The Right to Sex
I think there is a very strong cultural will, not to think of sex as political. And by insisting on the politically of sex I’m not doing something new, I’m trying to return us to an older feminist tradition…that saw sex within the political critique.
Hear Amia Srinivasan in conversation with UNSW’s Emma A Jane as part of the Sydney Opera House’s 2022 All About Women festival.
Amia Srinivasan, one of the most exciting feminist thinkers today, examines the political and cultural implications of sex. Combining philosophical arguments, popular culture, and political theory, her book The Right to Sex explores male sexual entitlement, the tension between sex positivity and porn’s hold on the imagination, and the inadequate way we talk about consent.
What are the political forces that instruct the types of bodies we find attractive? And can we change who we desire to liberate sex from the distortions of oppression?
Hosted by UNSW Associate Professor Emma A Jane, this conversation was an unflinching exploration of the way our sexual lives reflect the political context of the wider world - and how to challenge these inequalities and blind spots, within ourselves and society.
Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast, a place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop, director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. The conversation you're about to hear, The Right to Sex is between Amia Srinivasan and UNSW academic Emma A. Jane. It was recorded at the Sydney Opera House as part of their All About Women festival. The host Emma Jane is a writer and academic at UNSW Sydney, whose research interests include sex and gender, misogyny on the internet, the future of work, and the social and ethical impact of emerging technology. Her most recent book is the extraordinary memoir, Diagnosis Normal. I hope you enjoy the conversation
Emma A. Jane: Hello, everyone.Welcome. My name is Emma A. Jane, and I'm an academic here in Sydney at UNSW. And I'm absolutely thrilled tonight to be facilitating this, In Conversation event, with Amia Srinivasan. Amia, can you hear us? Are you there? There you are! Hello! Whoo hoo!
Amia Srinivasan: Hello! Hi, Emma. Hi, everyone.
Emma A. Jane: Amia is a social and political theorist at Oxford where she holds, and I'm gonna see if I get the pronunciation right, the Chichele professorship. Was that right Amia?
Amia Srinivasan: That’s it.
Emma A. Jane: We talked about this before, and it was: rhymes with bitcherly. Chichele.
Amia Srinivasan: That's what Philip Larkin used to say.
Emma A. Jane: Excellent. So, Amia is the first woman, the first person of color, and the youngest person to ever hold this prestigious position.
Who would have guessed there'd be any sexism in the academy? Huh? Amia’s book, The Right to Sex, is one of the most intellectually, politically and personally exciting books I have read in years. It's kind of the opp… for me, it was the opposite of those filter bubbles on social media, where you're in a group of people and everyone that you speak to feels exactly like you do and you agree on everything. I found it incredibly challenging and confronting. And personally, I feel like it's really reinvigorated my feminism. It contains six beautifully written essays that cover a range of topics, including incels, the hysteria over false rape accusations, the class and racial politics of fuckability, and why we simply can't arrest our way out of gendered injustice. As you may have gathered, from what I've said so far, and the title of this evening's talk, we will be discussing some potentially sensitive topics like sex, pornography, and violence. And so if these are likely to be upsetting to you, I'll invite you to look after yourselves as you see fit. And leave the room if you need to. Amia, let's dive straight in with the title of your book and break all the rules, and judge it solely on its cover by its title, The Right To Sex. You leave the question a little bit open in the title. Does anyone have the right to sex?
Amia Srinivasan: So, in one sense, yes. Right? I think that's actually fairly uncontroversial, right? So we all have the right to have sex with ourselves, for example. We all have the right to have sex with consenting partners. And I say this is obvious, but of course, many people's rights to have sex with consenting partners are very precarious. So I'm thinking of queer people the world over. But there's another sense of the right to sex, and this is the sense I mean in the title, which is a fictitious right. It's the felt entitlement to sex, regardless of whether anyone actually wants to have sex with you. And that is part of the pathology of male entitlement. Right? So, this idea that men are owed sex that it's somehow their due, I think is a central tenet in patriarchal ideology to put it in the kind of lofty term but to put it in a more pedestrian term, it's something that’s just woven into mainstream male centered culture. And we don't have the right to sex in that sense.
