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Wednesday 25 August 2021

Review: Amia Srinivasan The Right to Sex


I was looking forward to the book, having read the essay which gives the book its title and which was  published in the London Review of Books in 2018. I read it as a cross over book in which professor appears as public intellectual, seeking to address a wider audience than that comprised of peers and students. It’s true it’s not a difficult book - I read it in a day - though the short text of a hundred and ninety pages is followed by ninety pages of academic apparatus. But though a crossover book, it could readily be assigned as  core text for a course in “Topics in Contemporary Feminism” or some such and I shall imagine myself as course tutor suggesting lines of discussion, despite my evident unsuitability.

I would start us off with the chapter “The Right to Sex”. I suspect that if you begin with a narrative of the crimes and thoughts of a violent incel [ involuntary celibate] like Elliott Rodger, who in 2014 went on one of those killing sprees enabled by American gun laws, then you are not going to find anyone in the seminar room to argue that there is a right to sex. No one wants to side with Elliott Rodger; the only interesting question is whether he, and those who have followed his path, should be thought of as terrorists or - to use a term with a long history - criminally insane. Possibly, we need a new category because the USA sometimes looks from outside like a country as much at the mercy of terrorists and the criminally insane as of COVID. But deeply unhappy people does not quite cut it.

Within the Western traditions of political theory only one writer, Charles Fourier (1772 -1837), readily springs to mind as having argued for a right to sex. He appears briefly at page 87 and I think more could have been made of what he says, not least because his ideas have - unknowingly - been accepted into fairly common practice. Those who care for adult people with profound  disabilities - people who need 24-hour care - have to deal with the fact that some of those they care for want sex and perhaps deserve more than a right to solitary masturbation. A fairly common but discretely conducted solution is for carers to take their charges to visit sex workers, quite a few of whom advertise willingness to see disabled clients and many of whom are willing to see women as well as men. Public money is quite often used to fund these visits. Fourier would have wanted to garland the sex workers with ribbons and flowers.

This is not the stuff of trending social media discussion, though the film The Theory of Everything (2014) does frankly depict aspects of Stephen Hawking’s sex life. But my fairly  simple example of carers accepting the case for some kind of right to sex could get one into a frame-maintaining discussion in the way that documenting the activity of incels probably won’t. No one is going to want to read endless incel manifestos anyway, unless as a student with forensic interest - think  how Freud read the Memoirs of Judge Schreber or Foucault read Pierre Rivière.

If there was a right to sex, what would it be a right to? It might be disappointingly minimal and hardly connect with what we think of as paradigmatic of sexual desire or fulfilment.

But what is paradigmatic of sexual desire and its fulfilment? Srinivasan’s discussion of this is scattered over the whole book, but I would start with her first chapter “The Conspiracy Against Men”. Over the past half century or more, feminists have painted a very bleak picture of male sexual desire. Either men are natural-born rapists [ * see footnote right at end] or they are shaped by patriarchal societies into less-than-fully-human beings who lose no chance to display a toxic masculinity [I don’t think that Srinivasan actually uses that expression and that may be a choice] they don’t even realise is theirs. The only advantage to the second way of thinking is that it leaves open the possibility that in a different kind of society, men could be shaped differently. The same either-or framing can, of course, be applied to female sexuality.

One feminist strategy has been to argue that sexual relations in general, and not just between men and women, would be better if regulated (legally, morally) within a shared or enforced commitment to a basically Kantian ethics in which human beings - persons - are always to be treated as ends and never as means. Some feminists have reckoned that this approach can also be deployed to build a case against pornography, the subject of Srinivasan’s second chapter, “Talking to my Students about Porn”. But she doesn’t discuss a Kantian approach as such. It does run into at least a couple of difficulties, though they pull in opposite directions.

Back in the 1970s the British government established a Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship and, perhaps remarkably, appointed a very talented academic philosopher, Bernard Williams - Knightbridge Professor in Cambridge - to head it. Williams did look at the question of whether pornography should be regarded as depersonalising, and therefore bad on the Kantian view, but found - perhaps to his surprise - that most of those who figured in the pornography of the time, and however much they might be turned into subjects of fantasy, were generally given quite definite personal characteristics and were not “just” bodies. This was true of Page Three girls but also of characters in what was then called hard core pornography. In accompanying text, they were generally given names, school leaver qualifications, ambitions, hobbies, and so on. Whatever people wanted from pornography it did not appear to be just bodies. The same is probably true today, and video and cam shows allow for the creation of narratives which the still photography of older pornography could only supply in accompanying text.

But in another direction, one of the few academic Anglosphere philosophers to write about sexual desire - Roger Scruton in his 1987 book Sexual Desire [see my review  on this Blog 13 June 2020] - was not entirely convinced that objectification has no legitimate part in sexual desire. It is not just that sexual desire in unruly but that it is at least in part satisfied by objectifications (or less strongly, thematisations) which are consensual and often playful. The key distinction for Scruton is between sex considered as (merely) appetitive and sexual desire as intentionally directed towards persons and thus involving imagination in a way that “appetite” or “instincts” don’t.

