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The Right to Sex:
Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

by amia srinivasan
farrar, straus and giroux, 304 pages, $28

In her delightful essay “Harry Potter and the Reverse Voltaire,” the philosopher Mary Leng tries to understand why a colleague of hers has denounced J. K. Rowling. Although the colleague believes that “there are contexts in which [biological] sex matters politically,” she has condemned Rowling for saying as much in public. Leng ­proposes that this is not mere hypocrisy. What her colleague objects to is the implicature involved in Rowling’s public statement of the proposition, not the proposition itself. As Leng notes, our statements regularly imply things beyond their propositional content.

Consider, for instance, the statements “black lives matter” and “all lives matter.” A person who agrees with both of these propositions might nonetheless refuse to say one (or both) of them, on account of a disagreement with the other things that saying them implies within our cultural context. As Leng writes, “Sometimes the right response to someone saying something that you take to be true is not ‘Yes I agree,’ but ‘Why on earth would you say that?’”

In recent years implicature has become an increasingly important part of rhetoric. It’s common to hear a statement denounced not as a falsehood but as a “dog whistle,” something that, though perhaps true, is to be censured because it sends a secret, bad message to the wrong sort of person. Unsurprisingly, this dynamic has made it difficult to discuss a broad range of subjects in public.

In her study of sexual ethics, Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at Oxford, cleverly uses implicature to regain ground for discussion, rather than police it. To stick with the dog metaphor, I’ll call her technique the invisible fence collar. An invisible fence typically makes a faint beeping sound when the dog ­approaches the line; it’s a warning that a zap is soon to follow. And The Right to Sex is filled with warnings that are designed to keep out or distract the very sort whom the dog whistle is supposed to attract. To give just one example, before presenting a lot of arguments that suggest that false rape accusations can be a real problem, Srinivasan writes that “false rape accusations are, today, a predominantly wealthy white male preoccupation.” Even as she presents arguments for positions that she suggests are sometimes or even characteristically held by the privileged, she claims to do so in spite of this alignment, not because of it.

(Conveniently, the many wealthy white men who regard themselves as being decent human beings in spite of their privilege can now say they ­only worry about false rape accusations in the way Srinivasan does, not in the manner characteristic of so many others in their questionable class.)

If the dogs read Srinivasan’s book, she wants them to focus on the ways in which she offends them, instead of the many places where they might find common ground. The rhetoric instills in her intended reader—a progressively minded person with the usual progressive views about sex—the feeling that dogs are unwelcome here. The effect is to make her book—and the discourse it generates—a safer space for those with dog allergies, a sort of Chestertonian playground where Srinivasan and her readers can consider and defend propositions such as Porn is actually quite bad or False rape accusations can be a real problem without worrying that a dog might show up to agree. Srinivasan is therefore able even to ask whether there is a right to sex, a question that, on its own, sounds like one long dog whistle.

However we might admire ­Srinivasan’s rhetorical cleverness, it often results in claims I’m not sure Srinivasan herself believes. Take, once again, her remark that false rape allegations are a “predominantly wealthy white male preoccupation.” It seems likely that, if any group is especially concerned about such allegations, it would be non-white men; as Srinivasan correctly notes, they are more likely to be falsely accused. Surely Srinivasan knows that there is a gap between her readers’ perception, which she exploits, and reality. Her job as a philosopher is to correct this gap, rather than affirm her readers’ error, all the better to convince them regarding some point she considers more important.

Frustrating though these rhetorical games can be, The Right to Sex contains some sharp philosophical writing. The most fruitful approach is to read it as something akin to an incomplete Platonic dialogue—­incomplete in that the author has forgotten to note which character is speaking when. For the philosophical reader who is willing to bracket many sections of the text with the note “Alcibiades (the implicature game)” and highlight others with “Socrates (good point!),” the book offers some convincing arguments, especially Srinivasan’s defense of a radical (rather than ­liberal) ­feminism.

Liberal feminism is the sexual analogue to laissez-­faire economics. The liberal ­feminist’s interest in sexual justice is chiefly procedural: Consent must be respected and coercion must be avoided. The liberal feminist believes that sexual justice will be achieved if we adopt the ­correct rules of personal conduct and everybody follows them. Radical feminists, by contrast, recognize that this procedural approach to sexual justice is insufficient. Our culture shapes us, and our choices shape the culture. If our culture is unjust—for instance, if it is misogynistic—the injustice can warp us and our ­sexual desires. When we are warped, the sex we have cannot be completely free. Radical feminists also recognize that a society and its sexual marketplaces can be coercive. If the society has ways of systematically penalizing people—for instance, through stigma and its associated social, romantic, and professional penalties—and one of the things it regularly penalizes is saying no to sex we don’t want, it’s hard to characterize the sex we’re having as free.

