The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

This 2020 collection of essays on feminist philosophy by Dr. Amia Srinivasan deals with issues in contemporary sexuality and feminism. The author is quite critical of some aspects of modern feminism, and confronts difficult subjects in her essays. I learned a lot about the history of feminism from her writing. This is not a book that provides answers to the questions raised, only complications.

Content Warning: Discussion of Sexual Violence


A friend who is a guidance counselor in a high school once told me because of pornography, many high school students thought that hitting and choking was normal in sex. I’m reminded of this anecdote in the essay “Talking to My Students About Porn”, where the author discusses the history of the “porn wars” in feminism: whether pornography was a source of women’s oppression and should be banned, or could be used to liberate women from the stigma of sex.

Today, this debate is moot: thanks to the internet, pornography is ubiquitous. Good or bad, we must live with it. The author discusses teaching the “porn question” with her students in introductory classes on feminist theory. Her students are the first generation to have grown up with universal internet porn. Most of the students thought that pornography had a negative impact on their sex lives. The men complained about the routines expected of them, and the women complained about the lack of consideration of the woman’s pleasure. Is there feminist porn out there? Sure. But that’s not what the youth are watching. They are watching the free stuff on PornHub, the hardcore stuff. However, despite their opposition, none of her students contemplated legally sanctioning pornography. The internet is a force beyond the reach of legal regimes. Instead, bad speech has to be fought with better speech.

Porn hasn’t sought the authority it has over us, nor have we formally granted it any kind of formal authority. But it can’t be denied that porn has a deep influence on us:

Porn trains. It etches deep grooves in the psyche, forming powerful associations between arousal and selected stimuli, bypassing that part of us which pauses, considers, thinks. Those associations, strengthened through repetition, reinforce and reproduce the social meaning assigned by patriarchy to sexual difference. This is especially true of filmed pornography, which harnesses the power of the most ideologically potent entertainment apparatus of all: the moving picture. The movie (pornographic or not), unlike the still image or book or audio recording, needs nothing from us— no input, no elaboration. It requires only our enthralled attention, which we are compelled to give, and give willingly.

The internet, of course, has a variety of porn out there for all conceivable niches, not just the default. But porn is also defining sex for us - not only are kids watching it at younger ages to learn about sex, but algorithms are influencing our preferences. These algorithms pre-categorize everything - Teen, MILF, Gangbang, etc; - and give users what other members of their demographics watch, bringing our tastes into conformity.

All is not lost though: we can take back the power to define ourselves that porn has taken from us. The ultimate authority for sex lies with us - we can continue to execute the scripts of the past, or it can be something more free.

The Politics of Desire

This essay also appeared in the London Review of Books.

In college, I was with a group of white men and the topic of dating came up. One of them mentioned he wouldn’t date a black woman. To my shock, the rest of the group agreed with him. We say that nobody is entitled to a relationship with someone else, but I was still disgusted. Are they entitled to have this preference, when it comes to something as personal as dating and sex?

The author explores this tension in “The Right to Sex”. You are not entitled to sex with anyone, but people can have preferences that are problematic. To the author, there is a political dimension to what we desire. She cites an example of the Grindr short videos, called “What the Flip?”. In it, a beautiful white and asian man swap profiles. The white man has scores of lovers beckoning to him, the asian man comparatively few, and those he does match with send racist messages. To the author, this video illustrates the contradiction between the principle of consent and the principle of equity:

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.

Like many of the essays of this book, she provides no answers, nor even a theory of how politics makes one person desirable versus another. She ends the essay reflecting on the difference between an incel who demands a right to sex and body-positivity movements. To her, things such as “black is beautiful” are not asking for entitlement so much as asking us to re-evaluate our values. Love can take us by surprise.

Student-Teacher Relationships

In the essay “On not Sleeping with Your Students”, the author discusses student-teacher relationships. She thinks that while there is a power differential between professor and student, and that is one reason to prohibit student-reach. More importantly than that, however, student-teacher relationships get in the way of teaching the student.

She thinks that such relationships are a sign of of narcissism on the part of the professor, who is making the relationship about them rather than the material. She makes a comparison to Freud - who expressly prohibited therapist-patient relationships, starting a tradition in psychology that such relationships are wrong. To Freud, it was natural that the patient develop feelings for their therapist. The therapist is not supposed to reciprocate those feelings, but to transfer them back into the therapy process. She thinks that like therapy, the teaching process can be charged with eroticism, and the professors should channel that impulse towards learning. However, unlike therapists, academics have not adopted those standards for themselves, but instead had to have those rules imposed on them by college administrators.

This especially applies the most common kind of student-teacher relationship, an older male teacher with a younger female student:

Imagine a student who, infatuated with her professor, pursues him and, thrilled when he returns her attentions, has sex with him, dates him, only eventually to realize that she was just the latest in a string of students, and that their affair is less a sign of her specialness than it is of his vanity. What happens next? Feeling betrayed and embarrassed, she can no longer take his classes, or spend time in his department (her department); she worries about which of his colleagues (her teachers) know about the relationship, and whether they might hold it against her; she suspects (rightly) that her academic successes will be chalked up to her relationship with him…Leaving aside the question of what teacher–student relationships express, it is easy enough to say what they produce. They often, if not universally, harm women in ways that derail their education. This is obviously true in the case of women who stop going to class, who become convinced they are not cut out for academic life, who drop out of college or grad school. But it is also true in the case of women who stay on with a diminished sense of their intellectual capacities, newly suspicious when other male professors show an interest in their work and anxious that, should they succeed, their successes will be attributed to someone or something else. These relationships are sometimes, often, wanted. Are they any less discriminatory for that?

