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28 July 2021

Whose freedom?

 A major new work of feminist philosophy opens up debates about sex, pornography, justice and liberty. 

By Judith Butler

The Right To Sex makes a case for how philosophical writing can contribute powerfully to public discourse on some of the most fundamental questions relating to embodied life – that is, to sex, gender, sexuality, racial justice, space, education, power, regulation and law. A book that belongs to feminist theory and moral philosophy, it reviews arguments about abortion, rape, harassment, pornography, racial justice and masculine grievance, showing us how to interrogate their premises. 

Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at the University of Oxford, gives the reader a sense of her classroom as she shows us how to let philosophical arguments clarify debates within popular culture, and how to read popular culture as a way of wrestling with moral ­dilemmas related to sex, feminism, equality, and freedom. 

Philosophical texts have a way of referring only to other philosophical texts, basing themselves on a canon hewing to narrow professional ideas of “clarity”. This book has clarity in abundance, but it also asks us to bear with complexity when it is required. Srinivasan refuses quick solutions, for the simple reason that she is “unwilling to reduce what is dense and ­difficult to something easier”.

Srinivasan’s book reposes some age-old questions, such as: how best to act in this political world? But it casts them in contemporary contexts: what forms of conduct, such as harassment and rape, have been tolerated and rationalised? How best to organise the world so that justice, equality, and freedom can form the driving principles of our collective imagination and practice? 

Although the book makes a strong intervention in the field of feminist philosophy, it does not moralise. Indeed, one of its chief strengths is to show how moral philosophical reflection takes place in the midst of ordinary situations: in the classroom, on social media, in both public and intimate spheres. Imbued with the breath of fresher air, The Right to Sex demonstrates how moral reflection can be distinguished from moralising, why we must learn to pause, collect many perspectives on a topic, turn them over, and resist the lure of panicked and ­premature judgement.

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***

The title gives only an indirect indication of what is at stake in the book itself. “Sex” is a category generally assigned at birth, but it also denotes the act of sex, if not the practices of sexuality. The question of a right to sex immediately raises the questions: which sense of sex? And whose right is it? Whose right should it be? And is sex something to which anyone really has a right? 

Such questions pitch the reader into fields of power where men (generally, within a heteronormative model) understand themselves to have that right. Does one have the right to dispose of one’s body in whatever way one wishes? Is it a right to gain access to another’s body? What justifies such a right, or set of rights, if they exist at all?

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My initial expectation was that ­Srinivasan might focus on the right to have sex claimed by those who have been illegitimately denied that right: women who have been forbidden from exercising sexual freedom inside or outside of heterosexual marriage; LGBTQI people who have been pathologised or criminalised, whose sexual freedom has been denied and restrained, whose lives have been lost for seeking to live and love in accord with their sexual desires or gender when such acts would harm no one.  

This is, however, not the focus of the book, which rather begins by contesting the rationale used by heterosexual men to justify themselves in the face of charges of rape and harassment. Their justifications usually involve an appalling mash-up of claims to personal liberty and unfounded invocations of masculine and racial privilege. Srinivasan takes these apart carefully and persuasively, but I missed a more sustained discussion of the rights of LGBTQI people, and women, to find sex where and how they want without discrimination and fear.

That said, I appreciated her slow demolition of bad popular arguments. Taking on the “believe women!” imperative, she points out that it cannot be honoured in all cases. Consider the sexual accusations against black men by white women based on racist convictions about black masculinity, exemplified most horrifically by the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 in Money, Mississippi because he allegedly looked at a white woman store owner the wrong way. Was Carolyn Bryant to be believed at all costs? How often are black men subject to such accusations still? Did we not absolutely require due process for Emmett Till? And what about those who believe that gay and lesbian people are out to seduce, convert and exploit their young children? Should the committed homophobes who espouse such views be believed at all costs? 

At the same time, Srinivasan points out how often men accused of harassment and rape turn on their accusers and seek to undermine their testimony, refuse to consider the seriousness of the violations they have committed, and end up in self-piteous postures that deny the suffering of women whose lives and work they have harmed or destroyed. So, yes, there are conditions ­under which women must be believed, but the universal reach of the imperative falls apart under closer inspection.  

