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Does anyone have the right to sex? by Amia Srinivasan (2018) (read in 2019)

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is a medium-length essay/tract that was recommended as insightful, but fell rather short. It starts off discussing the notion of the incel community as a powder keg that is a danger to society because of its expectation of sex from the “hottest” members. This is already more than a bit of straw man based on the whackiest members of the group.

This tack is based on taking the reasoning of one or two mentally ill people seriously and literally. When someone says he killed a bunch of co-eds because his Satan controlling his dog told him to, we don’t infer a whole dangerous movement—we just figure that person is mentally ill. But if the same person claims it’s because those hot bitches wouldn’t blow him, then we infer a vast underground movement that lurks beneath society.

There were some limpid bits in the essay but it was otherwise all over the place (in a way very similar to Abdulali’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Rape). It takes and runs with stereotypes inculcated and revered by … the media? Porn? Hollywood? and applies them broadly to an entire gender. There isn’t really any insight or unpacking of societal reasons.

For example: The author states that “sexy schoolgirls and sexy teachers, manic pixie dreamgirls and Milfs, [are] all taut-bodied and hot, minor variations” but that they can’t “imagine GQ carrying an article celebrating ‘mom bod’”. Aren’t there several categories of porn that cater exactly to this? Just because a staid and establishment magazine like GQ wouldn’t acknowledge it doesn’t mean that society as a whole hasn’t acknowledged it. If you read the yearly statistical roundup blog from any of the big porn sites, you’ll see that actual (not mainstream media) preferences are much more equitable.

It is at this point that I would have expected a discussion of the separation between “official culture” and “actual culture”, where the official version is a fake version imposed from above as brainwashing. Nothing of the kind happens. Instead, there seems to be an argument that anyone who withholds their attraction from anyone who wants it is vaguely or even manifestly discriminatory. It’s almost as if the author ends up making the incel argument?

“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.”

The tone is clear: all of this is bad. However, there are different reasons for all of it, aren’t there? To redefine “lack of interest” on the part of most people as “sexual disgust” is disingenuous, at best. This is again defining the whole world in terms of what it wants to fuck, as if that’s all anyone thinks about all day. While it may be true for some people, especially during certain phases of their lives, the tone in this essay distorts the world to define it purely in terms of sexual preference and inculcated attraction—and expectation.

That asian men and black women are unfuckable or that black men are dangerous predators has a lot more to do with American society than anything else. That is not really discussed much at all. That people are generally not turned on by disabled or fat bodies is at least partly biological, as is being attracted to people with whom you can procreate. It’s almost as if you need to want to fuck someone in order not discriminate against them. But if you do want to fuck them, then you’re discriminating against them by defining them purely as sexual beings. So, damned if you, damned if you don’t. That’s not an interesting or productive line of reasoning.

To prove that I’m not unfairly paraphrasing, a direct citation:

“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’. (Emphasis added.)”

Try teasing that statement apart. Am I hiding a palette of discriminatory beliefs behind the facade of nearly lifelong monogamy? Nice excuse, right? No wonder more and more people would rather identify as asexual than risk being called racist for what they mistook as biological apathy.

I understand that society has a lot to do with shaping personal preference, but so does biology. It’s a ludicrous leap, though, to put the words into scare quotes and then call it “seemingly innocuous”, suggesting that anyone who is attracted to people that they feel instinctively attracted to is a Neanderthal without scruple or interest in advancing any social agendas.

But them Srinivasan double down and writes the following:

“It’s because straight people – or, I should say, white, able-bodied cis straight people – aren’t much in the habit of thinking there’s anything wrong with how they have sex.”

Are you fucking kidding me? Straight sex isn’t freighted with judgment or confusion? I’m not in the dating scene and even I know that’s not true. Because…every movie ever. Have you ever seen a movie? Have you every interacted with modern culture? The majority of popular culture is about how white, able-bodied, cis, straight people being supremely uncomfortable about sex. They can’t fucking stop talking about it or making movies and songs about it.

