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Is Sex Political?

Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, published last September, explores not only the question of sex and to whom it is owed, but also the rise and corporatization of the modern feminist movement, among other topics. Some of Srinivasan’s arguments sound surprisingly conservative, but others remain mired in the reductive view of politics and power that has plagued feminism for years.

If conservatives have heard of Amia Srinivasan, it’s probably thanks to Ross Douthat. In 2018, Douthat wrote “The Redistribution of Sex,” a column on the phenomenon of “incel” violence and the question whether any of us owe sex to anyone else.

Douthat addresses economist Robin Hanson’s modest proposal that sex inequality could be seen as meriting the same redistributionist solution as income inequality. “If we are concerned about the just distribution of property and money,” writes Douthat, paraphrasing Hanson’s argument, “why do we assume that the desire for some sort of sexual redistribution is inherently ridiculous?”

Hanson’s reasoning may have been dismissed as sexist garbage in the mainstream, but his argument is reminiscent of one made by a certain feminist philosophy professor. In his column, Douthat also discusses Amia Srinivasan’s 2018 essay, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” Srinivasan’s piece similarly uses the case of incel violence (shootings or other violent acts committed by “involuntarily celibate” men whose rage comes from being, or feeling, constantly rejected by beautiful women) to discuss the right to sex.

There is no “right” to sex, she concludes, but Douthat notes that she adds a qualifier. While none of us owes sex to anyone else, we ought to examine whom we offer sex to and why. Srinivasan writes that “who we have sex with, and how, is a political question.”

Some readers may think their heterosexual proclivities were ingrained in them since birth, but actually they’re just the result of patriarchal norms. “The question posed by radical self-love movements,” Srinivasan concludes, “is whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.”

Violence is never the answer, but maybe the incels were somehow grasping at a truth after all. What if “equity,” the popular left-wing buzzword, applies even to sex?

 

Srinivasan’s essay came out in 2018, three years before Macmillan published it and several other essays by Srinivasan in a collection titled The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century. Her first book, published last September, explores not only the question of sex and to whom it is owed, but also the rise and corporatization of the modern feminist movement, among other topics. Some of Srinivasan’s arguments sound surprisingly conservative, but others remain mired in the reductive view of politics and power that has plagued feminism for years.

Is consent, as we’ve been told by feminists on campus and elsewhere, really the best metric for determining sexual ethics? Can porn be feminist? Should professors sleep with their students? Despite her radical position on sex redistribution, Srinivasan doesn’t always answer these questions in the way you might expect.

Men and #MeToo

First, Srinivasan addresses “The Conspiracy Against Men.” After the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017, men’s rights groups (and conservative think pieces) began hand-wringing about the possibility of false rape accusations against men. Srinivasan argues that, “like a plane crash,” a false rape accusation “is an objectively unusual event that occupies an outsized place in the public imagination.” But while there is no “conspiracy against men,” there is a statistical disadvantage to being accused of rape as a nonwhite man.

Srinivasan, like many of her contemporaries, tends to see injustice and inequality as the results of unequal power. Whether you agree with her premise, the idea that some men are more likely to become victims of false accusations than others seems like a good starting point for a conversation between feminists and those worried about the overzealous direction of the #MeToo movement—that is, if either side is willing to come to the table.

Srinivasan herself doesn’t seem too interested in discourse with “the other side of the aisle,” but she might be surprised to learn how conservative some of her arguments sound. The feminist refrain “believe women” is a faulty slogan, she argues, though her reasoning defends the progressive principle of intersectionality; if we believe all women, she argues, then black and other minority men, especially, will be hurt.

In the case of #MeToo-related misdeeds, she also distinguishes between what is criminal (rape) and what is legal but unacceptable (sexual coercion, for example). Srinivasan is deeply skeptical of the law’s ability to effect change, but beyond her aversion to the “carceral state,” her argument gets at something many feminists have been afraid to touch: the difference between how we ought to address criminal activity (think Harvey Weinstein) and how we approach what we might call sleezy behavior. Think Aziz Ansari, the comedian whose alleged lewdness got him lumped in with the #MeToo movement and caused many onlookers to consider whether the crusade had gone too far.

Pornography and Consent

This isn’t the only case in which Srinivasan seems, if accidentally, to be speaking directly to more conservative readers. Her argument against professors sleeping with students, for example, is based not just on the problem of unequal power stacked against the student but also because such a relationship is a pedagogical failure.

