In an article from 2018 titled The Aptness of Anger, Amia Srinivasan, currently the first female, non-white and youngest ever incumbent of the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Soul’s College, Oxford, quotes Audre Lorde on women’s anger, saying that “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision….is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.”
The Right to Sex, which happens to be Srinivasan’s first book, is a collection of six razor-sharp essays that takes the reader on a moral and political journey through current as well as longstanding debates around all things sex and feminism. Indeed, it is anger expressed, translated into words (which some would argue are actions) in the service of a vision – the feminist vision of a just and compassionate world – and is, thereby, a truly liberating and strengthening act of clarification.
Srinivas works at precisely clarifying the bumpy terrain where sex meets feminism and does so with striking argumentative acuity and robust empirical evidence, a combination rather unusual for philosophical writing often accused of dealing with unsubstantiated abstractions. At the heart these essays is an honest reckoning with the material counterpart of symbolic politics and the need to recognise and address the fact that the things that “make most women unfree” are often things that are not common to all women.
Written across blurred lines, the essays in The Right to Sex can be described as revealing the tussle in politics between pragmatics and principles, and the work of hope and imagination in resolving this alleged tension. She warns the reader at the very start that “a truly inclusionary politics is an uncomfortable, unsafe politics.” A politics that offers a “home,” she writes, is a politics that brings with it the risk of turning exclusionary.
And so, what she offers us in her essays is no straightforward haven, neither in theory nor in practice – it is a politics that is complex, messy, even unsafe but always real. To confuse their embrace of the ambiguous with confusion or chaos, however, would be a mistake; for the work of pointing out exactly where lie the uncertainties in our treatment of sex is crucial to the material implications of feminist politics for the women whom it claims to serve. It is exactly the kind of fierce clarificatory work of hope that Lorde had assigned to feminist anger.
The conversation around prostitution presents a telling case. In her chapter on prostitution, without which any feminist treatise on sex is understandably incomplete, Srinivasan asks difficult questions of the debate and points towards the complex yet overlooked ways in which the feminist treatment of it often ends up making the lives of the women who participate in it materially worse.
Her characterisation of the uneasy relationship between the state, legal and market institutions with feminist politics – a running theme in her book – invites the reader to view the prostitution debate through a more spacious lens that can accommodate, in the absence of a neat resolution, at least the conflict between with praxis and theory.
Must feminism immolate some of those it claims to liberate at the altar of the future, clutching the aspiration of some distant but long-term social change? Or do the loyalties of feminists lie with the lived, material realities of women who live and work today even if that means making undesirable negotiations with state and market forces? These are questions that are difficult and tangled – in practice, maybe even opposed. Srinivasan’s essays remind us that they need to be addressed, and addressed carefully, if the feminist goals of justice, compassion and freedom are to be realised effectively and ethically.
In a sincere balance between the traditional and the contemporary, and in keeping with her promise in the preface of offering “a political critique of sex for the 21st century,” Srinivasan dives face first in the opening essay into what is current and what is trending, into what has lately become feminism’s biggest enemy in the public imagination – not men, but the alleged conspiracy against them. She reminds us, in wry but passionate prose, that there is, really, no conspiracy against men – certainly not one against the men with the loudest voices complaining the most.
#MeToo, #IBelieveHer become axes through which she investigates the intersectional casualties that result when political momentum is institutionally coopted without due consideration to racial, class and caste dimensions. If women’s testimonies are to be believed, as is imperative to do, then what moral and political apparatuses do we require to navigate epistemic matters between, say, the Brahmin woman who alleges that her Dalit male employee assaulted her and the Dalit woman who alleges that her Dalit husband is being set up?
Constraints and hope
Srinivasan returns to the matter of institutions again and again over the course of the volume. Her treatment of the spectrum of sexual violations against women – from rape to porn – is underpinned by a critical attitude to institutional attempts at gender justice and a condemnation of the carceral system. The essays, particularly the ones on #MeToo and prostitution, highlight the various ways in which material transactions with institutions can be unequal and arbitrary, often not solving but exacerbating the problems it sets out to address.
Take the case of poor women of colour who become disproportionately disadvantaged when the men in their families are incorrectly arrested, fired, or fined on charges of sexual violations against white women – such cases are aplenty in colonial and post-colonial reality. For Srinivasan, a feminism that is defined by “women’s common oppression” and one that is aimed merely at “the punishment of bad men” glosses over the real social forces that enable the harm caused to women to continue and proliferate. Material inequality, racism, or casteism might be evils affecting all genders, but are significantly more harmful to non-men than they are to men at every level – and The Right to Sex calls for feminist attention to this fact.
If one thematic half of the book is about investigating the constraints facing current feminist politics, its other half is one geared towards freedom and built on the call for hope and imagination. In the words of Mark Fisher talking about the resistance to capitalism, these essays can be understood as reminding us that “(A)ny emancipatory politics must destroy the appearance of a natural order.”
The eponymous essay in the collection – a republication of a controversial 2018 article of the same title written for the London Review of Books – a coda on the politics of desire that follows it, and an essay on pornography, ask of the reader what is natural in sex?
Are certain bodies naturally more universally desirable than others? Does the deemed naturalness of some forms of sex and desire make them more correct and justified than others? How do we learn and internalise these characterisations of naturality? Are such characterisations devoid of what goes on in the world? Are they immune to the forces of history, politics, and society? Are they, indeed, natural?
Urging the reader to ask these questions of herself, these essays reveal the problematic relationship between pedagogy, politics, and nature with respect to sex. Srinivasan encourages us to imagine different, more equal, more compassionate, more creative sexual natures and advocates for a kind of sexual freedom that isn’t the freedom to sex, but a freedom from the unspoken social ordinances that have been imposed on sex as it happens.
Eschewing neither the significance of ideals nor the pragmatism of practice, these essays urge readers both in and outside the feminist movement to grapple with the messy work of live politics in ways that are geared towards truly inclusive ends using truly inclusive means. In straddling the fine balance between the politically material and the politically symbolic, Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex is a powerful addition to the feminist discourse on all things sex that sits on the sill of a small window that looks on out towards emancipation.
The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan, Bloomsbury.