The Ambivalence of Desire

Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex argues for the feminist imperative to interrogate, and even change, our sexual desires

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The Ambivalence of Desire
Graphic:FSG/G/O Media/Angelica Alzona

Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex circles around a fundamental question: Why do we desire what we desire? The desires that interest her range from racist dating practices to the eroticization of women’s subordination. “What is ugliest about our social realities—racism, classism, ableism, heteronormativity—shapes whom we do and do not desire and love, and who does and does not desire and love us,” Srinivasan, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, writes. In other words, personal desires do not arise fully formed as a natural fact before the influence of nurture. Desire is political, argues Srinivasan. As such, desire is malleable.

She first made this argument in a breakout London Review of Books essay, which opened with the case of Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old “involuntary celibate” who went on a 2014 shooting spree, blaming women for not having had sex with him. In that essay, from which her book borrows its title, she identified two functions of patriarchy in Rodger’s story: both his “erotic fixation” on, in his words, “hot blonde sluts” and the fact that “alpha females” don’t want to date men like him. But feminist commentary on Rodger, she wrote in LRB, “has said little about desire: men’s desire, women’s desire, and the ideological shaping of both.”

This interest in the ideological shaping of desire leads Srinivasan to incisive and complex critiques. Noting that feminist commentary on desire has increasingly seized on consent, she points out that popular exhortations to “believe women” ignore the history of false rape accusations against Black men, the “stigmatization of black male sexuality,” and the linked portrayal of Black women as “hypersexual” and “unrapeable.” She traces the themes of consent and desire to everything from professors sleeping with students to carceral responses to “the problems of sex.” Most powerfully, Srinivasan addresses how “personal preference” in dating is used to defend racism, transphobia, and fatphobia. “Consider the supreme fuckability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unfuckability of black women and Asian men, the fetishization and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed toward disabled, trans, and fat bodies,” she writes of the political and societal construction of desire.

Srinivasan places these persuasive arguments about discriminatory desire alongside a subject that has long divided feminists: the possibility that those desires might be beholden to patriarchal desires. Srinivasan revisits decades-old feminist debate about such things as “false consciousness,” pornography, and sexual objectification. In the book’s preface, Srinivasan asserts the value of dwelling in “discomfort and ambivalence,” and it certainly is uncomfortable returning to some of the same divisive debates that inflamed the so-called “sex wars” of the ’70s and ’80s. But, Srinivasan argues, politics cannot be a “place of comfort.” Since those debates, “the wind has been behind a feminism which does not moralize about women’s sexual desires, and which insists that acting on those desires is morally constrained only by the boundaries of consent,” she writes.

The problem with treating sexual preference as inherent, she says, is that it shuts down critical consciousness: “The rape fantasy becomes a primordial rather than a political fact.” Srinivasan calls upon feminists to think beyond the question of consent to “what forces lie behind a woman’s yes.

This isn’t an entirely new perspective, although it is one that Srinivasan argues has fallen out of favor. She points to the “pro-sex” feminist writer Ellen Willis, who argued in the 1980s that it is “axiomatic that consenting partners have a right to their sexual proclivities, and that authoritarian moralism has no place” in feminism, but who also wondered, “Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?” As Srinivasan notes, these points are not contradictory: Feminists must respect free sexual choice while also noting that “such choices, under patriarchy, are rarely free.” Srinivasan’s concern, well-founded amid the rise of commercialized notions of neoliberal feminism, is that feminists now focus too much on permission and choice, neglecting this critical questioning of desire.

Again, she is interested not just in questioning the influences and constraints on desire, but in whether feminism might urge the possibility of desiring differently. This is where the book dives deepest into “discomfort and ambivalence.” It taps into the legacy of bell hooks, who argued that “women who engage in sexual acts with male partners must not only interrogate the nature of the masculinity we desire, we must also actively construct radically new ways to think and feel as desiring subjects.” It also invokes Audre Lorde, who wrote in 1981 in The Uses of the Erotic that “the fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined.”

As with so many debates over feminist desire, Srinivasan zeros in on pornography. She recounts the anecdotal experiences of her students at Oxford for whom sex “is what porn says it is.” There is a sexual “script in place that dictated not only the physical moves and gestures and sounds to make and demand, but also the appropriate affect, the appropriate desires, the appropriate distribution of power,” she writes, which are often defined by race and gender. Srinivasan accurately notes that porn, particularly in the case of free tube sites, “doesn’t just reflect preexisting sexual tastes”—it is driven by sophisticated algorithms, built on the same logic that powers YouTube and Amazon,” which “learn and then shape users’ preferences.”

This is rich terrain, of course. We are products of the media we consume, all of which is created within patriarchy. Porn isn’t unique in that, except that sex is distinctly shrouded in shame and taboo, and adult entertainment becomes de facto education. Srinivasan takes a firmer stance, though: “Porn trains,” she writes. She suggests that porn exerts an ideological force on desire.

