Amia Srinivasan's The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century was published in 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Stop Fighting the Sex Wars and Start Studying Them
The Joys of Complexity
The Necessity of Academic Feminism
The Politics of Desirability
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Stop Fighting the Sex Wars and Start Studying Them
On April 24, 1982, at the closing session of the Barnard Sex Conference (as “The Scholar and the Feminist IX: Toward a Politics of Sexuality” has come to be known), lesbian sex radical Amber Hollibaugh prophesied that the feminist exploration of sexuality undertaken at the conference that day would “change the sensation of our orgasms as well as the way women in the future will experience their own sexual feelings.” While I cannot say whether Hollibaugh was right about the orgasms of the predominantly boomer and Gen-X women who participated in that historic conference, as a millennial woman born almost sixteen months to the day after Hollibaugh spoke these words, I can say with some authority that she was right about the impact the Barnard conference would have on future generations. Millennial feminists like me came of age “seeking ecstasy on the battlefield” (to borrow a line from another Barnard conference presentation) of the feminist sex wars, a wide-ranging set of debates about porn, BDSM, and a whole host of other issues pertaining to sex and sexuality in which the Barnard conference was a flashpoint. Like the children of unhappily divorced parents (or like Orestes in his eponymous tragedy), we were compelled to take sides in a conflict whose dimensions we had no role in determining. And as we wrestled with the false and faulty choices foisted upon us – “Pro-sex or anti-sex?”, “Prostitution or sex work?” – the wheels of sexual injustice ground on, their pace rivaled only by that of our burgeoning disillusionment.
Amia Srinivasan’s ambitious aim in The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century is, in her words, “to reach back to an older feminist tradition that was unafraid to think of sex … as something squarely within the bounds of social critique” while at the same time remaking that “political critique of sex for the twenty-first century.” The book’s epigraph is an excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” and that is precisely what Srinivasan is doing here: diving into the wreck of the history of the feminist sex wars to retrieve what is useful while remaining refreshingly disloyal to any single side in these conflicts.There are emancipatory paths out of the history of the sex wars if we are willing to look beyond the sterile and reductive dualisms in which so much of that history has been concealed from us.Click To Tweet
As someone involved in a methodologically distinct but politically kindred project, I wrote my revisionist history of the feminist sexuality debates, in large part, to persuade millennial feminists and sex-wars-draft resistors like myself and Srinivasan that there is something of value for us back there in all those grandiose polemics; that the sex wars were a strikingly fecund moment for feminist political thought when feminists of many stripes formulated visions of sexual freedom that scandalized liberal conventions, refused the ruse of carceralism, and centered the needs, experiences, and desires of those at what Srinivasan, channeling Gloria Anzaldúa’s image of home as a “thin edge of barbed wire,” calls “the sharp end of power.” Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex is compelling proof that there are emancipatory paths out of the history of the sex wars if we are willing to look beyond the sterile and reductive dualisms in which so much of that history has been concealed from us.
Lorna Bracewell is assistant professor of humanities and the women’s studies program coordinator at Flagler College. Her scholarship focuses on feminist theory and the history of political thought and has been published in academic journals like Contemporary Political Theory and popular forums like the Washington Post. Her recent book, Why We Lost the Sex Wars: Sexual Freedom in the #MeToo Era, offers a revisionist history of the feminist sexuality debates of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s foregrounding the contributions of Black and third-world feminists and the influence of liberal concepts such as freedom of expression, the public/private divide, and the harm principle.
The Joys of Complexity
In June 2020, J.K. Rowling provoked justified outrage when she tweeted about the term “people who menstruate.” “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people,” she wrote, “someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” Rowling’s transphobia took a familiar rhetorical turn—a nostalgia for a simpler time, an unapologetic feminism, with only one axis of oppression to worry about.
