[These are expanded reading notes. They are part of my effort to learn more about the ethics of sexual exclusion.]
Does anyone have the right to sex? That’s the question posed in the title of a prize-winning essay by Amia Srinivasan. The essay addresses a contentious and politically charged issue. To put it bluntly, some people are sexually excluded. That is to say: they are not seen as potential/desirable sexual partners. Since sexual intimacy is typically seen as a ‘good’ (something that, all else being equal,* makes life better), this sexual exclusion could be viewed as an injustice. This is particularly true if certain groups of people are systematically sexually excluded. Could they have a ‘right’ to sexual inclusion?
This question has been actively debated for quite some time, particularly in the disability rights community. But it is, to many, a deeply unpalatable idea. People worry that it feeds upon patriarchal and misogynistic ideas of sexual entitlement. Srinivasan’s essay addresses these concerns head-on by engaging directly with the ‘incel’ movement and the way in which its members talk about sexual exclusion and sexual entitlement in violent and misogynistic terms. And of course it is not just talk: at least two members of the online ‘incel’ community have been responsible for mass killings. It’s hard to debate the philosophical niceties of sexual inclusion and exclusion in the shadow of such atrocities.
But Srinivasan’s essay does so in an engaging and unsettling (in the best sense) way. I highly recommend reading it. In this post, I want to try to excavate the logic of the main arguments and ideas in Srinivasan’s essay and offer some critical reflections of my own. Despite the title and the initial set-up, I think the essay turns out to be less about the right to sex and more about offering a corrective to a long-standing debate within feminist theory. It then uses this corrective to raise a dilemma for those who want to argue about the politics of sexual inclusion/exclusion. That’s my reading of it anyway. I’ll try to explain why I take that perspective in what follows.
1. The Politics of Sexual Desire
Srinivasan’s essay starts with a discussion of the Elliot Rodger case. Rodger was a member of an online incel discussion group. On May 23rd 2014, Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others in a mass shooting/killing spree that took place in and around the University of California, Santa Barbara. Rodger released a manifesto that explained his actions. The manifesto fixated on his sexual exclusion, specifically on his frustration at not being seen as an object of sexual desire by ‘beautiful blonde’ ‘white’ girls (Rodger’s manifesto and online commentary was replete with racist statements). He saw them as cruel, stuck-up and heartless. They had to be punished for his exclusion.
Rodger’s horizon of sexual desire seems to have been very narrow. He longed for a certain type — the beautiful blonde white girls — not for other types. Why was this? Srinivasan and others see Rodger’s limited sexual horizons as a product of patriarchal conditioning. The ideological climate in which he lived and breathed taught him that only certain kinds of women were sexually ideal and so being ignored or overlooked by these women was perceived, by him, to be a grave injustice. Now, to be clear, Srinivasan doesn’t think that patriarchal conditioning is the only thing that explains Rodger’s behaviour — other factors were clearly at play — but she does use his case a springboard for asking the broader question: should we take a more critical perspective on the ways in which ideologies shape and construct our sexual desires?
This is where a long-standing debate within feminist theory rears its head. According to the radicalist school of thought, we should pay a lot of attention to the social conditioning of sexual desire. In particular, we should pay attention to the way in which male and female sexual desires are constructed around relationships of subordination and domination. Men are seen as sexual aggressors: they must be controlling and dominating. Women are seen as sexually subordinate: they must be submissive, coy, and sexually compliant. This conditioning is all part of the patriarchy: the ideology that prevents ensures male primacy and prevents true equality between the sexes. Under the pervasive influence of the patriarchy, all sexual desires and experiences must be questioned. It is very difficult (perhaps even impossible) for them to be truly authentic or autonomous. Thus, women who claim to enjoy heterosexual sex (and possibly even lesbian sex) are more than likely victims of a ‘false consciousness’. This highly politicised approach to sexual desire is associated, in particular, with the work of one of the leading radical feminists, Catharine MacKinnon.
