Amia Srinivasan is a 37-year-old feminist philosopher and the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University’s All Souls College. In this fascinating collection of essays, she grapples with many thorny issues of sexuality that have challenged and often divided feminist movements: whether prostitution and pornography should be abolished (she says no), how to effectively prevent sexual harassment and abuse on campus, whether law enforcement and prisons are suitable tools to combat violence against women, or whether there is a “right to sex” in the wake of claims by violent “incels” (involuntary celibates, usually men).
Srinivasan does not offer answers to all these questions, nor does she fully outline the contours of each debate. Instead, she takes us along her reflections, which are full of “aha” moments as she explores the complexities and ambiguities of each topic. Feminists are not given a free pass: she rightly calls out certain feminist factions for their “anti-sex” stances—as in Catherine MacKinnon’s view that all sex with men is a violation—their lack of engagement with issues of race, caste or class, or their uncritical reliance on the carceral state to address intimate partner violence.
The book’s eponymous essay on the “Right to Sex” makes clear (thankfully!) that there is no such right; no one, even those unhappy in sexual matters, can claim use of another person’s body against their will. Srinivasan doesn’t dwell on the predictable, counter-arguments about women’s right to have sex they want with whomever they want, even though she clearly agrees with that. She is more interested in what the discourse of “incels” reveals; she concludes that it is not sex these men want, but access to high-status women (“hot sorority blondes”) and the prestige that would give them with other men, in accordance with patriarchal norms. Srinivasan’s thoughts on the politically incorrect dimensions of desire are also a must-read.
In the essay “The Conspiracy Against Men,” Srinivasan discusses the outsized place that false rape accusations occupy in the public imagination. While she acknowledges that “Some men are falsely accused of rape; there is nothing to be gained by denying it,” she demonstrates how rare those false accusations are, and how they pale in comparison with the numbers of rapes that are never reported, much less prosecuted.
But she doesn’t stop at this not-too-controversial point. Srinivasan pushes her analysis into the fraught territory of the motto “Believe women”, coming out of the #MeToo campaign—and its corollary “Don’t believe him.” Srinivasan notes how this motto discounts the role of race, class, ethnic origin or other status when it comes to which women are believed, and which men are accused. It also leaves unspoken the critical role of police in pinning crimes on certain categories of men. For example, of the 147 men exonerated of rape in the US between 1989 and 2020, over half were Black, even though Black men make up only 14 percent of the population and 27 percent of all men convicted of rape. “The politics of ‘Believe women,’ in its current form, collides with the demands of intersectionality,” she argues.
Srinivasan’s discussion of the myth of the Black or brown rapist (cf. Trump’s characterization of Mexicans) and its impact on women and girls in those communities is particularly thought-provoking. In her classic 1981 text Women, Race & Class, Professor Angela Davis noted that the “fictional image of the Black man as rapist has always strengthened its inseparable companion: the image of the Black woman as chronically promiscuous.” Srinivasan warns that “When we are too quick to believe a white women’s accusation against a black [sic] man, or a Brahmin women’s accusation against a Dalit man, it is black and Dalit women who are rendered more vulnerable to sexual violence.” Pressured to close ranks in solidarity with their men, or simply disbelieved because of hypersexualization, Black and brown women lose their ability to speak out against the violence they suffer in their own community.
Srinivasan concludes that what “wealthy white men” truly fear is that the growing demand that women be believed, will result in white men being routinely treated by the law the way poor Black and brown men are; but as Srinivasan shows, these white men still don’t have much to fear.
Perhaps the most intriguing essay is the one “On Not Sleeping With Your Students.” A professor herself, Srinivasan gives a nod to the well-known arguments for not having sex with one’s students: the power differentials between student and teacher, and the possibility of coercion tied up with grades. But her own argument, rooted in the ethics of teaching, is much more interesting: schools and universities should recognize that (often, female) students regularly fall in love with a (often, male) teacher, and might seek or consent to a sexual relationship as a result. Freud called this “transference-love,” and it is a phenomenon that psychoanalysts are trained to recognize and re-direct in dealing with their patients. There is currently no such training for teachers or university professors; in fact, there is little pedagogical training of any kind given to teaching assistants and adjuncts.
When the teacher fails to re-direct this misplaced love, he harms the student’s education, says Srinivasan: “…the teacher-student relationship is characterized, in its nature, by a profound epistemic [knowledge] asymmetry… Implicit in their relationship is the promise that the asymmetry will be reduced: that the teacher will confer on the student some of his power; will help her become, at least in one respect, more like him. When the teacher takes the student’s longing for epistemic power and transposes it into a sexual key, allowing himself to be―or worse, making himself—the object of her desire, he has failed her as a teacher.” Srinivasan argues that these relationships “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.”
Instead of waiting to be further regulated by universities in their interactions with students, academics should proactively set out what Srinivasan calls a “sexual ethics of pedagogy” that outlines what “university teachers, as teachers, owe their students, as students.”
If you, like me, applauded then Senator Joe Biden’s 1994 Violence Against Women Act and the USD 1.6 billion it poured into the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, or the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action calling for punishment of violent men through “penal, civil, labour and administrative sanctions,” Srinivasan’s essay on “Sex, Carceralism and Capitalism” will have you reassess. The policies that have caused growing economic inequality since the 1980s and the use of “criminalization and cages” as “catchall solutions to social problems” have had a devastating impact on the most vulnerable, including women and children. Srinivasan calls for a redistribution of wealth and power from the rich to the poor to guarantee “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.” Absent that, “…a feminist politics which sees the punishment of bad men as its primary purpose will never be a feminism that liberates all women, for it obscures what makes most women unfree.”
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@amiasrinivasan in The Right to Sex: “…a feminist politics which sees the punishment of bad men as its primary purpose will never be a feminism that liberates all women, for it obscures what makes most women unfree.”