Sexual Rights, Sexual Wrongs
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century by Amia Srinivasan. FSG, 304 pages.
“[Feminism] asks, ‘what would it be to end the political, social, sexual, economic, psychological and physical subordination of women? . . . It answers: we do not know; let us try and see.”
So opens Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, which interrogates the confluence of sex, desire, and politics. This kind of book has been ubiquitous over the last five years or so, often retreading the same ground, but Srinivasan’s is one of the few which offers something new and helpful. Srinivasan places her essays within “a feminist tradition that was unafraid to think of sex as a political phenomenon, as something squarely within the bounds of social critique”—feminists such as Alexandra Kollontai, Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, Catharine MacKinnon, some of whom were called “first wave” or “second wave” feminists. Instead of merely rehabilitating or performing apologetics for these thinkers, however, Srinivasan investigates their strengths as well as their serious shortcomings, offering a framework for a left-wing feminism with genuine liberatory potential.
When her essay on the subject, “Does anyone have the right to sex?” was published in the London Review of Books in 2018, it sparked somewhat predictable controversy. Srinivasan placed the Elliot Rodger shooting at the center of her essay, and she plumbed the gruesome depths of forums like Reddit to investigate the incel subculture. In particular, she questioned their apparent belief in a “right to sex”—that sex is a human right, which they are being unjustly denied by a rabidly feminist and man-hating society. One Twitter commentator said of her essay, “Of course there is not (a right to sex.) There is a right not to be raped.”
Despite what such detractors said, Srinivasan did not argue that the incels are correct or morally justified. She did urge us to question what we find desirable, sexy, beautiful: how these opinions are formed in a society that is racist, ableist, and transphobic, and the myriad roles that sex plays in our lives beyond mere attraction and release. In fact, the online “incel” community once looked very different. The term incel, or “involuntary celibate,” was originally coined by “Alana,” a self-described “nerdy queer woman.” In the 1990s, Alana was an undergraduate student from Ottawa who had never been on a date. She created an all-text website called “Alana’s Involuntary Celibate Project” for people with similar experiences. The contributors were of all genders, ages, and sexual orientations. Eventually, Alana entered a relationship and relinquished control of the website to someone else. She didn’t know what became of “the incel” until reading about the Elliot Rodger shooting almost twenty years later.
Of course, there is no “right to sex,” Srinivasan argued in 2018, and men are not entitled to sex; they certainly aren’t entitled to commit violence for it. But what does it mean that certain kinds of people are written off as categorically unfuckable, or that attraction to them is often portrayed as comic or obscene? Especially because sex plays an outsize role in how we see ourselves and each other; in determining social status; and, perhaps most significantly, in our material safety? Did Elliot Rodger fixate on “hot blonde sluts,” as Srinivasan terms Rodgers’ object of obsession, because he had some born-this-way attraction to them? Or because attainment of such women confers status on men who do so?
Srinivasan, in The Right to Sex, observes that the liberal “sex positivity” of recent years defines sexuality in strictly individualist terms: you can’t help what you’re attracted to, and your attraction, or anything that you’re turned on by, is sacrosanct. Any criticism of this position is reactionary at best and rape-apologist at worst. The incel position, as we’ve come to know it—that women’s sexual liberty run amok has precipitated the sexual starvation of poor men, Asian men, short men, autistic men, too-fat men, too-thin men, men lacking “millimeters of bone” in crucial areas of the brow or jaw—sounds a lot like male entitlement to women’s bodies. But is this attitude more relatable, more sympathetic when reconsidered from the perspective of the earlier “incels”? Can “what we’re attracted to” be inculcated in us through the promotion of certain narratives about sex, instead of being immutable and inborn? How about kink? Srinivasan puts it thus: “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.’” It’s a formulation of the liberal apologetics for free-market utopianism and the miracle of individual choice.