The radicalist school of thought has been criticised by the sex positive school of thought. Sex positive feminists think that women can experience genuine and authentic sexual pleasure, and that not all sexual desires and experiences need to be questioned. In a famous article called ‘Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?’ — which Srinivasan returns to several times in her essay — Ellen Willis sets out the case for the sex positive view, arguing that MacKinnon and her ilk are unnecessarily inducing shame in women for their sexual desires, reinforcing a negative view of women as victims, and denying women any possibility of genuine sexual agency. Willis is much less inclined to be sceptical about expressions of sexual desire and pleasure than MacKinnon: if a woman testifies, under appropriate conditions, that she enjoys certain forms of sex, and that she engages in those forms of sex authentically and of her own volition, then who are we to question her?
In offering this critique, Willis is supported by the move towards ‘intersectional’ analysis in feminist theory (roughly: the idea that individuals don’t fall neatly into a single identity category, such as ‘male’ or ‘female’ but, instead, exist at the intersection of multiple overlapping identity categories). The intersectional mode of analysis casts doubt on the notion that all women experience the negative effects of patriarchal conditioning in the same way. It favours trusting the testimony of individuals over general theories (following the strictures of standpoint epistemology). If individuals say they desire or are empowered by certain forms of sex, then so be it. This is true even if the sex they want is commercialised (i.e. prostitution/sex work), or includes elements of dominance and subordination, or other superficially concerning features.
As Srinivasan puts it:
The case made by Willis in ‘Lust Horizons’ has so far proved the enduring one. Since the 1980s, the wind has been behind a feminism which takes desire for the most part as given — your desire takes the shape that it takes — and which insists that acting on that desire is morally constrained only by the boundaries of consent. Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic; it is instead merely wanted or unwanted.
Should this victory for sex positive feminism be celebrated? Srinivasan has her doubts.
2. Srinivasan’s Argument: The Danger of Depoliticising Sexual Desire
The sex positive approach reinforces a privatised model of sex. Your sexual desires are your own business. All’s fair in love and sex, so long as you respect the consent and autonomy of your sexual partners. Consent becomes the only currency of any significance in debates about the permissibility of sex.
The problem, for Srinivasan, is that this overlooks and ignores the obvious ways in which our sexual desires are politically and socially conditioned to be discriminatory. Srinivasan does not set out her critique of sex positive feminism in formal terms in her essay. I’m going to try to do this by offering a semi-formal reconstruction of the argument. Some of the language in this reconstruction might seem a little strange but I will explain it after I have set it out. Here it is:
- (1) Sex positive feminism encourages us to view consent/wanting as the sole constraint on permissible sex (i.e. to adopt a privatised/laissez faire model of sexual desire).
- (2) If we treat consent/wanting as the sole constraint on permissible sex, then we end up treating sexual desire as primordial/axiomatic, not political.
- (3) If we treat sexual desire as primordial/axiomatic, then we provide a cover for (or legitimise or unduly ignore) the way in which sexual desire manifests discriminatory ideologies such as racism, ableism, transphobia (etc).
- (4) Sexual desire is political, not primordial/axiomatic.
- (5) We should try to combat/undermine/neutralise discriminatory political ideologies.
- (6) Therefore, we need to push back against (or reconsider) the laissez faire approach of sex positive feminism.
This reconstruction is messy, and it is a little bit difficult to string together the premises into a logically valid form, but I think the premises do fairly capture the key propositions in Srinivasan’s critique of the sex positive approach. Hopefully, premise (1) will make sense as is: it is based on the description of Willis’s work from the previous section. The only thing that needs to be said here is that Srinivasan does point out that Willis’s original essay was a bit more nuanced and ambivalent than is suggested by premise (1). Thus, the focus of the critique is not on Willis’s work per se but rather on an idealised/popularised form of sex positive feminism. The other premises require a bit more unpacking. I’ll go through each of them now, quoting relevant passages from Srinivasan’s essay to show how I derived them.
I’ll start with premise (2). This should be relatively straightforward. The idea being expressed here is that if we adopt the sex positive view, we end up treating sexual desires as pre-political ‘fixed points’ (i.e. axioms) in our ethical thinking. They are placed among the things that cannot be challenged or questioned. The assumption — and it is a big assumption in Srinivasan’s essay, one that I will return to later — is that if we saw them as being politically conditioned/shaped we would not approach them with the same fixed mindset. We would instead see them as things to be challenged and questioned.
