Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex
“It is absurd to contend that vice, ecstasy, and passion would become impossible if man and woman were concretely peers” (xiii). ~ Simone de Beauvoir
Amia Srinivasan’s book rivals Kate Manne’s fantastic Down Girl in the most exciting way. It’s an absolute must read for anyone hoping to improve themselves and the world as we’re led incrementally through issues around sexual tensions and traumas all with an intersectional lens. This is a collection of five essays that, she explains, “represent my attempt to put into words what many women, and some men, already know. This has already been the way of feminism: women working collectively to articulate the unsaid, the formerly unsayable” (xv). I mainly focus on the first and final essays, with the others laying further evidence for the primary argument.
THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST MEN
She starts by looking at the 8% of sexual assault reports that have been classified as false based on a police officer’s personal judgment.
“Police officers were inclined to consider a report false if there hadn’t been a physical struggle, if no weapon had been involved, or if the accuser had had a prior relationship with the accused. [Of the suspected false reports] none resulted in wrongful conviction. . . . Nonetheless, a false rape accusation, like a plane crash, is an objectively unusual event that occupies an outsized place in the public imagination. why then does it carry its cultural charge? . . . Many, perhaps most, wrongful convictions of rape result from false accusations levied against men by other men: by cops and prosecutors, overwhelmingly male, intent on pinning an actual rape on the wrong suspect. . . . Over half of their cases involved ‘official misconduct’” (3–4).
Official misconduct applies when police coach a false victim or coach to get a false witness identification. We have a mythology around false accusations as we picture a vindictive ex or employee out to destroy a man’s life, but that doesn’t hold water when we look case by case. Then she looks specifically at the case of Emmett Till: “There is no registry that details the uses of false rape accusations as a tactic of colonial rule” (5). Drumming up false allegations is one tool men use to control other men.
When it comes to actual cases, that’s when men with power get worried. “Well-off white men instinctively and correctly trust that the legal justice system will take care of them” (6), but more recent calls for women to be believed have put a limit on their freedom to override the law — and basic morality. “The rules that have really changed for men like Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, John Hockenberry, and many others like them is that they can no longer be confident that when they ignore the shouts and silences of the women they demean, no consequences will follow” (22). But that’s clearly not enough.
In the Kavanaugh case, Ford’s testimony put her on the outside of the tight-knit world of the wealthy: “What Kavanaugh calls ‘friendship’ — was the solidarity of rich white people” (9). But other friends in the legal system served him well. It feel like not much has change since Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas in 1991 despite the calls to believe women:
“The presumption of innocence is a legal principle: it answers to our sense that it is worse, all else being equal, for the law to wrongly punish than to wrongly exonerate. . . . Against this prejudicial enforcement of the presumption of innocence, ‘Believe women’ is not an injunction to abandon this legal principle, but a political response to what we suspect will be an uneven application. . . . ‘Believe women’ operates as a corrective norm, a gesture of support for those people — women — whom the law tends to treat as if they were lying. The dismissal of ‘Believe women’ as an abandonment of the presumption of innocence is a category error in a second sense. The presumption of innocence does not tell us what to believe. It tells us how guilt is to be established by the law: that is, by a process that deliberately stacks the deck in favor of the accused” (9–10).
And that deck is stacked even higher when women are racialized or poor:
“Black women suffer disproportionately from police harassment and sexual assault, forced separation from their children, and routine disbelief and abuse when reporting domestic violence” (14). “Dalit and ‘low-caste’ women in India are figured as sexually promiscuous and thus unrapeable. No one has been put on trial for Delta Meghwal’s rape and murder. . . . The police, who denied the report, burned the young woman’s body in the middle of the night over the protests of her family” (16).
EXCEPT when we scrutinize racial and class data subsets of the accused, and then the accused is far more likely to be penalized, which adds a layer of complexity to the issue that must be addressed:
“At Colgate University, an elite liberal arts college in upstate New York, only 4.2% of the student body was black during the 2013–14 academic year; and yet 50% of accusations of sexual violation that year were against black students. Does ‘Believe women’ serve justice at Colgate?” (11).
