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Feminism and the Question of Theory

Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex subjects widespread assumptions about sex and gender to brilliant, relentless questioning. But feminism needs more.

Feminism is a movement, or a cluster of movements. It appears in different points in history, different cultural contexts, responding to very different circumstances. Feminism is not driven by theory. It is driven by a critical consciousness that begins to imagine that things could be different, better. Sex and gender do not need to structure our lives as they do here and now; they do not need to be the enduring, rigid framework for our choices. Feminism does not tell us what to believe or what to fight for. It teaches us a mode of asking questions, a way of interrogating reality; it invites us, individually and collectively, to be very different from who we are now.

Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex is a brilliant demonstration of feminist critical consciousness. It does not provide a theory; it is not a manifesto. It takes the reader into a space of sharp, relentless questioning. It challenges the assumptions that structure the daily enactment of gender and sex (understanding ‘sex’ to be both anatomical sex and sexuality), and also the assumptions guiding a variety of feminist critiques. It is, among other things, a glimpse into the inner workings of a feminist critical consciousness as it evolves to meet the demands of the moment.

The various essays in The Right to Sex rely on important tools in the critical toolbox. I will highlight four: debunking, paradigm shifting, close attention to material conditions, and mistrust of power. Let’s start with debunking.

It is tempting to think that rape is something that we can all agree is wrong, very wrong. So why does it happen so often? This is a puzzle. One in three women and one in four men have “experienced sexual violence with contact” in their lifetime, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and “[n]early 1 in 5 women and 1 in 38 men have experienced completed or attempted rape.” Transgender youth and individuals with disabilities are especially vulnerable. It is implausible that this violence happens because perpetrators have weakness of will, that they cannot stop themselves from doing what they know is morally wrong. The #MeToo movement—building on longstanding efforts to call attention to sexual harassment, sexual violence, sex trafficking—has made this scourge a topic of public discussion.

Debunking takes aim at myths that are woven into common sense or are standardly used in justification. So what are the culturally common strategies for occluding or excusing sexual assault and rape? Of course, there are many. One familiar response to the #MeToo movement claims that the line between rape and non-rape has become blurred, and that it is unfair to ask men to conform to new standards that seem to be constantly shifting. Srinivasan’s debunking of this line of thought is compelling: Men know enough to avoid rape, or could know enough if they paid attention:

Those who insist that men aren’t in a position to know better are in denial of what men have seen and heard. Men have chosen not to listen because it has suited them not to do so, because the norms of masculinity dictate that their pleasure takes priority, because all around them other men have been doing the same. The rules that have really changed, and are still changing, do not so much concern what is right or wrong in sex … [but] that [men] can no longer be confident that when they ignore the shouts and silences of the women they demean, no consequences will follow. [21-22]

The men who engage in sexual assault are not, as the narrative goes, hapless victims of changing sexual mores. They are, at worst, pretending they don’t know that what they are doing is wrong; or, what is almost as bad, they are utterly clueless: they are unable or unwilling to listen to women because their own sense of entitlement drowns out everything else.

If all sex is political, is there a way for it to be fun, fulfilling, and just?

However, Srinivasan is also critical of strategies that some feminists have employed in the context of the #MeToo movement. Another background myth that serves to occlude violence against women is that women are untrustworthy: their testimony is not credible. (Note that there are also those who are not believed because it is as if they cannot be raped: men, trans and non-binary individuals, and women of color.) In response to recent cases in which men succeeded in deflecting charges of rape by calling into question women’s testimony, some feminists have promoted the slogan “Believe women.” This is a direct challenge to the stereotype of women as using false rape accusations to take men down. The slogan’s implication is that women are (always) trustworthy; women don’t lie about these things, or at least, feminists should take this as the default assumption. Srinivasan debunks this default assumption. Even if it is uncommon, women do lie, sometimes to protect their powerful men, sometimes at the insistence of powerful men. The slogan obscures how the powerful use the judicial system against the less powerful. More specifically, it fails to take into account the long history of false rape accusations against men of color.

[This] zero-sum logic—she’s telling the truth, he’s lying—presumes that nothing but sex difference is at work in the assessment of rape allegations. Especially when factors other than gender—race, class, religion, immigration status, sexuality—come into play, it is far from clear to whom we owe a gesture of epistemic solidarity. [11]

Epistemic solidarity matters. However, as Srinivasan makes clear, “Rational belief is proportionate to the evidence” (10), so in the end, each case should be evaluated on its merits.

