If the conversation is only about consent, what do we do with the politics of desire?
By Bri Lee in The Monthly
Philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s essays consider incels, consent and sexual discrimination
When 22-year-old Elliot Rodger was part-way through his California killing spree on May 23, 2014, he took a break to go to Starbucks, order a coffee, upload a video titled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution” to his YouTube channel, and email a 107,000-word document titled “My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodger” to a number of people, including his parents and therapist. Then he continued killing before dying by suicide. By the end of the night, six people — plus Rodger himself — were dead, and 14 were seriously injured.
The document he sent off has come to be referred to as his “manifesto” and, together with the video, provided the world with something that many considered to be the extreme but natural endpoint of rape culture. The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague published an opinion piece by sociologist Alex DiBranco describing the killings as an act of “male supremacist terrorism”. Rodger described himself as an “incel”, meaning he was “involuntarily celibate”. I envy you if you’ve not yet encountered this self-defining subculture of men who mostly congregate online to aggressively complain about the injustice of women depriving them of sex. In his manifesto, Rodger describes a privileged and happy childhood, and then explains: “All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life amongst humanity, but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me.” When we read about Rodger wanting to “punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex”, what many of us heard was textbook male entitlement and misogyny dialled up to 11.
In 2018, philosopher Amia Srinivasan published an essay in the London Review of Books titled “The Right to Sex” (now titled “Does anyone have the right to sex?” online). It won several awards and catapulted Srinivasan from famous-in-Oxford to famous-in-the-writing-world. I found it revelatory. In a sea of hot takes responding to Rodger’s words and actions with understandably righteous outrage, Srinivasan’s approach was one of firm and serious probing. One of the core questions it asks is: if nobody is entitled to sex, and individual choice is the paramount consideration for each sexual interaction, how do we make sense of the fact that some people are discriminated against to the extent that they are denied affection and intimacy? What is the middle zone in which we grapple with how our preferences are shaped by social and cultural forces? If the conversation is only about consent, what do we do with the politics of desire?
Her first book, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, is a collection of six essays, including an edited version of that excellent piece from 2018. Srinivasan went from undergrad at Yale to a Rhodes Scholarship, and then won one of the most competitive and prestigious fellowships at All Souls College, at Oxford. In 2020, when aged just 35, she took up a tenured position there as Chichele professor of social and political theory. She has described The Right to Sex as “a set of feminist essays — on desire, power, porn, freedom, capitalism, carceralism, campus sex — that reaches back to an older feminist tradition while trying to say something new”. The claim to the former is a slam dunk — Srinivasan’s grasp on the arguments and movements of her forebears is spectacular. Her ability to explain complex concepts and issues simply makes the reader’s job both easy and enjoyable. But this is unsurprising. What I’m more interested in is whether Srinivasan manages the latter — what “new” things is she saying?
Much of Rodger’s obsession about the hierarchy of sexual appeal was racially based and he himself was biracial. Srinivasan describes him as “half white and half Malaysian Chinese”. Something that made him exceptionally angry was the example he gave of a “white girl” being intimate with a “black boy” rather than him: “I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves.” Rodger targeted the “hottest sorority” of the college near him. The word “blonde” appears in his manifesto 62 times.
Srinivasan’s willingness and ability to examine what we mean by “fuckability” is crucial. It’s a term most prominent in the dating app arena but which has undeniably spread into wider culture, describing who is and isn’t considered sexually desirable: “NO DICKS, NO FEMS, NO FATS, NO BLACKS, NO ARABS, NO RICE NO SPICE”, et cetera. Srinivasan cites an example from the web series What the Flip?, in which an East-Asian man and a Caucasian man swap profiles on the queer dating app Grindr to see whether it affects who responds to them, and “the results are predictably grim”. How can groups of people who have been historically excluded from the “fuckable” category, on the basis of an aspect of their identity, draw attention to the prejudice they face without accusing people of “depriving” them of sex? If our conversations about sex being “okay” or “not okay” only extend to the question of consent, we are ignoring some crucial context.
Another recent nonfiction release relevant to these questions is Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent by Katherine Angel. The British academic questions our reliance on consent as the solution to the problem of sexual violence and unwanted/painful/bad sex. It’s unfair and an oversimplification to tell women they must be better at communicating what they do and don’t want. It keeps women in the position of sexual gatekeeper, forcing them to achieve some artificial standard of self-knowledge and confidence before they are allowed to engage in sexual activity. As well as this, women typically get punished for expressing their sexual desires. In terms of the progression of the consent movement, “no means no” definitely had its limitations, but it would be a mistake to think “yes means yes” will solve all our problems too. Consent is “being asked to bear too great a burden,” Angel says, “to address problems it is not equipped to resolve”.
