The end of sex
Amia Srinivasan's The Right to Sex is a brave but fatally limited exploration of sexual politics.
Sex scares feminists who came of age in the world of #MeToo. Sex can be the physical expression of uninhibited passion and desire. But it can also embody the complex emotions and power differentials that people bring to all interactions. The very same actions can be spontaneous fun, freely entered into love-making or a transaction exchanging access to a person’s body for money, commitment, security or status. Sometimes it is all of these things at the same time. What’s more, the private, intimate nature of sex means it still largely escapes regulation, despite the best efforts of a generation of feminists to discipline desire and alter behaviour through consent classes and legal changes.
In her new book, The Right to Sex, philosopher Amia Srinivasan discusses the politics and ethics of sex. Writing about sex opens up a private act to public discussion. For Srinivasan, this opening up is important because sex, she explains, is ‘a cultural thing posing as a natural one’. We ‘think of [sex] as the most private of acts’, but it is ‘in reality a public thing’. Her analysis is firmly grounded in an older tradition of feminism which sees sex ‘as a political phenomenon’. Bringing sex out of the bedroom and into the debating chamber makes room for the titular question: is there a right to sex?
Tragically, questions about who gets to have sex, and, more precisely, who doesn’t, have come to the fore following the horrific shootings that took place in Plymouth this month. Killer Jake Davison identified as an ‘involuntary celibate’, or incel. Incels are a tiny cohort of men who hang out in the darkest reaches of the internet to complain about women’s lack of interest in them. Their collective victim complex leads to a belief that biology dealt them a busted flush, leaving them forever unable to compete for women when up against physically more attractive, higher-status males.
One grim solution to the unequal distribution of sex proposed by incels and their sympathisers involves a ‘right to sex’. The exact details of how access to another person’s body might be allocated are rarely spelt out. Ideas like compulsory monogamy or a system of tokens that can be exchanged for sex as a commodity are too distasteful for lengthy contemplation. For most of us, a belief that desire is instinctive, and sex the natural fruition of that instinct, leads us to assume that any attempt to discipline our innate desires and regulate sex is an abomination against human nature.
But just suppose for a moment, Srinivasan asks us, that sexual desire is not natural at all but socially, culturally and politically constructed. What if, far from being ‘born this way’, as the gay liberationists might have us believe, we have actually been ‘made this way’? In one deft intellectual move, Srinivasan not only takes us away from the biological determinism of incels who believe they were born ‘unfuckable’ – she also removes the ‘desire is instinctive’ defence against regulating sex.
Srinivasan’s key argument is that although both who we have sex with and how we have sex seem natural, they are, in reality, a product of the cultural context in which we exist. Rather than sexual attraction being a genetic instinct that emerges, fully formed, at the moment of our birth, it is entirely a product of chance historical circumstances, of the ‘voices that have spoken to us since birth’, as Srinivasan puts it. She argues that no one is born gay or straight, or with an innate desire for blonde white women or tall black men. It’s a provocative argument. And it could be exciting and potentially liberating. Unfortunately, in The Right to Sex, it is neither.
For Srinivasan, the voices that have spoken to us since birth are unrelentingly negative. It is patriarchy that shapes our desires. And it is patriarchy’s creation – pornography – that shapes our perception of sex. Srinivasan moves us away from biological determinism, only to subject us to a patriarchal determinism. Her world is one that is rigidly segregated according to a strict social heirarchy, with cis white men at the top, transgender black women at the bottom and everyone else finely ranked by intersectional degree at some point in between. ‘I am talking about desirability as constructed by our sexual politics’, she writes. ‘[It] enforces a racialised hierarchy that places the white woman above the brown or black woman, the light-skinned brown or black woman above the dark-skinned black or brown woman, and so on.’ In a society characterised by capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy, it is this rigid grading system that apparently determines who we will find attractive as a sexual partner.