To show the limits of liberal feminism, Srinivasan considers a real example, which I will simplify: Two college students were smoking weed and fooling around; the female student initiated a sex act and then stopped because she didn’t feel right; the male student asked her to resume; a few minutes later she re-initiated and completed the sex act. She did it reluctantly, and afterward realized that she had felt pressured by objectionable campus norms, norms that say women need to finish what they start.

The liberal feminist may respond by suggesting that the man is chiefly at fault. He should have asked for affirmative verbal consent. But, as ­Srinivasan notes, it’s not clear that the affirmative consent standard would have made a difference: The same norms that pressured the student into nonverbal consent could have pressured her into verbal ­consent as well. The primary problem is not that the man knowingly forced her to do something she didn’t want to do, but that external social forces limited her freedom to tell him she didn’t want to do it. It’s simply not clear that the man in question was the real source of the coercion, and yet the act may have been ­genuinely ­non-consensual. As Srinivasan writes:

A woman going on with a sex act she no longer wants to perform, knowing she can get up and walk away but knowing at the same time that this will make her a blue-­balling tease, an object of male contempt: there is more going on here than mere ambivalence, unpleasantness and regret. There is also a kind of coercion: not directly by [the man in question], perhaps, but by the informal regulatory system of gendered sexual expectations.

When people have sex because they fear a punishment—for instance, because they fear being socially shamed and sexually ­rejected—this is not consensual sex. But the problem cannot be entirely solved by the involved parties’ being more conscientious about consent. As Srinivasan correctly argues, structural problems require structural solutions.

Given this insistence, it is disappointing that ­Srinivasan devotes no ­serious attention to structural solutions. She rejects the restoration of conservative sexual morality, for a combination of liberal and philosophically unimaginative reasons. After asserting that to “liberate sex from the distortions of oppression is . . . [not a liberal but] a radical demand,” she reverts to the very liberal framework she has just discredited, by proposing that in lieu of structural solutions, we should engage in “experiments in living” and make individual attempts to retrain our attention so that we can grow in sexual freedom.

It is difficult to imagine Srinivasan, a socialist, thinking that we can overcome capitalism by, say, taking a more intentional approach to our work and consumption or deciding to live in a commune with our friends. In the economic realm, Srinivasan advocates structural changes. But when it comes to ­sexual ethics, she thinks liberal and moralistic responses suffice. The closest she comes to a structural response is to advocate economic socialism—but she doesn’t spell out how it will solve the sorts of structural sexual problems she describes, perhaps because it won’t.

Srinivasan should have given conservative sexual morality a hearing, even if were to end up ­rejecting it. A conservative approach to sex would address many of the structural problems she describes. To give an obvious example: Norms against nonmarital sex would void the campus norms that coerced the student Srinivasan described into engaging in a nonconsensual sex act.

Instead of engaging seriously with it, Srinivasan dismisses the conservative proposal as coercive, homophobic, and patriarchal. But the task of a philosopher is to criticize not the weakest or even the most popular version of a proposal, but the strongest and most ­compelling one. For instance, ­Srinivasan might assess an arrangement in which gay marriage is allowed, in which divorce—but not remarriage—is allowed, and in which there are norms against nonmarital sex. (These norms can be enforced in whatever way Srinivasan thinks we should enforce other norms against problematic consensual sex, such as the norms against student–professor sex that she defends.) We can also imagine that divorce terms will be as favorable to women as Srinivasan wants, as a safeguard against situations in which women are reluctant to leave abusive relationships.

In the end, Srinivasan’s objection to conservative sexual morality is simply the liberal one: that it is wrong to restrict individual choices, even when doing so is the only way to address structural injustice. Despite her critique of liberal feminism, her argument appears to be: “Liberalism is bad; conservative sexual morality is illiberal; therefore conservative sexual morality is bad.”

The illogic is a bit puzzling until one reads Srinivasan’s discussion of the rhetoric surrounding LGBT rights. Proponents of same-sex marriage and transgender recognition, Srinivasan writes, have rested their arguments on dubious claims—for instance, that gay people are “born this way” or that trans people are “trapped in the wrong body.” Although such claims are philosophically implausible and don’t square well with lived experience, Srinivasan believes that it has been right to use them—because they have been effective. As she puts it, such claims are “politically vital in a world in which blame is associated with choice but not with natural endowment. Political claims are often dialectical, best understood as responses to the normative terrain as it stands in the moment they are made, not in some hoped-for future.” In other words, our political claims do not need to be true; they just have to help us win battles.

