Our Choices Are Rarely Free: On Amia Srinivasan’s “The Right to Sex”

October 15, 2021   •   By Sohum Pal

The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

Amia Srinivasan

I AM GAY and more or less a man, but I’ve experienced attraction in the past to people who identify as women, and even now there are women whom I love in ways that teeter between the platonic and the romantic. Do the subsequent clauses invalidate the first? Having read Amia Srinivasan’s new book, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, I believe it doesn’t really matter — it is only in a patriarchal world that such questions are apposite at all. Srinivasan remarks in her preface that “[f]eminism is not a philosophy, or a theory, or even a point of view. It is a political movement to transform the world beyond recognition. It asks: what would it be to end the political, social, sexual, economic, psychological and physical subordination of women?” This is not a transformation from without; indeed, no such possibility exists. The end of the subordination of women is wrapped up with the end of categories that seek to contain and name desire — the categories of gender, sexuality, and race, among others.

This is a bold claim, and one of its logical conclusions is that the goal of feminism is the abolition of women as a category. But Srinivasan arrives at this idea over the course of five essays, in which she rigorously deconstructs today’s dizzying array of gender and sexuality discourses — from “false rape accusations” to incels to teacher-student relations. Srinivasan’s positions are heterodox: she rarely sides with majority views, if only because she is willing to treat opposing ideas with greater seriousness and generosity than they are typically afforded.

Srinivasan’s chapter “The Right to Sex” — previously published in the London Review of Books as “Does anyone have the right to sex?” — exemplifies her approach. She opens with the story of Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and wounded 14 others on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. Incels such as Rodger suggest that violence is a response, even a natural response, to men being “deprived” of sex. In this paradigm, rape is a man’s vindication of his natural right to sex, and murderous violence results when sex is refused — usually as a result of contemporary feminism, which has sought to thwart men’s rights. Srinivasan rejects this illogic: any “sense of sexual entitlement [is] a case study in patriarchal ideology,” and Rodger’s own sense of being “unfuckable” was itself an internalization of patriarchy. But feminist history suggests that this refusal is insufficient. Rapidly reviewing historical debates over “political lesbianism” and so-called “pro-woman feminists,” Srinivasan concludes that women must “treat as axiomatic our free sexual choices, while also seeing why, as ‘anti-sex’ and lesbian feminists have always said, such choices, under patriarchy, are rarely free. […] [I]n our rush to do the former, feminists risk forgetting to do the latter.”

This claim leads Srinivasan to suggest that, while sexual agents may have the “right” to choose how and with whom to have sex, those choices are themselves structured by race, gender, and class antagonisms (among others). In Srinivasan’s view, the problem is not entitlement or “right” as a structure but rather the object of entitlement: in patriarchy, men (and incels) see themselves as entitled to sex and bodies (primarily sex with women), but the feminist call to recognize Black women, fat women, and others as beautiful is about a different kind of entitlement: the right to be respected. Srinivasan suggests that feminist slogans such as “Black is beautiful” are “proposals for a reevaluation of our values.” What Srinivasan implies but leaves unsaid is that the right to respect subtends another right — the right to be loved. And not only as an object of romantic or sexual desire, but as a refutation of the horror and disgust that whiteness and patriarchy instruct us to feel about Black people, fat people, and ourselves. Saidiya Hartman said once that “care is the antidote to violence” — and love can be a genre of care proportional to the violence of horror and disgust.

In 2018, trans theorist Andrea Long Chu suggested, responding to Srinivasan’s “right to sex” essay, that the author’s position is moralistic — that “moralism about the desires of the oppressor [whites, thins, cis people, inter alia] can be a shell corporation for moralism about the desires of the oppressed” and that “[e]veryone should be allowed to want things that are bad for them.” In a new coda to her essay, Srinivasan responds to Chu, asking whether “the transformation of desire [must] be a disciplinary project (willfully altering our desires in line with our politics) — or can it be an emancipatory one (setting our desires free from politics)?”

This rhetoric is unsatisfying, not because it’s wrong, but because it contains a slippage giving these questions the appearance of an antinomy. In the first parenthetical, “our politics” is about an ethic — “ours” not in the sense of the individual but in the sense of “our” shared ethics as a multitude seeking to strengthen the entitlement to respect and love. In the second parenthetical, “politics” refers to the present flows, accumulations, and lacks of power that give shape to desire, and it becomes necessary to set desire free from this (overdetermining) politics. What these two questions contemplate, then, is not paradoxical but coeval — the first question ends where the second question begins.

Chu’s skepticism about a moral stance on desire is well founded — as she suggests, “queers […] are people who have, by definition, desires they are not supposed to have.” On these grounds, Chu claims that desire is “ungovernable,” but the reality is that desire is always being governed — heterosexuality is desire governed by heterosexism; the desire for companionate relations (also called “the couple-form”) is the result of desire governed by patriarchal economics. Srinivasan’s vision is a feminist-abolitionist vision wherein the world has been transformed “beyond recognition,” as she writes in her preface. In this world, love could not be apportioned and disciplined according to categories such as gender or sexuality.