Srinivasan points to supporting research around porn-watching and attitudes toward women, while also acknowledging that it’s possible for critics to highlight contradictory research, as well as to raise questions about correlation versus causation and the reliability of data borne from religiously motivated organizations. This is a familiar stalemate, except that Srinivasan is clear porn should not be legislated away. While she draws heavily from the arguments of anti-porn feminist Catharine MacKinnon, who famously co-drafted the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance of the 1980s, she notes that censorship often results in the further oppression of marginalized sexualities. Besides, says Srinivasan, the internet makes porn uncontainable. In a relief of a passage, Srinivasan argues that “what should matter most to feminists is not what the law says about porn, but what the law does for and to the women who work in it.”

(She also gives an approving nod to indie, queer, and feminist porn productions, which is both welcome and all-too-simplistic: It ignores the ways in which demands of “authenticity” can exploit performers and how superficially feminist aesthetics can coexist with allegations of on-set abuse.)

Beyond porn, Srinivasan is broadly interested in the radical feminist argument that patriarchy “makes sex, as we know it, what it is: a practice marked by male domination and female submission.” She recognizes that sexual desires don’t just exist within sex. Srinivasan highlights feminist and trans writer Andrea Long Chu’s 2018 n+1 essay about how her transition “expresses not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire.” Chu wrote of longing for everything from “lipstick and mascara” to “the benevolent chauvinism of bank tellers and cable guys” to “Daisy Dukes, bikini tops, and all the dresses.” The problem with desire, she wrote, is that “we rarely want the things we should.” You could “sooner give a cat a bath” than force “desire to conform to political principle.”

Srinivasan is troubled by what she sees as the implications of Chu’s argument: “If all desire must be insulated from political critique, then so must the desires that exclude and marginalize trans women,” including the desires of TERFs and lesbian cis women who practice sexual exclusion. But Chu isn’t arguing entirely against critique. After all, she recounts her desires from a place of critical consciousness. Instead, she questions what one should be expected to do with that political awareness, or what one even can do with it. “Everyone should be allowed to want things that are bad for them,” she said in an interview following the publication of Srinivasan’s essay. Understanding the political context of one’s desires “doesn’t necessarily mean that knowing that is going to do anything,” said Chu.

It’s also difficult to know any desire untouched by outside influence. What does natural or uncorrupted desire look like? Can the answer escape patriarchy and puritanism? Can it avoid reproducing a “feminist” version of what Gayle Rubin dubbed the “Charmed Circle,” a pathologizing hierarchy of sexual acts?

Srinivasan entertains the idea of young people avoiding pornographic influence such that they first develop their own sexual imaginations. But, while porn does offer an explicit representation of the act, the whole of mainstream entertainment and beyond provide a vivid, unmistakable recounting of the gendered power dynamics of heterosexual sex. As Willis cautioned, anti-porn feminist critiques often envision sex that is perhaps less notably feminist than stereotypically feminine, in which “lovemaking should be beautiful, romantic, soft, nice, and devoid of messiness, vulgarity, impulses to power, or indeed aggression of any sort.” Whether interrogating private sexual fantasies or one’s feelings about Daisy Dukes, it’s easy enough to reactively reach for desires that are equally subject to ideological forces—just, perhaps, different ones.

During the sex wars, feminists were deeply engaged with questions of influence but also rightly wary of what they meant for women’s sexuality; desire and pleasure are tenuous enough wins as-is. “Do we distrust out passion, thinking it perhaps not our own but the construction of patriarchal culture?” asked Carole S. Vance in the 1984 anthology Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. “Must our passion await expression for a safer time? When will the time come? Will any of us remember what her passion was?”

Srinivasan is well-versed in such criticisms. In a standalone chapter, Srinivasan addresses a host of critiques of her LRB argument, including accusations of moralizing. She notes that “a myopic focus on individual action is characteristic of a bourgeois morality whose ideological function is to distract from the broader systems of injustice in which we participate.” Calling for individuals to examine their sexual desires risks a liberal stance that takes the focus off a system constrained by capitalism. It asks us to act as if we live in a post-patriarchal world, which, Srinivasan allows, risks undermining widespread social change by allowing “practitioners to substitute individual personal transformation for collective political transfiguration.”

Individuals are not absolved, Srinivasan argues. Instead, she asks how we might examine our desires “without turning inward, without replacing a political project with a personal one.” The answer, she says, “is to be found not through theoretical investigation but through experiments of living.” In other words, Srinivasan sets aside the heady philosophical debate, suggesting that one must figure it all out for oneself by living life, experimentally.

Here, Srinivasan writes of the positive potential of expanding desire: “I am asking what might happen if we were to look at bodies, our own and others’, and allow ourselves to feel admiration, appreciation, want, where politics tells us we should not,” she writes. “What is disciplined here isn’t desire itself, but the political forces that presume to instruct it.” She offers that “desire can take us by surprise, leading us somewhere we hadn’t imagined we would ever go, or toward 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.”

Srinivasan’s vision for desire isn’t defined by ambivalence or discomfort, but resolute optimism. Desire is shaped by ideology, but, freed from those constraints, it might re-shape our world.

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