What kind of men do feminist women want to have sex with? In 2004, African-American feminist bell hooks came up with one response: women want to be with men who can love. In The Will to Change: On Men, Masculinity and Love, hooks argued that the women’s liberation movement had failed to get women the sex that they wanted. Even when sex became socially permissible for women, satisfying sex remained elusive because the family and the world produced men who had a deficit in their capacity for love as a part of sex.
In 2021, Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex reminds us that the dream of sexual freedom remains a distant aspiration for feminists. Srinivasan caught my attention in 2017 with her captivating essay on the octopus; last year, I assigned her essay ‘Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?’ to the undergraduate class I teach on gender and sexuality. Today, she has the attention of the international feminist community: she is perhaps one of the youngest women to earn a seat at the table of the celebrity intellectual—a table that has historically been reluctant to open seats for women.
Like hooks, Srinivasan believes that the internalised idea of male sexual entitlement— ‘he’s gotta have it’—makes our discussions of consent circumspect. The set of essays—which would be more fairly titled Men’s Right to Sex— cuts through the idea that sex is ‘natural’ and underscores its socialised nature. Men and women arrive at the private act of sex laden with cultural scripts— written with the sexually entitled male as protagonist— packed with instructions on whom to desire, how to feel about them, what sounds to make.
Srinivasan offers at least two solid political culprits for sex scripts: the first is Carcerality—the culture of justice and the law that punishes the sexually entitled male; the second is F***ability—the way that patriarchy and capitalism construct sexual status, deciding who is f***able and who isn’t.
Since #Metoo, carceral politics has diverted the plot from women’s sexual pleasure. We have no time to reflect upon the kind of men we want to have sex with, we have devoted our time to hunting down and punishing the badly behaved ones. Add to carcerality, the tantalising factor of f***ability—the sexual value that society holds for each person’s unique mix of physical attributes/ education/ financial-social status/ age, which also zaps up our time to reflect.
Going carceral allows the state to prioritise gender difference over other categories of difference, but it creates more injustice in those other categories—poor men and lower-caste women suffer more under the carceral state. Early in the book, Srinivasan quotes British journalist Libby Purves who wrote in the wake of Jyothi Singh’s rape: “a murderous hyena like contempt [for women] is the norm in India”. The tidbit is accompanied with a side of Srinivasan’s commentary: “when white men rape they are violating a norm, but when brown men rape they are conforming to one”. You, Reader, start to feel a bit nauseated by the truth of this statement, and you are only on page 12.
The Right to Sex is not an easy read, nor does Srinivasan promise one. You, Reader, must make your discomfort productive as Srinivasan wields the scalpel of her intelligence over the law, carving up and laying bare its underpinnings of male sexual entitlement, with pieces of evidence offered on skewers. Harvey Weinstein anybody? Perhaps a side of Brett Kavanaugh? Have you had enough, or would you like a group of twelve Assamese women protesting the rape of a comrade, naked, shouting, “Rape us, Kill us” outside the Kangla Fort where the perpetrators the 17th Assam Rifles unit of the Indian army—are stationed?
The discomfort gets worse. A solid serving of false rape trials—tastefully married to Srinivasan’s analysis of them—delivers a taste of the panoply of injustices in the US, UK and sometimes Indian justice systems. These items do not arrive à table eviscerated of hope: they are accompanied by Srinivasan’s conceptualisation of the conspiracy against men: men are socialised to produce the very entitled behavior for which we hunt them down. Her wry, balanced, voice holds the reader as she wades through the hard-to-metabolise truth of how feminist justice can cause other forms of injustice, before it turns, interestingly, to pornography.
Overwhelmingly male centered pornography keeps Femdom pornography—in which females dominate males via sexual practices—marginalised. Where pornography laws prohibit face-sitting and female ejaculation—such as in the UK—they still allow the pornography industry to subsist on vistas of male ejaculation “so that it feels real”. Ever ready to make things more uncomfortable, Srinivasan points out that there is no great virtue in investing in pornography that resists mainstream male-culture ideologies. Even good porn, Srinivasan says, is simulacrum: it uses the logic of the screen to condition our desires into unfreedom. She quotes radical feminist Robin Morgan: who writes that pornography laws against violence and rape, still read as if they are written by “some male judges, sitting up in their benches, getting ready to read a lot of dirty books with one hand”. You, Reader, can only allow yourself half a smile.
In an understated essay, ‘The Politics of Desire’, Srinivasan tells us what might make us desire better: a discipline of quieting the voices that tell us which bodies are worthy and which not; stepping back from mainstream heterosexual compulsions; admitting to woman-to-woman desire and attraction, looking for it, past the envy and competition behind which it so often masquerades. Here, Srinivasan appears (wisely) irked—at times—by her own idealism, she punctuates her own conviction with self-doubt. She asks, self-reflexively, endearingly: Am I moralizing?
If, holding volumes of evidence in her hands, Srinivasan still has self-doubt, it is because she knows—as we do—that there are no easy answers. The Right to Sex is a crucial contribution to feminism worldwide, but in presenting freedom as a Highly Desirable Category, it seems to implicitly create another low status category: the unfree. I felt a tad Unfree as I read this book, not just productively uncomfortable, but self-critical, feeling I should subject the pleasures of my sexual history to the scrutiny of knowing if I had traded—or been tricked into—pleasure when I could have had freedom.
When I asked Srinivasan—over email—about whether sexual freedom and sexual pleasure were synonymous, she said: “Even if pleasure has a role to play in sexual freedom, and I think it does, it (pleasure) is not itself sexual freedom”.
Overriding the pleasure principle to choose an experience of freedom—does the word imply transcendence?—sounds full of potential, but I wished she had added: “Men should go first”. For, given how women in India have barely, recently, won the right to sexual pleasure, ceding it in favor of a not-quite-clearly defined “freedom” sounds not free, but expensive.
So women, I recommend you read this book curiously, but hold on to your pleasures. The Right to Sex is less a revelatory treatise and more a crucial conversation piece. See if you, Reader, can manage to talk about The Right to Sex with a man you love. See where your dialogue with him falls apart—if it does. And after, see if you can, (still) look at yourself in the mirror and say: “I chose him.”
– Amrita Narayanan is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in practice.