Clearing the Field

‘The Right to Sex’
Amia Srinivasan (Nina Subin)

The Catholic Church’s approach to sex, practically speaking, is simple: don’t. If you must have it, then have it within the context of holy matrimony, though various rules still apply, some acts are proscribed, and preventing pregnancy is not allowed. If for whatever reason holy matrimony is unavailable to you, then refer back to the first principle (don’t). For most of the contemporary world, on the other hand, there’s one very clear rule—no sex without consent—and then a much murkier field of what constitutes a moral obligation or harm once the first condition has been satisfied.

Chastity is Christianity’s most infamous and unpopular virtue. Its gaudy symbols—purity rings, virginity pledges, the uniforms of Catholic schoolgirls, the habits of nuns—are objects of curiosity and sometimes of fetishes. Progressive Christians don’t want much to do with it. Traditional Christians will look at the apparent lack of clarity around contemporary sexual mores and feel smug. Every few years, somebody (usually but not always a young woman) will publish a book with a title like Save It: The Case for the Chaste or Covering Up: Why Modest Is Hottest. None of this really changes the central reality: that Christianity has a very publicized set of historical rules around sex, and these rules resist being revived in a culturally significant way, but also resist being discarded.

I say all this not because I have an interest in arguing against the rules, at least where I’m concerned. I signed up for them, after all, when I became a Catholic. As with any virtue, I try my best, and go to confession when that’s not enough. But part of what makes chastity a particularly difficult virtue is that it can feel as if it runs counter to other virtues we’re meant to practice, such as generosity, humility, and self-gift. Counsels of abstinence are reinforced through fear: of being used, of disease or pregnancy, of losing something important about oneself, and, of course, of hell. Why is this particular sphere, and only this particular sphere, the one where Christians are counseled not to give freely, not to cast out fear, but rather to restrain, refuse, deny?

The fruits of the spirit, as Paul tells us in Galatians, are “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Self-control is easy enough to see here. But what about the rest? “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like,” Paul also says in the same passage. It is hard to argue with him; but perfectly chaste people are certainly prone to fits of rage and selfish ambition, something Paul himself, a prickly man, would probably be the first to admit. And here, I think, is the question that applies to both traditional Christian approaches and contemporary ones alike: Is it possible to talk about the moral aspect of sex in a way that does not put sexual harm at the center of the subject? Is any form of sexual morality, ultimately, about fear?

 

The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan’s debut book, is not about chastity, an ideal she firmly rejects in a brief passage responding to the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “Monogamous marriage,” she writes, “the heteronormative family and norms of chastity are...parts of a patriarchal infrastructure designed to secure men’s access to women’s bodies and minds.” Rather, Srinivasan, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, seeks to document insufficiencies in current feminist approaches to sex—specifically, sex between men and women, which is the only case the book really concerns itself with. She does this in six essays, each focusing on sexual culture and its consequences: #MeToo, pornography, involuntary celibacy and the “incel” movement, professors having sex with students, and carceral feminism.

Is any form of sexual morality, ultimately, about fear?

Srinivasan’s essays are unexpectedly generous to sometimes unlovable subjects. In the title essay—originally published in 2018 by the London Review of Books—and a coda responding to its critics, Srinivasan considers the angry, misogynist, and often racist world of men who consider themselves incurably unattractive to women and doomed to a celibate life. Reflecting on Eliot Rodger, the incel spree-killer who murdered six people in the spring of 2014, Srinivasan points out that there was more to the resentments Rodger expressed than misogyny, though that was present. “The most common feminist take was that Rodger was the embodiment of misogynistic entitlement,” she comments. But though Rodger’s “claims to having been sexually and romantically marginalized on the basis of his race, introversion and lack of stereotypical masculinity” were certainly, to her mind, both “mistaken” and “self-serving,” “the kind of diagnosis Rodger offered, in which racism and the norms of hetero-masculinity placed him beyond desirability, need not in principle be wrong.” In other words, Rodger was correct to think that the kind of women he wanted to have sex with probably did not want to have sex with him.

Reading any essay in The Right to Sex is thrilling; Srinivasan is precise, clear, and insightful, posing sharply worded questions that uncover hidden assumptions in how we discuss sex and morality. Reading all the essays together, however, has a slightly different effect. Those sharply worded questions seem less powerful when you realize they bear almost all the weight of Srinivasan’s arguments. In the essay titled “On Not Sleeping With Your Students,” there are runs of paragraphs that not only rely heavily on rhetorical questions but conclude with them. In the opening essay, “The Conspiracy Against Men,” there is a paragraph composed almost entirely of such questions, with just one statement mixed in among them:

How many men are truly unable to distinguish between wanted and unwanted sex, between welcome and “gross” behavior, between decency and degradation? Was Cogan himself unable to draw this distinction? He admitted to the court that Leak’s wife had sobbed and tried to turn away from him when he was on top of her. Did he think to ask, either before or during the sexual encounter, if this was really what she wanted? Was there nothing in his history, his life, his conscience, that spoke to him in that moment, that told him the cries of the scared woman on the bed were real and called for a response? Did Louis C. K. have no reason to think that the women in front of whom he masturbated were unhappy about it? Why, then, when he asked another woman if he could masturbate in front of her and she refused, did he flush red and feel compelled to explain to her that he “had issues”?

The statements these questions imply—about the false presumption that the men in these cases could not have been expected to know better—are both true and necessary. Yet the proper form for a statement is a statement. Questions to which one already knows the answer may have their place. But none of the questions Srinivasan asks here would lose force by becoming straightforward claims, and indeed might gain something.