Knowing that Srinivasan takes this hard-boiled approach to political claims, one wonders how deep her rejection of sexual conservatism goes. Perhaps she is already a fully convinced social conservative, and her rejection—more by implicature than argument—of social conservatism is merely a response to the “normative terrain” of the present moment. Srinivasan may think that her critique of liberal feminism will be accepted only if her argument’s real implications—clearing the ground for real structural change, which comes with conservative views of sex—are hidden!

But the philosopher ought to show the whole picture, rather than obscuring the truth for political ends. If Srinivasan doesn’t think there are good arguments against the conservative approach, she should say so. If she thinks there are good arguments against it, she should make them. It’s true this might involve talking to the dogs, but even the dogs deserve their scraps.

In the spirit of showing the whole picture, I will say a few things in defense of the full-blown conservative sexual ethic, the one Srinivasan calls misogynistic, homophobic, and coercive.

I take it that any satisfactory account of sex must meet the following conditions: First, it must explain what is special about sex. Otherwise, it cannot explain why consent is more important in the sexual sphere than when it comes to other violations of a person’s strongly held preferences. And it clearly is more important. There are contexts in which I can intentionally touch someone who I know doesn’t want to be touched. To give a rather far-fetched example, imagine I’m crossing the street and immediately in front of me is someone who has a strongly held religious objection to being touched, and immediately in front of him are two children. I see that a car has run the red light and is speeding toward the group of pedestrians, and so I push the man with the religious objection very hard, in an attempt to knock everybody out of the way of the oncoming car. This is an action that could be morally justified, even if I know that the man doesn’t want to be touched. By contrast, it would never be right to set aside another person’s consent in a sexual context, even for the sake of a real good from which the person might benefit. (You cannot allow a stranger to spy voyeuristically on your teenaged children, even if the stranger agrees in exchange to pay for their expensive and much-­needed medical procedures.)

Second, a satisfactory account must explain why sex can be ­morally justifiable even under conditions of patriarchy or other structural injustices. To do so, it must identify what is morally good about sex. Under conditions of structural ­injustice, individual sex acts can be morally compromised. Consent can be compromised when, due to power asymmetries or objectionable socialization, a person fears being penalized for sexual refusal. This problem cannot always be solved by individual conscientiousness. Moreover, the sex we have can be personally compromising when it involves submission to misogynistic or other dehumanizing ideals.

But whether or not a given sex act involves this submission can be very difficult to determine. Good sex involves the interaction of the lovers’ desires, but our desires are often shaped by our culture. And pretty much everything that we might find desirable has been presented to us in warped ways. Even if we don’t watch misogynistic porn, we know what people find hot (which in turn is often shaped by misogynistic forms of media), and even if we have different tastes and desires than do the people around us, our tastes and desires did not arise in a vacuum. Is adorning yourself in a way that your lover finds attractive an act of submission to misogyny, when your lover’s imagination is affected by our culture? What about engaging in a sexual activity that you find directly appealing, but that was popularized by misogynistic pornography? To have sex under these conditions is to risk submitting to injustice, whether knowingly or unknowingly. It isn’t right to do something so morally dangerous—the sort of thing that can easily become a ­serious ­injustice—unless this risk is justified by a real good that is sought. To take Srinivasan’s radical critique of sexual injustices seriously without turning it into an argument for universal celibacy, we need more than a plan for mitigating the dangers of injustice involved in having sex. We must have a specific account of what is good about sex.

Third, any satisfactory account must acknowledge that the meaning of sex isn’t infinitely flexible. If it were, we could redefine the various bad forms of sex that we have as good sex, and thereby make them fine. A student and professor who want to have sex could agree to do so in a way that signifies a casual high-five, rather than anything erotically charged. Similarly, instead of feeling violated, the college student could have interpreted the unwanted sex act as just “doing the done thing,” her submission to campus ­sexual norms being no more problematic than, say, deciding to dress differently to fit in with the latest campus fashion. But her sense that what happened was objectionable and serious was absolutely right, because sexual acts always have a specific moral significance. We cannot make nonconsensual sex less of a violation by pretending that the acts in question simply aren’t meaningful. Anyone who believes properly in the importance of sexual consent is, in some sense, an essentialist about the significance of sex.

So what is sex’s significance? And how do we determine what it is? Notably, this significance cannot be determined by an airtight proof, the sort of thing that will convince any person with any possible set of priors. (There is, after all, no way to prove even the very basic moral fact “Consent is necessary” to a person whose one and only moral principle is “Raping and pillaging are good.”) At the same time, blind submission to the values of our culture is not a satisfactory way to determine sex’s significance. Instead, we must use logic in a more limited way—to test whether our views are ­internally consistent, to see whether they have ugly implications—and to listen sympathetically to other people’s perspectives to consider what it would be like to approach things in a different way. Although there is no guarantee that we will thereby arrive at the correct view, it is worth doing, given the importance of this question, and given how easily a society can get it wrong.