The notion that sexuality and sexual desire is innate entered the public consciousness throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, when a mainstream LGBTQ narrative which emphasized assimilation and respectability gained ascendance. For this wing of the movement, legalized same-sex marriage and military service were the primary focus. “Born this way” rhetoric dominated, while “sexuality is a choice” became associated with the right. And yet, as Srinivasan points out, an earlier generation of lesbian feminists like Adrienne Rich did argue that one could voluntarily reject heterosexuality. Sexuality, from this point of view, is not inborn and immutable. It is the result of how someone internalizes prevalent ideas about love, sex, and desirability—not to mention that, particularly at the time of Rich’s writing, particularly for women, heterosexuality was strictly enforced through political and economic means. Embracing lesbian sexuality and pleasure is not about conditioning oneself to like boobs, Clockwork Orange-style, but rather, as Adrienne Rich puts it, “[thinking] of the moments of closeness and complicity they have experienced with other women, and [reflecting] on the felt necessity of setting these aside—as immature, less than sufficient—for men.”
Andrea Dworkin, contrary to popular belief, never argued that all heterosexual intercourse is rape, or that to be born with a penis was to be born a rapist and abuser of women. In her 1976 book Our Blood, Dworkin rejects this binary sex essentialism: “It is not true that there are two sexes which are discrete and opposite, which are polar, which unite naturally and self-evidently into a harmonious whole.” She did, however, along with many of her contemporaries like Catharine MacKinnon, offer a deep skepticism of heterosexual intercourse because of its reliance on the patriarchal scripts which surround it. And, more controversially, she asked to what extent a woman’s desire for heterosexual, PIV intercourse is informed by these scripts. In Intercourse, on of her most influential works, Dworkin writes: “Woman have been chattels to man as wives, as prostitutes, as sexual and reproductive servants. Being owned and being fucked are or have been virtually synonymous experiences in the lives of woman. He owns you—he fucks you. The fucking conveys the quality of ownership—he owns you inside out.”
One of the ways these scripts were reinforced, according to some second-wave feminists, was through pornography. Robin Morgan famously said “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.” Pornography by all accounts helped splinter the feminist movement. Some feminists, notably Dworkin and MacKinnon (who also gets a lot of sympathetic space in Srinivasan’s book), argued that porn normalized sexual brutality and the degradation of women; others argued that the right to free and open sexuality, which included porn, was essential to the liberation of women, particularly queer women.
Srinivasan devotes a chapter to a discussion of pornography, “Talking to My Students About Porn.” It is very difficult to talk about pornography without resorting to liberal inanities, right-wing invectives, or SWERF hypocrisy. Srinivasan’s chapter takes us to her classroom, where she teaches feminist theory as an introductory class. At first, she’s apprehensive about teaching the anti-porn feminists of yesteryear, worried that her students will immediately tune out such fusty uptight moralizing. To her surprise, the students are interested. They voice near-total agreement with the theses of the anti-porn feminists:
Could it be that pornography doesn’t merely depict the subordination of women, but actually makes it real, I asked? Yes, they said. Does porn silence women, making it harder for them to protest against unwanted sex, and harder for men to hear those protests? Yes, they said. Does porn bear responsibility for the objectification of women, for the marginalization of women, for sexual violence against women? Yes, they said, yes to all of it. It wasn’t just the women students talking; the men were saying yes as well, in some cases even more emphatically. . . . My male students complained about the routines they were expected to perform in sex; one of them asked whether it was too utopian to imagine sex that was loving and mutual and not about domination and submission.
Srinivasan recalls that one woman in the class protests that feminist porn does exist. But, as the male students argue, “we don’t watch that.” They watch the hardcore stuff, the aggressive stuff—the free stuff. “The psyches of my students are products of pornography,” she says. “In them, the warnings of the anti-porn feminists seem to have been belatedly realized: sex for my students is what porn says it is.”
Srinivasan cogently lays out the arguments “against” pornography, or perhaps more accurately, that are critical of pornography. Pornography establishes a script of how sex “should be.” The algorithm-driven, on-demand, click-hungry, never-ending content mill of profit-based online pornography means that one can continually steep themselves in extreme sexual scripts, sometimes literal scripts, depicting these attitudes. For some people, porn becomes more real and more pleasurable than sex. Most worryingly, children and teenagers are getting the bulk of their sexual education from this kind of internet porn. Not getting the answers they want from their parents, teachers, or other media, kids turn to porn to satiate their natural curiosity about sex. And as porn becomes far more available for most teenagers than unsupervised, screen-free, outdoor socializing, sitting glued in front of a stream of Pornhub videos has replaced awkward fumbling in the backseat of a car as many teenage’s’ first sexual experience. Srinivasan recounts a heartbreaking anecdote from one of her students: “Her ex-boyfriend had always told her she was doing it wrong. ‘I see now he wanted me to be like those women’—the women in porn.’ She wasn’t like that, didn’t know how to be like that, so he dumped her.”
