Amia Srinivasan’s “Right to Sex” asks the essential questions that needed to be asked
In a 2018 article titled The correctness of anger, Amia Srinivasan, currently the first non-white woman and the youngest holder of the Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory at All Soul’s College, Oxford, quotes Audre Lorde on women’s anger, saying that “anger expressed and translated in 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 cutting-edge essays that takes the reader on a moral and political journey through current and long-standing debates on all things sex and feminism. Indeed, it is the anger expressed, translated into words (what some will say are actions) in the service of a vision – the feminist vision of a just and compassionate world – and thus constitutes a truly liberating and strengthening act of clarification.
Srinivas strives to accurately clarify the rugged terrain where sex meets feminism and does so with striking argumentative acuity and solid empirical evidence, a rather unusual combination for philosophical writing often accused of dealing with unfounded abstractions. At the heart of these essays is an honest account with the material counterpart of token politics and the need to recognize and address the fact that the things that “make most women unfree” are often things that are. not common to all women.
Written through fuzzy lines, the essays of The right to sex can be described as revealing the struggle in politics between pragmatics and principle, and the work of hope and imagination to resolve this so-called tension. She cautions the reader at the outset that “a truly inclusive politics is an uncomfortable and dangerous politics.” A policy that offers a “home,” she writes, is a policy that carries the risk of becoming exclusionary.
And therefore, what she offers us in her essays is not a haven of peace, neither in theory nor in practice – it is a complex, disorderly, even unsafe but still real. To confuse their embrace of ambiguity with confusion or chaos, however, would be a mistake; for the work of pointing out exactly where the uncertainties lie in our treatment of sex is crucial to the material implications of feminist politics for the women it claims to serve. This is exactly the kind of fierce work of clarifying the hope 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 naturally incomplete, Srinivasan poses difficult questions of debate and points to the complex but neglected ways in which feminist treatment of it often ends up making life. women who participate. in it materially worse.
Her characterization of the difficult relationship between the state, legal and market institutions with feminist politics – a recurring theme in her book – invites the reader to view the debate on prostitution through a larger lens that can accommodate, in the absence of a clear resolution, at least the conflict between praxis and theory.
Should feminism immolate some of those it claims to liberate on the altar of the future, clinging to the aspiration for distant but long-term social change? Or is the loyalty of feminists based on the lived material realities of women who live and work? today even if it means doing unwanted negotiations with state and market forces? These are difficult and tangled questions – in practice, perhaps even opposites. Srinivasan’s essays remind us that they must be treated, and treated with care, if the feminist goals of justice, compassion, and freedom are to be effectively and ethically realized.
In a sincere balance between the traditional and the contemporary, and in keeping with his promise in the preface to offer “a political critique of sex for the 21st century,” Srinivasan dives face to face in the essay on opening into what is. current and what’s trending. , in what has recently become feminism’s greatest enemy in the public imagination – not men, but the alleged conspiracy against them. She reminds us, in ironic but passionate prose, that there really is no conspiracy against men – certainly not against the loudest men who complain the most.
#MeToo, #IBelieveHer become axes through which she investigates the intersectional losses that result from the institutional co-optation of political momentum without due regard for racial, class and caste dimensions. If one is to believe the testimonies of women, as it is imperative to do, then what moral and political apparatuses do we need to navigate the epistemic issues between, say, the Brahmin woman who claims her Dalit employee? assaulted and the Dalit woman who alleges that her Dalit husband is being installed?
Constraints and Hope
Srinivasan returns to the question of institutions repeatedly throughout the volume. Her treatment of the spectrum of sexual violations against women – from rape to porn – is underpinned by a critical stance toward institutional attempts at gender justice and condemnation of the prison system. The essays, particularly those on #MeToo and prostitution, highlight the different ways in which material transactions with institutions can be uneven and arbitrary, often failing to solve but exacerbating the problems they aim to solve.
Consider the case of poor women of color who become disproportionately disadvantaged when men in their families are arrested, fired or fined on charges of sexual violations against white women – such cases are plentiful in colonial reality and post-colonial. For Srinivasan, a feminism that is defined by “the common oppression of women” and which aims simply to “punish the wicked” ignores the real social forces that allow the harm done to women to continue and proliferate. Material inequality, racism or castism can be ailments affecting all genders, but are significantly more harmful to non-men than they are to men at all levels – and The right to sex calls the attention of feminists to this fact.
While a thematic half of the book focuses on investigating the constraints facing current feminist politics, the other half is focused on freedom and built on a call to hope and imagination. In the words of Mark Fisher of resistance to capitalism, these essays can be understood as reminding us that “(A) any emancipatory policy must destroy the appearance of a natural order.
The eponymous essay in the collection – a reissue of a controversial 2018 article by the same title written for the London book review – a coda on the politics of desire that follows it, and an essay on pornography, ask the reader what is natural in sex?
Are some bodies naturally more universally desirable than others? Does the presumed naturalness of certain forms of sex and desire make them more correct and justified than others? How do we learn and internalize these characterizations of naturalness? Are such characterizations devoid of what is happening in the world? Are they immune to the forces of history, politics and society? Are they, indeed, Natural?
Inviting the reader to ask these questions, these essays reveal the problematic relationship between pedagogy, politics, and nature when it comes to gender. Srinivasan encourages us to imagine different, more equal, more compassionate, more creative sexual natures and pleads for a kind of sexual freedom that is not freedom. To sex, but a freedom of the unspoken social ordinances that have been imposed on sex as it occurs.
Avoiding neither the importance of ideals nor the pragmatism of practice, these essays urge readers, both inside and outside the feminist movement, to tackle the messy work of live politics of way to achieve genuinely inclusive ends using genuinely inclusive means. Straddling the subtle balance between the politically material and the politically symbolic, Amia Srinivasan The right to sex is a powerful addition to the feminist discourse on all things sex that sits on a small window sill that looks towards emancipation.
Reetika Kalita is a graduate student in philosophy at Simon Fraser University. Find her here on Twitter and here on Instagram.
The right to sex, Amia Srinivasan, Bloomsbury.