To what extent is sexual desire innate? It’s a tricky question for science to answer, given the difficulties of disentangling a sexually mature person from their social influences. (As the British neuroscientist Gina Rippon points out, gendered socialization physically changes the brain.) Attempts to control for socialization—in the comparison of sexual preferences across cultures, in the analysis of genes—can be ethically fraught and are largely inconclusive. The much-discussed “gay gene” study of 2019, which looked at the probabilistic contribution of many genes, found that genetics could explain, at most, a third of a tendency for homosexual partners.
Theory, from Freud to Foucault, has come down on the side of the construction of desire, and indeed of sexuality. Many second-wave feminists argued that our desires are the product of social and familial conditioning. In her 1980 essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich cheekily reinterpreted the Oedipal myth: If men, whose first close bond is with their mothers, naturally develop a love for women, why should not women, who are also nursed by their mothers, do the same? Perhaps it is not the pater but the patriarchy, with its violence and material pressures, that coerces women away from their initial attraction to other women and toward heterosexuality. For Rich, it was clear that we may not really want what we think we want—or, at least, that in a better world, we would want something different.
That this is no longer a widespread belief seems to have provoked The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, the gently polemical debut collection of essays from Amia Srinivasan. Srinivasan is a philosopher at Oxford and a contributing editor at the London Review of Books, where she has written lively essays on pronouns and bestiality, among many other things. She takes her epigraph from Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck”: “the thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.”
We might read this epigraph as an outline of Srinivasan’s project. The wreck represents the splintering of the women’s movement in the 1970s and 1980s, which Srinivasan lucidly details. The myth—the story of the wreck—is that sex positivity and state punishment have made us free. The thing she comes for is a truer feminist project, one which retrofits second-wave thought for the intersectional era and reminds a movement’s cynical grandchildren of the once-utopian feminist imagination.
The feminists of the sixties and seventies believed not only that desire was constructed, but also that something could be done to construct it differently. The trouble was what and how. Was capitalism the enemy, or were men? Was state power the solution or the threat? Was organizing against heterosexuality, pornography, and sadomasochism liberating or repressive? The rifts produced by these questions—between the anti-porn and pro-porn feminists, between the political lesbians and pro-women heterosexualists—cleaved the movement. Out of the rubble came “Lust Horizons,” a 1981 essay by Ellen Willis that set forth the ideology we now call sex positivity. “To me,” Willis wrote, “it is axiomatic that consenting partners have a right to their sexual proclivities, and that authoritarian moralism has no place in a movement for social change.”
The modern feminist nods. What matters is consent, not what is being consented to. We are to believe a person when they claim to want something, be it a husband or a boob job or a beating. But are we, as many modern feminists would say, not to judge? Srinivasan—who would no doubt prefer in place of judge something like critique the political formation of desire—approvingly quotes the next lines of Willis’s essay: “A truly radical movement must look . . . beyond the right to choose and keep focusing on the fundamental questions. Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?”
Nowadays, many feminists would find it downright crass to suggest that a woman, or any person, does not freely choose the kind of sex or the kind of body she claims to want. Some would go further and avoid even the mention of choice, lest it embolden political opponents. I am not the first to note that the fight for marriage equality depended on the American public buying into the notions that desire is innate and that sexuality is determinative, just as today’s push for the legal existence and protection of trans people seems to depend on adjudicating whether or not specific people were born into the wrong bodies, rather than upholding a universal right to be free from gender prescriptions.
Between its sex positivity and its politically strategic turn toward essentialism, the feminist left has little patience for the interrogation of desire. Such interrogation, the argument goes, is repressive, TERF-y, infantilizing, anti-sex work, and practically Supreme Courtesque in its moralizing. Srinivasan walks a very tight rope over these pitfalls:
[I]t would be disingenuous to make nothing of the convergence, however unintentional, between sex positivity and liberalism in their shared reluctance to interrogate the formation of our desires. Third-wave feminists are right to say, for example, that sex work is work . . . . And they are right to say that what sex workers need are legal and material protections, safety and security, not rescue or rehabilitation. But to understand what sort of work sex work is . . . surely we have to say something about the political formation of male desire.
Similarly, to understand why some lesbians refuse to date trans women, or why some Asian women refuse to date Asian men, we cannot merely repeat the truism that such a choice is of course their right. In the rush to respect personal sexual choice—a good instinct, Srinivasan insists—we have forgotten that the personal is never anything but political. And by holding sexual choice to be indisputable, from which it is only one small step to immutable and from there to innate, contemporary feminism has accepted as fixed the logic of a sexist, racist, ableist, and transphobic sexual marketplace. In short, we have forgotten utopia.