She then considers if the answer is regulating such relationships through policy. She doesn’t think so, noting that while Title IX offices and other polices, have made campuses more fair for women, it has come at the expense of unfairness for others (she notes that many feminists are loath to admit this). For example, in 1984 a lesbian professor was sanctioned for a relationship with a student she was not teaching. At Colgate university, black students formed 4.2% of the student body, but 50% of all sexual violation complaints. Because Title IX offices are only concerned with gender issues, they keep no statistics on race.


The first and fifth essays reflect on gender violence, and how the law has often failed to achieve justice. She does not advocate for different policies to fix this; instead she thinks that the law itself is an inadequate tool for achieving those ends.

In the first essay, “The Conspiracy Against Men”, she argues that most false rape accusations are not made by women against men: they are made by men against other men, who pin an actual rape on the wrong person. Typically the victim is a man of color. In the age of MeToo and #BelieveWomen, this sets up an uncomfortable tension:

Whom are we to believe, the white woman who says she was raped, or the black or brown woman who insists that her son is being set up? Carolyn Bryant or Mamie Till?

She thinks that the law and other formal procedures, such as university “sex bureaucracies” are the wrong tool for the job, that we should look past the punishment approach to change the patriarchy. If we can’t turn to the law, then can we turn to the mob justice of social media? The author thinks this is problematic as well. Words have power, and the mob of social media can expose, humiliate and fire those at the receiving end of it. Aren’t those people entitled to the presumption of innocence as well? At the same time, she contradicts herself by acknowledging that very few of the people accused on social media have faced serious consequences from their accusations. How, then to achieve justice for sexual violence and abuse? She offers no solutions, apart from a passing reference to restorative justice. In another essay, she expresses faith that the culture will change and our psychology with it. But I wonder how people will change if their incentives don’t change.

In the fifth and last essay, “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism”, the author criticizes a movement she calls “carceral feminism”. Carceral feminism attempts the to use the law, police, and courts to achieve gender justice. Many of the laws enacted in the name of helping women have backfired:

When prostitution is criminalized, as in most of the US, sex workers are raped by johns, and by the police, with impunity. When prostitution is partly legalized, as in the UK, women who work together for safety are arrested for “brothel-keeping,” and—if they are immigrants—deported. When prostitution is legalized but heavily state-regulated, as in Germany and the Netherlands, male managers and brothel-keepers grow rich, while women who are unable to meet licensing requirements join a shadowy criminal class, susceptible to trafficking and forced prostitution. When buying but not selling sex is illegal, as in the “Nordic model,” johns demand increased privacy for their transactions with sex workers, forcing women to take greater risks to make the same money. Under none of these criminalizing regimes are sex workers, as a class, better off.

In 2006, Brazil passed the Maria da Penha Law, named after a woman who had survived repeated beatings and two murder attempts by her husband, one of which left her paralyzed from the waist down; it took twenty years for da Penha to get her husband tried and convicted by a Brazilian court. The new law, passed in large part because of the campaigning efforts of feminist organizations, introduced mandatory prison sentences for perpetrators of domestic violence, and special courts for the adjudication of domestic violence cases. Some Brazilian academics have pointed out that the Maria da Penha Law has resulted in a drop in the reporting of domestic violence. This is not because the new law has decreased the incidence of domestic violence. It is because the poor Brazilian women who disproportionately suffer from domestic violence no longer feel that they can turn to the police for help: they fear their partners will be imprisoned under terrible conditions, and worry about their ability to run a household alone, in the absence of state economic support.

Carceral feminism is more concerned with the punishment of bad men rather than the uplifting of women, and ignores the causes of most women’s misery: poverty, racial domination, etc. Instead of revolting against oppression, carceral feminism has given cover to the ruling classes to perpetuate it. She instead proposes a socialist proposal of prison abolition: instead of spending our resources on police, courts, and jails we tackle the root causes of violence.

It would involve putting in place the social and political arrangements to meet the needs that, when they go unfulfilled, produce interpersonal violence: public housing, health care, education, and childcare; decent jobs in democratically organized workplaces; guaranteed basic income; local democratic control of community spending and priorities; spaces for leisure, play, and social gathering; clean air and water. And it would involve creating a justice system that, wherever possible, sought repair and reconciliation. Abolition, Gilmore explains, “isn’t just absence … abolition is a fleshly and material presence of social life lived differently.”

I remain skeptical of prison abolition. It is of course true that the justice system is often unfair, and that the police do not always contribute to law and order. But I think the solution is to build a better justice system, that holds everyone to account, including the police, not to scrap it entirely. Perhaps I am wrong, and crime will go away when we abolish poverty. But abolishing police and prisons seems to me the last step in that process, not the first.

Final Thoughts

The prose in these essays is easily the best I’ve read all year. I didn’t agree with every argument, but it made me reflect on my on prior beliefs. I’d recommend The Right To Sex to anyone with a passing interest in contemporary issues of sex and gender.

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