This is why I approached Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, and its claim to “reach back to an older feminist tradition that was unafraid to think of sex as a political phenomenon,” with a degree of wariness. I’ve only ever encountered that kind of feminist nostalgia as reactive, as a longing for a lost generation of earnest radicals before a crop of young nitpickers ruined the party by calling everyone out. Descriptions of Srinivasan tend to focus on her ability to “x-ray an argument” or deliver “laser-cut writing,” like some old-school feminist avenger, slicing through the muck of today’s identitarian Twitter squabbles.
To Srinivasan’s credit, she never submits to this kind of romanticism. Instead, I read her as embracing complexity rather than dismissing it. Srinivasan suggests that the sex wars of the 1970s and 1980s resolved in a philosophically thin détente—a withdrawal from the question of what sex actually is, and what it might take to make it ethical, toward the narrower question of whether it is “wanted or unwanted.” In this now-dominant version of sex-positivity, she argues, there is little room to grapple with creativity, joy, or freedom in sex, nor with how race, capitalism, gender, ability, size, etc. shape desire—only the polarity of nos and (enthusiastic) yeses, the binary of consensual and not.
In taking on these questions, Srinivasan seeks to reconstruct a feminism that contends with the political formation of desire, as some earlier feminists sought to do, while refusing the false universalisms, biological essentialisms, and investments in the carceral state those same feminists, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes intentionally, enabled. The insight of the book is in its evenhandedness in mediating apparently unreconcilable positions—MacKinnon’s trenchant analysis of sex as patriarchal violence and sex workers’ calls for decriminalization, or the contradictions of “believing women” when white cisgender women are the ones to believe and Black and Brown men bear the brunt of punishment. There’s thrilling outrage to Srinivasan’s writing, but without the SWERFiness and TERFiness, and with a commitment to taking the legacies of Black, intersectional, and anticarceral feminisms seriously. The feminism Srinivasan posits is bold, but not at the cost of being uncomplicated.There’s thrilling outrage to Srinivasan's writing, but without the SWERFiness and TERFiness, and with a commitment to taking the legacies of Black, intersectional, and anticarceral feminisms seriously.Click To Tweet
Srinivasan’s book is maybe least compelling when this clarity veers into simplification. The book loses rigor, for example, when it draws conclusions about the influence of porn from a discussion with Srinivasan’s Oxford undergraduates instead of engaging serious analysis of the labor of porn and the insights of its workers. These are erasures that can’t necessarily be resolved with studious readings or dissections of arguments because they are about the messy ways people live under patriarchal conditions. It matters, too, that the debates Srinivasan is mediating are not fought on equal terrain—the antiporn and antiprostitution feminists she engages have real influence on law and global institutions, with fatal consequences for real people.
There’s also a tendency here to reduce feminism to the writings of white intellectuals in the US and the UK. We see less, for example, of the vibrant debates about and reworkings of #MeToo in India, where individual freedoms and sex positivity have not always been the dominant ingredient in feminist imaginations. You find here less about third-world feminist networks, leftist queers, sex-worker artists and intellectuals, anticolonial revolutionaries, domestic worker organizers, communists, or trade unionists, who feature rarely on the standard Euro-American second-wave syllabus and for whom sex (and sexual violence) are not the primary battleground of feminist praxis but part of a larger emancipatory ethic. Where Black queer feminists, like the Combahee River Collective, are mentioned, it seems like they’re there more to complicate an argument than to construct a new world.
There’s a real appeal to the utopian insistence that animates Srinivasan’s writing: she reveals what can be productive about thinking across often bitter ideological rifts, and seeks to open up ways “desire can take us by surprise, leading us somewhere we hadn’t imagined we would ever go.” But if “reaching back” included a more vibrant feminist landscape, if it looked beyond the settled terms of the debate, we might find that the ethical sex the book calls for is already being imagined and fought for.
 SWERF and TERF stand for sex-worker-exclusive radical feminism and trans-exclusive radical feminism, respectively.
