Recently at London Review of Books, Amia Srinivasan published a very interesting and very profane (reader warning) article entitled, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?”
She begins by examining the case of Elliot Rodger, the disturbed young man who went on a rampage in Isla Vista in protest of his status as an incel (an involutary celibate, ie. someone who can’t get sex), and killed roommates, sorority girls, and caused general mayhem as part of his perverted quest for ‘justice.’ With this story as our departure, it becomes fairly obvious that the answer to the titular question is, “No, nobody has the right to have sex” and none of the young women who had refused Rodgers had wronged him.
But then Srinivasan goes on to complicate the matter through a long, extensive, instructive dive through the history of feminist and queer reflection on “the political critique of desire,” which interrogates the shape of our sexual desires. For those unfamiliar with it (as I myself largely am, getting most of my knowledge second-hand from long articles such as this), she charts the stages of conversation from Catherine Mackinnon’s critique Freud’s portrait of sexual desire as pre-political, to seeing it as inherently corrupted and shaped by patriarchal ideological structures of dominance, etc. and correspondingly calling for political lesbianism and so forth.
Now, in the 80s and 90s came the backlash of the pro-sex feminists. They championed the importance of allowing women to pursue what they genuinely felt was pleasurable in the manner and means they wanted, without some neo-Victorian schema to foist guilt upon them once more. To this were added concerns from intersectional analysis which made theorists even more wary about universal moral prescriptions that really only fit the situations of white feminists. Furthermore, there was an increasingly discomfort with the concept of false consciousness, which the political critique assumes, and so you have to start taking women at their word when they say whatever sexual activity (be it sex-work, porn, nudity, etc.) is sexually liberating.
From there we get further development and refinement to the point where now the main concern and boundary line of OK sex is “consent”, and the free exchange of sexual goods. Of course, that may provoke the worry and critique that this plays right into the hands of capitalist neo-liberal conceptions of the self that ought to be questioned. But this shouldn’t be raised in such a way that we fall back into guilt and authoritarianism, which would fetter and bind the right of consenting agents to their preferred sexual acts. Remember, talking about what people ought to want and desire is a quick road to political oppression.
But then we come back around to questioning, “but why do we desire what we desire?” Especially when we still can’t shake the feeling that under the constraints and pressures of a patriarchal culture, our desires are not fully free or unproblematic. And this is where it gets interesting (and for context, she has been engaging with Ellen Willis’ essay “Lust horizons” up at this point):
When we see consent as the sole constraint on OK sex, we are pushed towards a naturalisation of sexual preference in which the rape fantasy becomes a primordial rather than a political fact. But not only the rape fantasy. Consider the supreme f#$%ability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unf#$%ability of black women and Asian men, the fetishisation and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed towards disabled, trans and fat bodies. These too are political facts, which a truly intersectional feminism should demand that we take seriously. But the sex-positive gaze, unmoored from Willis’s call to ambivalence, threatens to neutralise these facts, treating them as pre-political givens. In other words, the sex-positive gaze risks covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference’.
This is the wrench that contemporary intersectional concerns throw into a purely consent-based, desire-driven account of sexuality. It can easily function as a cover for all sorts of sexual discrimination and exclusion under the guise of just affirming whatever sexual desires someone finds within themselves. But what if those desires are racist, transphobic, fat-shaming, and so forth? Shouldn’t those desires be different? Shouldn’t we discourage them? But how, without falling back into authoritarianism?
The argument cuts both ways. If all desire must be immune from political critique, then so must the desires that exclude and marginalise trans women: not just erotic desires for certain kinds of body, but the desire not to share womanhood itself with the ‘wrong’ kinds of woman. The dichotomy between identity and desire, as Chu suggests, is surely a false one; and in any case the rights of trans people should not rest on it, any more than the rights of gay people should rest on the idea that homosexuality is innate rather than chosen (a matter of who gay people are rather than what they want). But a feminism that totally abjures the political critique of desire is a feminism with little to say about the injustices of exclusion and misrecognition suffered by the women who arguably need feminism the most.
Srinivasan continues her analysis along these lines for some time, tracing the problematic bind these tensions generate. She concludes with this humdinger of a paragraph:
To take this question seriously requires that we recognise that the very idea of fixed sexual preference is political, not metaphysical. As a matter of good politics, we treat the preferences of others as sacred: we are rightly wary of speaking of what people really want, or what some idealised version of them would want. That way, we know, authoritarianism lies. This is true, most of all, in sex, where invocations of real or ideal desires have long been used as a cover for the rape of women and gay men. But the fact is that our sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own wills – not automatically, but not impossibly either. What’s more, sexual desire doesn’t always neatly conform to our own sense of it, as generations of gay men and women can attest. Desire can take us by surprise, leading us somewhere we hadn’t imagined we would ever go, or towards someone we never thought we would lust after, or love. In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.
This is an astonishing ending that posits placing hope in the ability of our sexual desire itself to surprise us and set us free from the shackle politics. Perhaps Aphrodite truly does hold the key to liberation?
Now, I don’t have a really substantial critique of Srinivasan’s piece–for that, see Carl Trueman’s incisive piece–except to make two quick comments.
First, that last line just cries out for an Augustinian analysis of both the problem of the bound will and the way idols somehow manage to keep tricking us into believing that trusting one idol will set you free from another. We really do need a City of God for a new age.
Second, and this is the more striking (if a bit obvious) point to me: the call to sexual holiness is unavoidable. Srinivasan is not a Christian, nor does she espouse anything close to a Christian sexual ethic, but as her reflections make clear, leaving behind a Christian normative frame does not solve the problematic, obviously disordered nature of our sexual desires. As Alastair Roberts has noted, the contemporary choice is not one of simply abandoning sexual morality, but of trading it in for another.
And so while you may not have a problem with pre-marital sex, pornography, same-sex desires, or consenting polyamorous adults doing their thing, but the reality is that on just about any moral framework, you’re eventually going to be asked to consider that your desires are in some way distorted, deformed, and whether “there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires” so they are not conformed to the (patriarchal, capitalist, etc.) pattern of this world.
There is no question, then, about the call to sexual holiness in the world. We all know deep down we need it and we ought to strive for it. The question is who sets the terms: Jesus, or someone else.
Soli Deo Gloria