The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan review – the politics of sexual attraction

In The Right to Sex Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, tells the story of a black friend who, “despite being beautiful and otherwise popular”, was “off the table” when it came to dating in her mostly white private school. The reason, Srinivasan tells us, is because it is the “hot blonde sluts” and east Asian women who are “supremely fuckable” in our society. By “fuckability” Srinivasan is not referring to the sexual availability of these bodies but rather to their ability to “confer status to those who have sex with them”. In her theory, there is no “fuckability” in its general sense, as in a pre-political, pre-social desirability; it is constructed by our sexual politics. And it is something her black friend did not have.

Fuckability is of central importance in The Right to Sex, a collection of essays about “the politics and ethics of sex in this world animated by the hope of a different world”, which draws on “an older feminist tradition that was unafraid to think of sex as a political phenomenon – as something squarely within the bounds of social critique”. For Srinivasan, differences in fuckability, reproduced as they are in pornography, exist because sex is subject to the “distortions of oppression”; there is a case to be made for removing the stranglehold these oppressive and discriminatory patterns have on our sexual desires.

For Srinivasan, the notion that people who are fat or transgender or simply don’t fit the white and blond mould are sexually undesirable is a matter for political contestation and moral analysis. Enter philosophy, particularly moral philosophy, which can play a part, not in the moralising sense of telling individuals what sorts of sex they can and cannot have, but rather so individuals can reflect on their own sexual choices. Sex cannot be made just, but examining how much of our sexual desires are programmed by the dark side of our beliefs can lessen the injustice.

It is a compelling argument; the world of pornography, as Srinivasan notes, has largely evaded any sort of philosophical dissection, and who better to take it on than an Oxford professor? Indeed, it is the very refusal to admit to the relative fuckability of persons as a politically relevant problem that has magnified the power of distortions of oppression. And to convince us of this point, Srinivasan presents a plethora of other examples; one is that of Grindr (a gay dating app), which appears to admit to the very different levels of attention white versus Asian males receive but without acknowledging their own role in creating the set of structural choices that permit this disparity to exist.

In the chapter “Talking to My Students About Porn”, Srinivasan argues that her students’ psyches are shaped by pornography. It is not enough, she says, merely to educate young people about sex to counterbalance the effects of sexual imagery. Instead she proposes endowing students with “an emboldened sexual imagination” by telling them that they are the authority on sex and that sex can (if they choose) be “something more joyful, equal, freer”.

Srinivasan identifies with the work of second-wave US feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, who demanded a ban on pornography and that men be punished for violence against women (the two wrote portions of the Violence Against Women Act). But this is not an all-encompassing embrace. Starting in the 1980s, Srinivasan says in her chapter “Sex, Carceralism and Capitalism”, “US feminists successfully campaigned for states to adopt ‘mandatory arrest’ policies which require the police to make an arrest when they are called to a domestic violence complaint.” As research in Wisconsin has shown, this led to three times as many black men being arrested as white men, a significant contribution to the mass incarceration of black men. “When feminists embrace carceral solutions,” Srinivasan concludes, “they give cover to the governing class in its refusal to tackle the deepest causes of most crime.”

Srinivasan discusses the concept of “intersectionality”, which she defines broadly as the idea that any liberation movement that focuses only on what all members of the group have in common will best serve the members of the group who are least oppressed. Take, for instance, the #BelieveHer movement, which attempts to draw attention to how women are disbelieved when they complain of sexual assault, but which, she says, “too readily gives cover to the stigmatization of black male sexuality” by white women. Similarly, focusing on race stifles women’s ability to hold men from their own race to account; the entire discussion pointing out how vulnerable feminism is to the lure of simple solutions.

And what is “The Right to Sex”? For the most part, in this book, it concerns the crazed justifications men offer to claim rights over another’s body.. The simplest explanation of the title is that “no one is obliged to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also who is desired and who isn’t is a political question”. The book effectively highlights how sexual desire – who we are and are not attracted to – is political and affected by the prevalent injustices in society and relevant to their elimination.

Titillating chapter titles such as “On Not Sleeping With Your Students” seem unnecessarily performative. But perhaps that’s a reflection of where academic feminism is right now. In the end, Srinivasan accomplishes what she sets out to do: deliver a treatise both ambivalent and discomfiting, one which reveals the inadequacies in what we had imagined to be solutions.

The Right to Sex is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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