When the philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s essay “The Right to Sex” appeared in the London Review of Books, in 2018, it garnered a level of attention not usually paid to writing by academics. From the provocative title to the bracing clarity of the content (“Sex is not a sandwich,” Srinivasan wrote), the essay’s stylistic appeal was matched by a willingness to entertain positions that had long been off the table in both feminist and mainstream discussions of sex. The piece responded to the commentary surrounding Elliot Rodger, perhaps the most famous of the so-called incels, or involuntary celibates, who in 2014 killed six people after penning a 107,000-word manifesto that railed against the women who had deprived him of sex. Many feminists were quick to read Rodger as a case study in male sexual entitlement. Fewer wanted to broach one of the manifesto’s thornier claims: that Rodger, who was half white and half Malaysian Chinese, had been denied sex because of his race. Srinivasan took Rodger’s undesirability head-on: of course, no one has a right to be desired, she wrote. But we ought to acknowledge, as second-wave feminists more readily did, that who or what is desired is a political question, subject to scrutiny.
In her debut collection of essays, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, out this month, Srinivasan extends on the LRB piece by bringing analytic precision to a range of related subjects: 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. The essays are marked by a consistent refusal to offer easy solutions to our most pressing political questions. We approach an answer, only to have Srinivasan show us another angle: yes, calls to “Believe women” offer an important corrective to the routine dismissal of women’s stories of assault and abuse. On the other hand, white women’s allegations of rape against Black men have, in this country, historically been believed, to sinister ends. Yes, the state ought to protect women from domestic violence. Must it do so by sending more men to prison?
Amia Srinivasan is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford. We spoke over Zoom in late June about second-wave feminism, the role of the state, and ambivalence as a radical approach to philosophy and politics. Our conversation, below, has been edited for length and clarity.
GK: Your book’s argument is, in part, that if we only ask whether an encounter is consensual, then we’ll fail to describe all the other ways sex—even consensual sex—can be bad for women. And this is true because even what women desire or choose has already been shaped, from the outset, by oppressive gender norms.
But you also suggest that the way out of this predicament is to hope for a desire set free from politics, a desire that, as you write, “can cut against what politics has chosen for us.” And yet the argument in the first instance was to insist that sex is never prepolitical and that desire is always, to some extent, constructed.
Is it always going to be the case that desire is conditioned by social and political forces? If so, shouldn’t our best hope be not for a desire that’s free from politics, but for a better politics?
AS: I don’t want to be a determinist. I think that there is room for an expression of voluntary agency, which creatively responds to the inherited forces that shape us.
But, look, take whatever oppressive ideology you want, whether it’s patriarchy or homophobia or racism. These aren’t actually totalizing ideologies. They never totally pull off the trick that they’re meant to pull off. And each of us has had the experience of precisely that. There’s what you’re told to believe and feel and think and how you’re told to experience things. And then there’s the piercing through of a countervailing reality.
Desire can be one of the ways that reality can pierce through politics. It’s not so much that there is a prepolitical desire and then a politics over it, it’s just that the forces that construct us are never going to be perfectly consistent. Lots of different forces construct us, and there can be creative and interesting tensions between them.
This is an experience that, for example, generations of gay people have had. They often have strongly internalized homophobic, or at least heteronormative, worldviews. And yet there’s an attraction that can come through. Now, one way of thinking about that is that there’s a natural, innate attraction, and then there’s this constructed politics on top of that. I personally don’t think that’s a very productive way of thinking about the social world. Even if you don’t want to hold on to this idea of an innate prepolitical world, there are still ambivalences and ruptures and tensions within a constructed world.
GK: But the reason we should aspire to better politics is that even just cutting against the desires that have been prescribed for us entails a certain amount of psychological harm and suffering. So it is, of course, always the case that people can desire differently. But collectively, shouldn’t we hope for a politics that overall produces less harmful desires?
AS: The goal is a politics that does not involve the domination of some people by other people. Hierarchies of desirability form one small part of broader systems of domination. I don’t really think that you can take the problem of desire on its own.
With racism, for example, we should be thinking not only about things like the material deprivation suffered by people of color. We should also understand that part of the mechanism of racism is hierarchies of desirability. The ultimate solution to that is going to be the end of racism, as such. And I don’t think you can pull out the desire piece.