At her best, Srinivasan offers a brave, intelligent and thought-provoking analysis that takes us far beyond #MeToo alarmism or rape-culture certainties. Examining the interplay between power and identity in sexual relationships allows for a useful critique of carceral feminism. She points out that in the US, ‘black men make up 52 per cent of those convicted of rape on the basis of false accusations or perjury. Yet black men make up only about 14 per cent of the US male population, and 27 per cent of men convicted of rape.’ Too many feminists prefer to avoid the awkward discussions raised by such statistics.
Srinivasan is brave enough to raise complex issues. She asks us to consider whether the exhortation to ‘believe women’ really serves justice at elite universities where white women may be powerful – not just for being in a majority but also for being perceived as sexually innocent when accusing black men. But then again, she points out, not believing women does ‘brown and black women in places of white domination’ a disservice, as they ‘have often been considered, owing to their supposed hypersexuality, unrapeable’. Rather than simply believing all women, Srinivasan wants us to be more nuanced – which, for her, means adopting a more intersectional approach and accepting that choices under patriarchy are rarely free.
This same logic is applied to our understanding of consent, a concept that has become the holy grail of feminist sex educators. ‘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’, Srinivasan writes. Her point is that, formally, consensual sex may still be rape if social pressures mean the victim felt coerced into saying yes. She wants us to move ‘beyond the narrow parameters of “consent”‘ that focus on the utterance of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – because even a ‘yes’ given freely under patriarchy and white supremacy is one that is coerced and cajoled, and therefore a product of power relations.
There are very good reasons to be critical of compulsory consent-training workshops and, indeed, the whole notion of consent as something to be solicited and granted through contractual negotiations prior to sex. But returning to an Andrea Dworkin-inspired notion that all sex is rape hardly seems like feminist progress. It is an assumption that degrades both women and men, forever enshrining ‘victim’ or ‘perpetrator’ status, and robbing adults of bodily autonomy. ‘The task [of second-wave feminism] was to liberate sex from the distortions of oppression’, Srinivasan tells us, ‘not simply to divide it into the consensual (non-problematic) and non-consensual (problematic)’. In fact, second-wave feminists were concerned with far more than women’s sex lives. In scoring important victories in women’s rights to work, to earn and to receive an education, and improving their access to abortion, contraception and childcare, they went a long way towards liberating women from oppression. To ignore all this, and assume that women today cannot make free choices about who to have sex with, is to ignore reality.
It is good that Srinivasan criticises carceral feminism’s continual recourse to the justice system to regulate sexual interactions. Campaigns to make misogyny a hate crime, for example, benefit only a handful of professional feminists. But Srinivasan’s critique is not grounded in a belief that people can be trusted to work things out for themselves. Rather, it is based on a by now familiar argument that intersectionality pulls the rug out from under both the notion of equal relationships and attempts to regulate unequal relationships. To the committed intersectionalist, people are members of an identity group first and individuals second. Sex – cis-gendered, heterosexual sex, at least – is by definition between people from different identity groups and therefore is assumed to entail a power imbalance. But, away from intersectional theory, sex and sexuality often upend rather than reinforce traditional power dynamics, a fact exploited with great aplomb by working-class women across the generations.
Srinivasan applies this same analysis to incel culture and reaches even more desultory conclusions. When discussing the case of US mass shooter Eliot Rodgers, who wrote a thesis detailing his loathing of women and became a cult figure within the incel movement, Srinivasan asks: ‘Could it also be said that Rodgers’ unfuckability was a symptom of the internalisation of patriarchal norms of male sexual attractiveness on the part of women?’ By shifting blame on to ‘patriarchal norms’, we risk relieving Rodgers of responsibility for his actions. It wasn’t a patriarchal system, real or imagined, that killed Rodgers’ victims — it was him.