The term “Intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (who also named “Critical Race Theory”), to posit the importance of looking at the variations within any data set that are due to race, class, gender, etc., because any rule or system has a tendency to always serve those who are most privileged and leave those most in need out in the cold. People in power make the rules work in their favour. It could just be a natural drive, no different from anyone else except that they are able to make it work, but regardless, that level of power has to be kept in check. Then Srinivasan gets to this pivotal point where her thesis begins to show itself:
“As Catharine MacKinnon has pointed out, affirmative consent laws simply shift the goalposts on what constitutes legally acceptable sex: whereas previously men had to stop when women said no, now they just have to get women to say yes. How do we formulate a regulation that prohibits the sort of sex that is produced by patriarchy? Could the reason that this question is so hard to answer be that the law is simply the wrong tool for the job?” (29).
Jail is an outcome that victims don’t always appear to want — particularly domestic abuse victims because they have families to support or because they fear even worse retaliation later or from other family members or both. Is there a better way to approach relational violence?
TALKING TO MY STUDENTS ABOUT PORN
Srinivasan was surprised to find that many of her university students have objections to pornography, seeing it as one reason for sexual violence. In my philosophy course, we spend a unit on Love, Sex, & Friendship, and yearly polls and discussed give me the opposite impression, yet I’m also always surprised. Most of my students, each year, legitimize porn as opening doors to creative sexuality, or, at the very least, see it as a necessary evil. I argue against that position and might quietly sway a few around what sex could be like without porn.
Srinivasan has several argument against pornography in general:
“Porn, for MacKinnon and other anti-porn feminists, was a machine for the production and reproduction of an ideology which, by eroticizing women’s subordination, thereby made it real” (38). “In one study of sorority members, the women who watched porn were less likely to intervene when they saw other women being sexually assaulted” (43). “It shuts down the sexual imagination, making it weak, dependent, lazy, codified” (70).
Porn as a normative standard for sex can make it feel like people are doing it wrong, or worse, it has the potential to provoke harm. She compares it to training a dog to attack people: “Why are things different for men who, by creating porn, order attacks on women?” (54).
BUT, like we saw in the previous essay, any laws created to stop it end up harming the most oppressed. When, in 1992, Canada’s Supreme Court tightened up restrictions, the only effect was a seizure of lesbian erotic fiction from an LGBTQ+ bookstore.
And, again, it’s so much worse for racialized women:
“Alice Walker wrote that the ‘ancient roots of modern pornography are to be found in the almost always pornographic treatment of black women who, from the moment they entered slavery . . . were subjected to rape as the ‘logical’ convergence of sex and violence” (39).
And for poor women, it’s not just pornography that harms, but the way the legal system addresses the sex trade:
“In 2020, mass unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic brought tens of thousands of new performers into the porn industry via cam sites . . . The A-based cam site IsMyGirl offered McDonald’s employees, who were set to be fired without sick pay, a special deal. . . . But would the tens of thousands of recently unemployed, homeless women with no health insurance who have turned to porn be better off if they were also breaking the law? Whatever the law says, porn is going to be made bought, and sold. What should matter most to feminists is not what the law says about porn, but what the law does for and to the women who work in it. . . . The ones hurt most by criminalizing the sale of sex are the women who already exist at the margins of society” (61–2).
Once again, the legal system doesn’t appear to be the venue for addressing this problem. It doesn’t have solutions that address the complexity of the issue as it affects the marginalized in society.
THE RIGHT TO SEX
Srinivasan points out that Elliot Rogers was bullied by boys, but attacked girls in a classic displacement defense mechanism. There are plenty of non-homicidal nerdy guys who can’t get laid. “Indeed, part of the injustice of patriarchy, something unnoticed by incels and other ‘men’s rights activists,’ is the way it makes even supposedly unattractive categories of men attractive: geeks, nerds, effete men, old men, men with ‘dad bods.’ Meanwhile there are sexy schoolgirls and sexy teachers, manic pixie dream girls and MILFs, but they’re all taut-bodied and hot, minor variations on the same normative paradigm. (Can we imagine GQ carrying an article celebrating ‘mom bod’?)” (76). The show, Mare of Easttown, is the only exception I can think of in which a middle age belly isn’t photoshopped to perfection on the insistence of Kate Winslet.