Premise (3) allows us to appreciate why we might want to question or challenge sexual desires. This is really the keystone of Srinivasan’s argument and the hingepoint of her entire essay. The claim being made in that premise is twofold: (i) that sexual desire is, in fact, infected with racist and other discriminatory ideologies and (ii) that treating desire as axiomatic and pre-political gives those discriminatory ideologies a free pass. I’m just going to quote an entire paragraph from Srinivasan’s essay because I think it summarises the point better than I ever could:
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 fuckability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unfuckability 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’.
Srinivasan goes on to give more detailed examples of how oppressive and discriminatory attitudes make their way ‘into the bedroom’. She provides an illuminating story about the way in which Grindr allows its users to sort potential partners along ‘discriminatory grooves’: Asian men, for example, are often ignored/overlooked, or only attract the attention of ‘Rice Queens’ who think they are ‘good at bottoming’. And it’s not just Grindr. All online dating platforms allow users to do this, to at least some extent. The sexually excluded and ‘unfuckable’ (to adopt Srinivasan’s dysphemism) constantly remain on the fringes of sexual acceptability thanks to algorithmic preference management. This is a political problem, not just a personal one. As she puts it later in her essay:
... simply to say to a trans woman, or a disabled woman, or an Asian man, ‘No one is required to have sex with you’ is to skate over something crucial. There is no entitlement to sex, and everyone is entitled to want what they want, but personal preferences — NO DICKS, NO FEMS, NO FATS, NO BLACKS, NO ARABS, NO RICE NO SPICE, MASC-FOR-MASC - are never just personal.
From the recognition of this problem, the rest of the argument unfolds in a predictable way. Premise (4) may not be logically necessary for the argument but it is something that is repeatedly emphasised by Srinivasan. Our sexual desires are politically shaped and conditioned; they are not — contra the sex positive view — primordial pre-political axioms. The significance of this, I take it, is that if they are political then it is right and proper to assess them in them in same terms as other political institutions and facts. This could include seeing them as tools of oppression and injustice and taking steps to dismantling them (much as the radical feminists asked us to do in the 1970s and 1980s). This, then, is where premise (5) comes in. It suggests a direction or purpose to any such reconstructive exercise: we should work to reshape sexual desire so as to prevent systematic discrimination from reasserting itself in the bedroom.
The conclusion — that we need to reconsider the wisdom of sex positive feminism — then seems to follow.
Or does it? Here, we need to be cautious. Even though I think my reconstruction of her critique of sex positive feminism is plausible, it’s important to realise that Srinivasan is much more ambivalent about it than I have let on to this point.
3. The Need for Caution: The Dilemma of Politicisation
Srinivasan’s ambivalence stems from her starting point: the case of Elliot Rodger. If we take his manifesto at face value, then Rodger was sexually excluded. He was not seen as sexually desirable because he was shy, nerdy, introverted (or whatever it was that he perceived to be the cause of his sexual exclusion). Is his sexual exclusion also to be couched in political terms? Should we see him as a victim of a grave injustice in how our sexual psyches get shaped and conditioned?
There is a serious danger here. Srinivasan doesn’t want us to shame people for their sexual desires, or to deny them any possibility of authentic sexual agency (like the radicals seemed to do). But she also wants us to ‘repoliticise’ sexual desire so that we are more cognisant of the systematic sexual exclusion of certain groups of people. In making the case for the repoliticisation of sexual desire she focuses in particular on the sexual exclusion of disabled people, black/brown women, Asian men, transgender women and so on — all people who belong to one or more recognised minority class. If you are generally progressive and left-leaning in your political beliefs, you’ll find it relatively easy to be sympathetic to their situation. Speaking from my own perspective, I’ve read several pieces on sexual inclusion and disability — in particular the work of Tracy de Boer — and I find it easy to be swayed by her reasoning into thinking that there is an injustice that arises from the sexual exclusion of disabled persons, and that this injustice ought to be addressed.
But this logic then cuts both ways. If sexual exclusion is an injustice, then surely the sexual exclusion of nerdy, shy white dudes is also an injustice? And once we start seeing it in those terms, don’t we head down a very slippery slope? Don’t we start thinking about sex as a 'good' that needs to be fairly distributed among all people? And don’t we then start seeing it as a good to which everyone has some entitlement?