Times change and Srinivasan addresses the pervasive part internet porn now plays in young people’s lives. It leads men who have watched porn to say to their girlfriends, You’re doing it wrong (p. 44) and that is a worry because it introduces into inter-personal relations ways of organising experience which have been honed by very large and not disinterested capitalist enterprises. Fifty years ago, it was women who said You’re doing it wrong to their male partners and who proceeded to provide elementary sex education, guiding the man to the location of something called the clitoris and helpful conduct in relation to it. In 1970 Britain’s National Secular Society published a booklet entitled Sex Education: the Erroneous Zone which did indeed show that the sex education offered to young people at the time was inaccurate and misleading. And many argued: it was meant to be. There is a long history in which organised religions have sought very actively to suppress sexual knowledge, including of things (like contraception) which were known about in very distant pasts. The UK publication of the fully-illustrated The Joy of Sex in 1972 was a breakthrough and hugely important for many people. An obscure but very different approach to sex education was provided in the same year by the  English translation of Freudian and Marxist Wilhelm Reich’s The Sexual Struggle of Youth (1934). The translation was the (unpaid) work of someone who went on to become a well-known Anglo-American feminist theorist, though I don’t think she ever claimed credit. It was felt worth doing because Reich challenged a narrowly economistic socialist politics and at the same time showed that obstacles to sexual happiness - like lack of privacy - are differentially distributed by social class. I was reminded of this old book by Srinivasan’s final chapter, of which more later.

 The word “young” in the previous paragraph leads me to a further point. Sexual desire is something experienced over a life time and during a lifetime if changes in intensity, in focus, and in circumstantial exercise. It’s not unreasonable, in my view, to think of sexual desire as something which for many teenagers is experienced at the beginning in an urgent, unfocussed way - they just need to orgasm and beyond that they can’t think very clearly. It is more like something appetitive in Scruton’s sense. The jazz musician, George Melly, famously wrote when late in life he became impotent, “It’s wonderful, like being unchained from a lunatic”.

Time often removes the original urgency, allowing desire to flourish in the form of marital sexuality. (For husbands, there is even the word uxorious; there is no equivalent for wives). Feminists had their doubts about such happy images of marriage and it was with the institution of marriage that much feminist writing was concerned; once it gets going, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch of 1970 is simply a rant against marriage [ see my review on this Blog, 27 September 2016].

But what about the rapists? as Srinivasan asks to good effect in her final chapter. Looked at one way, sexual violence often enough looks like male violence which happens on some occasion to be sexual. Maybe soldiers who rape are just deploying a different weapon in a context where violence is part of what they are expected to use. Looked at another way, rape is specifically sexual and the fantasies or anger or frustrations or whatever which fuel it have to be analysed within a more specific theory or narratives - since not all rapes may be alike. One could, of course try to break down this contrast. Srinivasan does describe cases, some of which are hard to respond to in a considered fashion. She mentions the case of Jyoti Singh, raped and murdered in 2012 (pp. 11-12). I knew the story and remembered that at the time my reaction had been immediate conversion to the righteousness of the death penalty. Her killers should all be hanged, no doubt at all. End of.

Some feminists have ventured into the demanding task of making forensic examination of male violence: in 1987 Deborah Cameron [now an Oxford professor] and Elizabeth Fraser published The Lust to Kill: A Feminist Investigation of Sexual Murder. But Kate Millet followed up her Sexual Politics (1970) with The Basement (1979) a disturbing study of a single case of the protracted torture and murder of a teenage girl in which the principal part was played by a woman. I think there were people who reacted badly to this book, but in principle it could be seen as an attempt to ask a question about what might be different about (extreme) female violence.


Srinivasan’s book is full of relevant, topical, and challenging examples. But I have always had ambivalent feelings about relevance. I think that students should expect to get from university study fluency in one or more ways of studying the world, just as a student of a  language expects to get fluency in that language. In that sense, I want university studies to be relevant. So a philosophy student fluent in Kantianism could pick up and run with the sketchy remarks I made earlier; a student familiar with the nature of rights-based legal and political theories would be able to assess whether sex is something which can helpfully be addressed in the language of rights or whether a rights-based approach is really too thin, too rationalistic. Some theories are more all-embracing than others, like Marxism and Freudianism, others are more limited tool boxes. Feminism sometimes aspires to be a theory - though Srinivasan calls it a movement rather than theory (page xi and then again on the last page p 179) - but there is a problem that those supposedly fluent in it either seem to be speaking different languages or aren’t on speaking terms. True, it’s a tall order to expect half the world’s population to agree with itself.

But in terms of relevance considerations, fluency is often achieved pedagogically through the study of simplified examples rather than full-blown topical narratives to which we quite often can find no other immediate reaction than shock or outrage, like my own illustrated above. To achieve understanding of how a theory works and how it can be made to yield results, it is often necessary to take an uncomplicated, quieter, example in order to see clearly how the basic machinery of our thinking works or doesn’t work. In a different context, if I was asked to address the giant (or possibly elephant in the room) Nature / Culture topic, I would start with handedness (left/right-handed). Later on, one can look at hard cases - Srinivasan’s book provides many such cases and she invites us to see that there are sometimes no easy answers and sometimes no case to answer.