Srinivasan offers a capacious and careful consideration of arguments about censoring pornography. She draws from popular culture, online discussion, statistics, and feminist theory publications. She details pornography’s wretched recapitulations of sexual violence and the industry’s history of rank exploitation in the service of a feminist critique of masculine domination. Yet, she cautions against censorship, in part because pornography includes feminist and queer forms and has opened up work opportunities for women, especially under lockdown. Further, the visual platforms it has provided for queer imaginings of sexuality are generally less violent and selfish, and, in her words, “more joyful, more equal, freer”.

***

By the time Srinivasan reconsiders the sex debates within feminism from the 1970s and 1980s, we come to understand that her book is asking us to reconsider settled understandings of personal liberty. Those debates included Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin on one side, calling for state censorship of pornography, and feminist activists on the other, including Gayle Rubin, Ellen Willis, and Amber Hollibaugh, who made strong feminist arguments for sexual freedom, criticised the feminist alliance with the state, and allied with sex workers and their unions. Black feminists such as bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins also criticised an uncritical alliance between feminism and the state, pointing out the double jeopardy they experienced in relation to police powers, and calling for extra-legal forms of empowerment. 

One way Srinivasan enters this debate is by asking how sexual freedom has too often been modelled on market freedoms, even libertarianism, and how this has informed some feminist views. In her view, mistakes are made on both sides of the censorship debates. She contends that those feminists who have argued that all desires are fine to act on as long as there is consent and no harm done may not consider well enough what it means for desires to be formed under conditions of capitalism and patriarchy. Does the freedom championed by such feminists (I am myself in this camp) partake of liberal assumptions about individualism, risking the identification of the norms that govern having sex with “the norms of capitalist free exchange”?   

I am not convinced her account is right, for she herself found some forms of queer and trans sexual representations “freer” than the heteronormative versions, suggesting that another sense of sexual freedom operates in the background of her argument. When “the right to sex” draws from the right to exercise personal liberty, the assumption is that individuals have rights to sex, to the sexual pleasures afforded by other peoples’ bodies. But none of that was ever part of the version of feminism that championed sexual freedom. 

[See also: The pain and shame of girlhood]

That freely chosen sex sometimes turns out to be less free, even deeply constrained, seems true enough. Sex is notoriously a field in which bad judgements proliferate. But that insight alone does not mean that what we call freedom is really unfreedom, or that we should give up on trying to find ways to live more freely, including to pursue sex free of the fear of violence, censorship, punishment, and pathologisation.

Srinivasan rightly insists 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”.  Clearly, Srinivasan opposes these forms of sexual entitlement concocted from masculinist privilege and consumer freedoms, a toxic combination, in her view, of patriarchy and capitalism. She cites the case of a man who claims in court that he understood a woman to have owed him sex, appeals to a personal right to achieve satisfaction at the expense of that woman, and casts that woman as a violable and expendable creature. I agree that there should be no right to sex in such cases, but does it then follow that no sense of “the right to sex” is justified?

***

Although Srinivasan gestures in the direction of an alternative formulation of the “right to sex”, it seems important to go further and consider the pervasive biases in mainstream culture and advertising, where certain bodies are not represented as desirable – black, brown, fat, physically challenged, trans, ageing, or some combination of the above. We do presumably want to claim that the world should be transformed to reflect the desirability of those bodies, the right of those bodies to be represented as worthy of sexual and intimate attention and love. Indeed, such groups already exercise that political right when they insist on better and more inclusive representation in film, TV, and visual culture more broadly. 

Similarly, when queer and trans spaces – clubs, community centres, schools, and bars – are closed down, to prevent queer and trans youth from gathering (as in Poland and Romania right now), we can expect they will demand that these venues be opened because they have a right to desire and to be desired, and a right to spaces where that desire can be free to express itself. Maybe we can call that “a right to sex” that is precisely not an infringement on others, but the throwing off of an unjust prohibition imposed upon them. This is both a personal and collective right, for it seeks to counter a form of bodily devaluation that reflects positions of social and economic inequality. It is not reducible to a market freedom or forms of libertarianism.