…there is a risk too that repoliticising desire will encourage a discourse of sexual entitlement. Talk of people who are unjustly sexually marginalised or excluded can pave the way to the thought that these people have a right to sex, a right that is being violated by those who refuse to have sex with them. That view is galling: no one is under an obligation to have sex with anyone else.
To avoid that galling view, Srinivasan embarks on an analysis of how sex may or may not be similar to other distributive goods, arguing that we should resist analogies with things like food or education, and in the end, that ‘for better or worse, we must find a way to take sex on its own terms’. But this isn’t a particularly satisfying conclusion since it doesn’t provide a resolution to the problems raised by Srinivasan’s analysis. It doesn’t tell us how we should proceed with the repoliticisation of sexual desire, if at all. In essence, she diagnoses the problem without resolving it:
The question, then, is how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion.
This gives us what I will call ’Srinivasan’s Dilemma’, which I think is the real conclusion/message of her essay.
Srinivasan’s Dilemma: If we depoliticise sexual desire (and thus accept sexual desire as axiomatic/pre-political), then we risk ignoring/legitimising/perpetuating, systematic forms of discrimination in the manifestation of sexual desire. But if we politicise sexual desire, and recognise its role in systematic forms of discrimination, we risk legitimising a discourse of sexual entitlement and rights.
The real challenge then is whether there is some way to slide between the horns of this dilemma, or whether we have to impale ourselves on one of them (perhaps an unfortunate metaphor in the circumstances).
4. Concluding Thoughts
That’s my take on Srinivasan’s argument. Perhaps I have misinterpreted it; perhaps I have overlooked some crucial detail that would give me a different perspective. I’m happy to be corrected. I want to close, however, with three comments on the reconstruction I have provided.
The first comment is purely interpretive. I see Srinivasan’s article as fitting into a particular sub-genre of feminist analyses of sexual ethics. Specifically, I see it as fitting into a sub-genre whose paradigmatic instance is Ann Cahill’s essay on ‘Unjust sex vs Rape’, which I covered last year. The main claim defended in this sub-genre is that ‘consent’ is not the sole criterion of sexual permissibility and that we need to be more nuanced in our ethical assessment of sexual relations. In particular, we need to recognise forms of sexual activity that are ‘unjust’ without amounting to ‘rape’ or ‘sexual assault’. Part of the mistake of the radicalist school — at least in the eyes of its critics — was a tendency to conflate these two things, leading them to be ridiculed for holding the view that ‘all sex is rape’ (which, as I understand it, is not something they ever actually stated). The Cahill-approach is to avoid such extremism while still being sensitive to ethical shortcomings in our sexual practices. Cahill herself does this by focusing on ways in which patriarchal conditioning hijacks women’s sexual agency; Srinivasan does it by focusing on how discriminatory ideologies hijack everybody’s sexual agency.
The second comment is also interpretive but has more substance to it. It has to do with Srinivasan’s claim that sexual desire is ‘political’. This is central to her entire analysis, but it is potentially problematic. This is because there are two possible interpretations of that claim. The first interpretation is that it is a claim about the origins/explanations of sexual desire. It is saying that if our sexual desires are the product of political conditioning then they are not (or at least not solely) the product of something else like evolutionary programming or autonomous self-authorship. The second interpretation is that it is a claim about how we should ethically assess sexual desires, i.e. that we shouldn’t give them a ‘free pass’ but should instead assess them according to the criteria we use to assess all political institutions and facts. As you might have noticed, I favoured the second interpretation above. Let me explain why.
I admit that it is tempting to favour the first interpretation. Doing so would make Srinivasan’s argument slot into familiar territory (people love to debate the origins of sexual preferences after all). It would also be consistent with some of the things she says (and may, for all I know, actually be her view). But I think favouring this interpretation would be a mistake. Although many people think that the origins of a sexual preference makes an ethical difference, I think this is unfortunate because it can get you into endless and unproductive debates about what best explains a sexual preference. What often matters most is not where a sexual preference comes from but whether it expresses itself in a problematic way. If our sexual desires are unjustly discriminatory, then they are unjustly discriminatory and we have reason (though maybe not an overwhelming or decisive reason) to change them. It doesn’t matter whether this is the result of evolutionary programming or social conditioning or autonomous self-authorship.