Emma A. Jane: So I guess when it comes to this idea amongst, let's say, the man… or what's known colloquially as the manosphere, the internet coalescing slash coalition of men's groups online. We've seen the rise of what's known as the incel movement. Could you briefly explain for those people who are lucky enough not to have encountered the manosphere, what an incel is and why this particular group of people have interested you?
Amia Srinivasan: Yeah, so I think of the… some people call it the incel movement, I don't think we should call it that. I don't think of it as a political movement. I do think of it as a sub-cultural phenomenon, right? And it's actually fairly global. And it's quite striking in its interrelations with more political things. So it's often the case that incel chat groups work as a kind of gateway into forms of extreme right wing, ethnonationalism and so on. But to stick with just the incel phenomenon, for now. The word incel itself is a shortening of the phrase involuntary celibate. So in principle, it's supposed to pick out any person who wants to be in a relationship, or wants to be having sex, and isn't. Pretty much because no one is interested in having sex with them, or having a relationship with them. In practice, however, the word incel picks out a very specific type of aggrieved, young, typically White man who thinks of himself as due in virtue of his Whiteness, right? And his maleness, due a certain kind of attention, sexual attention, from a certain kind of woman. Right? So incels often think of themselves as just lonely or just sexually marginalised, but actually, what they're furious about is, what they see as the competition over high status females, young, White, slim, and they often say, chaste women.
Emma A. Jane: And these are the women known as Stacy’s, right?
Amia Srinivasan: Stacy’s. Exactly.
Emma A. Jane: Chad’s and Stacey’s. And Stacy's, are these, sort of, trophy, Barbie type, women?
Amia Srinivasan: Yeah. They're the only women worth having in the incel worldview. And they are all being hoarded by the Chad's who are like the alpha males. But fascinatingly, the Chad's don't come in for that much anger, right? All of the anger. And in fact, the violence, the very disturbing violence, that we've seen, in the US, in Germany and elsewhere, often tied with domestic terrorism, is targeted at the women who they see as denying them their rights. I think it's really important when thinking about the incel phenomenon, though, to realize that although these men talk about themselves as being deprived of sex, it's not really sex that they're angry about. Because most of these men aren't interested in going and seeing sex workers. What they're angry about is their perceived place on a sexual hierarchy. They think of themselves as people who should be higher, but are actually.. they've actually been demoted, and other people have been promoted above them on the sexual hierarchy.
Emma A. Jane: So a couple of things I wanted to circle back to there, Amia. And the first one was, you you said predominantly White, when we're talking about the, sort of, archetypal incel but one of the most infamous in cells was Elliot Rodger, of course, who was the guy who in 2014, I think it was, put that thesis length manifesto onto the internet before committing mass homicide, injuring many people. And I understand that that event was what prompted your first essay, that later became this book. But that guy, Elliot Rodger was, he had a sort of, I think the expression you use in your book is a racialised self loathing. And he wasn't a White guy.
Amia Srinivasan: Yeah, so Elliot Rodger is, in a disturbing way, extremely fascinating, and he was the, I mean, his massacre in Isla Vista, California is the thing that brought the incel phenomenon to, kind of, global attention. So Elliot Rodger was half White British, and half Chinese Malaysian, and this produced in him a really fascinating and disturbing racialized understanding of the world. So on one hand, he blamed his not being purely White for what he saw as his sexual and romantic marginalisation. So in general he complained that because he wasn't purely White, because he was, on his own description effete, effeminate, bad at sports, socially awkward, all of these things, he said, made him unattractive to women. At the same time because he was part White, and also because he came from a very wealthy family, and he also claimed to be descended from British aristocrats, he thought all of those things, grounded an entitlement to women's bodies. And he directed a huge amount of racialised loathing against black men his age, who he saw as getting undue, unfair access to women's bodies, right? The women in this are never really subjects, they are just these objects to which one has, or is denied access. So there's a very, kind of, complicated racial dynamic going on in Elliot Rodger, which wasn't really attended to very much when the episode happened. People in the mainstream media, including feminists, really focused on the male sexual entitlement, which was, of course, a central piece of the story. But they really just wanted to end by saying, Elliot Rodger thought he was sexually entitled to women's bodies, this is a kind of extreme version of what we find in, kind of, everyday culture, maybe not erupting in mass violence, but often erupting and smaller bits of toxic behaviour, and smaller bits of violence, especially domestic violence. But no one was really touching this, kind of, more complex, very difficult question of, well, aren't people sometimes marginalised romantically and sexually because of things like their race? Or the fact that they are socially awkward? I don't think that's totally what was going on, in Elliot Rogers case. I mean, I think it was very, at the very least, over determined. But actually, all you need to do is look around at the world and how the romantic and sexual economy actually operates to see that things like race play a huge role in the distribution of sexual status and romantic status.