Perhaps the language of governance suggests a too-close alliance with the state and its disciplinary apparatus. In the coda, Srinivasan cites at length a response to her “The Right to Sex” essay by a reader, a gay man who says of loving his fat husband that he has

had to work, deliberately and consciously, to let [his husband] be sexy. […] [W]hile we cannot alter what does and does not turn us on, we can on the one hand displace what might be getting in the way of erotic excitement and on the other teach ourselves to eroticize what is happening in front of us during sex.

Asks Srinivasan, “Is this an act of discipline, or of love?” It may be a little bit of both — to extend to the husband the positive freedom to “let him be sexy” is an act of love, and to refuse the general social education in anti-fatness and the notion of fat bodies as sexless may be an act of willful self-discipline. As elsewhere, this only appears to be an antinomy.

While “The Right to Sex” and its coda are the most polemical and expansive in their understanding of feminist politics, Srinivasan’s other essays demand comparable degrees of reflection. In “On Not Sleeping with Your Students,” she reconstructs the legal history of prohibitions on teacher-student relations, whose legal premise can be surmised as the idea that the differential in power between teacher and student vitiates the ability of a student to consent to romantic or sexual relations. This appears to create a feminist problem, Srinivasan suggests. “To insist that the power differential between professor and student precludes consent is either to see women students, like children, as intrinsically incapable of consent to sex — or to see them as somehow incapacitated by the dazzling force of the professor.” The result is that such prohibitions may effectively protect students against unwanted overtures from teachers, but they do so coarsely, by extending the prohibition to overtures that students may actually desire and consent to. Like other feminist philosophers (Joe Fischel, author of the 2019 book, Screw Consent: A Better Politics of Sexual Justice, comes to mind), Srinivasan sees consent as an inapposite concept. The problem is not consent, in her view, or even power differentials as such; rather, the problem is a pedagogical one.

Let me illustrate this concretely. When I was in high school, a story surfaced of a chemistry teacher at a neighboring school who had begun to date a former student soon after her graduation. At that point, they were both consenting adults, and there was no clear evidence that the teacher had been untoward during the girl’s high school years. The school district nonetheless found the relationship objectionable and relieved the teacher of his job. That this story sounds so generic speaks only to how common it is.

Srinivasan offers two ways to analyze this situation. First, we can understand the teacher-student relationship as premised on the reduction of a differential not just of power but of knowledge:

Teachers understand and know how to do certain things; students want to understand and know how to do those same things. Implicit in their relationship is the promise that the asymmetry will be reduced: that the teacher will confer on the student some of his power; will help her become, at least in one respect, more like him.

Srinivasan suggests that any attraction that emerges is a kind of transference. Freud suggested that analysts should redirect transference to the analytic treatment itself; following this idea, Srinivasan suggests that teachers might redirect transference from the teacher to the epistemic goal — to learning the course material. In this way, students learn to love their courses, not the professors who teach them. In this analysis, the chemistry teacher from my earlier anecdote abused his relationship with his student not only by failing to redirect his student’s transference but also by reinforcing the transference when he initiated a relationship with her.

The second way to understand this situation accounts for why Srinivasan and I can agree on the respective genders assigned to the teacher (a man) and his student (a woman). Even as women can and do sleep with their students, the vast majority of cases involve men who have “an erotic investment in gendered domination,” which they exercise in sleeping with their (often but not exclusively women) students. Given this robust analysis, it would appear that Srinivasan supports a blanket ban on student-teacher relations — but she reminds us that such bans continue to be enforced in unequal ways, punishing gender, sexual, and racial minorities. Srinivasan is ambivalent and perhaps even reticent to endorse one approach over another, writing that the history of bans on teacher-student relationships is one “that also points to the limits of the law. Where precisely those limits are — the point beyond which the law must cease trying to guide culture, but instead wait impatiently for it — is a question not of principle, but of politics.” Though her analysis is clear and bracing, the fact that Srinivasan appears to punt the decision is disappointing, all the more profoundly because she achieves such clarity in “The Right to Sex.” But the problem once again hinges on her refusing to clarify what she means by “politics.” Here, Srinivasan apparently uses “politics” as a shorthand for the process by which law is made, freezing cultural norms in terms of their current legal codifications.

Srinivasan is a meticulous and rigorous logician, so much so that one is forced to ask if the problem is not with the clarity of her writing but instead with the fact that “politics,” in signifying such a wide array of structures and processes, signifies very little after all. A slogan that Srinivasan gestures to emerges from the scaffold of her argument: if feminism means achieving a transformation of the world beyond recognition, then there is no “politics” recognizable to us now that will itself achieve that feminist end. For Srinivasan, this is what it means to think of feminism as a movement, as a diffuse multitude in motion. Srinivasan concludes her book by saying that “there have always been, always are, those for whom power remains elusive — those who have still not won, those for whom winning so far means surviving. It is to these women, at the sharp end of power, to whom the rest of us must turn, and then, turning, follow.” In time, feminism’s victories necessarily become problematic anachronisms and sites for renewed political struggle. This dialectic is not a reason for despair, Srinivasan suggests, but rather the very source of feminist optimism.

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Sohum Pal is an independent historian and critic living in New York City. His work has appeared in Lateral: A Journal of the Cultural Studies Association and Full Stop. He tweets @antibhadrata.