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.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).