Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Book Reviews

Sex and Power

The complex interrelations of play and power.

Lily Meyer

“Shunga” (erotic drawing), eighteenth century, by Ike Taiga (1723–1776); private collection; Paul Freeman/Bridgeman Images.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | Sex And Power

I have never been a very good feminist. I do not mean this in the sense intended by Roxane Gay in her essay collection Bad Feminist; I don’t think anybody cares that I shave my legs and like reading Vogue. I mean I have always bristled at the confident, prescriptive versions of feminism that have occupied the American—and, to a certain extent, global—mainstream in my lifetime: girl power, choice feminism, girlboss-ism, even #MeToo. My objections always boil down to the sneaking sensation that these feminisms are talking directly to me, which rankles on two levels. First, I dislike being told how to be free. Second, I have always been fairly sure that, relatively speaking, I am free. I may be a woman, but I am also white, upper class, cis, straight, and an American citizen. This sets me squarely on top of what New Left Review editor Susan Watkins, in her essay “Which Feminisms?,” calls “the skewed and racialized pyramid of gender advance.” Yes, I have encountered my share of misogyny; yes, nobody is free until everybody is. But it would be absurd of me not to acknowledge that my life is nonetheless full—indeed, unfairly full—of opportunities and advantages. Is a feminist movement that speaks straight at me, let alone one whose central goal is to liberate me further, really a good use of anybody’s time?

In her debut essay collection, The Right to Sex, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan answers my question with a clear and emphatic no. Srinivasan shares many of my misgivings about mainstream American feminism, with its drives toward capitalist freedom for women and incarceration for predatory men. She also, like Watkins, knows its global power, and knows she wields power herself. Watkins writes that since the 1970s, feminists in the United States have “enjoyed a combination of wealth, institutional heft, and scholarly achievement to which no other women’s movement could compare.” Srinivasan, who studied at Yale and teaches at Oxford, has plenty of institutional heft and scholarly achievement backing up her work. She seems to be settled in her professional power; certainly, these essays are informed by, and to a certain extent directed to, the academy. And while she is plainly and profoundly uncomfortable with the ways mainstream feminism wields its power, she is deeply concerned with how sex and power overlap. Her overarching goal in The Right to Sex is to decouple the two—and, in so doing, to guide her readers toward an egalitarian, unskewed vision of both feminism and sex.

Each essay in The Right to Sex explores a point of contact between sex and power. In “The Conspiracy against Men,” Srinivasan addresses the #MeToo movement’s need for a racial reckoning, persuasively arguing that the “politics of ‘Believe women,’” in their current form, collide with the demands of intersectionality. She expands the argument in both “On Sleeping with My Students,” which is the book’s least interesting entry, and “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism,” which may well become required reading for prison abolitionism. In “Talking to My Students about Porn,” she considers pornography’s power to alter viewers’ sex lives. In her title essay, she moves outward from the violence of incels (the involuntarily celibate, most of whom are men) through various forms of sexual discrimination—e.g., no-fats-no-femmes Grindr profiles, white fear of black sexuality—to ask how we might possibly “dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that…no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question often answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion.” In general, Srinivasan seeks ambivalence as well as egalitarianism—or, rather, she seeks them in tandem. Her simultaneous possession of and discomfort with power pushes her toward a more complicated, less confident, and less comfortable vision of feminism than is presently dominant. It also pushes her toward inclusivity. In the essays collected here, Srinivasan takes up a feminist dream traceable directly to Simone de Beauvoir: a world in which, no matter who you are or who you desire, sex is free.

It is difficult to write about The Right to Sex without tossing the words free and freedom around like a country singer. Feminist writers, Srinivasan included, frequently invoke the free future, often without describing it in detail—which suits me, given my previously mentioned dislike and suspicion of prescriptive ideas about freedom. Srinivasan agrees; she joins Beauvoir in arguing that it is impossible for women to imagine social or sexual freedom from our current unfree vantage point. Feminists who think otherwise tend to fall into two camps: Either they are neoliberals who equate freedom with unfettered participation in capitalism, or they are second wave–style radicals—anti-sex feminists, feminist separatists, and political lesbians—who think freedom starts when men stop. It bears noting that both of these stances are essentially pro-power: market in the first case, exclusionary or disciplinary in the second. (Yes, the self-discipline of subduing one’s own desire counts.) It should therefore be no surprise that Srinivasan rejects both. She has no time at all for the neoliberal perspective. She engages with the anti-man stance at length, but, though she is intrigued by and perhaps somewhat sympathetic to it, she has little choice but to side against it. After all, women who like sleeping with men wouldn’t have much sexual freedom in a world where heterosexual sex was condemned.