But I do think there’s an interesting project that can be undertaken in one’s own case. It is not the project of trying to bring one’s desires in line with one’s politics. Rather, it is a project of just being less afraid that one might desire nonnormative things.
GK: A lot of the essays in the book reach back to the work of second-wave feminists. They, as you say, were more willing to interrogate how politics formed desire; adamant in their view of the power of porn to produce, not just reflect, a certain reality; and they didn’t look exclusively to the punitive arm of the state to address sexual violence and gender-based inequalities.
How would you narrate what went wrong in the intervening 40 years? Why is the work of second-wave feminists worth returning to today?
AS: What you had at the height of the women’s liberation movement in the US, and in the UK, in the mid ’70s was a productive ambivalence. In fact, it was much more than ambivalence. It was all-out warfare. On the one hand, you had some feminists who saw sex as a patriarchal practice, tragically shaped by the eroticism of male domination and female submission. And on the other hand, you had feminists who wanted to free sex of stigma, especially stigma around female sexuality, and who saw the anti-sex feminist critique as a way of reinforcing women’s sexual and political repression. Both sides agreed, however, on wanting to liberate sex in some fundamental sense—well beyond the “freedom” achieved by the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Taken together, you had this really complex picture of sexual politics. Because sex in its reality, sexual politics in its reality, is ambivalent. We want to say that people can desire what they want and should be able to act on their desires. That’s incredibly politically important. That’s been historically really important, for example, for the gay and lesbian rights movement. Yet, we should also want to say that who and what is desired is shaped by our politics and can be politically problematic.
So what we’ve lost in the last 40 years or so is that productive ambivalence. Instead, today, it’s mostly collapsed into a very simplified form of sex positivity. This sees consent as the sole constraint on sex, thereby moving sex out of the political realm entirely.
GK: Why is it so difficult to hold open that ambivalent space? Shouldn’t we be able to engage a political critique of desire that says, of course, there are some desires that are harmful, that are bad, without that necessarily giving rise to an excessive moralism?
AS: Theoretically, it’s not that hard to hold open that space. Where it becomes difficult is as a matter of actual practical politics.
Look at the history of second-wave feminism. The way these ideas actually played out in practice often did result in acts of authoritarian moralism, where certain women were told that because they were straight or had male partners, they weren’t really feminists or they were counterproductive to the revolution. You can also get a form of politics that is obsessively inward looking. Instead of really focusing on the question of actual social and political transformation, we just become obsessively oriented toward living a politically pure life. It’s not surprising that sex positivity became politically crucial during the rise of the New Right and the AIDS crisis—suddenly it was really important to reassert the right to consensual, especially nonnormative, sex.
GK: A thread running through the book is the limitation of the law in addressing many gender-based harms. Is the problem with relying on legislation and legal enforcement just the particular punitive systems that the law is often attached to? Or is there something more fundamentally inappropriate or inadequate about law as a tool for addressing social harm? That is, even in a future in which prisons are reformed or abolished, law might still be the wrong tool for the job.
AS: One way of asking that question, even without imagining a postcarceral future, is thinking about the civil law. You might think that the criminal law is bad for dealing with a lot of gender injustice. But there’s still the possibility of the civil law—the favorite tool of the most important feminist legal theorist, Catherine MacKinnon. I do think that there is a place for civil legislation in addressing problems like sexual harassment; harassed women should be able to sue the companies that employ harassers. I just don’t think that can ever go far enough in addressing the harms we’re interested in.
For example, you could have civil laws against domestic violence so that women could sue their husbands. But where are they going to get the money to sue their husbands? And a lot of women who are victims of domestic violence don’t even want to punish their husbands. They just want to get away from them, or they just want their husbands to not beat them. And why do men abuse their wives? For all sorts of reasons. But we do know that [abuse] rates go up with unemployment and poverty.
I’m not saying that unemployment and poverty or economic reasons more generally are the sole cause of gendered harms. They’re absolutely not. But they have a large and exacerbating role.
And so, where the law is understood as a set of constraints on what we can do, it will never generate gender equality. Because gender equality requires substantive equality. It requires material equality.
