Newsletter #5: Desire Is Political, with Amia Srinivasan

by Maia Silber

Conversations about the politics of sex often focus on the presence or absence of consent. For feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan, this is a profoundly inadequate framework — one that leaves us ill-prepared to interrogate the power dynamics that shape even the sex we freely choose, and suggests carceral remedies likely to harm society’s most vulnerable members.

Searching for alternatives, Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Centuryreaches back to the “sex wars” of the 1970s, when feminists fiercely debated how power informs our desires. In those debates, she often finds more questions than answers. Can we treat sex as political without subjecting ourselves and others to an authoritarian moralism? Can we reject the sexual shaming so often weaponized against women, queer, and gender non-conforming people without succumbing to the fantasy that our desires are wholly natural?

In a wide-ranging conversation on The Dig,Srinivasan brings these questions to bear on contemporary debates about sex on college campuses, pornography, and sex work. She argues, for instance, against critics who claim that teachers who enter consensual relationships with students don’t deserve our censure, while insisting that institutional responses do more to protect universities from liability than young people from abuse. She urges us to take seriously the power of pornography to shape not only sexual actions but also sexual affects and urges in harmful ways, even while recognizing the medium’s potential for inspiring radical modes of pleasure and sexual agency.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Amia Srinivasan here.

The titular essay in The Right to Sexcontroversially examines the claims of “incel” (involuntarily celibate) men to sexual entitlement. While Srinivasan insists that there is no right to sex, she takes seriously incels’ contention that sexual attraction is distributed unequally along hierarchies of race, class, and conventional attractiveness.

Incels hypocritically lament the ways these hierarchies harm them even while they subscribe to their valorization of certain kinds of bodies: the rich, thin, white women they call “Stacys.” Srinivasan thinks that we can take inspiration instead from queer and Black women who have asked us to critically interrogate who and how we desire. For Srinivasan, this isn’t about repression — it’s about openness to the forms of sex and love that are blocked by our current power structures.

Further Reading and Listening

Srinivasan has examined some of the themes in this week’s episode in essays published in the New Yorker,the New York Times,and the London Review of Books.For more left-feminist thought on The Dig,check out Melinda Cooper on the convergence of neoliberalism with “family values” social conservatism, Sophie Lewis on the global system of racialized labor exploitation that undergirds both the commercial surrogacy industry and “natural” reproduction, and Nancy Fraser on why our analysis of capitalism needs to extend beyond the realm of production to the homes, schools, and hospitals that enable its functioning. Harkening back to feminism’s Second Wave, check out Barbara Erenreich’s canonical 1976 essay on socialist feminism, republished in Jacobin with a new introduction.