The salient point of this anecdote, Srinivasan says, is that the boy’s admonishment of the girl is specifically about her failure to reenact the sexual script taught by porn—that what’s taught in porn is the “right way” to have sex, the right way to look, to sound, to position one’s body, and every other way is the “wrong way.” Almost every woman I know, particularly if she isn’t thin, cis, or white, has a humiliating and traumatic story like this. And ultimately, the never-ending barrage of no-holds-barred sexual content makes sex less sexy: teenagers these days are famously having less sex than previous generations.
It’s easy to categorize Srinivasan’s chapter as anti-porn, as the writer Helen Lewis did in The Atlantic. But this is a misreading of Srinivasan’s analysis. As Srinivasan points out, there are tons of feminist arguments in favor or pornography or at least that counter the arguments against it. For women of color, trans women, fat women, and disabled women, being portrayed as desirable and sexual in a culture that consistently either desexualizes them or casts them as unfuckable can be a very affirming thing—even if Andrea Dworkin might disapprove. Like the female student in Srinivasan’s anecdote, feminists have pointed out that there is “feminist” porn which does not affirm and reinforce hegemonic attitudes but presents a joyful, liberated, and inclusive model of sexuality. And any attempt to eradicate pornography—by leaning on the state, or private companies like Tumblr and OnlyFans, to enforce its elimination—will only harm sex workers as well as de facto criminalize queer, feminist, or otherwise non-hegemonic depictions of sex. That said, Srinivasan’s analysis is not about defending porn, either—it’s about reframing the porn discussion in a way that places it on more productive and provocative terrain. The chapter is not titled “On Porn,” or “Against Porn,” or “In Defense of Porn,” but “Talking to My Students About Porn.” It’s about the same thing second-wave feminists were concerned with—the social scripts involved in pornography.
One of the stumbling blocks here is that pornography is famously difficult to define. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in the landmark 1964 case Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I know it when I see it.” To right-wing legislators—who are, after all, the people who engineer crackdowns on porn—a Nina Hartley-style educational video of how to perform oral sex, or a disabled, queer couple filming themselves having sex and posting the video online (for pay or for pleasure or both), are just as much “porn” as “Tiny Blonde Teen Gets Demolished by Step-Dad,” produced by a mainstream studio where the actress was underpaid and exploited. In the eyes of the right, these examples are all equally harmful, and particularly harmful to children, by virtue of normalizing sexuality outside of the married, monogamous, cishet bedroom for the purposes of procreation. Porn is a category based on fear and disgust as well as sexual arousal, one visited upon certain types of people and certain types of sex more than others. In the context of Srinivasan’s feminist analysis, the first two examples are qualitatively different from the third. No one would be learning a harmful, misogynist sexual script from them. They are the kinds of porn that, according to Srinivasan’s male students, don’t really “count.” After all, that’s not the porn they’re watching.
To categorize this classroom anecdote as proof of Srinivasan’s anti-porn stance is an oversimplification. (Let’s not forget that a group of students in an Oxford undergraduate class is not necessarily reflective of young people as a whole!) Rather, it should lead us to ask why it’s so important what heterosexual men are watching. Why does their porn consumption set the stakes of this discussion? Srinivasan’s story, perhaps inadvertently, gives a lot of weight to her male students’ viewing habits. The fact that “feminist porn” exists is negated somehow by the fact that they don’t really watch it. But does that rhetorical move just reify the dominance of heterosexual men’s desires?
It’s a little to glib to airily handwave away What Men Want, of course, particularly teenagers: the primary consumers and manufacturers of porn are, after all, heterosexual men, and most teenagers grow up in misogynistic environments where cis-heterosexuality is compulsory and sexuality is about women performing a script dictated by men.
But as Srinivasan points out, this is not something that children learn from porn. It’s learned from parents, teachers, religion, television, movies, music, literature, etc. And while it’s easy to catastrophize about the effects of porn on teenagers’ sexual behavior, let’s not pretend that the backseat-fumbling was much better for girls, or that boys were somehow more respectful of them, or more attenuated to their pleasure, in this much-vaunted Before Porn era—when date rape was a non-existent term, the vaginal orgasm was thoroughly mythologized, and queer, closeted youth were persistent victims of violence.