Although Srinivasan does not disregard queer sexuality, her essays, on the whole, skew straight. This tendency accords with her desire to speak to and about power, since women who choose male partners often find themselves both allied with and benefiting from patriarchy. Srinivasan rejects any suggestion that, as the rock band Good Charlotte once put it, “girls don’t like boys, girls like cars and money,” but nobody who has read as much of the poetry of Adrienne Rich as she clearly has—she cites her often, and takes her book’s epigraph from Rich’s 1973 poem “Diving into the Wreck”—could fail to consider the idea that straightness is not always freely chosen. In her essay-length coda to The Right to Sex, Srinivasan quotes Rich’s 1980 journal article “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” at length, invoking the ambivalent place occupied by women who, as Rich puts it, “consider [themselves] freely and ‘innately’ heterosexual,” yet acknowledge that “heterosexuality may not be a preference at all.” I belong to that category of woman. It can be confusing, but, per Srinivasan, this is as it should be. She aligns herself not only with Rich but with the great Ellen Willis, my personal-favorite feminist, who, in her 1981 essay “Lust Horizons,” challenged the women’s movement to “treat as axiomatic our free sexual choices, while also seeing why…such choices, under patriarchy, are not always free.” According to Srinivasan, meeting this challenge is also necessary for anyone who wishes to make sense of sex in our not-yet-free world.

Drawing on Rich and Willis, Srinivasan contends throughout the collection that, as long as sex is entangled with power, “the ideology of innate preference [will have] its limits.” She extends this idea beyond the bedroom, arguing that no matter how privately we experience any desire, we cannot be sure it emerges exclusively from the private self. This point is easiest to make in a non- or less sexual context, and Srinivasan argues it cleanly and persuasively in “The Conspiracy against Men” and “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism,” both of which deal with the #MeToo movement and the feminist desire to punish. To Srinivasan, any drive to incarcerate or isolate badly behaved men rather than rehabilitate them emerges from, and is beholden to, coercive state power. Punishment is both corrupt and counterproductive, no matter how deeply and sincerely wished for it may be.

I find this idea inarguably true. As ever, though, things get murkier when sex is fully involved. Consider “Talking to My Students about Porn,” which mixes anecdote with extensive research and combines an overview of feminism’s twentieth-century porn wars with a moral inquiry into the authority of twenty-first-century Internet porn. Srinivasan sees the latter as immense and malign. Porn, she writes, provides scenes to act out, power dynamics to inhabit, scripts to use. It has the potential—or seems to have the potential—to open “a world of sexual possibility, [but] all too often it shuts down the sexual imagination, making it weak, dependent, lazy, codified.” Perhaps this is too gloomy a view; Srinivasan could spend more time on the counterargument that porn helps viewers develop a “robust sense of their own objectivity,” as the philosopher Leslie Green puts it, and that viewing yourself as a sexual object can be vital to having good sex.

Fun is, by and large, missing from The Right to Sex. Srinivasan assumes that free sex would be “more joyful” than sex is now, but joy and fun are different, largely in that the former is serious and the latter is often not. Still, unserious does not mean unworthy. Queer theorists often excel at prioritizing fun and playfulness; so does Willis, who argues in her goofy, perceptive essay “Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life” that “creat[ing] a satisfying tension” between seriousness and silliness is crucial to good, free, or unrestrained sex. To her, joy and fun are necessary counterparts. Srinivasan shows no sign of agreeing, or, really, of caring—which is a shame. Play often repurposes power, and can both complicate and defang it. A helpful follow-up to The Right to Sex would investigate those possibilities. It would also look in depth at versions of feminism that are less powerful than the American mainstream variety. Still, the essays collected here are profoundly useful tools for considering the less fun sides of sexuality and desire. They are also necessary reminders that feminism, too often neatly dressed in pussy hats or power suits, is in fact a radical, destabilizing force. It speaks well of Srinivasan’s writing that, ambivalent and unsettling as The Right to Sex is, it leaves me not hiding, but asking for more.