Emma A. Jane: I mean, sexual racism is a thing, right? Especially in the age of online dating, where you can, you know, initially not see people of certain sizes, or colours, or cultural backgrounds. And one of the things, the many things I found interesting in your book was, in the feminist commentary about Elliot Rodger, and the icel phenomenon that was kind of overlooked.
Amia Srinivasan: Yeah, I think it's, it was overlooked, because it's very hard to talk about well. You have to, I think, dwell on a lot of complexity and ambiguity. Because on one hand, you want to insist that no one has the right to just have sex, right? No one has the right to just be wanted or desired. But at the same time, sometimes what's very ugly about our politics like racism, classism, ableism, shape who is and isn't considered sexually desirable, romantically desirable. And on the question of dating apps, I think dating apps have just made something very visible that long pre existed, right? I think dating apps have allowed us to see the way in which people use race, for example, as a proxy for desirability, and it can kind of go both ways, right? So you get the fetishization of people of certain races. So for example, East Asian women or among gay men, East Asian men, right? Can sometimes be sexually fetishised. But that means they're going to be slotted in very particular sexual roles. They're only going to be desired, insofar as they're willing to play out a, kind of, White supremacist fantasy of, you know, the submissive, subservient, East Asian person. And then you have the intense sexual marginalisation and romantic marginalisation, for example of Black women or other people of colour. So some dating apps like Grindr have been trying to eradicate some of this, right? But it used to be very common on Grindr to see people say things like, no rice, no spice, which means no East Asian men, no South Asian men. I don't think it's a particular problem in the gay male community. I just think that gay men actually have been much more alert to this than straight people, on the whole. I think gay men and gay people in general, queer people, are used to thinking of sex as political, and so they're more open to a kind of political critique of their own sexual behaviours.
Emma A. Jane: So on the subject of sex, being political, and you know, you identify a dearth of political critique of sex in feminism but also, early on in your your book you have that anecdote about being in a dinner party with a famous male philosopher, who you don't name, although I'm very curious, who said he never felt… you know, he loves sex because it was the one time he felt outside of politics. First of all, did you say anything to him? When he came out with that at the dinner party?
Amia Srinivasan: I did. I said, what would your wife say about that? I think there is a very strong cultural will not to think of sex as political, and insisting on the political reality of sex, I'm not doing something new, I'm trying to return us to an older feminist tradition familiar to us from the late 1960s, 1970s that saw sex really squarely within the realm of political critique, right? To say that the personal is political, well, that implies that sex is political, because what's more personal and what's more private, or seemingly private, than sex? But of course, it's very scary to politicise sex. It's… people have, I think, good reason to worry that subjecting their sexual preferences, their sexual desires and practices to political scrutiny will invite a, kind of, authoritarianism that can can be dangerous, but we’ve, sort of, swung so far in the other direction towards thinking that, well, there's nothing to say there's nothing to say, there’s nothing to say about people's desires. All we have to say about sex is, so long as it's consensual, it's fine. And I think we come up against the limits of that way of thinking all of the time. And we see that especially with MeToo.
Emma A. Jane: Yeah, so I will, I will get back to MeToo. But just returning to what you were saying before. I mean, one of the things that I loved, but also found, unsettling at times, was the fact that you went back to a lot of those feminist texts from the 1960s and 70s, and I'm thinking of Catharine MacKinnon, and Andrea Dworkin, and texts that, over my life I had read and, you know, I mocked, you know? I was surrounded, I guess, when I was coming up through academia with, I guess, pro-sex, feminism, third wave feminism, those texts, to me, looked very dated, looked very joyless. One of the things that really struck me about you, sort of, returning and reinvigorating those texts, was that a lot of what they were saying now makes a lot of sense to me. And I wonder whether what we're seeing is… so often happens in politics is that we had that moment in feminist history, and then we've had the sort of third wave, popular feminism, sex positive feminism, where anything goes, no one wants to be shamed, you know, if that's what you're into, then whose business is it to judge? Whereas, as I take it, you're actually asking people to take a step back and think again, about whether, for instance, personal preferences, when it comes to sex, are really just, you know, innocuous, and just personal as opposed to political. Sorry, that was a bit more of a statement than a question.