You can do that with state power. But the law, by its nature, is not the thing that’s going to do that. Certain forms of legislation could. So if you want to legislate into existence universal basic income, universal health care, better funding for schools, these are things that legislators can do. But the law specifically is, at best, an insufficient tool for achieving gender justice.
GK: The state, when it appears in your book, appears most often as a “coercive power” or “coercive apparatus.” You offer plenty of evidence of the many ways that the state has historically failed to deliver gender justice.
Yet, as you’ve just said, and at certain points in the book, you do imagine that state power can serve an emancipatory function. What role do you ultimately reserve for the state?
AS: The state I invoke is a transformed state, and it’s a radically democratized state. It’s a socialist state.
I’m not interested in the state as it already exists, captured by elites, profoundly undemocratic (taking the US and UK as my implicit examples here), redistributing some of its energies and funds from carceral solutions to welfarist solutions. Not least because welfarist solutions themselves can be insidiously coercive, in ways that are slightly less obvious than most carceral solutions.
But of course, these systems are actually, in the US in particular, all joined up. They’re all one system of social control. So, the form of state power I’m invoking is a transformed, democratized state.
The alternative would be a stateless utopia. I’m certainly open to that possibility. But we live in a world of states, and I don’t think we’ve moved beyond them. It’s very hard to imagine what a coordinated solution to ecological crisis would look like without something like states—though perhaps it’s not much easier to imagine a coordinated solution in a world like ours, with states.
GK: I wanted to talk about the essay on not sleeping with your students. As I understand it, the essay is actually making two arguments. The first is that professors who sleep with their students are failing in their jobs as teachers. It’s a pedagogical failure.
But then there’s this second argument, which is that given that this happens most frequently between male professors and female students, the effect of this practice serves to make the university a less hospitable place for women to study and to work. In that regard, the professor has failed both in his role as a teacher and in his role as a citizen or member of the community.
What I found so powerful about the second argument is that it gives us a language for talking about the harm caused by these relationships that goes beyond just the two individuals in question. So, for instance, even in the very best circumstance, when a woman never experiences any direct harassment, the fact that this is a widespread practice means that a female student has, reasonably, to second-guess any gesture of support from a male professor.
Do we need both arguments—about the pedagogical failure and the wider gender harm?
AS: The first argument is important in part because although the vast majority of cases take the form of older male teacher, younger female student, that’s not the only kind of case. (Consider, for example, the case of Avital Ronell.) And I think you can’t fully explain the nature of the gender harm without understanding the nature of the pedagogical harm, the pedagogical failure. Women students who have relationships with their male professors are often harmed in a very specific way: they’re harmed qua student. To really get at the harm, you have to understand what’s being done to women systematically as students.
That’s important, because there’s a general commitment to coeducation, to equality in education, to gender equality in education. It’s not enough for women to be going to university at the same rates or even higher rates as men. That’s the beginning of gender equality in education. That’s not the end of it.
GK: Part of what the essay does is it entirely shifts the set of questions we might ask about this encounter. The question is no longer about whether these individuals are consenting adults, but about what the professor owes his student as student; and then, what he owes his institution, as an institution committed to coeducation.
Would it be going too far to suggest that this reframing asks us to consider the following further question: What does the female student who engages in such practices owe her classmates? Does she have some ethical obligation in this regard?
AS: What a great question. Intuitively, you’re right that the women who engage in these kinds of relationships are reinforcing a set of gender norms about the proper role of women in the university. However, I think we have to be intensely circumspect about trying to blame anyone or moralize about those kinds of actions. I’m not even that interested in blaming the men who get involved with this. What I want is a much more sophisticated ethical discussion of how teachers should be relating to their students.
I can’t believe that the conversation is still at this place of obsessing about whether this stuff is consensual or not. It’s plainly very often consensual. And the women who come out from these relationships very rarely say that it wasn’t consensual. But what they will talk about is the way their status in the university was undermined.
GK: What if we were to extend your framework to other domains? So the question isn’t just what does a professor owe their student, but what do two people in a given institutional setting, professional setting, a given community, owe each other in light of the very particular set of social and historical forces that we know to govern their interactions?