This discussion of incels makes clear the limits of trying to make sense of every social issue through an intersectional lens. Biological determinism is rejected, but only to be replaced with a social and political determinism. And both deny the role of individual agency. More alarming still, we see that Srinivasan’s arguments have much in common with the tortured pleadings of incels. Both see sexual attraction as intrinsically linked to power and status and therefore unevenly distributed. As Srinivasan puts it, ‘alpha females want alpha males’. But where incels think biology is to blame for sexual inequalities, intersectionalists blame ‘society’.
Incels want to redistribute sex – horrifically, through force, if necessary. #MeToo feminists want to regulate our interactions through consent classes backed up with legal sanctions for transgressors. Srinivasan, meanwhile, wants to discipline ‘the political forces that presume to instruct us’. In other words, she proposes wholesale cultural and social revolution in order to re-educate our base instincts and desires. The ethical issues this proposed cultural reprogramming of desire raises are revealed only in asides.
Srinivasan discusses the ‘problem’ of the ‘cotton ceiling’. This is a gross term used by transgender women (biological males) and their allies to describe the refusal of many lesbians, who are by definition women sexually attracted to other biological females, to have sex with them. Or, to put it more crudely, to describe the lesbians who keep their knickers firmly in place. Srinivasan is contemptuous of lesbian feminists who ‘want to resist any possible analogy between the white person who as a matter of policy doesn’t sleep with black people, and the cis lesbian who as a matter of policy doesn’t sleep with trans women’. She doesn’t resist the analogy and clearly thinks lesbians can be equated to racists. Srinivasan is too sophisticated to argue that lesbians should be obligated to remove the cotton ceiling and allow anyone who insists access to their genitals. Instead, she argues, what is needed is ‘a discourse not of entitlement but of empowerment and respect’. Her intersectional framework means we can safely assume it is cis women who must give up their entitlement and trans women who need to be empowered and afforded respect.
Srinivasan claims to want to set our desires free from politics, but her proposals for cultural change in order to recondition our sexual instincts are politically authoritarian. What if people simply do not want to be reprogrammed according to Srinivasan’s preferred worldview? No sex until socialism is her logical – and very political – endpoint. But the rest of us need to take a step back from the barricades. For a start, perhaps things are not as bad as Srinivasan seems to think. Thankfully, incel killings, like that which occurred in Plymouth, are vanishingly rare events. Most adults are not helplessly compelled to act out either violent or sexual impulses. Most people do not believe they have a right to sex. Recognising this requires seeing people as more than just identities waiting to be ranked according to an assumed degree of power.
Sexual desire is no doubt shaped by both biology and culture, but it is ultimately determined by us – through our agency. The grim world of dating apps might encourage swiping left and right purely on the basis of looks. But in the context of real-life interactions, sexual desire is shaped by far more than physical appearance. Relationships the world over are testament to the fact that whatever people’s biologically or culturally conditioned sexual preferences may be, they can be overridden by encountering someone who is caring, kind, interesting, funny, intelligent, quirky, compassionate or who shares your own peculiar tastes and hobbies. One context to desire is ignored entirely by Srinivasan: love. She seems far happier leaving emotional intimacy out of a discussion of sex entirely and talking instead about ‘fuckability’ and ‘unfuckability’ as socially constructed concepts.
Fortunately, real-life interactions with fellow human beings limit the extent to which we see people as merely representatives of identity groups. Individual personalities and complex emotions take us far beyond Srinivasan’s intersectionality. And while discussions of the right to sex might encompass the role of prostitution and sex work, they can never dictate a right to make another person love you. A politically motivated sympathy shag is a poor substitute for an intimate relationship.
The Right to Sex is a thought-provoking contribution to a crucial discussion. But Srinivasan’s work should more accurately be titled ‘The End of Sex’. Subjecting our most private desires and actions to such a weight of scrutiny – in the absence of any discussion about intimacy, love, relationships or emotions – renders people impotent.
Joanna Williams is a columnist at spiked and director of Cieo, where she recently published How Woke Conquered the World
The Right to Sex, by Amia Srinivasan, is published by Bloomsbury Publishing. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)
Picture by: Getty.