In fact, Srinivasan even calls into question the doctrine of consent—what was, until recently, the be-all-end-all measuring stick for progressive sexual ethics. The absence of consent, she writes, “isn’t the only indicator of problematic sex.” And “a practice which is consensual can also be systemically damaging.”

Srinivasan’s broadening of sexual ethics comes at a timely moment, when outlets such as Buzzfeed are publishing articles with titles like “​​These Gen Z Women Think Sex Positivity Is Overrated” and writers at the New York Times posit, “Getting ‘Consent’ for Sex Is Too Low a Bar” and ask, “You Were Duped Into Saying Yes. Is That Still Consent?”

To some readers, the idea that consent is a terribly low bar for a sexual encounter may seem like a truth that should be universally acknowledged; luckily, Srinivasan moves the needle further toward a sexual ethic that extends beyond the word “yes.”

She seems close to landing on a sexual ethic of restraint and moderation in other areas as well. Srinivasan writes of porn that it can and should be a feminist endeavor, but she acknowledges that her students (she is a professor of social and political theory at the University of Oxford) don’t see the enlightened possibilities of porn the way she does. Expecting her students to find anti-porn arguments “prudish and passé,” she discovers that they instead find porn demeaning and damaging.

She asks them a series of questions: “Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real? Does porn silence women, making it harder for them to protest against unwanted sex, and harder for men to hear those protests? Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalization of women, for sexual violence against women?” The students, she reports, said “yes to all of it.”

Feminist Tropes and the Right to Sex

Throughout The Right to Sex, Srinivasan echoes some decades-old feminist tropes—the problems with patriarchy and capitalism, for example—while pushing them into the 21st century, as the full title of the book suggests. Her debut book is worth reading for anyone looking to understand the state of current feminist discourse, and it offers a few surprising points with which more conservative readers may be able to get on board.

One of these arguments addresses the way the “carceral state” (the criminal justice system) often serves as a substitute for social services. Her cure may have more of a “defund the police” flavor than some readers would agree with, but her argument that many cases of incarceration could be avoided with better public safety nets and fewer laws (cutting red tape, anyone?) is one that should be able to find many supporters.

Other arguments of hers are less cogent, such as her fundamental misunderstanding of the pro-life movement. She notes in passing that anti-abortionists are “engaged in a symbolic politics whose aim, however unconscious, isn’t so much to end abortion as to have it denounced in the law.”

 

Dismissing pro-life positions, promoting feminist porn, and even questioning the limits of consent are not uncommon for feminists today. But Srinivasan’s most radical argument when it comes to sex, one for which she isn’t likely to find many fans across the aisle, is the one Douthat addresses in his column.

Srinivasan’s idea that more people should rethink their sexual preferences to include openness to different types of bodies (disabled, transgender, male and/or female) is more consistent with her support of pornography and prostitution than she realizes. Douthat writes that the inevitable end of her sex-redistribution argument is that pornography and prostitution are popularized as channels to provide sexual satisfaction for those who might not achieve it otherwise. Almost entirely absent from Srinivasan’s discussions of sex are the concepts of “marriage” and “children.” We soon see why.

For her part, Srinivasan bristles at Douthat’s interpretation of her writing, dedicating an almost thirty-page coda to addressing Douthat’s and other critics’ assessments of “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” Douthat’s “conservative, religiously inflected vision is not a genuine alternative to Hanson’s proposal to recognize a state-enforced right to sex,” she writes. “Monogamous marriage, the heteronormative family, and norms of chastity are—like Hanson’s government subsidies for incels—parts of a patriarchal infrastructure designed to secure men’s access to women’s bodies and minds.”

There is no right to sex, but for Srinivasan there is a duty to reshape our own sexual desires to redistribute it, apparently. And marriage is not an egalitarian part of this sex-redistribution equation.

When it comes to sex, Srinivasan and other feminists have little room for moralizing, unless it’s to tell people that their sexual preferences are too heteronormative. Applied to an entire worldview, this leaves us with a myopic view of sex and gender. According this hyper-equitable model of sex, we can bring about utopia if we address only two things: politics and power. Individual preference, marriage, and prudence, things historically valued by liberal democracy, have no place in the feminism of the twenty-first century.

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