Amia Srinivasan: But it was a great statement. I mean, not to sound, not to invoke a fully, kind of, Marxist theory of history. But I do think that these things are dialectical, which is to say, that worldviews that fell out of favour because of good reasons, because they were also no longer keeping up with where we were politically, can become relevant once again. So in the late 60s and 70s, as you were alluding to, we had lots of feminists who wanted to subject sex and sexual practices, desire, to a great deal of political scrutiny and at the limit, advocating for things like separatism from men, abstinence, political lesbianism, right? Lesbianism not grounded in some kind of authentic desire. And that was very alienating for lots of women. I mean, you can also think particularly of how White that is as an understanding of how you should go about sexual politics. Because think about a position of a Black woman, what does it mean to ask a Black woman to engage in a separatism away from Black men? I mean, Black men might be the enemy, as it were, vis a vie sexual relations, but Black men are comrades when it comes to the struggle against racism. So, that kind of 1970s way of subjecting sex to political scrutiny, I think was off putting and unsurprisingly, there was this, kind of, sex positive backlash, which I think was really politically and intellectually important. And I loved what you said because you described it as anything goes. And I think it's important to remember that the first sex positivists, people like Ellen Willis, were not just interested in saying, oh, just you can keep on having the kind of sex you're having, what they were trying to do was really allow a thousand flowers to bloom sexually, right? They really wanted to encourage non normative forms of sexuality, queer forms of sexuality. And that doesn't just mean between queer identifying people, it also means among self identifying straight people, freeing people from a sense of, there's one correct sexual script. And that's what I have to conform to. And so I think that sex positive dream that early sex positive dream is very powerful. But I think it has been watered down over the decades, when the, kind of, mainstream sex positivity we often see now, actually just tacitly reinforces the heteronormative script. It's not really transformative or liberatory anymore. And that's why I think the appeal of these kinds of older 1970s styles feminism is maybe being felt a bit again, it's because we're back in a place where heteronormativity, kind of, ironically, has been reinstated.
Emma A. Jane: I mean, it also got co-opted by capitalism, you know, like, capitalism is amazingly elastic and capable of absorbing critique, off shoots, like, early sex positivity, sex positive feminism was quite radical. And now, you know, it's on T-shirts that are sold by huge multinationals. And, you know, early sex positive feminism, you know, may have been associated with non normative sexuality and practices. Whereas now, you know, perhaps partly riding on that momentum we have, you know, the internet has been swallowed by pornography. And for the most part, it's quite rigid, heteronormative pornography. And you have a great chapter in the book called Talking to my Students About Porn, and one of the things that you say is you're expecting them to, you're a little unsure about, you know, how to start the conversation, and that you might seem, you know, out of touch and whatever. And that, you know, I think you say that this is a generation for whom uploading a sex video is on a continuum with taking a selfie. And yet your students said to you that they find a lot of mainstream porn troubling, too influential and damaging to their sex lives, like, did that surprise you?
Amia Srinivasan: It completely blew me away. I mean, the first time after the very first class I did on these kinds of classic feminist debates about pornography that played out in the 1970s, and 1980s, I just had to sit down outside of the classroom on a bench and just have a coffee. And I was just thinking about what just went on there? I was expecting them to think that these old critiques of pornography from the 1970s 1980s were so old fashioned, so outdated that they just didn't apply to a contemporary moment when porn was totally ubiquitous and normalised. Pornographic consumption was totally normalised. And yet, the students were agreeing, not with everything that they were reading, but with some of these critiques of this older generation of feminists, especially when it came to this idea of pornography as being really powerful ideologically, not just something you simply watch. And that has no kind of ideological, broader, kind of, effect on how you see the world, how you have sex, how you see women. And what was striking to me was that it was both women and men, among my students who were saying this, a lot of them felt very much like they themselves were kind of pornographic products. I don't want to exaggerate this. I mean, lots of them, we're also interested in the ways in which they might be able to resist the force of pornography. And it's also very important to say, as you've already said, that what we're talking about implicitly, here is mainstream porn, free pornography, which does follow a very narrow script. There's a huge amount of queer porn, feminist porn, but you have to pay for it. And it's not what young people tend to watch. Certainly when they are 10, 11, 12.
