My father—who could swear with the best of them—always told me that use of the f-word was reprehensible, not only because it was obscene but because it showed that the speaker had “an extremely limited vocabulary.” I was reminded of this when reading Amia Srinivasan’s article, “Does anyone have the right to sex?,” in the London Review of Books. Incidentally, I was also reminded of why I dropped my LRB subscription in favor of The Literary Review: Life is too short to be spent on turgid prose and earnest political moralizing. And it is far too short to be spent on writers who can’t figure out how to grab a reader’s attention without using the f-word.
Srinivasan begins by reflecting upon the case of Elliot Rodger. Rodger was an “incel” (involuntary celibate)—a term for those who would like to have sex but cannot find anyone to oblige them. Tragically, his incel status had so frustrated Rodger that he slaughtered numerous people in a day-long killing spree, including two women who possessed the body type he most desired and whom he thus blamed for his persistent virginity.
Srinivasan takes the phenomenon of the “incel” and poses a good question: “Does anyone have the right to sex?” Then she offers a bad, and barely comprehensible, answer: “The question posed by radical self-love movements is not whether there is a right to sex (there isn’t), but whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.” The reader who perseveres to the end of the article will have endured other similarly arcane theoretical musings, including reflections on fights among anti-porn and pro-porn feminists, a good old bashing of the patriarchal system under which we all labor, and a fairly comprehensive shopping list of modern sins. All the usual intersectional suspects are there: racism, ableism, transphobia, and for good measure “every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom”—just to make sure that no bigot should feel excluded or marginalized.
The topic is fascinating, but the article is long on theory and short on specifics. As the quotation above indicates, only those initiated into feminist and post-colonial jargon—the kind of readers who nod sagely when reminded of “Frantz Fanon and Edward Said’s discussions of the erotics of racial and colonial oppression”—stand a chance of following the argument. Thus, one of the most fundamental and significant questions for all humanity—the question of sex, of who gets to have it and with whom—has been made the province of an initiated few. I find myself asking: Is the left entirely preoccupied with setting up a firewall of conceptual fog to keep out the riff-raff?
Srinivasan actually makes sex seem boring, more boring than a post-lunch lecture on the theory of Marxist surplus value. From the account given, it would be hard to believe that sexual love had inspired some of the greatest stories ever told, from Homer onwards. In the hands of Srinivasan, sex is not a mystery—it is a means of domination or marginalization or self-expression. Srinivasan is attempting to build a sexual ethic for a world where everything is “political” and inextricable from power relations. But human beings cannot be reduced to these categories, and neither can sex.
Which brings me to the f-word and its derivatives, which Srinivasan uses seven times: in the familiar verbal form, as part of a noun denoting a personal quality (“f***ability” and “unf***ability”), and as a noun denoting the act (“no-one really wants a mercy f***”). The f-word even features as another way of exposing the evils of intersectional bigotry (“the comparative unf***ability of black women”). Strange to tell, I have concluded that Srinivasan’s use of this word is quite appropriate—a sign not of a limited English vocabulary but rather of a limited philosophical imagination. One can perform the act denoted by the f-word with anyone (indeed, with any thing). But one can make love only to the person with whom one is in love and with whom one has a relationship transcending immediate gratification. Srinivasan seems to have no idea that sexual love might actually have a beauty and significance that cannot be reduced to the simplistic categories of power, exploitation, and individual desire.
Srinivasan is correct on one point: Sexual desire (as distinct from sexual activity) excludes and marginalizes others. But that is part of its mysterious glory. That I consider my wife to be the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world necessarily means that I consider all other women less beautiful, less desirable. Yet they are not insulted by that claim. Nor are they, to use the favored terminology, “disempowered.”
When Adam sees Eve for the first time, he declares in wonder and awe: “This at last is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” It seems that in Srinivasan’s account, this statement, and not the eating of the fruit, is the original sin, the moment when man reveals his desire to possess and dominate. But it is no such thing. Rather, Adam is overcome by the wonder of what stands before him. This is not the first statement of patriarchy but the moment when the complexities of love between man and woman are first revealed. The f-word does not begin to express the beauty of this reality. When sex is seen in this context, the answer to Srinivasan’s question becomes really rather straightforward. And mercifully jargon-free.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.