The Right to Sex: A Q&A with Amia Srinivasan

Photography by: Christine Baker

Is sex political? In her new book, philosopher Amia Srinivasan explores the politics and ethics of sex and to whom it is owed. The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century is a collection of essays that address various topics, including Title IX and consent, the ethics of professor-student relationships, the role of pornography in shaping sexual expectations and desires, and the criminalization of sex work.

Srinivasan, the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford, recently shared insights about her new book at Stanford as part of her Wesson Lecture on Problems of Democracy. These lectures are endowed by the late Robert Wesson, a political scientist and Hoover Institute Fellow who studied Soviet society. Dr. Wesson hoped that these lectures would help students, scholars and community members think through important public issues.

The McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society corresponded with Srinivasan over email about sex, consent, and feminism. An edited version appears below.

When did you become interested in feminism?

In graduate school. I hadn’t taken any classes on feminism as an undergraduate at Yale. In fact, I barely read any texts by women as an undergrad. The same was true as a graduate student in philosophy at Oxford, though by then I had a growing sense that feminism was something I wanted to theoretically engage with. A pivotal moment was when my best friend, also then a philosophy grad student, handed me a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and said: ‘Here, I think it’s about time we read this’.

Your book grew out of an essay, “The Right to Sex?”, that you published in the London Review of Booksin 2018. Could you explain the essay?

The essay begins with the case of Elliot Rodger, the self-described ‘incel’ who in 2014 went on a murderous rampage motivated, Rodger explained, by a desire to enact revenge on women for their supposed refusal to desire and love him. In response, mainstream feminists pointed out that no woman was obliged to have sex with Rodger, and that Rodger was the embodiment of misogynistic entitlement. This was surely correct. But what struck me about this response was its apparent disinterest concerning Rodger’s claims to having been marginalized on the basis of his race – Rodger was of mixed white and East Asian heritage – introversion and lack of stereotypical masculinity. This self-diagnosis was no doubt mistaken – at the least, Rodger’s homicidal rage should tell us that his social marginalisation was overdetermined.

Rodger’s diagnosis was also self-serving: while lamenting his own loneliness, Rodger enforced a strict hierarchy of female desirability – according to which only conventionally attractive white women were worth his attention – as well as a strict racial hierarchy, according to which he was more deserving of women’s attentions than black men. But, I argue in the essay, the kind of diagnosis Rodger offered, in which racism and the norms of heteromasculinity placed him beyond desirability, need not in principle be wrong. Racism and heteromasculinity – as well as ableism, classism, ageism, and other structures of oppression – do extend into the sphere of desire.

What should feminists have to say about this?

In the essay I argue that a truly intersectional feminism must embrace the political critique of desire exhorted by many of the feminists of the second wave, while avoiding that tradition’s tendency towards moral authoritarianism – towards, that is, an insistence that individual women must bring their personal practices into conformity with their political principles. The task, then, is to interrogate the political formation of desire without embracing moral authoritarianism, and while denying the logic of sexual entitlement.

In your recent Wesson Lecture, you state that in order to grasp sex in all its complexity – its deep ambivalences, its relationship to gender, class, race and power – we need to move beyond 'yes and no', wanted and unwanted. Could you elaborate?

In many quarters, the contemporary common sense is that sex is morally unproblematic so long as it is consensual. But it’s not at all clear that this is true. Above I gave the example of how racism shapes hierarchies of sexual and romantic desirability. Another example I discuss in the book is professor-student sex. I argue that the problem with many instances of professor-student sex is not (as most argue) that students are incapable of consenting to sex with their professors, but rather that sleeping with your students constitutes a failure of good teaching. In the best case, the teacher-student relationship arouses in the student a strong desire. That desire is the lifeblood of the classroom, and it is the teacher’s duty, as Plato suggested, to direct it toward its proper object: learning. The teacher who allows his student’s desire to settle on him as an object, or who worse, actively makes himself the object of her desire, has failed in his role as a teacher.

What’s more, in the most common cases of professor-student sex – that is, between male professors and female students – there is not only a failure of good teaching, but also a failure on the male professor’s part to resist taking advantage of an asymmetry that is produced by patriarchy. For under patriarchy, women on the whole are trained to interpret the desire they feel sparked by the male professor as a desire for the professor – a desire to possess him – rather than as a desire to be like him.

In suggesting that we should move beyond the consent paradigm, beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no’, I want to nonetheless stress the huge victory – the huge feminist victory – that is represented by the acceptance of consent as the sine qua non of ethically (and legally) problematic sex. Before feminists started to argue for the importance of consent in sex, rape was typically defined by the presence of violence or threat, which meant that cases of non-consensual sex that didn’t involve these things were seen as legally and ethically non-problematic. What’s more, as I write in the book, ‘generations of feminists and gay and lesbian activists have fought hard to free sex from shame, stigma, coercion, abuse and unwanted pain. It has been essential to this project to stress that there are limits to what can be understood about sex from the outside, that sexual acts can have private meanings that cannot be grasped from a public perspective, that there are times when we must take it on trust that a particular instance of sex is OK, even when we can’t imagine how it could be’.

As we think about ways of moving beyond consent – at least in our sexual ethics if not the law of sex – we need to find ways of doing so that don’t reinforce a reactionary ideal of the long-term, loving, monogamous couple. As Maggie Nelson argues, ‘sex positivity’ emerged against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. For feminist and queer activists of this period, the focus on consent as the sole criterion of ok sex was a way of “insisting, in the face of viciously bigoted moralists who didn’t care if you lived or died (many preferred that you died), that you have every right to your life force and sexual expression, even when the culture was telling you that your desire was a death warrant.”

In thinking about our sexual desires as political, are there tensions that arise when we contemplate what to do about them?

Absolutely. This is a major theme of the book’s title essay, and a follow-up essay called ‘Coda: The Politics of Pleasure’. One wants to find a way of engaging in a political critique of desire without participating in an authoritarian moralism that alienates people, that encourages a navel-gazing purity politics, or that fuels sexual entitlement.

I’m curious about your experience finding feminist mentors in academia. Tensions between feminists from different generations are evident in your book and its reception by the public. Did you find support from more senior feminist scholars in your field despite these tensions?

As it happens, I didn’t have any feminist mentors, or indeed any women mentors. I could have – I know plenty of extremely generous and intellectually open older women academics – but I just didn’t. Both my doctoral supervisors – John Hawthorne and Timothy Williamson – were men, and fantastically supportive. I owe my career to them. Tim in particular has a long history of supervising and supporting women philosophers; I don’t think he ‘identifies’ as a feminist, but his instincts are in an important sense deeply feminist.

In The Right to Sex, you write, “Feminism is not a philosophy, or a theory, or even a point of view. It is a political movement to transform the world beyond recognition.” With this in mind, how do you feel about the future of feminism?

The left in general is in peril; we are seeing the rise of extreme right-wing parties all over the world, unionization in advanced capitalist countries is at a historic low, and of course we are facing down an unprecedented ecological crisis. Still, there are feminist movements across the world that give me hope, for example Ni Una Menos in Latin America and the Polish Women's Strike. The feminists involved in these movements see the fight against capitalist exploitation and environmental degradation as central to any feminism worth having. In that regard, U.S. feminism, with its implicit focus on middle-class women, has a lot of work to do.