My impression is that we started with the thesis that so-called incels are wrong for thinking that anyone owes them sex. This turns out to be due not to any moral basis, but because these people tend to belong to the socially dominant class, irrespective of whether that membership has translated into any personal dominance in any facet of life. However, denying minorities or other groups historically discriminated against (e.g. fat, disabled, trans) sex is problematic as it expresses the societal discrimination along another axis.

To analogize: if black girl scouts show up at my door, I have to buy cookies, no matter what. If they’re white, I’m obligated to tell their privileged asses off. Alles klar.

Citations

“Meanwhile there are sexy schoolgirls and sexy teachers, manic pixie dreamgirls and Milfs, but they’re all taut-bodied and hot, minor variations on the same normative paradigm. (Can we imagine GQ carrying an article celebrating ‘mom bod’?)”
Position 46-48

That’s not exactly true. There are genres that cater to different tastes. BBW, for example.

“Beginning in the late 1970s, Catharine MacKinnon demanded that we abandon the Freudian view of sexual desire as ‘an innate primary natural prepolitical unconditioned drive divided along the biological gender line’ and recognise that sex under patriarchy is inherently violent; that ‘hostility and contempt, or arousal of master to slave, together with awe and vulnerability, or arousal of slave to master’ are its constitutive emotions.”
Position 58-61

What the actual fuck is she talking about? She’s off the rails.

“Anti-porn feminism, Willis wrote, asked ‘women to accept a spurious moral superiority as a substitute for sexual pleasure, and curbs on men’s sexual freedom as a substitute for real power’.”
Position 74-76
“Thinking about how patriarchal oppression is inflected by race and class – patriarchy doesn’t express itself uniformly, and cannot be understood independently of other systems of oppression – has made feminists reluctant to prescribe universal policies, including universal sexual policies. Demands for equal access to the workplace will be more resonant for white, middle-class women who have been forced to stay home than it will be for the black and working-class women who have always been expected to labour alongside men.”
Position 76-80
“The important thing now is to take women at their word. If a woman says she enjoys working in porn, or being paid to have sex with men, or engaging in rape fantasies, or wearing stilettos – and even that she doesn’t just enjoy these things but finds them emancipatory, part of her feminist praxis – then we are required, as feminists, to trust her. This is not merely an epistemic claim: that a woman’s saying something about her own experience gives us strong, if not indefeasible, reason to think it true. It is also, or perhaps primarily, an ethical claim: a feminism that trades too freely in notions of selfdeception is a feminism that risks dominating the subjects it wants to liberate.”
Position 83-88
“Third and fourth-wave feminists are right to say, for example, that sex work is work, and can be better work than the menial labour undertaken by most women. And they are right to say that what sex workers need are legal and material protections, safety and security, not rescue or rehabilitation.”
Position 99-101
“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.”
Position 115-117

One of these is not like the others.

“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’.”
Position 119-121

Jesus. Try teasing that apart. Am i hiding a palette of discriminatory beliefs behind the facade of monogamy? Nice excuse, right? No wonder more and more people would rather identify as asexual than risk being called racist for what they mistook as biological apathy.

“It’s because straight people – or, I should say, white, able-bodied cis straight people – aren’t much in the habit of thinking there’s anything wrong with how they have sex.”
Position 137-138

Are you fucking kidding me? Straight sex isn’t freighted with judgment? I’m not in the dating scene and even I know that’s not true. Because…every movie ever.

“The distribution of sexual desire, like the distribution of food, is shaped by oppressive forces. This does not take away from the fact that no one is entitled to anyone else’s body. But it does complicate it. Like Solnit, I discuss the analogy in the context of a particular, embittered misogynist, who likened raping a woman to stealing food when starving. Here the analogy between sex and food is used for precisely the misogynistic ends Solnit wants to condemn. That it can be repurposed in this way points to the limits of the analogy: while starvation excuses theft in many cases, sexual ‘starvation’ never excuses rape. What’s more, while many of us think it is the duty of the state to ensure a just distribution of basic goods like food, far fewer of us would welcome state intervention in our patterns of sexual desire.”
Position 233-239