Emma A. Jane: At one point in your book, you raise the fascinating prospect of, given the, you know, popularity and pedagogical importance of porn for the state to possibly subsidise some of these types of porn, which I have to say was an ideal that appealed to me greatly. If only because when you think about in the US the kind of outrage about socialised medicine, you know, socialised pornography seems to me to have a lot of potential. I mean, were you just raising that idea as a thought experiment, or was it something that you think could seriously be useful?
Amia Srinivasan: Yeah, I mean, I don't see it happening anytime in the US, which just moves backwards on such questions every single day. I do think, though, that when you're thinking about something like public arts funding, you might expand that to include people who are, you know, small, independent directors and creators of pornography. To go back to the comment about capitalism. So much of what we're talking about with contemporary mainstream porn isn't effective capitalism, right? The reason mainstream porn is free, people used to pay for their porn, it's because these big porn sites, all of which are owned effectively by the same person and the same company, MindGeek, use pirated content. And the actual porn production houses, even the main ones, can't keep up with the request to take their pirated content offline, right? So we've got this massive clearinghouse that basically is exploiting, fundamentally, the people who work in porn, and most porn actresses make very little money, right? It's very hard. And now they make less money than ever, because of the creation of these big porn portals. So this is a problem with capitalism. This is a kind of natural tendency of capitalism. And I do think it cries out for a very different kind of state intervention from the ones that people typically think about when they think about porn. When they think about porn typically, or the state intervening. They think about laws against pornography, laws against the production of porn, the creation, spreading of porn, the buying or selling. I think that's all bad. But it is interesting to think about, what does it mean to break down monopolies? Pornographic monopolies? What does it mean to enforce intellectual property rights? What does it mean to actually subsidise and encourage a democratised and flourishing porn industry? One that actually empowers workers? Right? Like, how do you think about the problems of pornography as symptoms of advanced capitalism, rather than it being a problem of bad people just putting bad things out there? So yeah, I think it's one of the things that should be taken seriously.
Emma A. Jane: One of the points that you make is that a lot of, you know, when you hear the statistics about the number of young people and children that access porn, and from what we can gather, they're using it to learn how to do sex, you know, it's a training, it's being used for education, which, you know, it seems fair enough, to want to get educated in this awesome thing that many of us like to do. But when you look at those very popular, free, mainstream porn outlets, the type of sex that we see in that, I don't think it's just, sort of, you know, reflecting what's out there. I think it's perhaps shaping… I think he used the term or maybe quote, someone that uses the term, you know, porn is world making. It's powerful.
Amia Srinivasan: It is very powerful. Yeah, no, absolutely. And, you know, I mean, this is something that a lot of porn actresses themselves say, so Stoya, who's written some wonderful op-eds in the New York Times, and does a lot of really interesting, critical reflection on mainstream pornography. Had an op-ed, in which he said, look, the stuff I produce effectively substitutes for a failing sex education. But this cannot serve a sex education, because this is not what sex actually looks like. And this is not how people should actually go about trying to have sex, especially young people. But it is interesting that when you look at surveys and studies of young people is that precisely they very often, especially young men, will say that their primary interest in it, you know, obviously, they're getting off to it, but you know, they're really trying to understand how to do this thing is kind of terrifying, mysterious thing. And it means that they are learning from a very conventional, frankly, quite boring, but also totally idealised, unrealistic script of, of sexual interaction. One that does not very often, does not, feature things like women's agency, women's pleasure, good communication, imagination, creativity, none of those things are present in mainstream pornography. And so it is worrying. I think it's extremely worrying, and not a reactionary thing to say that young people are looking to this stuff for education.
Emma A. Jane: I wanna to circle back to that. But I want to talk about your critique of carceral feminism. I hadn't heard the term. I knew… I was very familiar with the phenomenon but I hadn't heard the term carceral feminism. Could you explain for us, first up, what it is and then we'll look at why you think it's so problematic.
