A summa cum laude graduate of Yale, where she won prizes in English and creative writing despite majoring in philosophy; a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where she won an All Souls fellowship and continued on to a doctorate as the protegee of Timothy Williamson, one of the world’s great living philosophers; and now Oxford’s youngest ever Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory—Amia Srinivasan is no stranger to high achievement and high praise. Her first book, The Right to Sex, an essay collection in feminist philosophy and applied ethics, has received a great deal of high praise. Is it a high achievement? Well, it’s OK.
A Philosophy of Anxiety
In a recent article for LitHub, Stephen Marche has argued that the dominant stylistic mode of contemporary literary fiction is clipped, anxious writing about clipped, anxious people—writing that avoids adopting a unique voice so as not to offend anyone, and that narrates the efforts of people whose main goal is to abandon their personalities. Marche calls this “the literature of the pose.” The Right to Sex is the philosophy of the pose. Though she is refreshingly honest about the tensions among the progressive stances she considers in the book and seems herself to hold, Srinivasan never entertains the idea that any of these contemporary bromides might be incorrect, nor shows how they can be reconciled with each other. Her conclusions usually amount to mere prodding—“we” need to think more about this; “we” need to consider that—rather than suggested solutions. In a way, the book is simply the result of layering anxieties: a professional anxiety (the fear of having nothing new to say); a philosophical anxiety (the fear of self-contradiction); a political anxiety (the fear of deviating from consensus). That the small dramas that result are sometimes captivating is largely due to Srinivasan’s undeniable intellectual energy and the incoherence of the orthodoxies she examines.
Marche writes of people like Sally Rooney and Ben Lerner that anxiety is both form and content in their fiction. The same might be said of Srinivasan’s philosophy. In the titular essay, she writes that “the question, then, is how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question.” This passage suggests that ambivalence is already a moral or political achievement. It’s easy, she suggests, to take a side in the complicated debate; what’s right is what’s difficult—it involves “difficulties”—and this is ultimately a how question, a question of a cognitive skill of “dwelling.” The book’s very first paragraph reads: “Feminism is not a philosophy, a theory, or even a point of view. It is a political movement to transform the world beyond recognition. It asks: what would it be to end the political, social, sexual, economic, psychological and physical subordination of women? It answers: we do not know; let us try and see.” Of course, there is a blatant sleight of hand here: that women are politically, socially, sexually, economically, psychologically and physically subordinated is itself a philosophy, a theory, a point of view. Srinivasan has hidden her claim inside what philosophers of language sometimes call the presuppositions of her sentence, which the reader accommodates by accepting.
This is a confounding pattern in The Right to Sex: within the fog of ambivalence, of difficulties, of trying and seeing and so forth, are some truly odd certainties that are never questioned or explained. Srinivasan writes: “On some matters—sex workers’ rights, the destructiveness of carceral politics, the pathologies of contemporary sexuality—these essays are adamant. But on others they are ambivalent, unwilling to reduce what is dense and difficult to something easier.” She repeats her old line: “In these essays I attempt to dwell, where necessary, in discomfort and ambivalence.” Ultimately “the question” of where to dwell is answered not by rational argument but by virtuosic demonstration of the personal capacity to balance competing political anxieties.
The Nature of Sex
The Right to Sex collects five essays, all on controversial topics: rape accusations, including false ones; pornography; incels and fuckability; sex between professors and students; and bad kinds of feminism (carceral, capitalist). Srinivasan also includes a brief riposte to critics of the original “The Right to Sex” article, which appeared in the London Review of Books in 2018. But I found myself already confused by the book’s preface.
Srinivasan writes—sceptically—that sex in the sense of the differentiation of male and female bodies is “said to be natural, pre-political, an objective material ground,” and that “we inspect this supposedly natural thing, ‘sex,’ only to find that it is already laden with meaning,” and that sex in the sense of the activity is “also said to be a natural thing, a thing that exists outside politics.” But natural things can be political and laden with meaning. Fire and water are laden with meaning for humans, and there is a politics of water. Lions, tigers and bears are laden with meaning. Srinivasan seems to be inferring from the existence of a politics of sex, and a set of cultural meanings around sex, that sex is not natural. But it’s hard to see how that inference could be justified. These few paragraphs set the tone for the book: cloudy, with a chance of dogmatism. Throughout them, Srinivasan repeats the word bodies—“many bodies will later protest against the decision that was made,” “some bodies are for other bodies to have sex with”—which is not so much poetic as exasperating. I don’t know if it’s more charitable to interpret her as nudging us toward a highly implausible claim (that the idea that sex is natural is dehumanizing and leads us to view people only as bodies) or as merely following, lemming-like, an unfortunate linguistic trend.