Srinivasan, who has clearly put in heroic amounts of time on very unpleasant parts of the internet, points in her titular essay to another political subject who views disparities in the sexual marketplace as fixed. This subject is the involuntary celibate, or incel, best known for occasionally leaving his message boards to kill conventionally attractive women en masse. Srinivasan’s point is not, of course, that incels are right to think themselves entitled to sex from “high-status” women or to kill women who refuse them; her point is that feminists cannot understand, or indeed neutralize, incel ideology without speaking clearly about the political formation of the sexual marketplace, a formation that many white, thin, straight, and conventionally attractive feminists have stopped seeing it as their business to notice. (The feminists behind the “big is beautiful” and “Black is beautiful” campaigns have not.) A 2006 study of online dating preferences found that an Asian man needs to make $247,000 more than a white man to be equally desirable to a white woman. An incel, interpreting this as an evolutionarily derived fact that doesn’t care about his feelings, might conclude that white women should be forced by the state to fuck Asian men. Shouldn’t those of us who find this logic to be terribly wrong instead point to this study as evidence of something else—say, an urgent need to untangle our desires from racial capitalism?
In the first version of the “incel essay,” which was published to great controversy in the London Review of Books in 2018, Srinivasan asked whether we as individuals have a duty to “transfigure” our own desire along more politically just lines. In the book, Srinivasan appends a thirty-page “Coda: The Politics of Desire,” in which she addresses some of the criticism the initial publication received. Here, she gives a more explicit, though characteristically mild, call to action: “I am asking what might happen if we were to look at bodies, our own and others’, and allow ourselves to feel admiration, appreciation, want, where politics tells us we should not.” And later: “Must the transformation of desire be a disciplinary project (willfully altering our desires in line with our politics)—or can it be an emancipatory one (setting our desires free from politics)?” If this is moralism, it is not very authoritarian. Nor, contra some of Srinivasan’s critics, do I think it is neoliberal. In the absence of possible state control—and everyone who is not an incel can likely agree that the government should not regulate dating—to urge collective action at the margins is not to urge the individualist solution. But I do think these “experiments of living,” as she calls them, are methodologically confused. In one breath, Srinivasan explains why we must not accept our sexual preferences as fixed; in the next she asks us to let “desire choose for itself.” This relies on a framework in which the top layer of desire is socially formed (i.e., vulnerable to porn, racism, our dads, etc.) and a recoverable layer beneath that is both innate and conveniently more politically just. Is it insufficiently utopian of me to ask whether this can really be the case? Wouldn’t it be more honest to say that to fight one’s brainwashing is merely to re-brainwash oneself?
Retrofitting an older version of feminism can only get you so far. Where the rot is endemic, you need a wrecking ball. This is what Srinivasan brings in her last essay, the ambitiously titled “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism,” which lambasts feminism’s turn in the 1980s away from grassroots networks and toward a faith in state power.
The feminists of the early US women’s liberation movement, like European and Third World feminists, had not, on the whole, looked to the state’s coercive apparatus for a solution to gendered violence. Skeptical of state power, they created and ran their own grassroots rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, and abortion networks. But by the 1980s, mainstream feminists had fully embraced “law and order” as the way to deal with domestic violence, prostitution, pornography, and rape.
The results of “law and order” policies—a massive increase in imprisonment that disproportionately affects the poor, the Black, and the Indigenous—are by now familiar to most on the left, but they bear repeating. In 2019, one in every 155 people in the United States was sitting in a jail or prison. If you were a Black man in 1991, your chance of going to prison at some point in your life was almost one in three. The number of men in prison is so large, and the conditions in prison so violent, that the United States is likely the only country in the world that counts more rapes for men than the women. Nor is the state only rounding up men: the United States has 4 percent of the world’s population but 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women. “[O]nce you have started up the carceral machine,” Srinivasan writes, “you cannot pick and choose whom it will mow down.” In her essays on #MeToo, porn, Title IX, student-professor relationships, and sex work, Srinivasan is determined not to make the same mistake. Over and over, she scorns state power as a lever of change. Criminalizing sex work prioritizes the vindictive glee of punishing men over the material conditions and safety of sex workers. Criminalizing pornography hurts sexual minorities; they come for the lesbian S&M first. Title IX and affirmative consent laws prohibit or criminalize what is fundamentally not legislatable. “How do we formulate a regulation that prohibits the sort of sex that is produced by the patriarchy?” Srinivasan asks. “Could the reason that the question is so hard to answer be that the law is simply the wrong tool for the job?” In reconsidering the political formation of desire, Srinivasan asks us to reconsider the political solutions as well. Along with feminism’s lazy refusal to interrogate desire, Srinivasan diagnoses its complicity in great harm. But The Right to Sex is a diagnostic book and not, in any great detail, a prescriptive one. We know what the wrong tools are, but which are the right?