This is a question not only of style, but also of Srinivasan’s relationship to her readers. Using questions to guide somebody’s train of thought without offering one’s own conclusion may be a good way for a teacher to talk to her students, but the reader of this book is Srinivasan’s interlocutor, not her student. That means the reader deserves an argument that works its way toward, if not a conclusion, then at least a definite claim that can be assessed and challenged. To a critic of the title essay who called her observations “as banal as it gets,” Srinivasan responds: “Is it ‘as banal as it gets’ to observe that 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?” If the criticism is worth answering, Srinivasan’s rhetorical question does not really rate as a serious response; it simply restates what she takes her subject to be. If, on the other hand, the criticism isn’t worth responding to—if it deserves no more than a shrug and a raised eyebrow—why reproduce it in this book? In any case, accusations of banality don’t really admit of refutation; you might as well try to prove to somebody that a subject isn’t boring.

To deflect a criticism, even a silly criticism, by means of a question is a move that might be permissible once or twice, but not over and over. At some point an argument should be presented. But Srinivasan appears to be content with clearing the field and clarifying the terms of the arguments. When the field itself is such a mess, it feels churlish to want more. But I do. If, as seems implicit in many of Srinivasan’s essays, we are looking at an ugly reality that it’s unclear how to improve, then even that would be worth stating directly. Much as consent is a necessary guardrail but not an entire ethic, simply saying that there is no right to sex is true but insufficient. Saying that pornography should not be criminalized is true but insufficient. Saying that rape is not taken seriously enough by the law is true but insufficient. And so on. But as it is, after reading through these carefully composed essays, I am left essentially with the online quip: Much to consider. Well, yes. 

 

What The Right to Sex does make clear, however, is that we rarely talk about sex when we talk about sex. We talk about rape, we talk about pornography, we talk (perhaps) about desirability, about entitlements and obligations, but sex itself is not under discussion. It is, itself, completely absent. The essay that demonstrates this best is the one on having sex with students, which is also the one that comes closest to approaching sex head-on as a subject. “Imagine a professor who happily accepts the infatuated attentions of his student,” Srinivasan writes, 

takes her out on dates, has sex with her, makes her his girlfriend, perhaps as he has done with many students before. The student has consented, and not out of fear. Are we really prepared to say that there is nothing troubling here? But if there is something troubling, and the problem isn’t a lack of consent, then what is it?

Is it too sterile, too boring to suggest that instead of sleeping with his student, this professor should have been—teaching her?

What ‘The Right to Sex’ does make clear is that we rarely talk about sex when we talk about sex.

Now, as it happens, I agree with Srinivasan here, as I do through most of the book, though I also think that it would be fine if this suggestion were sterile and boring, even banal or (to use another term Srinivasan dislikes) moralizing. The larger argument in Srinivasan’s essay is that a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student forecloses possibilities in a way that makes teaching itself impossible. Again, I agree, but this means that sex itself is not a closed subject, and that there is a substance to it that admits of discussion and of morality. “I remember once reading on an anonymous philosophy blog,” Srinivasan notes later, “a comment by a philosopher—I can’t imagine it was a woman—who asked why there should be any difference between a professor asking to have sex with a student and asking to play tennis with her. Why, indeed?”

But is this question so very stupid? And if it is, why? The comments section of an anonymous blog may not offer the best formulation of it, but the question is what makes sex, in particular, special—if it is special. And the answer cannot entirely consist of the claim, however true it might be, that sex is a site of gendered inequality and harm. (It is also not really hard to imagine a situation in which a professor could use tennis invitations as a weapon, but that’s beside the point.) It shouldn’t be impossible here to think through the thing itself, but, as with the traditional Christian approach to sex, something prevents people from doing this. It’s special—that’s all. 

Again, I don’t disagree. And I don’t think professors should sleep with their students. As a Catholic who does her best to stick to the Church’s rules, I am committed to a sexual ethic about a thousand times more boring and moralizing than anything suggested by Srinivasan’s various questions; and I take it that the rules are the rules because there is some kind of truth to the claim that sex is special and not like a game of tennis. But what I do want is an exploration of what makes it special, of the distinctive morality that applies to desire and pleasure, some positive account of sexuality that does not foreground harm, or treat it as the only question about sex worth raising.

An account of food that talked only of gluttony would not be worthless. Nor would an account of parental love that discussed only how to avoid child abuse, or an account of sport exclusively about injuries. But in all these cases something crucial about the subject would be gone. In our interactions with others, we do not care only about minimizing harm; we eat food, love our children, and play sports because of the things themselves, not simply because we know how to do it without damaging ourselves or others. And even if, in the case of food, for instance, we turn toward something like vegetarianism, we adopt an attitude toward food that is not simply about avoiding harm to animals, but replete with richnesses and pleasures of its own. 

If this seems like too much to ask of a book, maybe it is. Maybe there isn’t any way to explain what makes sex special, any more than there’s a way to explain why a joke is funny or a subject isn’t banal. In his insightful lecture “The Body’s Grace,” the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams notes that centuries of sticking to enunciating the rules have left Christians, heterosexual ones in particular, unable to think about the subject in a deeper or more satisfying way. One hope, on my part anyway, is that non-Christian writers, less bound in advance to reach certain conclusions, might make use of their freedom in a way that enlightens the rest of us. But for all its thoughtfulness and writerly skill, The Right to Sex is not that book. 

The Right to Sex
Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

Amia Srinivasan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$28 | 304 pp. 

Published in the December 2021 issue: 

B. D. McClay is a contributing writer to Commonweal. She lives in New York.

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