The book’s second essay, “Talking to My Students About Porn,” raises some of the same issues. Srinivasan writes that pornography is a normative standard for young teenage boys—that they interpret it as telling them how sex ought to go—but that girls don’t have this impression. But she doesn’t try to explain this difference between boys and girls. Maybe the idea is that pornography produced “under patriarchy” is necessarily going to work like this, and that we can imagine some other system in which it is primarily women who watch, and learn from, pornography. Well, we can imagine a lot of things. Srinivasan is probably correct that early exposure to pornography shapes what people desire to some extent. But this is not the same as saying that the pattern of exposure—who finds pornography compelling, and at what stage in their lives—cannot be analysed. (Why, for instance, is contemporary erotica mainly consumed by women? Isn’t it also produced “under patriarchy”?)
Srinivasan writes that pornography has “world-making” power. This is a much more radical claim than that it simply affects the world and what people do in it. Some people who make these sorts of claims seem to have inherited the always already stance of writers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault: before the fundamental forces of culture and politics form it, there is no world at all; or, better yet, there is no before. But of course there is. For instance, there is the animal world, a world whose sex, in both senses, we can compare to the sex of the human world; there are the worlds of hunter-gatherer societies, which show sometimes the diversity and sometimes the universality of the human experience. Extremists about the causal role of culture rarely talk about those worlds. Srinivasan’s approach is not as radical as this, however. Instead, she argues that she must balance anxieties, as she does in her responses to critics of “The Right to Sex.”
“The Right to Sex” starts out, as philosopher Kate Manne’s book Down Girl does, by examining the incel spree killer Elliot Rodger. When this essay first came out in 2018, its ambivalence angered some feminist commentators. On the one hand, according to Srinivasan, we can’t tell anyone whom they must desire; on the other hand, we can’t just say nothing about how people are unequally desired. That’s the sort of anxiety-balancing Srinivasan has in mind in the essay. And at times she simply outclasses the other feminists. She quotes Rebecca Solnit as “remind[ing] us that ‘you don’t get to have sex with someone unless they want to have sex with you,’ just as ‘you don’t get to share someone’s sandwich unless they want to share their sandwich with you.’” But: “Suppose your child came home from primary school and told you that the other children share their sandwiches with each other, but not with her.” The result of people’s individually acceptable choices can be an exclusion that is unacceptable—or, at least, should be rightly acknowledged as a harm—in the aggregate. Srinivasan is also correct that this acknowledgment is not the same as positing a right to sex, though she never really explains what it would mean to say that there is a right to sex.
Some reviews have praised the subsequent passage, “Coda: The Politics of Desire,” as a philosophical rebuttal to critics. I think this impression mostly comes from the fact that its paragraphs are numbered, but really that’s an affectation that does little to improve a disorganized and often confusing section. Srinivasan writes: “To liberate sex from the distortions of oppression is not the same as just saying everyone can desire whatever or whomever they want. The first is a radical demand; the second is a liberal one.” But she doesn’t want to tell people whom to desire, either—not exactly. She wants to remove the scales from people’s eyes: she wants people to feel “a desire set free from the binds of injustice … There is a kind of discipline here, in that it requires us to quiet the voices that have spoken to us since birth, the voices that tell us which bodies and ways of being in the world are worthy and which are unworthy.” But are there voices in your head telling you who you should want to have sex with? There aren’t any in mine. Of course, people often try things out just because other people seem to like those things. But usually they learn pretty quickly from their mistakes.
The upshot, though, is that Srinivasan must be a Rousseauian about sex. For her, politics—or maybe culture—is the origin of sexual inequality. She must think that there is a natural nobility to our true, authentic desires, desires of which we ourselves are unaware: that within each of us is a sexual noble savage who has been repressed by the ideologies of the current day. If there is no natural nobility, then her project would mean that we must discipline our desires, and she concedes that that would be illiberal. But why think our natural sexual desires would be at all noble or egalitarian? Are birds egalitarian in their desire for each other? Are whales? Who is fuckable—one of Srinivasan’s favourite words—among bonobos? (Srinivasan uses “X is fuckable to Y” to mean something like “Y is socially rewarded for being with X,” which seems like an odd definition. But my point works whichever definition you use.)