Srinivasan provides clarity when she writes, “Whatever authority porn has is granted by those who watch it: by the boys and men who trust porn to tell them ‘what’s doing’ . . . Like the anti-porn feminists of the second wave, perhaps my students attribute too much power to porn, and have too little faith in their ability to resist it.” This argument contradicts Morgan’s famous dictum directly attributing sexual violence to porn. In her Atlantic article, Helen Lewis frets about choking and fisting, practices which supposedly are being forced on young teenage girls by pornsick boys. She’s not entirely wrong; lots of girls are certainly pressured into such practices by boys, who learn their ideas about them from heavily choreographed and unrealistic porn videos. But her analysis and conclusions are entirely wrongheaded. Sophie Lewis took issue with this argument on her blog:
In many queer communities, certainly in my experience, [fisting] is actively practiced and thought about as one of the single most delicate, skillful, tender, mutual, impossible-to-do-carelessly, hell, feminist (for those reasons) erotic endeavors. Why is this person speaking on the subject? The same goes for her confident claims about “choking.” . . . When you choke someone erotically, it is quite likely that you are animated at least as much by your partner’s pleasure as you are by your own; certainly you have to have a lot of skill as you go about it, and apply effort, care and concentration in the service, especially given the consequences if you fuck it up.
Lewis is perhaps a bit too sanguine; the fact that some people have positive experiences with these sexual practices does not necessarily render them good. For every story of choking with “care and concentration,” there’s another story of a drunk Tinder date doing so painfully without your consent, or even bothering to ask you if you’re into that, because that’s what women in porn seem to like. However, the point to be brought home is not whether choking or fisting are inherently good or imbued with liberatory power. It is about the narratives surrounding them, and to what extent these practices are used to reify those narratives, which are bad or good.
In the pornified version which perhaps rightly horrifies Helen Lewis, these practices, for the most part, are explicitly meant to be painful and degrading to women and to uphold male sexual dominance. The boys act them out in order to act out this same dominance, often unsafely, often with little regard for the girl’s pleasure. But, of course, fisting has existed in queer communities for a long time, and as Sophie Lewis points out, is undertaken with care and intimacy. In fact, heterosexual, mainstream porn often steals queer sex practices and rewrites them to be about men dominating and hurting women. And there’s more than a soupçon of queerphobia in Helen Lewis’s analysis—an implication that these “deviant” sexual practices have harm or degrade heterosexual cis girls in a way that PIV intercourse does not, even though PIV can also be degrading and painful, not to mention lead to unwanted pregnancy.
There’s a subplot in the 1999-set-in-1980 teen drama Freaks and Geeks, where a titular geek, Sam—totally bewildered by mysterious cafeteria jokes about sex, the humiliating and thoroughly un-educating schauspiel of high school sex ed, and the steadfast silence of his parents—clandestinely watches a porn film with his friends, on a projector, which an older classmate gives him secretively in a paper bag. Sam is horrified and repulsed by the film, and the next day, he avoids his crush when he sees her in school. In sex ed, he asks a question which his teacher finds “disturbing.” This dialogue ensues between the two after class:
Mr. Fredericks: “Where did you hear about this . . . activity?”
Sam: “I uh . . . saw it in . . . a movie?”
Mr. Fredericks: “Ah, I see. Well, movies like that, Sam, they tend to sensationalize certain things, that in real life, tend not to actually happen. Do you get me?”
Sam: “Uh, not really.”
Mr. Fredericks: “All right, I’m going to tell you the truth. But you can’t tell anyone we had this conversation. I could get in a lot of trouble for what I’m about to tell you. Your permission slip for sex ed doesn’t cover this stuff.”
What follows is presumably an open, honest, and relaxed discussion of sex and how it differs from pornography. There’s no audible dialogue in this scene, just music played over the characters talking and laughing: a stark contrast to the determinedly hostile environment of the sex-ed classroom and the stern stonewalling of Sam’s parents.