And though Srinivasan is everywhere clear that trans women and men, and the non-binary, are unjustly oppressed, and that trans women belong rightly to the category of women, she does not consider that “the right to sex” could mean: the right to have medical and institutional access to a new sex assignment. 

We could say that “sex” as an identifying category of the body is surely different from “sex” in the sense of “sexual acts and practices”, and that rights claims are different in each case. But we can see the important connection between trans and feminist arguments precisely through juxtaposing these two rights: the right of women to pursue sex without fear of domestic or anonymous violence, without state restrictions on their sexual freedom; the right of anyone to secure for themselves the category of sex that allows them to live and flourish in freedom, without restriction, without the threat of violence, including state violence.

Srinivasan is admirably dedicated to re-animating collective perspectives, and the version of freedom that she would most easily accept is a collective one. She worries, with reason, that “a myopic focus on individual action is characteristic of bourgeois morality whose ideological function is to distract from the broader systems of injustice in which we participate”. 

The Right to Sex examines different and conflicting versions of freedom through a wide range of cultural examples, and it does this extremely well: freedom as masculine entitlement, as white supremacist power, market freedoms, including the freedom to accumulate, and to treat sex as both commodity and property. Srinivasan further develops a Marxist-feminist critical ­reflection on how capitalism and patriarchy continue to inform some of our most basic debates on sexual ethics and policy. 

***

The penultimate chapter, “On Not Sleeping With Your Students”, makes clear why the sexual harassment of students by faculty ought rightly to be understood as sex discrimination. She argues that even if a student initially consents to a sexual relationship with a faculty member, they can be badly harmed by relations such as these down the line. I agree. Their job prospects can be undermined; they stand the chance of losing mentors and support and becoming subject to retaliation; losing a sense of their value as intellectuals. 

Sexual harassment is a structural ­problem and, in her view, no faculty-student relation can escape this structure. Her task is to understand how individual acts reproduce social structures of oppression sometimes through the very language of choice or consent. But to account for the collective transformation of such structures, there has to be some way that freedom can interrupt their reproduction. 

Srinivasan has impressive moral clarity about the harms of sexual harassment and rape, but she has some questions about whether turning to the state for accountability is really in the best interests of women. She is mindful of the perils of the “carceral state” for women, since the state’s power to imprison too often is directed against “poor women, immigrant women, women of colour, low-caste women – as well as the men with whom their lives are fatefully entwined”. Here Srinivasan refuses to follow the carceral politics of the anti-pornography movement, focusing on the ways that the state supports “the governing class” and produces material inequalities. The final chapter, “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism”, opens up the potentials of a Marxist feminism for the present, one ­opposed to carceral politics, and a global perspective on women’s oppression. But this book – ­restricted to debates in the US, UK, and ­occasionally India – cannot make good on this global promise, though perhaps the next one will. 

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The last chapter addresses the prison abolition movement and feminist abolition in particular. That movement is inspired by the conference, Critical Resistance, which took place in 1997, and the journal then created by that name (founded by Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Ruthie Gilmore, Rose Braz, Beth Richie and others). Its influential critique of the prison-industrial complex – and, especially, its debilitating effects on women of colour – established an anti-statist position within feminism that offered visions of radical social transformation outside of legal reform. The question of how to hold those who have done harm accountable without recourse to courts and prisons is perhaps the most important ethical dilemma for an anti-carceral feminism.

Srinivasan demonstrates how the feminist philosopher can emancipate our basic ethical concepts from the stranglehold of patriarchy, capitalism, and state racism – and this is a remarkable and promising effort. What would accountability be if it were not the same as legal punishment? What would freedom be if it were not the same as market freedoms constrained by capitalism? What kind of world would it be in which we find ourselves free to imagine the terms of a new socialism, for which feminism is the ­framework, and not the irritating supplement – a world in which freedom could become a term we can all affirm, rather than suspect and fear?

Judith Butler’s latest book is “The Force of Nonviolence”. They are professor emeritus in comparative literature and critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley

The Right to Sex
Amia Srinivasan
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £20

This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special