At times, her view of the sexual noble savage seems highly implausible. And at times it seems quite authoritarian. She writes: “Is anyone innately attracted to penises or vaginas? Or are we first attracted to ways of being in the world, including bodily ways, which we later learn to associate with certain specific parts of the body?” There are lots of questions here—–but how should we answer them? Even if we are “attracted to ways of being in the world”—whatever that means—why would such attractions be egalitarian? Isn’t it much more likely, for evolutionary reasons, that people would all end up with similar preferences as to “ways of being”? And wouldn’t that simply create a new hierarchy? (I can ask questions too.) She goes on: “Consider the gay men who express delighted disgust at vaginas … Is this the expression of an innate, and thus permissible revulsion—or a learned and suspect misogyny?” The conceptual dichotomy “innate, and thus permissible” versus “learned and suspect” is exactly the sort of thing you might expect a philosopher to attack or defend. But this—Rousseauianism at its core—is left unexamined. The book contains no mention of evolution, in any form. But evolutionary theory contains a clear answer to these kinds of questions: we’re attracted to people whom others find attractive because we want our offspring to be found attractive as well, and reproduce; but this effect is limited by the fact that our desires have also evolved to favour certain traits that are conducive to survival.
In one of her numbered paragraphs, Srinivasan writes: “What if the envy you feel for another woman’s body, her face, her charm, her ease, her brilliance, were not envy at all—but desire?” This sounds like something out of a teen drama, not a point in a syllogism. This quotation once again features a favourite stylistic quirk: the constant use of rhetorical questions, which adds to the vague, anxious atmosphere of her writing. It’s anxious in two senses. First, it avoids making overt claims. For example, “But how often is there a lesbian relationship that is not in some important sense political?” softens what would be a strange and implausible idea if expressed as the statement: But only very rarely is a lesbian relationship not in some important sense political. Second, it induces anxiety in the reader. Srinivasan’s essays are replete with such questions. They just make the writing seem weak.
In any event, Srinivasan never says what wholly natural, pre-political, pre-civilizational sex would look like. On the one hand, she subscribes to extreme cultural constructionism about sex as it stands right now, depicting it as “a cultural thing posing as a natural one”; on the other hand, she dreams of a natural sexuality, in which people’s freely expressed desires generate egalitarian outcomes with no need for interference—desires about which we can make no inferences based on the current sexual order, which is determined by politics and ideology. Srinivasan gives us little reason to think that this natural sexuality is any more than a dream. She closes the section with the words: “We have never yet been free.” This sounds, I guess, deep, or something. But why is one freer, and why does one leave others freer, when one’s desires are determined by evolution rather than by culture? No reason is given.
Not Sleeping with One’s Students
The book’s fourth essay is probably its worst. In “On Not Sleeping with Your Students”—adapted from a Yale Law Journal article, which was itself adapted into an article in the New York Times—Srinivasan argues that it’s bad for college professors to have sex with their students: not because professors have power over their students, which undermines the students’ ability to consent, but because having sex with students would make a professor worse at teaching them. This is an odd claim in a few ways. First, it only seems plausible if you take an oddly sexual view of teaching. Second, it probably doesn’t predict when we would find it objectionable for teachers to have sex with students, and how bad we would think that is when it happens. Third, it doesn’t have much to do with the debate to which it ostensibly offers a novel and compelling answer.
Srinivasan thinks that, just as it is normal for psychoanalytical patients to experience “transference-love” for their analysts, it is normal for professors to “prompt” students into “new desires and wants.” However, the teacher’s job is not to respond as though these sexual or romantic desires are straightforward, but to transform them into a different desire, which “isn’t [for] the professor at all, but what he represents … The teacher must redirect the student’s erotic energies from himself toward their proper object: knowledge, truth, understanding.” As far as I know, I have never been desired by any of my students. Perhaps this is because they haven’t, deep down, desired knowledge, truth and understanding, either. (Later, Srinivasan writes that while female students experience their desires as sexual or romantic, male students experience their desires as desires to become, or become like, their professors. I don’t think I’ve ever had a student who wanted to be me, either. Women don’t want me, and men don’t want to be me.)