For Srinivasan, the way out of the porn wars is to put aside porn and focus on education, on re-writing sexual narratives. On-demand, profit-driven internet porn is here to stay for the foreseeable future. To combat its effects, we need less fearmongering about fisting and more accessible, comprehensive, queer-positive, feminist education about sex—not necessarily “sex education,” as in the gym class routine, but real openness about sex and pleasure outside of pornography. When people say, “a young person’s first sexual experience, their first real sexual education, happens in front of a porn video,” there’s a remarkable tendency to fixate on the porn aspect and not to question why children and teens lack better education about sex from more enlightened sources. Adults place a high premium on protecting children’s “innocence” with regard to sex, which as feminists like Shulamith Firestone have observed is a fairly modern phenomenon, but they don’t really question who or what that “protection” serves. And of course, much of this concern is based on children imperiling their future as wage-earners, for instance, with a teenage pregnancy that derails hopes of college and professional success.
What could it mean to have a sex education that discussed anal sex, oral sex, and more, like Teen Vogue did, amid backlash from conservatives and “radical feminists” alike—that emphasized the size and complexity of the clitoris, the importance of lube, and how absolutely essential mutual satisfaction is to any intercourse. Or even more provocatively, an education that encouraged youths to rethink what heterosexuality is, their relationship to it, and what being a sexual being in a certain kind of body could mean? To ask if there are other ways to experience eroticism, jouissance, and pleasure than through sex, which has arguably taken so much of its erotic significance through its specifically taboo and shameful nature?
It is absolutely true that the porn industry causes real harm beyond the “merely” theoretical or affective. Porn production companies routinely use financial coercion to force performers to engage in acts that they did not previously agree to; GirlsDoPorn, for instance, systemically lied to performers that the videos they created would not be distributed online. Many porn actresses have spoken about their experience of rape and sexual assault on porn sets. Trans women and women of color in mainstream pornography are usually paid less than their cis, white counterparts, and they are often expected to perform more extreme acts with heavily transphobic and racist stereotyping. The enormously popular free streaming model of Pornhub and its ilk guarantees that performers are never fully compensated for their work. OnlyFans, which has become popular as a source of income in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, is notorious for taking a chunk of performers’ (who are of course independent contractors and never employees) pay, and incentivizing these performers to recruit more performers, thus making more money for OnlyFans.
Dworkin’s fight against pornography, though thoroughly misguided in many aspects, did contain a kernel of truth in its analysis. She was correct that the currently existing heterosexual porn industry isn’t a benign expression of natural and immutable sexual urges but a reinforcement of harmful attitudes towards women, which in turn bolster those attitudes in the viewer. She opposed the criminalization of porn in large part because it would harm the women involved in it who depended on pornography for their livelihood. Instead, Dworkin’s (and MacKinnon’s) movement focused on civil ordinances which would, somewhat complicatedly, allow women who had been “harmed” by the porn industry—whether as an actress or a partner to a porn-addicted man—to sue porn companies in civil court. But this was an ill-fated maneuver. Among other missteps, Dworkin famously allied with the political right, who were fighting to eradicate reproductive rights and reinstate patriarchal familial control over women.
It’s easy to rehabilitate a dead controversial figure, as many have done in recent years. We don’t know what Dworkin’s position would be today, so it’s appealing for some to believe that her politics would have developed over time—become sex-worker inclusive, trans-inclusive, and anti-capitalist. But Dworkin’s contemporary and comrade MacKinnon, who is alive, has voiced some troubling ideas about porn and sex work, most recently in a New York Times article about OnlyFans. It is thus disappointing to see that MacKinnon is written of in the same sympathetic vein as Dworkin in Srinivasan’s book.
MacKinnon and her cohort consistently conflate support for sex workers with support for the OnlyFans model, but, of course, MacKinnon takes issue with the notion of “sex work” in and of itself: “One measure of this success is the media’s increasing insistence on referring to people used in prostitution and pornography as ‘sex workers.’ What is being done to them is neither sex, in the sense of intimacy and mutuality, nor work, in the sense of productivity and dignity.” This framing is revealing. It’s really a matter of personal preference whether sex has to be “intimate”; there are many kinds of pleasurable sex that couldn’t be classified that way. But, more importantly, it is MacKinnon’s framing of “work” that betrays her analysis and the kinds of feminism she espouses. Sex work cannot be work because work is inherently “productive and dignified,” and of course, nothing a stripper, prostitute, or porn actress does could ever be described that way. Ironically, this is a feminism that privileges well-off white women.Most women around the world do not have the luxury to prioritize the dignity of their labor; usually, work is only “productive and dignified” for bosses. And her decision to cast OnlyFans as the “pimp” and the exploiter of women elides the other factors and agents that make sex work necessary for many. If OnlyFans is a pimp, what about the landlord who demands exorbitant rent, the employer who cuts your hours, or the state which deems you an “illegal alien”?