Gowri Vijayakumar is an assistant professor of sociology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Brandeis University. A feminist ethnographer and interviewer by training, she is interested in feminist and queer movements, sex worker activism, global institutions, and the everyday life of the state. Her book, At Risk: Indian Sexual Politics and the Global AIDS Crisis, was published by Stanford University Press in 2021. She is also the co-editor (with Smitha Radhakrishnan) of the forthcoming volume Sociology of South Asia: Postcolonial Legacies, Global Imaginaries. In her research and writing, she collaborates regularly with sex worker, queer, and transgender activists in India, most recently in the writing of A Small Step in a Long Journey: A Memoir by Akkai Padmashali.
The Necessity of Academic Feminism
Thanks to technology, the twenty-first century has seen an unprecedented bridging of feminist theory and activism. Academic terms like “intersectionality” and “gender essentialism” regularly appear on feminist blogs, podcasts, and YouTube channels. Protest signs at events like the Women’s Marches and SlutWalks reference concepts like patriarchy and bodily autonomy and quote from the likes of bell hooks and Audre Lorde. The accessibility of ideas previously deemed esoteric is likely part of why so many millennials and Gen-Zers embrace feminism; in fact, 68 percent of women ages 18 to 29 in a 2020 Pew Research poll said they consider themselves feminists.The twenty-first century has seen an unprecedented bridging of feminist theory and activism.Click To Tweet
What’s been lost in this mainstreaming of academic feminism is scholars’ constant critical examination of the ideologies feminists rest their activism on. In order to present a unified movement, make their message digestible, and thwart accusations of hypocrisy — all understandable goals — feminist movements on social media, women’s publications, and other online platforms have, by the nature of their channels, had to simplify their asks. As a writer for various women’s sites, I know many of them would not dare publish something questioning a woman accusing a man of rape or taking incel complaints seriously.
But in her essay collection The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, Oxford professor Amia Srinivasan does just that — and in the process, she reminds us why academics are necessary voices in today’s hot feminist debates. She asks difficult questions, such as whether the #MeToo rallying cry “believe women” applies to the mothers of black men falsely accused of rape. Or whether calling for harsher punishment of these men may serve to support the machinations of an unjust prison system. Or, perhaps most controversially, whether Elliot Rodger had a point in claiming that he was disadvantaged in the dating market due to his race.
Throughout the book, Srinivasan emphasizes the importance of considering how various feminist issues involve race and class as well as gender. Despite the fact that this is something feminists have been advocating for decades, these considerations often get lost due to the inconveniences they pose. Many intersectional issues throw a wrench into mainstream, white-dominated feminist arguments: How can we advocate for believing survivors while acknowledging the troubling history of white women falsely accusing black men of assault? How can we encourage people to look outside societal beauty norms when choosing partners without portraying sex as a commodity “owed” to anyone?
Inconvenient as they are, complexities like these must not be overlooked if we are to create a feminism that helps all walks of people. Srinivasan’s six essays sketch out the framework for an updated feminism that holds many truths at once and considers the nuances of different dynamics rather than trying to fit all current events under umbrella slogans. In doing so, she herself brings academic discourse further into the mainstream, writing in language that’s digestible to laypeople. For example, in “Coda: The Politics of Desire,” she raises her points in a list format and offers actionable suggestions, such as “asking ourselves what we want, why we want it, and what it is we want to want.”
While ideas like hers may not be concise enough to consolidate into a tweet, they’re valuable to keep in mind when considering how we tweet, write, speak, and protest.
The Politics of Desirability
In her book The Right to Sex, Oxford philosophy professor Amia Srinivasan presents a compelling argument regarding desirability. According to Srinivasan, differences in sexual desirability, wherein fat people or Asian people are not considered as desirable as others, should be a topic for philosophical study. For support for her argument, she finds common cause with feminists of the sixties, seventies, and eighties—women like Catharine MacKinnon and others—who saw sex as political and thus automatically imputed to it philosophical import as well.