A second tool that Srinivasan uses brilliantly is the paradigm shift. Consider her long discussion of incels. Some of the most horrifying mass murders in recent years have been perpetrated by men—George Sodini, Elliot Rodger, Chris Harper-Mercer, Alek Minassian, Scott Beierle, and others—who are enraged that they are broadly rejected by women, and so set out to kill them. As Srinivasan points out, the women they target tend to be high-status women (“hot sorority blonds”). But if incels just want sex, then why fixate on the hardest to get? The problem, it seems, is not just that someone like Rodger, whose 2014 rampage included trying to enter a sorority house at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and killing two members outside, has a grotesque sense of self-entitlement, but that his rage also “has something to do with the rigid gender norms enforced by patriarchy” (76). Sexual desire, as feminists have long argued, is political. One way to see this dynamic is to consider not only which bodies are regarded as attractive but how sex confers power. What Rodger wanted wasn’t sex with an available woman but sex with a woman who would raise his status.

To say that sexual desire is political—that it is not naturally “given”—is not to say that it is utterly malleable. Nor is it to say that it is just a matter of individual choice. Our desire is shaped by patriarchal, heteronormative, White supremacist, eugenic social meanings. Neither is the solution a “free” sexuality that is governed only by consenting adults; for such consent and the preferences it expresses are always conditioned by politics. Srinivasan clarifies,

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 tell us we should not. There is a kind of discipline here, in that it requires us to quiet the voices that have spoken to us since birth, the voices that tell us which bodies and ways of being in the world are worthy and which are unworthy. What is disciplined here isn’t desire itself, but the political forces that presume to instruct it.” [96]

The paradigm shift she urges here moves us from the abhorrent acts of murder by individuals such as Rodger to the question of how culture shapes desire (a question that feminists have been asking for decades, if not centuries). This move does not excuse incels for their misogyny, abuse, and criminal activity, but it invites us all to interrogate desire and recognize how we are all shaped to view ourselves and each other in terms that reinforce systems of oppression. If all sex is political, is there a way for it to be fun, fulfilling, and just?

A third tool in the toolbox is close attention to material conditions. For example, the controversies over pornography were at the top of the feminist agenda through the ’70s and ’80s in the United States. But those disputes occurred when pornography was something found in adult bookstores and XXX-rated film parlors, usually beyond the reach of teens and children. Things have changed. Pornography is easily found on the Internet, and most youth rely on it as an introduction to sexuality. There is extensive evidence that the early immersion in pornography has a profound effect on sexuality, much of it worrisome. People don’t perform IRL like porn stars. So can actual sex be fulfilling anymore? And if so, who does it fulfill, given that “sex for my students is what porn says it is” (41): in porn, men have orgasms and women usually don’t and, although the statistics are complicated, it doesn’t seem to be much better IRL. [69, also Rowland 2020, 21-22]

The suggestion that feminists could block the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry is unrealistic. This is the material reality of sex. So what can be done? As Srinivasan notes, some feminists propose that the best we can do is produce pornography that amplifies alternative and diverse forms of sex and sexuality (70). This is not a new strategy. And although it is an important option, Srinivasan suggests that it is inadequate because it leaves in place “the logic of the screen”:

While filmed sex seemingly opens up a world of sexual possibility, all too often it shuts down the sexual imagination, making it weak, dependent, lazy, codified. The sexual imagination is transformed into a mimesis-machine, incapable of generating its own novelty. [70-71]

She proposes that we provide youth a “negative education” in which they learn that the screen doesn’t tell us the truth, it doesn’t set the bounds of the possible, and that their own sexual imagination can reconfigure what sex can be. What, she wonders, would such education look like? Srinivasan doesn’t answer, and it is hard to know what she has in mind.

Does feminism need theory? Or can we make do with a scattered set of insights and questions?

The fourth tool in the toolbox is the mistrust of power, or I should say, of institutional power. A theme that runs through the book but is most concentrated in the final chapter is that the judicial system is not our friend, and feminists should be wary of it. So what should we do about sexual harassment, rape, prostitution, domestic violence? If we don’t rely on the law, how can we enforce gender justice? Should we never rely on the carceral power of the state?