Could we, for instance, imagine not just a sexual ethics of pedagogy but also, say, a sexual ethics of filmmaking?
AS: That’s a really good question. I want to say yes: any good account of sexual ethics is going to be intensely contextual. So it’s not going to be able to give you a rule that you can then apply in any particular case to know whether the sex is okay or not. If you think about the history of rape law and how it’s changed, first it’s about the presence of force, then the presence of threat; then we get, okay, it’s got to be the absence of no. And now it’s got to be affirmative consent, the presence of yes. And what we keep on having are these different external performances.
But the thing we really want is people to just treat each other well. And not only do we want people to treat each other well, we want people to want to treat each other well.
The thing that’s actually worrying is that, to put it really crudely, there are people who want to have sex with people who don’t want to have sex with them. And what you want is for that just not to be the case. You want it to be the case that, like, when you realize that the other person doesn’t want to have sex, you experience that as a turnoff rather than a turn-on. But there’s no rule—certainly no legal rule, but I don’t even think really any moral rule—that can then be operationalized and applied to each of these cases.
So, what appropriate ethical sensitivity looks like in sexual interactions is going to depend hugely on particular kinds of contexts. I do think we would all benefit from having more contextually specific conversations, because it would also require people to take collective ownership and think about what’s special and particular about the ways they interact and how [the interaction] makes people feel.
GK: I am wondering whether the idea of a contextually specific sexual ethics could be helpfully applied to the UMass Amherst case that you discuss. I was struck by how much of the alleged victim’s account was framed in terms of what she felt she was supposed to do or what she felt she owed.
One question we might ask then: If women are socialized to feel as though sex is owed, following through is owed, should we say that men under these conditions owe something extra in return, that they owe something more than just going along with a yes? That they owe it to women to act under the presumption that sexual entitlement has long been unevenly distributed? What would that even look like?
AS: Yes, there might be some sexual norms that we would have in an ideal context. But given the long, tainted history of sex under patriarchy, maybe we need reparative norms around sex.
That’s why a lot of universities in the US have embraced affirmative consent. And not just affirmative: it’s got to be mutual and wanted and enthusiastic and sober. Part of what worries me is that this requires people and, in this case, young people, to be these fully formed, reconciled sexual subjects who aren’t driven by conflicting desires or any sexual ambivalence. And that’s a lot to ask.
I always worry about what happens with the fleeting sexual encounter in these prescriptive ethical accounts of how sex should ideally be. There’s got to be room for, like, people just sleeping with people and wishing that they hadn’t.
GK: Do you take it as a sign of some progress that the woman in the UMass Amherst case recognized that this was not an OK encounter and then acted on that instinct?
AS: Yes, definitely. Generations of women have just gone along with sex that they didn’t really want to have, because they felt like it’s what a woman is supposed to do. And it is a wholly good thing that this young woman, like many young women, realizes that there’s something problematic about that and resents that internalized norm, which dictates that it’s her responsibility to sexually satisfy her male partner, even if she doesn’t any longer want to have sex. And so that’s all to the good.
The dark heart of that story is that she then accuses him of rape, that the only tool at her disposal is the accusation of rape, and then there’s the whole coercive institutional apparatus that follows on that accusation. There’s this very direct material fallout for the young man involved.
One feels like there’s this real flash of insight from this young woman. But the tools at her disposal are blunt and crude in a way that I think doesn’t even satisfy her. What she wants is a reckoning with the system that has made her feel like she had to go along with the sexual encounter when she didn’t want to, and for him to understand that that’s what happened.
GK: Part of what I loved about the book is the way that you take particular texts, like the report from the UMass Amherst case, and give us these close readings that don’t ever easily settle on a single interpretation. In fact, your readings successively expose the shortcomings of all the available interpretations. In that respect, the book brings a kind of philosophical rigor to bear on the texts of the social world. You write in the preface that the essays attempt to “dwell, when necessary, in discomfort and ambivalence.”
It occurred to me that this might be an apt description of what the humanities teach us to do: to dwell in discomfort with our reading of the world. I’m wondering how you think about your interpretive approach, and why dwelling in discomfort and ambivalence might be preferable to being comfortably at home in the world.