“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 heteronormativity do extend into the sphere of romance and sex; indeed it is in this intimate sphere, protected by the logic of ‘personal preference,’ that they sink some of their deepest roots. Did feminists not have anything to say about this? . . . The task was to liberate sex from the distortions of oppression, not simply to divide it into the consensual (unproblematic) and non-consensual (problematic)” (94–5). “I am asking what might happen if we were to look at bodies, our own and others’, and allow ourselves to feel admiration, appreciation, want, where politics tells us we should not. There is a kind of discipline here, in that it requires us to quiet the voices that have spoken to us since birth. . . . While we cannot alter what does and does not turn us on, we can on the one hand displace what might be getting in the way of erotic excitement and on the other teach ourselves to eroticize what is happening in front of us during sex” (96–7).
The vital lesson here that that we must be careful 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” (101).
ON NOT SLEEPING WITH YOUR STUDENT
She explains the necessity of recognizing any sexual tension, but never acting on it, drawing on cautions from Freud, Plato, and bell hooks:
“For Freud, ‘the analyst responds but does not respond in kind.’ The analyst must not, that is, respond with either love or hostility to the analysand, and must not use the transference as a vehicle for their own emotional or physical gratification. (Freud helpfully reminds the analyst that the ‘patient’s falling in love is induced by the analystic situation and is not to be ascribed to the charms of his person.’) Instead, Freud says, the analyst must use the transference-relation as a tool in the therapeutic process. The skilled analyst does this by drawing the analysand’s attention to the transference at work, and, Freud says, ‘convinces’ her that her transference-feeling is nothing more than a projection of repressed emotion. ‘In this way,’ Freud says, ‘the transference is changed from the strongest weapon of the resistance into the best instrument of the analytic treatment . .. the most difficult as well as the most important part of the technique of analysis’” (129 — from here).
In Plato’s Republic, “‘sexual pleasure mustn’t come into’ relationships between philosopher-guardians and the young boys they are educating, ‘if they are to love and be loved in the right way’” (130 — line 403b). “bell hooks commands teachers to ask ‘How can I love these strangers, these others that I see in the classroom”’ The love hooks is referring to isn’t the exclusive, jealous, dyadic love of lovers, but something more distanced, more controlled, more open to others and the world. It is no lesser a love for that” (131).
She explains the obvious here: “Teachers must resist the temptation to allow themselves to be, or to make themselves, the receptacle of their students’ desires. . . . This sort of narcissism is the enemy of good teaching” (136).
And, again, recognizes the larger power structure concern in academic circles:
“It was the function of sexual harassment to harm women in these ways: to police and enforce their subordinate roles both as women and as workers. Is it such a stretch to think that the function, however unconscious, of the widespread practice of male professors making sexual advances on their female students is to impress on women their proper place in the university?”(139).
SEX, CARCERALISM, CAPITALISM
The final essay gets to the heart of the concerns raised throughout the book and her abolitionist stance: policing and incarceration and new laws aren’t the way to solve these types of problems. I nodded along for the rest of the book, but it was here that I shook my head at my own embarrassing ignorance as I’ve been sucked into solutions that are so clearly part of the problem. I argue against capitalism in theory, but Srinivasan clarifies the need to dismantle it in reality by obliterating capitalist solutions to the sex trade, domestic violence, financial support, and sexual assault. It’s impossible to get rid of racism without getting rid of the foundational class structure. Any working-class movement has to be anti-racist, and any anti-racist movement has to be anti-capitalist.
There are drive-thru brothels in Germany that recognize the inherent dangers faced by women in the sex trade, and they address them with practical solutions instead of legislation that keeps the problems swept under the rug:
“Its panic buttons and escape routes are a frank acknowledgement that a proportion of the clients will be violent. . . . Yet if we read the image differently — not as a symbol of the state of relations between men and women, but as a pragmatic response to it — we can perceive an impulse to make the world more livable for a particular group of women. . . The criminalization of sex work does not, on the whole, help sex workers, much less ‘save’ them. Indeed we know, because sex workers have long been telling us, that legal restrictions on sex work make their lives harder, more dangerous, more violent, and more precarious” (151–2).