MacKinnon does not argue for canceling rent, or for continuing federal cash payments, all measures that would mitigate women’s dependence on the exploitation of OnlyFans in the midst of a pandemic. In fact, her essay arrived as nationwide eviction moratoriums came to an end and rents were rapidly rising in many cities. Perhaps she thinks there is more “productivity and dignity” in peeing into a bottle at an Amazon warehouse.
In her chapter “Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism” Srinivasan puts paid to this analysis. She delves once again into the debates and schisms which shaped the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s: this time, the question of how to maintain and augment the gains the movement had made thus far. The new feminism which gained ascendancy in this period—championed by the likes of Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan—emphasized the success of individual women within the capitalist system. This is what “solidarity” meant: one woman’s success became all women’s success. The workplace became one of the primary sites of the feminist struggle, but the goal was not to dismantle it or to win rights for workers as a class within the workplace. Rather, it was to fill the ranks of the bosses with women. Feminism became an ally of the capitalist workplace, reinforcing its legitimacy as an empowerer of women.
Hand in hand with its market individualism came feminism’s reliance on carceral systems. Protecting women from sexual violence and intimate partner violence became the purview of the state, with mixed results. Feminists of all stripes continue to trust in these systems as the best of our bad options for combatting sex and gender-based violence, a category some feminists also use to describe sex work. But it is no surprise that the majority of those incarcerated for these offenses are impoverished Black and brown men. When poor women are reluctant to turn in abusive partners, much is made of Stockholm syndrome, and little is made of the fact these women and their children are usually financially dependent on the partners in question. Living in a woman’s shelter “until you get back on your feet” is hardly the magic solution it’s made out to be. Little, too, is made of the fact that, as Andrea Ritchie has pointed out, minority women at risk of violence by abusive partners are also at risk of violence by the police. And rarely mentioned is the growing population of women who are themselves incarcerated.
Srinivasan points to a fact that’s well-known even among the most liberal of girl-boss feminists— that gender-based violence almost always correlates to poverty. But while the hegemonic class of liberal feminists stage their interventions via a parade of non-profits, NGOs, and philanthropies which crow about “empowerment” while steadily maintaining the status quo, Srinivasan urges us to consider what Marxist and left-wing feminists have been insisting with growing visibility: that there is no capitalist-friendly way to end the oppression of women, particularly Black and brown women.
It is in this part of her analysis where Srinivasan, heretofore somewhat sympathetic to the feminists of the second wave, diverges from them decisively. She takes issue with the notion that there is a fundamental struggle that unites all women, or that every woman faces oppression because of her gender first and her economic station, or immigration status, or disability second, echoing earlier arguments from bell hooks and others.
Srinivasan outlines a case which many MRA types might point to as an example of feminism run amok. A young woman and young man at UMass Amherst, both drinking and smoking pot, were alone together and kissing. The woman was white and the man was the son of Ghanain immigrants. The woman told him she didn’t want to have sex. The man said, “we don’t have to have sex” but tried to verbally persuade her not to leave, pulling her arm to force a kiss. Eventually, the woman performed oral sex on him, without being asked. The woman later brought a Title IX case against the man, saying “UMass Student Culture dictates that when women become sexually involved with men they owe it to them to follow through.” The school placed a series of “interim restrictions” on the man, including a prohibition on contacting the complainant or visiting dorms other than his own. A month later, the female student reported to the administration that the man had tried to friend her on Facebook, which led to his being banned from university housing and the broader campus, except to attend classes. After suffering a mental breakdown and stress-induced pneumonia, he moved back in with his parents.
The university held a hearing without the man who was found guilty not of assault, but of sending the woman a Facebook request. He was suspended until after his graduation date, permanently banned from living on campus, and required to get counseling. He later sued the school, which settled in 2016 for an undisclosed amount. The woman in the case continued to insist that the male student did not force her to do anything and heeded her refusals. But she still also insisted that something happened that she “felt in [her] bones wasn’t right.”
