like [him]. Or maybe she doesn’t know what she wants: to be like [him], or to have [him]…wherever a student’s desire is inchoate…it is all too easy for the teacher to steer it in the second direction.” (135)

Regardless of what is in the student’s mind, it is the teacher’s responsibility to “direct his student’s desire away from himself toward its proper object: her epistemic empowerment.” (136)

In 2019, a professor at my current university was found guilty of sexual harassment against graduate students. A letter from the Dean details that although some of his actions did not violate the policies at my university, he did violate “national standards set forth by [his] peers regarding the norms of behavior to be expected of responsible faculty.”

Namely, alongside hostility against one student and sexual harassment against another, he also had a consensual sexual relationship with a graduate student where he “had direct supervision and grading authority.”

To Srinivasan, these consensual relationships directly demonstrate the subordination of women and discrimination “on the basis of sex” that is rampant in institutions of higher education.

Similarly to the therapist-patient relationship, there is a commitment that exists in the teacher-student relationship: “The pedagogical relationship might come with certain responsibilities beyond the ones we owe each other as persons.” (147)

Yes, we can point to aspects of these relationships that align with definitions of sexual harassment, like a hierarchical power differential between students and professors and the presence of fear that is caused by a professor’s ability to change the course of a student’s life. But as much as anything, the potential consequences of a teacher-student relationship (which is vastly most often male teacher on female student) changes the very nature of the student’s ability to be a student.

Srinivasan asserts that the student’s right to be educated is replaced with her teacher’s right to fuck her. The very basis of sexual discrimination is “a treatment that reproduces inequality.” Here, Srinivasan makes the radical assertion that “the absence of consent isn’t the only indicator of problematic sex; that a practice which is consensual can also be systemically damaging.” (147)

Even within the context of consensual teacher-student amorous relationships, men benefit disproportionately and women are disproportionately harmed. The professor at my university no longer teaches, but he does still get a paycheck and has an office around the corner from the women he harassed.

Does the risk of upsetting certain feminists outweigh these students’ right to an equitable education? As a graduate student, am I wrong to expect that my education is more important than my professors’ sexual desire or how they perceive mine?

What We’ll Do When We Win

In her final essay, weighing anti-prostitution feminists against the actual needs of sex workers, the incarceration of domestic abusers against the ramifications for poor women who depend on their abusers, and carceral feminism against a truly liberated state, Srinivasan evokes her opening thesis: the need for a feminist theory that is not from “on high.”

She states that we are incorrect to say that women still do not have power. Women do have power in many parts of the world — it’s just that those women in power are largely white, wealthy, and western.

A feminism that comes from those in power ignores the harms done to the women at the bottom when it seeks to destroy Patriarchy without the lens of those women.

Thus, using the law to ban prostitution in any way (as has been attempted in many countries throughout history) has yet to end prostitution; instead it has made the lives of sex workers more difficult. For another example, some feminists advocate for policing and incarceration, although providing equal access, abandoning Patriarchal standards of gender, and redistributing wealth could prevent crime and abuse.

In doing so, this feminism from on high achieves only the liberation of some women, abandoning the rest as collateral damage. Srinivasan ends with the assertion that as women gain more power, we must continue to turn and follow those who still do not have it. Otherwise, our feminism does not represent real woman at all.

March-April 2022, ATC 217