Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Aliya Ram reviews The Right to Sex

Amia Srinivasan. The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 304 pp.

Review by Aliya Ram

13 October 2021

There is a kind of comfort in culture wars. When it comes to (anglophone, Euro-American) feminism, the pitched battle of recent years allows us in 2021 to distinguish a queered, you do you, sex-positive blend of feminism from an unmixed shot of harsh, no-porn feminism that guarantees more streetlights on dark roads. Once we take a side, we know who our friends are, who we want to read, who we want to follow.

But culture wars, like all wars, take place when we stop thinking. The comfortable positions produced by this particular dispute mask a deeper and more important fault line that continues to block feminism from its goals. This is the fault line created by feminists when we argue for either freedom or critique—forgetting the crucial Black and third-world feminist lesson that all arguments for freedom must come with critique. It is this fault line that Amia Srinivasan tries to bridge in her astonishing debut, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

In a series of six beautifully-written essays on desire and feminism, Srinivasan unravels (among other things) the politics and ethics of incel culture, porn, sex in educational settings, and sexual harassment. She whirls the culture war in her hands, showing how the argument that desire is primary and essential has come to underpin sexual ethics today. For example, she illustrates the limits of popular feminist arguments for freedom by asking why, if desire is primary, it generally fits so well with ableist, racist, sexist, transphobic, first worldist, and casteist axes of power. She notices the contradiction of “freedom” that brings unfreedom in its wake: “If all desire must be insulated from political critique, then so must the desires that exclude and marginalize trans women,” she writes (p. 89). On the other hand, Srinivasan maintains that critique would be nothing without freedom: “I was not imagining a desire regulated by the demands of justice, but a desire set free from the binds of injustice” (p. 96). She reminds us of the terrible fact: “we have never yet been free” (p. 122). 

Srinivasan’s arguments rest on her analysis of the alarming convergence between arguments for sexual freedom and arguments for market freedoms. She notices the similarities between a contractual ethics of consent and the neoliberal principle that people exist as atomized agents whose behavior is inherently rational by virtue of being “free”: “A practice which is consensual can also be systemically damaging,” she writes (p. 147). The queer and anti-racist argument that non-white, nonheterosexual, noncis men also have a right to sex motivates Srinivasan’s extensive meditation on intersecting axes of oppression. She warns us not to "presuppose a false dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed, as if being oppressed along one dimension exonerates us from the possibility we might oppress anyone else” (p. 101).

Indeed, the whole point of Srinivasan’s major example, the Elliot Rodger shooting near the University of California, Santa Barbara, is that Rodger’s invocation of his racial, male privilege to have sex with a white, blonde sorority girl is at least partly—and ironically—based on his "unfuckability" as a mixed-race man. "Feminist commentary on Rodger and the incel phenomenon more broadly has said much about male sexual entitlement, objectification, and violence. But so far it has said little about desire: men’s desire, women’s desire, and the ideological shaping of both," Srinivasan writes (p. 76). Although Srinivasan focuses predominantly on anglophone debates and Euro-American examples, she deliberately seeks out case studies that unsettle neat categories of oppression and thereby reenacts, methodologically, what Black and third-world feminists have done for decades in complicating feminist claims. To suggest that feminism would be better served if Srinivasan did not complicate the picture would be to puzzlingly betray feminism’s own achievements by putting desire beyond the reach of sociopolitical critique.

There is a shadow text in this book, which also considers the role that education and pedagogy play in the twenty-first century. This shadow text provides a second realm of pleasure and interest for Srinivasan’s reader. In her essay on porn, for example, Srinivasan notices that children often use porn not to watch sex but to learn about it: “Porn is not pedagogy, yet it often functions as if it were” (p. 44). She uses this observation to reframe an age-old battle over criminalizing porn by asking whether we should leave sex education to that industry in the first place. What might a better sex education look like? Similarly, in her essay “On Not Sleeping with Your Students,” Srinivasan cuts through repetitive debates about consent between professors and students in order to identify the psychodrama behind that relationship: women and girls are socialized to want their teachers; men and boys are socialized to want to be their teachers: “Is it too sterile, too boring to suggest that instead of sleeping with his student, this professor should have been—teaching her?” (p. 128).

Srinivasan’s brilliance lies in her ability to pick through the noise surrounding historical and contemporary conversations about sexuality, desire, and freedom in order to ask new questions. She does this by mobilizing a vast historical understanding to show where our ideological positions come from and where they might lead. She also considers hundreds of studies and examples that speak to the strange contradictions in our sexual politics today (in Australia, she points out, you can watch porn freely unless you’re Aboriginal and live in the Northern Territory). Srinivasan writes in several registers, and the book is equally rewarding for someone well-read in feminist theory and history and someone looking for an introduction. Above all, it demonstrates its own injunction, via historian David Roediger, that a radical movement not only speak truth to power but also “speak frankly to itself” (p. xv).