In the case of sexual harassment in academia, Srinivasan argues that rather than take up legalistic approaches to sex in student-teacher relationships, we should understand the problem as pedagogical: the professor is failing their student as a teacher and the school should treat the situation accordingly. (This is another example of a significant paradigm shift.) Moving then to the carceral state, she considers the recent movement, prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement, to defund the police. She argues that relying on carceral solutions

gives cover to the governing class in its refusal to tackle the deepest causes of most crime: poverty, racial domination, borders, caste. These are also the deepest causes of women’s inequality, in the sense that it is these forces and their corollaries—lack of housing, health care, education, childcare, decent jobs—that are responsible for the greater part of women’s misery. [163]

The effort of feminists to target “bad men” will not free women, because the “bad men” are not what really make women unfree (170). Considering the long term, if we lived in a society of provision rather than control, then this gambit would do more to promote the well-being of women (and the poor, marginalized, and racially dominated) than our current strategy of locking up men.

If the law is not an option, how should we promote social change? Srinivasan asks, “The question for feminists is which forms of inequality will we use the law to address, and which forms are susceptible only to the force of social change” (145). Her answer is that “the work of social reproduction must be the work of society” (175-176). She asks women to do this “grueling work,” the work of doing “what the law has not and, in my view, cannot: transform the most basic terms of engagement between women and men” (178). Not individually, of course, but as a collectivized feminist movement.

Srinivasan’s insight and probing critique of a wide range of feminist issues is impressive. It enlivens old debates and generates new ones. It is hard to imagine someone—feminist or not—coming away from the text without seeing some things anew. This is what the best philosophy and the best feminist work does.

I found myself struggling, however, to figure out how Srinivasan’s insights hang together. I’ve claimed that feminism is not driven by theory but is, fundamentally, a critical consciousness. But feminists have also devoted tremendous intellectual labor to theorizing. We have offered theories about the nature of oppression, the intersections between sex/gender and other social categories, the process and history of social construction, the role of language and images, and the mechanisms for social change. Srinivasan sometimes refers to such theories in passing, but she is not doing theory in this book. This discrepancy raises the question, what is the role of theory in feminism? Does feminism need theory? Or can we make do with a scattered set of insights and questions, some of them numbered (see the fourth chapter, “Coda: The Politics of Desire”), that don’t obviously cohere? I fully embrace the idea that we begin with a feminist critical consciousness, but where do we take it? Or where does it take us?

In the past couple of decades, philosophers—starting with political philosophers—have been debating methodology. How do we produce a theory of justice? Do we reflect on our intuitions about what is fair and just, taking into account a minimal amount of empirical information about humans in order to construct an ideal model that we should be aiming for? Or do we start by addressing pressing issues of injustice and build a theory “on the ground” as we need it? Or should we somehow combine the two? If we trust the insights gained from critical consciousness, it is difficult to embrace the method of constructing an ideal theory mostly from the armchair; but critical consciousness also relies on ideas about what is fair and just, and it is helpful to think carefully about how those ideas fit together (or don’t).

My worry is not that The Right to Sex lacks a normative theory. Feminists, for the most part, do not need (and many do not want) an overarching ideal theory of justice to guide us towards a better future. Because value is path-dependent, our guideposts for moral progress should not be a set of abstract ideals developed by a group of philosophers in a particular culture at a particular time, but should instead be determined locally through collective and inclusive critical inquiry. (See Haslanger 2020.)  Besides, most feminist activism is a response to obvious wrongs and harms that serve as the starting point for ideal theorizing, so most of the time, we don’t need a theory to tell us what the problems are; and solutions will work only if they are informed by real-world considerations, including history, demography, geography, and politics.

I think most feminists would agree that ‘the work of social reproduction must be the work of society.’ But how helpful is that observation?

However, it is less clear to me that we can do without a social theory, a theory that offers an account of how societies—or at least the societies we are interested in—work. For example, Srinivasan herself claims, “The question for feminists is which forms of inequality we will use the law to address, and which forms are susceptible only to the forces of social change” (145). But then she goes on, without answering this question, to condemn in a rather unnuanced way “carceral feminism” (159). Although she is right that there have been mistakes and new approaches are needed, the relationship between law and culture is complicated and variable, and feminist legal theorists and critical race theorists have been developing social theory for decades to address the very question she poses.