If we want to understand why sexual consent is so important, we can state that sex has mysterious ethical properties that are particular to it, but that the reasons for these special properties are entirely unknowable. I think it is more satisfying, however, to link the importance of consent to what we know about sex. Specifically, I believe the importance of consent is related to the reciprocal and reproductive nature of sex.

When I say that good sex is reciprocal, I do not mean only that it is mutual. If I desire you and you desire me, this isn’t simply a convenient pairing as when, for instance, I want to buy a pair of shoes and you want to sell a pair. What each of us desires isn’t a preexisting thing, which the other person can give us access to or withhold (such as our bodies, or permission to do certain things to them). Instead, our desire for one another has a reciprocal quality. Part of my desire for you includes a desire for you to want me. My desire for you also entails wanting you to delight in my desire for you, and for your experience of my desire to increase your desire for me.

If reciprocity is both a good and a morally necessary component of sex, then the importance of consent is rooted in something specific and positive about the nature of sex. But notably, the standard of reciprocity is higher than the standard of mere consent. It explains the correct moral intuition that we cannot pre-­consent to a sex act and later be bound by that agreement, because reciprocity requires an interaction of desires that may turn out to be absent in one or both parties. The standard of reciprocity also illuminates why it is wrong to view pornography that was created—even ­consensually—by a stranger, because this is by definition a nonreciprocal sexual encounter. It also suggests that it is wrong to engage in solitary acts of masturbation, because this sex is likewise nonreciprocal.

The problem with masturbation is not chiefly that it victimizes someone else, but that it involves using your own sexual faculties—­faculties that are for communicating reciprocally with another person—as a tool for creating a physical sensation of reciprocity where no reciprocity exists. If we could, by hugging ourselves in a particular way or taking a drug, ­create the experience of being forgiven by a loved one for a betrayal or some other harm, it would be wrong to take that drug recreationally. How eerie would it be to forgive someone for something he'd done, and then to hear him thank you, saying that he felt so good, almost as good as the time he took that drug? To be forgiven is an objective fact involving another person, and the relief and joy upon being forgiven is a proper response to this fact and to that person. By creating the sensation apart from the reality, we distance ourselves from reality and abuse our faculties of perception.

The role sex plays in reproduction also tells us something about why consent is especially important. The reciprocity involved in sex involves, at least characteristically, doing the act by which babies are made. Part of the experience—the pleasure, as well as the excitement—has to do with the possibility of conception, even when that possibility isn’t a live one. And so for the same reason that solitary masturbation involves a sort of illusion, sex acts apart from coitus are illusory, sentimental, and ­warping: They involve the ­experience of doing the babymaking act without actually doing it.

There is much more that could be said in defense of this view, including an account of why coitus is the same act whether done by a fertile or an infertile couple, and why it is a different act from intercourse that is intentionally altered to make it infertile and from non-intercourse forms of sex. (One should not try to say too much in a book review.)

The view of sex I propose has obvious implications, including the necessity of monogamy and permanence. It is also a basis for solidarity. There will always be people who long to have a fulfilling sexual relationship yet do not. This is a real hardship, but it is one that has been exacerbated by the widespread use of contraception. Sex is good, but ­also potentially very ­demanding—so demanding that there can be good reasons to forgo it, whether permanently or for a period of time. But contraception tempts us to view sex as costless, and in this view the only reason to forgo it is because you are asexual or unwanted. This perception creates a stark hierarchy. By contrast, within the conservative sexual ethic the “­sexually fortunate” are constrained in what they can do, and with whom. Their private ­sexual happiness will not be something to hoard, but will often lead to responsibilities outside themselves. If you start having sex at twenty-two, you might end up with ten kids. If you have the leisure ­associated with fewer ­children, it will be because you started having sex later, had fertility difficulties, or avoided having sex with your spouse—or because you ­haven’t had sex at all. Instead of dividing winners and losers, all the available arrangements—whether chosen or unchosen—will have both goods and associated hardships.

Srinivasan claims that sexual desire should not be “regulated by the demands of justice,” but should rather be “set free from the binds of injustice.” On this point she is absolutely right. But to see what constitutes the binds of injustice we need something ­Srinivasan doesn’t provide: an account of what sex actually is.

Audrey Pollnow writes the newsletter Journal of Embarrassing Catholic Studies.