A controversial analogy might help. Some adults have a consistent sexual preference for children. There are many attempts to explain why this is the case. Maybe it is due to genetic factors, maybe it is due to early environmental/developmental conditioning, maybe it is something that people acquire, gradually, over their adolescence, maybe it is due to some combination of all these factors. It would be nice to know, but, importantly, it wouldn’t change our ethical assessment of those sexual preferences if we did know where they came from: we would still view them as ethically problematic and would still have reason to change them or block their expression. The same reasoning applies to discriminatory sexual preferences, at least when they have systematic and oppressive effects.
You might disagree with this. You might think the origins do make an ethical difference. I'll admit that they might, in two circumstances neither of which is really relevant here. First, they could make a difference if what we are interested in is assigning punishment or blame for the expression of that desire. If we think the desire was not chosen or endorsed by the individual who expressed it we might be less inclined to punish or blame them. But this seems irrelevant to Srinivasan’s argument. It doesn’t seem to me that she is interested in assigning punishment or blame for our discriminatory sexual preferences. They could also make a difference when it comes to assessing how easy it is to reprogramme or change our sexual desires. If our desires are hardwired into us through genetic programming, then the assumption often is that they are less malleable than if they are socially conditioned. This genetic fixity could undermine Srinivasan’s argument. For example, a proponent of evolutionary psychology could take issue with her claim about the ‘political’ nature of sexual desire by arguing that there are difficult-to-change evolutionary constraints on what people find sexually desirable. We cannot easily reprogramme or change those sexual desires — not without causing significant hardship or creating an authoritarian system of sexual reprogramming, and even then it might be doomed to failure.
But, of course, this isn’t the right way to think about it. Just because something is genetic or evolutionarily programmed doesn’t mean that it is hard to change. For example, there is a strong evolutionary connection between sex and procreation but technology allows us to easily de-link sex from procreation if we so desire. Likewise, just because something is socially conditioned doesn’t mean that it is easy to change. For example, there are patterns of wealth inequality that are largely due to legal and institutional facts such as private property and capitalistic modes of production. Nevertheless, these patterns are very hard to change given the political and economic interests at stake. Ease of change is ethically significant, but it is its own thing and needs to be considered on its own terms.
This brings me to the third and final point. This one is purely substantive and has to do with Srinivasan’s dilemma itself. Although I accept that there is something to this dilemma, I do wonder whether she overstates the slipperiness of the slope between recognising the injustice of certain forms of sexual exclusion and fostering a discourse of sexual entitlement. It seems to me that there are things we can do to foster greater sexual inclusion without endorsing a ‘right’ to sex or encouraging the belief that some people have a claim to the sexual use of another person’s body (which is certainly galling and unpalatable). Some such possibilities have been discussed in the literature on disability and sexual inclusion. Advocates and activists in that area argue that basic consciousness-raising around the problem of exclusion and the tendency to see certain people as ‘asexual’ or ‘nonsexual’ can go some way to addressing the problem, as can greater tolerance (and less stigmatisation/legal prohibition) of certain kinds of sexual practice. Technological aids to sexual gratification can also be considered. They might allow for a meaningful kind of sexual inclusion without creating demands over other people (though, to be fair, all of this depends on what exactly people are being excluded from).
Related to this, I don’t see why we couldn’t say that some people have a greater/stronger claim to sexual inclusion than others. People who suffer from multiple forms of discrimination and oppression would obviously seem to warrant greater sympathy when it comes to sexual exclusion than people who are otherwise privileged. Furthermore, I also don’t see why we couldn’t say that some people’s sexual desires have no justifiable claim to gratification because they are harmful. So, for example, someone like Elliot Rodger who harbours violent misogynistic sexual fantasies doesn’t have any ‘right’ to be sexually included because his sexual desires are themselves morally problematic. Indeed, they are part of the problem -- part of the discriminatory ideology -- that we would like to correct.
Still, let me conclude by cautioning that this is a highly contentious and charged issue. I think Srinivasan is right to say that we need to occupy a somewhat ambivalent space.
* If the sex is abusive, coercive and/or non-consensual then obviously this changes the assessment.