One approach within contemporary feminism, that associated with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) strikes me as obscurantist and impossible to become fluent in, so that instead of effective analyses we end up with ritual repetitions of positions to which everyone is expected to nod agreement. Martha Nussbaum provided a trenchant critique back in 1999. But right at the beginning of her book, Srinivasan invokes Judith Butler: “Sex, which feminists have taught us to distinguish from gender, is itself already gender in disguise” and then takes us to her very first footnote reference, to Judith Butler (p.xii. p. 185). Nope. It won’t wash. "Gender in disguise" is a nice try, but it's  rhetorical flourish not argument.

Whether anyone teaches the history of modern social constructionist theories from Alfred Schütz, through Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann and on to John Searle I don’t know. But, when considered, I don’t think there is any coherent version of social constructionism which will lead to the conclusion that the world is a better place for having “gender reveal” parties. I state my case at



I found Srinivasan’s final chapter the most impressive and it should be saved for the last course session. “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism” fluently deploys theory and argument, sweeps up a lot of apparently disparate material, and points in a clear direction. It’s very well written, refreshing, and persuasive. It is deeply humane and finds a way of formulating that humanity in simple terms picked up and then  re-framed from an old 1977 manifesto which includes the sentence, “As feminists, we do not want to mess over people in the name of politics”. Srinivasan catches the thread and runs with it: “This basic principle - of not ‘messing over’ people as a means to a political end - implies that any choice between improving the lives of existing people and holding the line for a better future must be settled in favour of the former” (p 159). She is at that point specifically concerned with making the argument for the full decriminalisation and legalisation of sex work. But if you pause and think about it for a moment, the formulation is also a rebuke to all those who have been willing to concede to the Stalins and Maos of the world, big and small, that the end justifies the means and that it is the Future (as it is imagined for Us by Them) which trumps the Present (as we experience it).

Srinivasan then broadens the argument into a critique of what she calls “carceralism” of which Law & Order feminism has been a sponsor. Here the focus is on the United States and its extraordinary prison Gulag, fed by an out-of-control police and (to outsiders) theatrical criminal justice system, and some frankly weird laws. She rightly makes out the case that those who are already most disadvantaged are further disadvantaged by Law & Order “solutions” and that the only solutions which have any chance of working will necessarily involve a big redistribution of income and wealth from the increasingly rich to the increasingly poor. I sometimes think that even getting back to where we were forty or fifty years ago would help a lot. (Switch to the UK for a moment, and answer this question: When Margaret Thatcher took power in 1979, one of her first important acts was to cut the top rate of income tax from xx% to yy%. What were the values of xx and yy? Answer at the bottom of the page).

Srinivasan has published a very well written, forthright, committed, and in many respects, unusual, book which will, I am sure, be much read and appreciated. I look forward to reading in the next book what she has to say (there is already a lot in article form) in the narrower part of her role as professional philosopher.

* * *

Times change:

Amia Srinivasan is the seventh person to be appointed to Oxford University’s Chichele Professorship in Social and Political Theory since it was created in 1944. The first holder was G D H Cole (1889-1959), the only holder to be born in the United Kingdom, and notable as a World War One pacifist, Fabian, Guild Socialist and  mentor to two leaders of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson. In Church of England Oxford, he stuck out as an atheist and when it was his turn to say grace at meal times in All Souls, substituted a two minute silence.

His domestic relations were rather more conventional; in the biography of her husband which she published after his death The Life of G D H Cole (1971), Dame Margaret Cole wrote that though they were married for over forty years and had three children,

….he was always under-sexed - low-powered. If he had not married, I doubt very much he would have had any sex-life at all in the ordinary sense ….For women generally, except his wife, he never seemed to have any sexual use at all, and by and large to regard them as rather a low type of being….He believed as strongly as any anti-Socialist that no woman (except Jane Austen) had ever achieved first-class honours in art or literature; and he felt that the main purpose in life of the majority of them was to distract a man from his proper work …. his sex life diminished gradually to zero for the last twenty years of his life. Concurrently, he developed by degrees a positive dislike of, and disgust with, any aspect of sex almost equal to that of the early Christian fathers …… (pp. 91 - 94)

When they could have been having sex, husband and wife were instead busy jointly writing popular detective novels: The Walking Corpse (1931), Disgrace to the College (1937), Murder at the Munitions Works (1940) - and over twenty more like that. They employed household servants so one does not have to imagine titles being worked up as she washed and he dried.

* * *

83% was cut to 60%


* Footnote: In 1978 I recall going into a large University of London student dining hall, greeted by a large banner strung across the entire length of the balcony: ALL MEN ARE RAPISTS. As I ate my lunch I tried to think of a disruptive response which might be hung on a second banner, underneath. I reckoned that  a syllogism would do the trick.


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