AS: I feel very strongly that the left is at risk of ceding the idea of ambivalence and complexity to liberals. Even though liberals very often aren’t very good at thinking about things in a complex way, they’re the ones who invoke the idea of listening to those with whom they disagree and seeing all sides. People on the left—largely out of a recognition of the way that notion of attending to disagreement or civilly disagreeing can operate ideologically to sustain the status quo—have been tempted to just reject wholesale the idea of engaging the opponent.
I want to insist on the idea that there’s a radical mode of engaging the opponent and a radical mode of seeing things complexly. But people who see themselves as more squarely engaged in contemporary politics can mistakenly think that ambivalence and complexity inevitably make you complicit with the enemy.
GK: But is that a principled stance? Or is it a response to the particular conditions we find ourselves in, where the mainstream has moved so far to the right that there are actually enemies that it might not be worth engaging with?
AS: Yes. There are ideas and sometimes interlocutors that you are under zero obligation to engage with. Part of the function of those kinds of arguments is to distract you from the hard work of figuring out what’s true. And so, I understand much of what you see in the contemporary left as a reaction, a dialectical response to, as you said, the shift rightward of the mainstream.
I just think we have to hold on to the idea that, as the left, we should be fearless in front of the truth. In feminism in particular, there has to be room for dissent, but also the absurd and the carnivalesque and the strange and the outrageous. Because once those get closed down, it’s very hard to exercise the political imagination.
GK: I’m also wondering if embracing ambivalence as a radical stance is a way of insisting that whatever arrangement we have now is not how it has to be. We might not know what the ideal world looks like. So, ambivalence is a way of holding out that utopian position or possibility.
AS: Yes, I like that. And it makes sense of this instinct I have, which is that there is a radical practice of ambivalence. There’s something unsatisfying about where we are, so we’re going to hold open a space for another possibility. And this relates to an idea from Bernice Johnson Reagon that I love, of resisting the desire to make yourself at home in politics. I don’t think we should get too comfortable in our progressive left-wing politics, either.
GK: Thinking about dwelling in discomfort, I’m wondering whether you would then also be critical of the idea that the classroom ought to be a “safe space.”
AS: It depends on what we mean by a safe space. People who are real outsiders to elite academia and who make their way in anyway will tell you that they never feel safe. There are no safe spaces. That’s got to be a fantasy we give up.
What we need to do is be able to create spaces where people feel equipped to freely, genuinely freely, inquire collectively. And that doesn’t mean people get to just say whatever they want to say. But yes, I don’t love the notion of safety and I don’t love the notion of the safe space, although some of the practices I insist on in my classroom might be thought of as safe-space practices. But it’s not a notion that is actually politically very useful. What I want in the classroom is equality, not safety.
GK: I was reading a piece you wrote a few years ago, where you said that when you started graduate school, you worried that being a philosopher and being a public thinker were two different things. How do you feel about that balance now?
AS: I’ve been lucky in the sense that I get to write things that are notionally for a public audience, but that don’t have to be simplifications or distillations of philosophy. They can themselves be pieces of philosophy. I really instinctively dislike the idea of the academic philosopher as someone who comes down from the mountain and then translates philosophy for a general mainstream audience. I don’t really think that much about whether I’m doing philosophy or not when I’m writing an LRB piece or writing this book. I’m just thinking and using whatever tools, many of them philosophical, some of them not, that are useful for inquiring into the object of concern. That all said, having just finished this book, I’m desperate to get back to something very purely philosophical that really no one apart from 10 other people would ever care about. I’m not one of those people who thinks that philosophy, to be valuable, has to be something that everyone understands or that everyone wants to read, or that it has to have any kind of social or political usefulness at all.
GK: I think that comes back to our discussion of ambivalence as a stance that refuses to offer neat answers and also resists the instrumentalist notion that research and writing ought to be useful in order to be worth pursuing.
AS: None of these things should be hashed out in terms of its use value, or at least use value should be understood in a very broad way. They’re useful not in the sense of offering determinate solutions to problems, but because it affords us great pleasure to understand them, because thinking and understanding are a human and humane thing to do.
This article was commissioned by Tara Menon.