And she explores the troubling contradictions of feminism that makes life worse for sex workers:
“Anti-prostitution feminists, who are as a rule not themselves sex workers, maintain the fantasy that there is no choice to be made here: that there is a satisfying convergence between the punishment of men who indulge their patriarchal entitlement and the welfare of the worst-off women. In so doing, they forget Max Weber’s warning that to do politics is to enter ‘into relations with the satanic powers that lurk in every act of violence.’ For sex workers themselves, the choice between men’s punishment and their own survival is all too clear” (153). “So long as women need money to pay their bills and feed their children, so long as sex work is better than the available alternatives, and so long as women’s subordination is eroticized, there will be prostitution” (155).
It’s only “through the political recognition of sex workers as workers — in need of legal protection rather than censure or salvation — that they will be empowered to refuse the sex they don’t want to have” (156). Some feminists seek out a housework wage for women to allow them to be home with the kids, but, in the words of Angela Davis, that’s “at the cost of further entrenching their role as domestic laborers” (156). Making housework more bearable with a wage just furthers the capitalist sexism at work instead of undoing that socialization.
It’s not enough to reform the system; we need revolutionary abolitionism. This means setting the “groundwork for the undoing of a system of domination, and which only secure the grip of that system by relieving its most egregious symptoms. . . . It is a demand not just for a ‘thing’ (money) but moreover for the power to remake social relations” (157). Decriminalization of sex work is reformist in that it, “marginally improves the lives of sex workers while shoring up both patriarchy and the neoliberal commodification of sex. . . . Any reform whatsoever . . . may be emptied of its revolutionary significance and re-absorbed by capitalism” (158). We won’t get anywhere with carceral feminism: “a politics that looks to the coercive power of the state — police, criminal courts, prisons — to achieve gender justice. . . . the problem, as the particular case of sex work shows, is that carceral ‘solutions’ tend to make things worse for the women who are already worst off” (159).
This is also true in domestic abuse cases. This was most provocative to me because, until reading this, I had been an advocate of mandatory arrest when police arrive at the scene. My understanding was that it helps to take the responsibility to dole out punishment out of the hands of the victim, but I missed the obvious: that it also, then, removes any agency. Srinivasan explains that mandatory arrest, “increased the incidence of domestic violence against women of colour. Numerous studies have shown that retaliatory violence after arrest is linked with poverty, unemployment, and drug and alcohol use. . . . The world over, male joblessness is linked with domestic violence against women” (160–1). If the problem starts with poverty, then the solution of caging the poor is not the right answer. Once again, this solution is born from a lens that focused on scenarios involving the wealthy and white, as bell hooks explained in 1984: “Middle-class white women were able to make their interests the primary focus of the feminist movement and employ a rhetoric of commonality that made their condition synonymous with ‘oppression’” (161).
“But it is precisely those forms of harm that are not common to all women — those from which some women, by virtue of their wealth, race, citizenship status or caste, are insulted — that are the most grievous to the women to suffer them. . . . The belief that a sex worker will be helped by the criminalization of her trade rests on the assumption that she has other choices. . . . The carceral approach also neglects the more than half a million women worldwide who are themselves incarcerated — and subject, in prison, to sexual abuse, violence, humiliation, forced sterilization, and the loss of their children. . . . When feminists embrace carceral solutions it give cover to the governing class in its refusal to tackle the deepest causes of most crime: poverty, racial domination, borders, caste” (162–3).
Too many white feminist activists have fought to bring women of colour into the folds of capitalism instead of seeing the problems as inseparable from the inherent dominance and hierarchical order of the capitalist system:
“The ambitions of socialist and anti-colonial feminists to create a new world order, in which women’s emancipation would go hand in hand with economic justice, gave way to a new priority: to bring the world’s women into the global capitalist economy. . . . The most important tool in this assimilationist protect was microfinance: the extension of credit to the poor women of the world. It didn’t register that what poor women said they needed was more public provision — water, electricity, and sanitation. . . . Economic development . . . has become women’s worst enemy” (167).