Amia Srinivasan: Yeah, so it's a term that was coined by the sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein, but unlike some academic coinages is really, really useful in thinking about a real world phenomenon. So carceral feminism picks out a kind of feminism with which actually most of us are very familiar, many of us think is the only common sensical form of feminism, that looks to the coercive power of the state and looks to prisons, police, criminal law, as the solution to women's problems and to the problems of sexual violence and gender justice more generally.
Emma A. Jane: It seems so common sensical time and again, it's like we need more criminalisation and more cages and more laws and better policing. We hear it so much. It's become a sort of received wisdom that this is a solution. Why is it problematic?
Amia Srinivasan: You're right, it's so common sensical, right? You have bad men doing bad things, make it illegal to do those things and increase police powers to put those people in prison. So there's a lot to say here, I'm going to try and be succinct. Maybe I’ll begin by pointing out that this actually wasn't the common sense in feminism, in an earlier period of feminism. So in the late 1960s, 1970s, feminists in the US and the UK, in Australia, but also in the decolonizing, you know, Global South, they recognised very deep and systematic problems for women, especially violence against women, but they had very little trust in the idea that further empowering the state, and the state's coercive powers were going to actually make women better off. And that, kind of, understanding, that, kind of, anxiety about the state, eroded once we get into the 1980s and 1990s, where feminists, especially Anglo American feminists, start really embracing, kind of, state and prison power. And of course, mainstream politicians love this, because politicians love having more police on the street, and they love having more people in prisons. One reason most mainstream politicians love that is because as long as you can present the problem as one of criminality, then you don't have to actually reckon with the very deep sources of crime. I.e you don't have to reckon with deep forms of socio economic inequality. Prisons are actually very cheap. Police are actually very cheap. It's much cheaper than having to think about, how do we get full employment? How do we get rid of poverty?
Why might those things matter for women? Well, first of all, most women globally are poor. Most poor people are women. Poverty is feminised, this is the most serious problem for women, is poverty. Poverty, and especially male unemployment are the key factors that drive domestic violence. And domestic violence is the most predominant form of violence against women. To give you just one example of how this plays out, in the US, you have mandatory arrest laws against men who perpetrate domestic violence. You think this would be a good thing. Well, what ends up happening is that women of colour and poor women become subjected to more domestic violence when their partners are arrested. Because what happens is that those partners come back from prison, and engage in forms of retaliatory violence. And crucially, poor women can't leave the men who beat them because they don't have the money to do so, they don't have the money to be able to take their children away to forms of safety. So while something like mandatory arrest laws might work quite well, for a wealthy woman, they actually don't serve the interests of poor women very well at all and often lead to a dropping off in domestic violence complaints, not because there are fewer complaints, but because women are worried about who's going to pay the bills, when their violent partners are in prison? So the deepest problem with carceral feminism is that it buys these, kind of, symbolic satisfactions of throwing violent men in prison or having laws on the books that rule out violence, while at the same time making things no better, but often worse. For the very worst off women. You can also think of legislation, criminal legislation against sex workers having a similar kind of function. You know, it gives you the satisfaction of knowing that no man is legally allowed to buy sex. But of course, as we know from sex workers, makes their lives so much harder, makes the lives of sex workers so much harder. And then carceral feminism by always pointing to the police and prisons, distracts us from the real reckoning that is due. The real reckoning with the ravages of capitalism, which is fundamentally the driving forces of oppression, of the worst off women.
Emma A. Jane: You know, I'm convinced. I found your argument really unsettling and also really compelling. And you ask a lot of questions in the book, like, literally, there's question after question after question. And I suspect quite deliberately, don't say, here's the answer, here's the way forward. But do you… I mean, are we talking about a revolution here? Like, because so many of the things that we would normally reach for, like legislative changes, police, prisons, education, representation, they’re all lacking? What's the answer? I mean, how easy is that for a final question?
