Review: Amia Srinivasan’s feminist book, “The Right to Sex”

On the shelf

The right to sex

By Amia Srinivasan
FSG: 304 pages, $ 28

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“The Right to Sex”, a collection of essays by Amia Srinivasan, feels a bit like old news. This is not a blow to Srinivasan, professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, but rather a reflection on how quickly the discourse on feminism and trans rights has developed since the author published the essay that anchors the book – “Does Someone Have a Right to sex? ”- in the London Review of Books back in 2018.

Srinivasan withdrew his title sentence in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s murderous violence in 2014, after which incels promoted a “misogynistic justification” for sex. Since then, the “right to sex” has changed from a literal definition (through issues of consent and the #MeToo movement) to a philosophy of freedom.

A concise and clear writer, Srinivasan defines his terms in useful and revealing ways. For example, “incel” or “‘involuntary celibacy’, invented by Alana, a ‘nerdy queer woman'” and blogger, in the 1990s. Not all readers may know the idea of ​​”carceral feminism”, and Srinivasan explains it well: “a policy that looks at the coercion of the state – police, criminal courts, prisons – to achieve gender justice.”

Another central concept of Srinivasan is cross-sectional Marxist feminism. She is at her strongest when they demystify it as a framework that attacks the system rather than “men” as a group. Her most provocative arguments stem from the notion that sexual politics cannot be fully explored without telling the truth about race and class. When we talk about the need to #believe women, “Who are we to believe,” Srinivasan asks, “the white woman who says she was raped, or the black or brown woman who insists that her son be created ? ” To use the murder of Emmett Till as an example: “Carolyn Bryant or Mamie Till?”

The author complicates #MeToo’s punitive impulse by noting that “a black man serving time for sexual assault is 3.5 times more likely to be innocent than a white man” with the same belief. And the white men (she takes the comedian Louis CK as an example) “do not deny the truth of the accusations against them or even the harm they caused. What they deny is that they deserve to be punished.” This question, for Srinivasan , is directly related to race and class; it is “about the possibility that the law can treat wealthy white men as it routinely treats poor black and brown men.”

Things get murky when Srinivasan goes into wishful thinking. In the chapter “Talking to My Students About Porn”, she writes, “sex for my students is what porn says it is” – a rather alarming statement. Porn is everywhere, but the argument that it has poisoned an entire generation, making it impossible for themselves to think about sex, feels too broad and poorly supported. Feminism’s attacks on porn in the 70’s and 80’s (via Robin Morgan, Andrea Dworkin and others) look joyless now. Even the concept of “sex positivity” seems dated.

Some of Srinivasan’s claims about pornography are rattling blunt: “Women also watch porn; according to PornHub, 32 percent of all users are women. (Then again, who said women can not be misogynists?) ”; “While filmed sex opens up a world of sexual possibility, all too often it closes the sexual imagination, making it weak, addicted, lazy, codified.” Who says?

The words "The right to sex" in the upper left corner, the author's name in the lower right

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Just as I was writing that Srinivasan relies too much on heteronormative ideas, her essay, “The Sex Wars: Resolving the Trans-Conflict of Feminism, ”Appeared in the New Yorker edition on September 13, answering many of my questions about her addiction to the gender binary. All the strong writing that Srinivasan shows in “The Right to Sex” is applied to a more topical and heated debate in this piece.

“Such feminists tend to be dismissive of non-binary people,” Srinivasan writes of TERFs (trans-excluding radical feminists), “which in their rejection of gender difference have a good claim to be the truest vanguard of gender abolition. ” This involvement of trans and non-binary people in a discussion of feminism is what you would expect from a book that claims to discuss feminism “in the 21st century.” Many of the points she makes in “The Right to Sex” also appear in this essay – and are used better.

In the last chapter of the book, Srinivasan returns to her strong side, the limitations of white feminism as she tackles sex work. “The belief that a sex worker will be helped by the criminalization of her trade rests on the assumption that she has other choices available to her,” she writes. “That it is prostitution rather than, for example, poverty or immigration legislation that is her fundamental problem.” Feminism fails the majority of women in the world because it is based on the privileged demands. Although #MeToo is a good start, “for many women,” Srinivasan points out a devastating effect, “sexual harassment is not the worst thing about their jobs.”

The #MeToo juggernaut will continue to resonate in 21st century feminism. But the emergence of a writer like Srinivasan asking feminists to move on is a huge gift to the discourse. Her New Yorker essay expands on the evidence she presents in “The Right to Sex,” in which feminists delay or complicate progress in their own struggles. Audre Lorde wrote in “The Cancer Journals” about the tendency of feminism to quarrel, whose experience was the most important or crucial to the group’s goals. Such arguments were symptomatic, Lorde writes, of the “endless ways in which we rob ourselves.”

It is obvious that Srinivasan is a thinker whose ideas can develop as they should. Here she is, again in the New Yorker, about the potential alliance between feminists and transgender people: “It is true that a very small percentage of people feel sufficient distress over their bodies to need hormonal or surgical intervention. It is also true that many non-trans women know something about heartache caused by a betraying body-that weighs you down with unwanted breasts and hips; that transforms you from an action agent into an object of male desire; it is in some diminishing sense not a reflection of who you really are. . . . What can a conversation between women, trans and not, look like if it started from an acknowledgment of such continuities in the experience? ”

While the struggle to define the “right to sex” rages on, one thing is for sure: Amia Srinivasan has entered the chat.

Ferris’ latest book is “Silent Cities: New York.”

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