Srinivasan leverages the weight of the philosophical and academic tradition against contemporary culture’s treatment of consent as the central ethical consideration. She also frequently draws on class analysis:
Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic: it is instead merely wanted or unwanted. In this sense, the norms of sex are like the norms of capitalist free exchange. What matters is not what conditions give rise to the dynamics of supply and demand — why some people need to sell their labour while others buy it — but only that both buyer and seller have agreed to the transfer.
She acknowledges that “generations of feminists and gay and lesbian activists have fought hard to free sex from shame, stigma, coercion, abuse, and unwanted pain”, but is resolutely sceptical: “it would be disingenuous to make nothing of the convergence, however unintentional, between sex positivity and liberalism in their shared reluctance to interrogate the formation of our desires.”
One risk (of many, which the author acknowledges) in even posing questions like this is their potential to undermine the “born this way” rhetoric that has been so crucial to the assertion of queer and transgender rights. What do we do, for example, with the fact that many people express an absolute refusal to be intimate with transgender people, claiming not to desire them as sexual partners, and that this is undeniably connected to the more widespread prejudice and hatred the trans community faces in society and life? We cannot, of course, tell people whom they should want to have sex with. When the power to dictate desire is exercised, it usually causes terrible harm. Forced marriage, gay conversion therapy and many other interventions have proven this (with the exception of a near-universal prohibition on paedophilia). The closest thing Srinivasan gives us to a “conclusion” to this essay, and the “ambivalent space” it asks us to think within, is an encouragement to try to be more creative with our desires, to let ourselves be surprised by what might happen if we try harder to switch off the “fuckability” filters all around us.
What follows the “Right to Sex” essay in the book is a “Coda” of 85 numbered segments, some single sentences, some long paragraphs, that variously add to the original essay or address other people’s responses to it. This includes Srinivasan unnecessarily stooping to defend her position against people on Twitter who had wilfully misinterpreted (or perhaps not even read) the original essay. It’s a hit-and-miss format, although she does include one “arresting email” from “a man in Sydney — a multicultural city in a country notorious for its racism”. Born in Sri Lanka and adopted by white parents, he was “profoundly lonely”, as were his other Asian friends, and he gave many examples of the prejudice they faced when dating: “I certainly don’t feel the right to Sex, nor do I feel the right to Love. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. I suppose I have the right to feel hurt.” Examples such as this, as well as things Srinivasan’s students and friends tell her, lend an intimate and emotional counterpoint to the intellectual rigour in the rest of the work.
In the preface, Srinivasan writes that some of the essays are “adamant” while others are “ambivalent”, warning the reader that they “do not offer a home”. She maintains that a critical component of the original idea of intersectional feminism, which has been lost in its adoption by the mainstream, is that “a truly inclusionary politics is an uncomfortable, unsafe politics”. Inevitably when feminists try to unite under a single banner, the collateral damage is any kind of identity or experience that might “trouble the domestic idyll”. In other words: a feminism that only focuses on the common experiences of women (sex) and excludes the others (ability, race et cetera) will be shit.
The book’s opening essay, “The Conspiracy Against Men” will be received with gratitude and relief by people who are constantly having to explain to people that the #MeToo movement isn’t unfairly ruining men’s lives. Its insights into racist policing are also obviously pertinent to the Australian context:
Well-off white men instinctively and correctly trust that the legal justice system will take care of them: will not plant drugs on them, will not gun them down and later claim to have seen a weapon, will not harass them for walking in a neighbourhood where they “don’t belong”, will give them a pass for carrying that gram of cocaine or bag of weed. But in the case of rape, well-off white men worry that the growing demand that women be believed will cut against their right to be shielded from the prejudices of the law.
Srinivasan eviscerates the letter US college student Brock Turner’s father wrote for his son’s sentencing for three counts of sexual assault — “this is the way you talk about a golden retriever, not an adult human” — and is similarly scathing of those who leant their weight and support to Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh. These are easy targets, but drawing on examples from New Delhi to New York, Srinivasan is also willing to wade into the difficult waters of “Believe women” being a blunt tool: believe which women and their allegations against which men?
In this essay we are also asked, in the context of how much terrible sex exists that isn’t necessarily assault, “How do we formulate a regulation that prohibits the sort of sex that is produced by patriarchy?” Srinivasan suggests the answer to this question is that “the law is simply the wrong tool for the job”.