Amia Srinivasan: I mean, in a sense, I'm talking about a revolution. But by which I don't mean, we have to just simply, you know, wait for a moment when we all collectively take to the streets. I think we can think about lots of smaller reforms that carry within them a picture of, a revolutionary picture of a transformed world. So, what sort of things do you agitate for? Well, you can, you should agitate for certain forms of legislation, for example, heightened union protections, better labour laws, forms of living, living wage, ideally, require democratic representation in corporations, all workers should have a say, within corporations, UBI, universal basic income, there you go. If you want a solution, not a total solution, but if you really want to improve the lot of victims of domestic violence, give them money so that they can leave with their children. That's great. Universal housing, universal childcare, 24 hour childcare. This was something that feminists started demanding in the 1970s and thought was going to be given to them overnight, they didn't even think of that as a transformative revolutionary demand. So there's a whole raft of pieces, a whole raft of demands that I think can be made and can actually be met, and are more on the table, in a way, now than they've been historically, something like universal basic income, which holds the seed of something more utopian.
Emma A. Jane: Thank you for that. So I've got some questions. Do you feel any cultural pressure, when talking about sex as an Indian woman? Could you please share more about how you came to research this as a professor?
Amia Srinivasan: I feel an anxiety that my grandmothers might always be watching. I don't know if that's what the question asker was, had in mind. You know, I come from a very culturally conservative background and a very culturally conservative community within India. And so I came to thinking about this through my engagement with feminism and feminist theory, which itself was a bit of a deviation from what I was doing before that. I'm trained as an analytic philosopher. I spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of knowledge and scepticism and freewill and those kinds of questions. But I had a side interest in feminist theory. And then when I started teaching, I started teaching feminist theory alongside more conventional, traditional philosophical topics. And I found myself wanting to write about it, through the experience of teaching. But I do feel an anxiety as an Indian woman about, maybe one way of putting this is that there's a little bit of like, prudishness in me, right? That I think I inherit culturally. And that it means that when I write about sex, I always want it to be very political and serious. Because I have an anxiety, I think, about it being seen as sort of frivolous or permeant. But it has been interesting to me watching the reception in India, even from my grandmothers actually. How much of an appetite there is for difficult forms of feminist conversation about sex.
Emma A. Jane: Thank you for that. We have another question here. Is there anything we can do to help someone who we think might be going down the path of becoming an incel?
Amia Srinivasan: Oh, that's an excellent question. So, there are lots of people who are specialists in forms of de-radicalisation. And so I wouldn't want to offer my thoughts as, kind of, the cutting edge of expertise. But I would certainly, I certainly think that broadly, the project of de radicalisation or the slowing of radicalization is a really important one, especially in the age of YouTube and social media, where so much of this takes place. I will say, one thing that I think very strongly, which is that feminists have something to say to incels. And this goes back to what I had been saying earlier about how incels, in some sense, are very, very unhappy with the sexual hierarchy, right? They're very unhappy that sex is seen as this thing that is tied to social status, that if you're not having sex, then you're seen as a kind of a social pariah. They're unhappy with the fact that sex is organised via a social hierarchy at all. But they don't go the full feminist route, because what they then end up complaining about is their particular role in that hierarchy. But it's not a million miles away from the feminist realisation that, well sex shouldn’t be organised via a hierarchy at all. I think there's something quite analogous here with how one might be able to speak to members of the so-called traditional White working class, right? I'm thinking about a certain kind of Trump voter, for example, who feels a justified grievance, at the way that late capitalism has produced stagnating wages, gross inequality, the erosion of good jobs, and so on, but ends up targeting that anger and bitterness at, usually racial minorities and women. What you need to do with those people is, again, kind of redirect the anger and grievance at the right object, which is, the hierarchy itself, rather than just their placement. So I think there's something, not only that we can say to incels, or you know, people inclining in that direction, but something specific that feminists can say.
Emma A. Jane: We have two questions here about porn. The first one is, do you think porn can or ultimately be good for women?
Amia Srinivasan: Yeah, I mean, I think it can… I think certain forms of porn can be good for certain women. Absolutely. I think I don't want to legislate what is and isn't good for particular people. The human psyche is just vastly complex. I mean, I think that even very mainstream porn can be salutary for certain women, right? I mean, for example, what if you're a woman who's watching mainstream porn, but what's going on for you is that you're identifying with the male figure in it? I mean, that might be doing some important kind of psychic work for you, it might even be emancipatory. So I think all things are possible. But I will say that I register in the book a certain anxiety about, like, the logic of the screen, and the way in which the power of the visual image, whether we're talking about mainstream or independent pornography, might close down or weaken our kind of sexual imagination. And I do worry about that. I don't know how much we should worry about it, especially in the age of pornography. I don't think we're going back from this. But I do worry about a kind of dependency that we're all increasingly experiencing on the moving image when it comes to questions of sexual possibility and sexual arousal.