And what if they don’t? Say a college student is just taking a class to fill a requirement and finds their professor attractive in the normal way that one person finds another person attractive. By Srinivasan’s lights, sex between them should be acceptable: there is nothing to be transferred at all, because there is no “real teaching” to be done. Both are just punching the clock, which is of course among the most common scenarios in the lives of professors and students. Or say a student is just spectacularly good at the subject in which they’re taking a class. They’re quicker than the professor sometimes; they’re guaranteed a top grade before the final exam has even been written. Is there nothing left to teach? If so, maybe the professor’s teaching duties are complete. Would that make it acceptable for the two of them to have sex? According to Srinivasan’s theory, it should. What if a teacher fails to redirect a student’s desire for them? According to the transference theory, this is just as inimical to teaching as having sex with that student. So Srinivasan is not just offering a different explanation of the old theory—that the professor’s power undermines the student’s ability to consent. She is offering a new theory that generates different results.
Now, there are many ways in which a teacher can fall short of any ideal of teaching. I lose focus while lecturing sometimes. I make confusing slides. Sometimes I present material in a way that is too simple to challenge my students; sometimes I present it in a way that is too complex for them to grasp. Sometimes when I’m grading all I want to do is give every paper a high mark and be done with it; sometimes all I want to do is give every paper a low mark so that students understand how difficult it was to get through the work they gave me. These are ways in which I’m a bad teacher, or at least not as good as I could or should be. If you think sometimes I have sex with my students would fit in naturally with these other transgressions, then you’re on the same page as Srinivasan. But most people would instinctively see that as different from and worse than the other infractions on the list.
Finally, there’s something off about the whole topic of the piece. Srinivasan mentions that she began writing her essay in support of Yale University’s “blanket prohibition on sex between faculty members and undergraduate students.” But Srinivasan’s considerations don’t justify such a blanket prohibition. Because Srinivasan bases her argument on how sex affects a professor’s teaching, it can only justify a prohibition on sex between professors and their own students—which is much less controversial. Srinivasan ultimately ends up with a theory that shouldn’t satisfy anyone. For those who are in favour of a blanket prohibition, it is insufficiently general. And for those who are against a blanket prohibition, it simply avoids addressing the actual policies, which they think are unjustly restrictive and intrusive.
In interviews, Srinivasan has said that she’s not interested in “moralizing,” but in working out the meaning of sex from the perspective of the internal logic of teaching—or something like that. But she herself explicitly sets up her theory as a competitor to a consent-based sexual ethics. Imagine if someone were to argue that plumbers shouldn’t have sex with their clients because it goes against the internal logic of plumbing. That would be a bad argument: if you want to have sex with your plumber, you can simply hire a different plumber to unblock your sink. Likewise, you could simply have sex with some professors and take classes from others. Any activity can have an internal logic; Srinivasan needs to be able to say not just that sex would undermine teaching, but that from an objective, external perspective, this would be bad: that the teaching is the more morally important factor.
In her “coda,” Srinivasan replies to Andrea Long Chu, who has accused her of moralizing about desire. She asks rhetorically: “Am I moralizing?” Well, she is saying what she thinks is right and what she thinks is wrong. She is saying that some desires are good and some desires are bad. What else would moralizing be? Her worry about this charge adds another layer of anxiety for her to weigh.
Intersectionality and the Slogan “Believe Women”
In the first essay, “The Conspiracy Against Men,” Srinivasan wonders why false rape accusations “occup[y] an outsized place in the public imagination” given that “a false rape accusation, like a plane crash, is an objectively unusual event.” Her answer: that “actually [concern about false rape accusations] is about gender … It is an anxiety, too, about race and class: about the possibility that the law might treat wealthy white men as it routinely treats poor black and brown men.” But she doesn’t really answer her own question. Why would an event’s being “about” gender, race and class make people worry more about it than they ought to, given its rarity?
Like Kate Manne, Srinivasan chooses to examine the Brock Turner and Brett Kavanaugh cases in depth, and offers a bit of wordplay on the slogan “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 … ‘Believe women’ is not an injunction to abandon this legal principle, at least in most cases, but a political response to what we believe will be its uneven application. Under the law, people accused of crimes are presumed innocent, but some—we know—are presumed more innocent than others. Against this prejudicial enforcement of the presumption of innocence, ‘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.