When it was passed in 1972, Title IX was lauded by feminists as an essential intervention in the epidemic of campus rape. Certainly, an intervention was sorely needed then. It can be difficult to criticize Title IX without being accused of rape apologetics, but, as Srinivasan points out, it is due for criticism. Title IX ultimately exists to protect schools, not students. Schools are supposedly incentivized to stamp out sexual assault through the threat of losing federal funding, but in practice, the implementation of Title IX often discourages female students from reporting assault or leads to cases like the one Srinivasan cites, outlined above. The campus becomes a carceral microcosm with inordinate power over a young person’s future.
The female student in Srinivasan’s story wasn’t wrong to feel that the sex “wasn’t right”: the belief that women are responsible for a man’s sexual gratification after “leading him on” is socially engrained, and there’s no doubt that this belief pervaded the Amherst campus as well. But what does punishing this individual student, who, by all accounts, was not acting on those beliefs accomplish? Who coerced the female student in this situation: an individual man, or a social script?
This is of course a much lower-stakes example of sexual violence. Srinivasan also looks to India, a country which has been labeled “the most dangerous place to be a woman.” In 2012, the gang rape of college student Jyoti Singh, dubbed “Nirbhaya,” or “fearless one,” on a Delhi bus made international headlines. The rapists incapacitated the male friend who had accompanied Singh to a movie that night. He would later recover from his injuries, while Singh later died of injuries caused by an iron rod used during the rape after she attempted to fight off her attackers. The surviving rapists (one killed himself in his cell prior to trial) were hanged, except one, who, because he was seventeen years old at the time, is now free to continue his life under a new name.
This form of sexual violence is not unheard of in India, but Singh’s rape launched a wave of demonstrations and stricter laws surrounding sexual assault. Rape is now fast-tracked through the courts and it is automatically a capital offense in certain cases. Many have pointed out that innumerable cases of violent gang rape and murder of poor women and Dalit women have gone unremarked on; the difference seems to be that Jyoti Singh was middle-class and upper caste. In a documentary called India’s Daughter, one of the Delhi rapists defends his actions wholeheartedly from his prison cell, claiming that “decent” girls don’t go out at night, and that Jyoti would not have been killed if she didn’t fight back against the rapists—that if a woman is being raped, she should comply.
Rape is still on the rise in India, despite the stricter new laws, particularly against the Dalit community. Some feel that the automatic death penalty is not a deterrent against rape but rather an incentive to kill the victim so she can’t file a complaint. In 2020, a Dalit woman in Hathras was gang raped and murdered by members of the landowning Thakur caste; her body was secretly burned in the middle of the night by the police, against the wishes of the family, who have not received any justice. That same year, a Jalalabad woman who was gang raped by five men was raped again by the police sub-inspector when she went to report the crime. And in May of this year, authorities arrested an Uttar Pradesh police officer accused of raping a thirteen-year-old Dalit girl when she reported her kidnapping and rape by four men the previous month.
Until May, the Indian Army had operated under colonial-era sedition laws, which stifled reporting of, for instance, widespread rape by Indian security forces of contested areas of the Northeast and in Kashmir, or rape against Dalit women. A ruling that month by the Supreme Court of India suspended the law but did not overturn it. Rape as a political weapon is legitimized in the writings of Veer Savarkar, a revered pioneer of Hindu nationalist thought. And early Hindu nationalists modeled their writings on those of the Nazis and the Italian fascists. Srinivasan draws our attention to the wife of one of the hanged Delhi rapists, Punita Devi. Punita steadfastly insisted her husband, the breadwinner, was innocent, and when he was hanged, she lamented, “Where will I live? What will my child eat? Why are the politicians not thinking about me? I am a woman too.”
Does fighting to increase the power of the carceral, capitalist state, and fighting for individual women to succeed within that state, truly achieve liberation for all women? Srinivasan echoes an emerging vanguard of left-wing feminists when she says, decisively, “no.” Her book confirms feminism as a constantly moving political project. Earlier generations of feminists were correct to identify our susceptibility to received ideas and to act on social scripts about women’s subordinate position, particularly when it comes to sexuality and porn—as opposed to liberal feminism’s ethos of choice. But their fatal misstep was to understand sex difference as the fundamental contradiction of our society, rather than class difference. A differentiation of “men” and “women” along “biological” lines and a belief in an inherent contradiction and struggle between the two has not led us any closer to liberation, but to a constant fight over which women get to be free, and how.