Emma A. Jane: I love your call for more sexual imagination in the book, and also your comment about the idea of not accepting our desires as fixed, you know, naturalised and essentialist. But even using a kind of discipline, to question why we desire and who we desire, and playing with looking for desire in surprising places. That's my fan girl, one of my fangirl moments there. I love that part of the book. One last question here. On the topic of porn, what age would you classify as too young to be watching? And how do you initiate a conversation with a young person considering watching it?
Amia Srinivasan: So I think these are good questions to be answered by the many people who work on precisely this. On precisely the question of sex education and porn literacy. Women who work in porn are also often extremely astute about thinking through these issues. I don't think I'm in the best place. I think it probably actually varies with individual people, you know, we make these kinds of general rules, but children mature at varying kinds of rates. I would say, though, in general, that it's, sort of, never too early to be talking to children about sex, love, romance. And that doesn't mean all the gritty, nitty gritty details, but it does mean maybe at the, you know, very young children, saying things like, yeah, families come in different shapes and sizes, right? And I'm talking about, kind of, bodily autonomy, integrity, and that's the foundation for conversations to come. I think if you're thinking about how to address the question of pornography, or even sex with a child who's 12, it's kind of too late. I'm not really saying it's too late. You should still do it, but of course, I think we should be having conversations that centre questions of relationship, family, desire, sex from the very beginning.
Emma A. Jane: One more question, I'm struggling to understand, does this mean that carceral feminism is the kind of feminism that Grace Tame pushes, and is that bad? So Grace Tame was our Australian of the Year last year, an amazing young woman, she was raped by a school teacher for many years, and she fought to overturn, she took him to court, she won. But she was gagged from identifying herself and speaking about it. But she campaigns for legal reform. I'm so sorry to the person that asked this question, but I think because it's so Australian in focus, it might be…
Amia Srinivasan: I’ll try and say something without knowing the, kind of, particular details. I'm not saying and I don't think anyone should say that individual women don't have the right given the system we live under to reach for the police or reach for stricter laws. I'm really interested, however, in what feminism as a political movement prioritises as its strategies, and what it thinks of as the strategies that will actually improve the conditions for most women. I'm very skeptical that the idea of going after just a few individual men, or putting increased number of men in prisons, especially by the way, given that we know how racialised the prison system is, how much false accusation there is against especially men of colour, when it comes to sexual violence, these cannot be our ultimate solutions. And so, what I would counsel is not allowing these things that feel very emotionally and symbolically satisfying to take up the whole of your feminism, and distract from the real goal, which is the creation, the transformation of a genuinely, materially, more equal world, a world in which women are freed to have the space and time to actually create spaces that are safer, that are more nourishing, that are more liberated. That should be the end goal of feminism. That's the kind of broad answer.
Emma A. Jane: It's been an absolute joy to speak with you in your office at Oxford, after your early morning bike ride in. Thank you so much for joining us today. Please join me in thanking Amia Srinivasan.
Ann Mossop: Thanks for listening. For more information, visit centreforideas.com, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Amia Srinivasan is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford, where she works on and teaches political philosophy, feminist theory and epistemology. She is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books. Her essays and criticism—on animals, incels, death, the university, technology, political anger and other topics—have also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Nation and TANK.
Emma A. Jane
Emma A. Jane – previously published as Emma Tom – is a writer and academic based at UNSW Sydney. Her research interests are eclectic and include: ethical tech design; artificial intelligence; sex and gender; LGBTQI+ issues; and wrangling super wicked problems in complex systems. Prior to her career in academia, Associate Professor Jane spent nearly 25 years working in the print, broadcast, and electronic media. Over the course of her working life, she has received multiple awards and prizes for her scholarly work, her journalism, and her fiction. Diagnosis Normal is her 11th book.