This passage is a disaster. First, there’s the slippery “at least in most cases.” But then there is another sleight of hand. The prejudicial enforcement of the presumption of innocence that Srinivasan is talking about is, by her own lights, a matter of treating poor and non-white men worse than wealthy and white men. How can believing women correct that? And how can “a corrective norm” also be “a gesture of support”? Dwelling in ambivalence threatens to lead to sheer confusion. (The book’s fifth essay includes a similarly maddening interpretation: “Implicit in the call to ‘defund the police,’ then, is the demand for a massive redistribution of wealth and power from the rich to the poor.” Such creative interpretations of political language are best confined to literary criticism.) Srinivasan goes on to make a much better—though familiar—point: that the legal principle of the presumption of innocence does not tell us what we ought to believe about any particular case.
Srinivasan writes that “the politics of ‘Believe women,’ in its current form, collides with the demands of intersectionality.” She deserves credit for worrying—as too few people do—about these internal tensions and self-contradictions. Her account of intersectionality is a little nonstandard: she says that its “central insight … is that any liberation movement … that focuses only on what all members of the relevant group … have in common is a movement that will best serve the members of the group who are least oppressed.” This is an improvement on what a lot of people say about intersectionality. It certainly explains it better than the interpretation of Jacob Levy, who has suggested that intersectionality is simply a matter of looking for interaction effects in data. Such an account of intersectionality as what Wikipedia calls an “analytical framework” renders the concept plausible, but superfluous and unoriginal. But Srinivasan’s interpretation is not quite right either. Many people think, for instance, that racism harms poor people of colour more than it harms rich people of colour. It seems at least possible that opposition to racism therefore helps poor people of colour more than it helps rich people of colour; or that, if it doesn’t, it’s not because it focuses on what people of colour have in common. (Indeed, Srinivasan herself gives a similar example later, when she writes that “attempts to legislate against porn—like attempts to legislate against sex work generally—invariably harm the women who financially depend on it the most.” But then successfully resisting those attempts would help such women the most, too.)
Srinivasan’s account of just how the injunction to believe women is threatened by intersectionality took me by surprise. In her view, there is a widespread social impression of black oversexualization that applies to both black men and black women: black men are seen as rapists, but black women are seen as too sexual to ever say no to sex, and therefore not believable as rape victims. When we believe a white accuser of a black man, we rigidify the impression that black people are oversexed—and the next time a black woman accuses someone, we won’t believe her. Just how this rigidification occurs remains unexplained. But the larger issue is that Srinivasan doesn’t explain how the slogan believe women can be at fault here. After all, believe women tells us to believe the black woman too.
Srinivasan mocks some men accused as part of the #MeToo movement who, despite “hav[ing] conceded their bad behavior … demand soon after, like a child growing weary of a timeout, to be let back in to play … These men … deny that they deserve to be punished.” But a child growing weary of a timeout has been punished. And public social penalties can vary wildly and there is almost no principled discussion of how harsh they should be to fit the relevant infractions. This is an interesting question, but Srinivasan does not take it up.
Perhaps it was wrong of me to say that The Right to Sex is the philosophy of the pose. It might be more fruitful to think of it as part of the literary tradition: a character study in which feminism itself is the protagonist, and is experiencing the sort of anxious moment that is viewed as so important in contemporary culture—a moment of awareness of its own power and the way in which it doesn’t always put its values into practice. But how morally important is such awareness? Is it more important than, say, donating your money to charities proven to save lives—chosen on the basis of effective altruism, which Srinivasan criticized in a 2015 essay? What’s so important about a perfect pose, an unblemished brand, morally speaking?
If feminism were a character in a novel, then it would be good to see her grow, and maybe the book aims to dramatise this process of growth. But feminism—contrary to Srinivasan’s odd protestations—is also a movement and a theory. And while a compelling character can base her world on dreams and clouds, a compelling theory cannot. For all its surprising moments—and Srinivasan surprises the reader more often than almost any other mainstream feminist—The Right to Sex is based too much on thin air: tendentious interpretations of popular slogans, idealised visions of the nature of teaching, unsupported utopianism about natural sexual desire. In analytic philosophy, of which Srinivasan seems to have grown tired, writers generally state these sorts of claims outright and give their reasons for them. Here instead we are buffeted about by emotional stories and rhetorical questions. Perhaps another writer will come along and place these ideas on a more solid ground, providing the next step in the development, the next chapter in the Bildungsroman, of anxious intellectual feminism.