While it may appear innocuous in a first read, this idea that pornography and desirability, which Srinivasan calls “fuckability,” deserve philosophical analysis has tremendous significance. First, what we do and do not consider worthy of philosophical analysis undergirds whether or not we consider it the subject of care, of a certain significance. So, when using Srinivasan’s own example, if a gay man on the dating platform Grindr selects only other white men and ignores Asian men, his choice is considered beyond the realm of philosophical analysis because “preferences” of this sort are understood as the product of something intrinsic and not entirely in one’s control. This, we know, is not entirely true; our estimations of who and what we consider attractive are as much the consequence of the cultural and social context that we inhabit as they are some pure form of desire within ourselves. Pornography, in this sense, both creates and then serves up what people consider “fuckable.”
There are many ways that the analysis of “fuckability” and its philosophical relevance might be applied to similar concepts. If the idea of “preferences,” such as those for mates or sexual partners, is understood as manufactured and thus in need of philosophical analysis regarding its propagation of various biases, it follows that similar “preferences” operative in other realms and similarly considered beyond philosophical analysis can also become subject to its rigors. In my own book, Against White Feminism, I consider the related concept of “relatability,” in which the experiences of certain women are considered more universalizable and hence more significant than others. Issues such as white women choosing to befriend only other white women, for instance, have also largely evaded scrutiny. Like “fuckability,” “relatability” hides behind a seeming front of innocuousness and yet is instrumental in the continued perpetuation of societal biases.When realms of individual decision making are considered philosophically insignificant, they evade duties of care and mindfulness as well.Click To Tweet
Srinivasan has made an original and valuable contribution to the larger project of exposing the perpetuation of systemic ills. When realms of individual decision making are considered philosophically insignificant, they evade duties of care and mindfulness as well. Nazi bureaucrats or oil company executives, for instance, as described in historian Dan Gretton’s book I You We Them, accomplished heinous acts of mass killing through similar mechanics—creating new vocabularies that made significant and consequential acts appear benign.
For her part, Srinivasan’s neat and tight philosophical arguments restrict themselves to “fuckability” and the world of pornography, which she rightly posits as responsible for developing the sexual likes and dislikes of her students. It is a timely and thought-provoking contribution, one that opens many new possibilities for our understanding of the world.
Rafia Zakaria is author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, Veil, and many essays for the Guardian, CNN, and the New York Times Book Review. She is a regular columnist for Dawn in Pakistan and the Baffler in the United States.
My deep thanks to Lorna Bracewell, Gowri Vijayakumar, Suzannah Weiss, and Rafia Zakaria for their astute and generous commentaries, and to Signs for hosting this discussion of The Right to Sex. I have been asked to be brief in reply, so won’t be able to address all that has been said.
It is very nice to have a fellow-traveler in Lorna Bracewell, whose excellent Why We Lost the Sex Wars I was only able to read after my own book came out. (I had the chance to write about Bracewell’s book in a larger piece about feminism’s history and future, in The New Yorker, earlier this year.) I agree with Bracewell that the so-called sex wars are much more than a historically embarrassing episode – that they contain deep intellectual seams to mine and profound strategic lessons to articulate, especially to do with feminism’s cooptation by, and complicity with, coercive state power.
I also agree with Gowri Vijayakumar that any serious feminism must look beyond the sex wars – indeed, beyond the confines of Anglo-American feminism. (I issue such a call myself here, in discussion of new books by Verónica Gago, Ewa Majewska, and Shiori Itō.) In The Right to Sex’s preface I explain my focus on the US and UK and, to a lesser extent, India, as partly a function of my own background. But I also explain that it is in part a deliberate choice: “These essays,” I write, “are critical of much mainstream anglophone feminist thought and practice, which for decades has been the most visible, and materially powerful, form of feminism around the world.” My own feminism, which is largely rooted in a materialist, Marxist tradition (with, like many early Marxist feminists, a good dose of psychoanalysis thrown in), does not see sex or sexual violence, to use Vijayakumar’s lovely phrase, as the “primary battleground of feminist praxis” – at least if “sex” is to be understood, as Vijayakumar seems to, narrowly. But I think it is very clear that for mainstream Anglo-American feminists, sex is still – and indeed again – the primary battleground of feminism. The question then is how to enlarge our understanding of “sex” so that the struggle for sexual freedom goes hand-in-hand with the struggle against capitalist domination, neocolonialism, white and caste supremacy, and environmental degradation. I take The Right to Sex to be a contribution to this endeavor. In it, I draw heavily on the work of Black, queer, and socialist feminists not just, as Vijayakumar suggests, to “complicate” arguments but to make them. That I also engage with many of the figures who appear on the “standard Euro-American second-wave syllabus” doesn’t mean that they are my sole or indeed primary influence.