It is interesting, then, that the essay on carceral feminism, “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism” appears last, when it provides such a valuable flow-on from the opening work. “The problem,” Srinivasan writes, about turning to the coercive power of the police, courts and prisons to achieve gender justice, “is that carceral ‘solutions’ tend to make things worse for the women who are already worst off.” For anyone seeking to understand “what to do with the rapists” if we “get rid of the cops”, this essay is a fantastic explainer of the historical background and modern-day iterations of abolitionist thinking.
In the Australian context this debate is happening right now, and with huge consequences: most states and territories are on the path to criminalising coercive control as a way of responding to domestic and family abuse. Many voices from marginalised communities — in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics and activists — argue that more police and more laws isn’t the way forward. Certain groups of women are particularly susceptible to gendered violence, and they are at risk due to poverty and racism as much as sexism, so more cops will mean more arrests, often of women, and the removal of people from their communities. In Australia it seems much easier to pass new laws making things illegal than it is to get the police to commit to anti-racism or anti-sexism training and reform programs. In a country of cashless debit cards, working towards fewer police and more holistic support systems — moving towards self-determination — is made all the more difficult by carceral political movements with “progressive” credentials. As Srinivasan warns, with ample historical examples, “Once you have started up the carceral machine, you cannot pick and choose whom it will mow down.”
Elsewhere in the carceral essay, she exhumes the age-old debate about sex work. There is a large contingent of feminists who believe that sex work is inherently anti-feminist. There is a wealth of evidence proving that criminalising the worker or client in any way, to any degree, makes it more dangerous for the sex workers themselves. Srinivasan suggests that in their desire to “punish men”, people who want to criminalise sex work end up punishing women, saying it comes down to “the choice between making life better for the women who sell sex now, and bringing into existence a world in which sex is no longer bought and sold”. Are we still limited to this dichotomy? A utopian vision not on offer here is one in which sex work is legal, safe and not particularly gendered. That would be a more interesting thought experiment: what do we know about men who do sex work, and is it safe and lucrative, and how do the feminist texts explain this? And do people want to “punish” women who purchase sex? If we have debunked the dumb idea that “men want sex more than women”, what does a future look like in which brothels are gender-neutral?
A sense that emerges gradually through The Right to Sex is that Srinivasan is reticent to make explicit recommendations. This is both its strength and its weakness. In an essay reviewing a book about “effective altruism” for the London Review of Books in 2015, Srinivasan wrote, “Philosophers may talk about justice or rights, but they don’t often try to reshape the world according to their ideals. Maybe that’s for the best.” The philosopher, in other words, is not necessarily an activist. Fair enough. Srinivasan is a phenomenal philosopher, but while she has written elsewhere about joining strikes for employment conditions, she appears more wary of stepping into the role of activist in the gender politics arena. It seemed a little jarring, though, when she cites Angela Davis’s abolitionist writings from 1971 when Davis was “in a Martin County jail awaiting trial on charges of helping to arm black activists”; Davis was both activist and philosopher. The opening lines of The Right to Sex are: “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.” Throughout these essays the author cites the manifestos and demands of various collectives and conferences through decades and across continents.
Perhaps there is a risk of being labelled didactic if an author-philosopher makes concrete suggestions for change, but Srinivasan’s essay “On Not Sleeping With Your Students” makes various compelling and clear arguments that would support a blanket ban on teacher–student sexual relations, then stops short of saying “they must be banned and this is how”. As a collection of essays this book is strong: entertaining, enraging, enlightening, all of it. The author is under no obligation to offer pragmatic solutions, but I wish she would.
What feels frustrating to both reader and author (Srinivasan comments on “how much was left unchanged” after the sexual revolution, for example) is the sheer volume of literature being released, year upon year, that promises to lead us to better understandings about the problems of sex and power, without seeming to make much of a difference to the way real, actual human beings out in the world live. So often I close the final page of a new release and think, Okay, so what do we do? We need to find the right words to name our problems, yes, and to imagine a utopia in order to take steps towards it, sure, but what are the steps?
Perhaps, then, the strength of work like this is the lighting of a fire in the belly, the continuation of a difficult and nuanced conversation that is too often subject to the bait and switch of corporate, white feminism. Srinivasan’s essays deepen our appreciation of the historical connection between anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal action. They also confirm much of what makes me uncomfortable about carceral responses to gendered and sexual violence, and remind me that “consent” is a great answer but not to every question. Perhaps, then, it’s up to us to start taking the steps. My explicit recommendation, for what it’s worth, is to begin by reading this book.