And then there’s the whole #MeToo movement, which feels like it united women everywhere against the dangers of sexual predators. But,
“The problem with MeToo as a mass women’s movement isn’t just a lack of ‘consistent’ application of concern and outrage across racial lines. It’s fundamental problem is the presupposition that any such movement must be grounded in what women have universally in common. Sexual harassment is a reality for working women. But for many women, being sexually harassed is not the worst things about their jobs. . . . When these women are sexually harassed, it only underscores the misery of their low-wage, precarious work” (170).
Not to mention the fact that the most common complaint about police is sexual misconduct (177). Because here’s the thing:
“The feminists of MeToo appear, on the whole, to have a great deal of faith in the coercive powers of the state. . . . Once you have started up the carceral machine, you cannot pick and choose whom it will mow down. Feminism’s embrace of carceralism, like it or not, gives progressive cover to a system whose function is to prevent a political reckoning with material inequality. . . . The question — ‘If not the police, then who?’ — also betrays a misunderstanding of the abolitionist tradition. . . . Abolitionists see that carceral practices substitute control for provision: that ‘criminalisation and cages’ serve as ‘catchall solutions to social problems’” (170–2).
What would it look like to meet the crisis head-on?? More than just decriminialization of drug use and sex work, we need to restructure the economic relations to make crimes of survival unnecessary. It’s the economic systems that produce interpersonal violence, so solutions must involve dismantling the inequality through public housing, health care, education, childcare, decent jobs, guaranteed basic income, democratic control of community funds, clean air and water, and space for leisure, play, and social gathering with a justice system that seeks to repair relationships and heal communities (172).
“Carceralism works as a cover for the deprivations of racial capitalism . . . Implicit in the call to ‘defund the police,’ then, is the demand for a massive redistribution of wealthy and power from the rich to the poor. . . . [It] doesn’t seek genuine equality but “proportional inequality” — representation of people of colour at each level of a hierarchical system — instead of seeking genuine equity. “leaving its underlying logic — that some people must sell their labor to survive — untouched” (172–3).
She sites the example of Jeff Bezos ignoring the plight of poorest employees forced to urinate in bottles while they work, but honoured Juneteenth by cancelling corporate meetings for the day (174). And then shows how the recent pandemic has clarified the divisions of labour:
“Increasingly, in advanced capitalist countries, women’s work, the work of social care (cleaning, nursing, feeding, child-rearing, teaching the young, tending to the old), is now bought and sold” . . . The Covid-19 pandemic has given a stark demonstration of how the patriarchal ideology of the self-sufficient nuclear family entraps not only women but men in lives that are deemed, in that contradiction of contemporary capitalism, at once ‘essential’ and disposable. . . . Ultimately the only demand which is not co-optable is the armed population demanding the end of capitalism” (175–6).
“Sexual violence is indeed partly a function of [economic and political oppression]: racial domination, economic inequality, and deficits in democracy are all predictors for high rates of sexual assault. . . . But the reasons underemployed and hopeless men turn their aggression on women are not exhausted by economic forces. . . . So long as the critique of capital is made in terms of economic relations alone, it will never fully account for, or remedy, sexual violence. A full critique of capital must see gendered subordination as an essential aspect of the broader capitalist system. . . . Otherwise, an anti-capitalist politics threatens to abandon women to civil society. . . . Theorists and practitioners of feminist abolitionism — often poor women of color — are building, in various places, democratic, community-based institutions to manage interpersonal violence. . . . They seek new ways of holding men accountable. . . . transform the most basic terms of engagement between women and men. . . . With new power come new difficulties and new responsibilities. . . . They must make plans for what they do when they have it (177–8).
This final warning reminds us to avoid again making the solution one that primarily serves the white and wealthy. It seems a hard thing for us to keep in mind. Hopefully these essay jolt us awake in a way that sticks so that we can work towards developing more equitable relationships.
“White lives, for the forces which rule in this country, are no more sacred than Black ones . . . the American delusion is not only that their brothers are all white but that the whites are all their brothers” (175). ~ James Baldwin