Likewise, I don’t take my students’ testimony to be evidence, so much as a re-entry point into old feminist conversations about pornography; indeed, I dispute what I call my students’ “heightened sense of porn’s power.” And it is possible, or so I would hope, to think about porn consumption while also thinking about its means of production, which is why I discuss and draw on the work of sex workers in the book, including Sonya Aragon, Stoya, Candida Royalle, Shine Louise Houston, Molly Smith and Juno Mac, Melissa Gira Grant, and the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee. (Unfortunately, Heather Berg’s fantastic book, Porn Work, to which Vijayakumar links above, was not published when I was writing my book. I also direct readers to the wonderful Sex Worker Syllabus and Toolkit for Academics created by Berg, together with Angela Jones and PJ Patella-Rey.)
I’m grateful for Suzannah Weiss’s call for a more complex, ambivalent feminism – one that, as she says, doesn’t say things that condense neatly into a tweet. For Weiss, that means we need the “constant critical examination” that is offered by academic feminism. While it is true that critical examination is the lifeblood of the academy, I think it would be a shame – not that Weiss is advocating this – were complexity to become the sole purview of the academy. Indeed, the most scratchy, thicketty, challenging feminism – the best kind! – has historically been produced outside the academy. And that’s still often true today. Indeed, two examples from some of the great sex worker writers I mention above: Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes and Sonya Aragon’s “Whores At The End of the World.”New forms of intimate life are made possible by, and must go hand in hand with, transformations in our most basic material realities.Click To Tweet
Rafia Zakaria suggests that the political critique of sexual desire I offer in The Right to Sex might be profitably extended to other areas of the “personal sphere,” and I agree. In a forthcoming review of my book in Studies in Philosophy and Education, Jeff Frank makes just this point in relation to the classroom: what should teachers do about the fact that they are drawn to some students and not others, sometimes because of broader political forces that shape modes of identification, empathy, and attraction? The British Asian music critic Neil Kulkarni has a fantastic piece on the racial politics of musical “taste,” occasioned by the public outcry after it was announced that Kanye would be headlining Glastonbury 2015. Similarly, Zakaria draws a connection to the question of how “relatable” white women find women of color. Again, the apparently personal – here, the intimate realm of friendship – is revealed as partly structured by politics. This is all worth recognizing. At the same time, as I repeatedly warn in The Right to Sex, feminists must not allow the critique of the interpersonal to become the whole of feminism. Racism is not overcome by having more friends of color, even if intimate segregation is a symptom of racism. And patriarchy is not overthrown by political lesbianism or separatism, even if much straight sex plays out a misogynistic script. New forms of intimate life are made possible by, and must go hand in hand with, transformations in our most basic material realities.
Amia Srinivasan is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford. She works on topics in political philosophy, epistemology, the history and theory of feminism, and metaphilosophy. She has recently written about anger in politics, political epistemology, no platforming, and Title IX and the ethics of pedagogy. Her current book project, on the practice of critical genealogy, is entitled “The Contingent World: Genealogy, Epistemology, Politics.” Her academic work has been published in The Philosophical Review, Journal of Political Philosophy, Yale Law Journal, The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, and Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, among other places. She is a contributing editor of the London Review of Books, and her essays and criticism have also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, the Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, The New York Times, The Financial Times, New York Magazine, and TANK. She tweets, occasionally, from @amiasrinivasan.