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2 September 2021updated 14 Sep 2021 2:50pm

“Class has dropped out of the feminist picture”: Amia Srinivasan on The Right to Sex

The Oxford philosopher on porn, Plato, and how feminism turned away from the plight of the worst-off women.

By Freddie Hayward

“Sex isn’t really like anything else… There is nothing else so riven with politics and yet so inviolably personal,” writes the Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan in her new essay collection The Right to Sex.

“When I say that sex is political,” she told me when we spoke in her study at All Souls College, “I’m pointing towards the way in which this phenomenon that we think of as intensely personal is shaped by broader social and political forces.”

Srinivasan, 36, who took up her appointment to the prestigious Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory last year, emulates the capacious approach to political theory of her Chichele forebears, who include Isaiah Berlin and GA Cohen. Her work is not stifled by the sometimes formulaic abstraction of analytic philosophy, but straddles different traditions and draws on history, literature and current affairs.

Srinivasan, the first Chichele chair with a strong intellectual interest in feminism, believes her appointment signals a wider appreciation that social movements produce remarkable works of political theory. “When I teach the great texts of feminist theory to my students, they have the same experience of having their minds blown as they do when they read Plato,” she said. “They are big, difficult, imaginative, strange books that don’t just offer a kind of party line.”

Brought up in Singapore, London, Taiwan and New York by Indian parents, Srinivasan began reading Hindu philosophy to understand the meaning of Sanskrit prayers. Before attending Oxford for her postgraduate studies, she went to Yale, where she “loved writing in this kind of broad, humanistic way that was accessible to a broad intellectual audience”.

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It’s an approach necessitated by the subjects of The Right to Sex: consent, pornography and sex work – after all, Srinivasan believes feminism is not a philosophy or theory but a political movement. Her writing pivots around questions, which often express her most critical and perceptive thoughts. In her essay “On Not Sleeping With Your Students”, for instance, she dryly asks: “Is it too sterile, too boring to suggest that instead of sleeping with his student, this professor should have been – teaching her?” Added to this is a resistance to drawing premature conclusions and a refreshing tendency to “dwell, where necessary, in discomfort and ambivalence”.

[see also: Whose freedom?]

Crucial to Srinivasan’s work is an understanding of how social change happens. Where does she think the feminist cause is at the moment? “Progress is undeniable along certain dimensions of social and political life,” she said – her carefully chosen words inflected with a soft American accent. “But those things go hand in hand with forms of regress, and I think that’s just a kind of general historical pattern: things get better along some dimensions and get worse along others.” She warned that a focus on legal equality for women in recent decades has distracted attention from the “plight of the worst-off women and the worst-off men” and lamented that “class economic analysis has dropped out of the feminist picture”.

Feminists, she writes, must address the question of whether “punishment produces social change”. She’s sceptical that legal mechanisms can achieve social progress, and an anti-authoritarian strain – or, at least, an awareness of the limits of authoritarianism – runs through The Right to Sex. Take the law on consent: Srinivasan says ever stricter laws cannot address the underlying “psychosocial” problem that sex is “motivated by a desire to subordinate, not performatively subordinate, but actually subordinate. And you can’t write that out in the law.

“That said, young people, and the young people I teach, definitely make me more optimistic,” she added. “Because even though they all seem quite pessimistic about their sex lives, as a rule, they do strike me as being so much more aware of the script that they are being expected to play out.”

Young people certainly occupy a paradoxical position. In one sense, their lives are saturated with sex – or, at least, images of sex. Porn is no longer restricted to seedy theatres or top-shelf magazines, but pervades the internet and thus the lives of many young people. Yet studies suggest that young people are having less sex than previous generations. “While filmed sex seemingly opens up a world of sexual possibility,” Srinivasan writes, “all too often it shuts down the sexual imagination, making it weak, dependent, lazy, codified.” The rote preoccupations of sexual fantasy are not the same as the creative possibilities of sexual imagination. Though she is generally pessimistic about sex education’s transformative power, Srinivasan contends that it must teach young people that they have the authority to decide what sex is.

Srinivasan’s belief in the power of culture to change people’s behaviour underpins her hope for the future. She happily talks of a “feminist revolution” that would mean the “wholesale disruption of all hierarchies of inequality” and believes that if we are to address the psychosocial problem, then substantive change is needed too. She resists the contention that some men will always have a part of their psyche fixed on subordination. “The feminist question isn’t: what are women and men now under patriarchy?” she said. “The question is: what could they be if things were different?” 

[see also: It’s still possible to “cancel” gender-critical feminists, but this strategy won’t work]

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future