In 1991, for example, Kimberlè Crenshaw published an article in the Boston Review in response to controversies over an obscenity charge against 2 Live Crew. Crenshaw argued that the legal attempt to protect Black women from misogyny, and the attempt to use a “cultural defense” against it, showed that Black women were slipping through the cracks. The controversy was set up to offer two solutions: legally prosecute 2 Live Crew or allow African American culture to continue with its misogyny. Both options were bad for Black women. Crenshaw took this opportunity to sketch several different forms of intersectionality and argued that law was not the solution. Her proposed solution, like Srinivasan’s, was to move the issue to the social domain:

These problems require group dialogue. While African-Americans have no plenary authority to grapple with these issues, we do need to find ways of using group formation mechanisms and other social spaces to reflect upon and reformulate our cultural and political practices. [Crenshaw 1991]

The suggestion that we need to change culture, gender norms, gender symbolism, norms of sex, pedagogy, all of it, has been a longstanding message of feminism. And the idea that we have to do it through education, movement building, and coalition has also been central to our efforts. It is wonderful that Srinivasan’s book is yet another call for us to build the movement. But the message is not new. The movement exists and has succeeded in making positive changes.

I think most feminists would agree that “the work of social reproduction must be the work of society.” But how helpful is that observation? The theorist takes this further and asks: What is “society,” and how is social change possible? Society is, of course, made up of institutions, structures, practices, norms, and diverse groups of individuals. It includes law, art, religion, engineering, the economy. We are also constrained by our physical embodiment and material conditions. Moreover, although societies evolve and mutate, they also adjust to perturbations and maintain their hierarchies.

At times, Srinivasan’s suggestions seem naïve. Yes, we need to change society, to change culture, but what does that even mean? Recall her suggestion that changing society is “grueling work” that falls to women as a collective. Seriously? No. This work should not fall just on the backs of women; it should not even fall just on the backs of feminists (whether men or women). And it isn’t just a matter of changing culture. We need every ounce of intellectual, political, artistic, and economic effort to understand the workings of the system and identify leverage points where all of us, in coalition, can push. For example, one of the few mechanisms of coercion that can systematically address the proliferation of guns and the threat of gun violence is law. Incels and neo-Nazis have power, not by virtue of their great ideas, but because they are more than willing to resort to gun violence. Of course we need to change the culture of gun-ownership and the meaning of masculinity. But here, as elsewhere, there is an interdependence between law and culture, and the use of law to incentivize cultural change is another valuable tool in our toolbox (Lessig 1995). The law may not be our friend, but it can be useful, and we surely don’t want it to be our enemy.

Social and political analysis of the sort that’s needed requires the insights of activists and legal scholars, art critics and computer programmers, historians and environmental scientists, and more. I’m a believer in social movements and keep a clear backpack, complete with tambourine, water bottle, and milk of magnesia ready to go; I have blank (and used) foam core boards and markers stacked in a closet. My life is devoted to education around issues of race, gender, sexuality, disability. I have been part of the feminist movement for fifty years. As I see it, however, progressive social change requires expert knowledge, skills, and very broad mobilization from all sectors. Srinivasan contributes to the movement by exemplifying and provoking critical consciousness, but it is hard to find a through-line in The Right to Sex, and without even a sketchy social theory, it is hard to know what to do with her rather scattered calls for action.

Admittedly, The Right to Sex did what it set out to do and wasn’t aiming to provide a social theory, but to demonstrate the tools of feminist critical consciousness. At times, I was anguished by its wishful thinking; but maybe what we need at this moment is a renewed sense of possibility. Theory is important, but it doesn’t always inspire action. As Rebecca Solnit says, “[I]t will take everything [we] have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action…” (Solnit 2016, Ch 1). We do need action, and by bringing fresh attention to feminist possibilities, The Right to Sex gives me hope.

The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

By Amia Srinivasan

304 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021

Works Cited

Crenshaw, Kimberlè W. “Beyond Racism and Misogyny: Black Feminism and 2 Live Crew,” Boston Review (December 1, 1991)

Haslanger, Sally. “Political Epistemology and Social Critique,” Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy 7 (2020), pp. 23-65

Lessig, Lawrence. “The Regulation of Social Meaning,” University of Chicago Law Review 62 (1995), pp. 943–1045

Rowland, Katherine. The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution (New York: Seal Press, 2020)

Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 2nd edition. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016)

Sally Haslanger is Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s & Gender Studies at MIT.