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Who Gets to Be Desirable?

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“Sex,” the philosopher Amia Srinivasan reminds us, “isn’t a sandwich.” Here she responds to Rebecca Solnit, who in her 2009 essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” argued against the misogynist claim that lonely, sex-starved men are being “oppressed” by women who refuse to sleep with them. “You don’t get to share someone’s sandwich unless they want to share their sandwich with you,” wrote Solnit, “and that’s not a form of oppression.” This is certainly true, Srinivasan agrees. But, she asks, what if the situation were—as it often is in life—more complicated than lunch?

Suppose your child came home from primary school and told you that the other children share their sandwiches with each other, but not with her. And suppose further that your child is brown, or fat, or disabled, or doesn’t speak English very well, and that you suspect this is the reason for her exclusion from the sandwich-sharing. Suddenly it hardly seems sufficient to say that none of the other children is obliged to share with your child, true as that might be.

This passage is from Srinivasan’s essay “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” which first appeared in the London Review of Books in 2018 and is now out as part of a collection. In the six essays contained within The Right to Sex, Srinivasan covers a lot of ground: pornography, sex work, Title IX, #MeToo, the racial politics of desirability, the incel movement, student-teacher relationships, carceral feminism; even Tila Tequila gets a cameo. If the collection has any through line, it is dissatisfaction. Srinivasan diagnoses a certain degree of incuriosity at the heart of mainstream feminism, particularly as it relates to sex. She worries, for instance, about our overreliance on consent as a rubric to navigate the moral landscape of desire: “Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic: it is instead merely wanted or unwanted.” Elsewhere, she finds that in our rush for answers about how to manage sex on college campuses, we have forgotten to formulate the right questions. In “On Not Sleeping With Your Students,” Srinivasan (who teaches Social and Political Theory at Oxford) asks, “Is it too sterile, too boring to suggest that instead of sleeping with his student, this professor should have been—teaching her?”

This all might sound dizzying, even overwhelming, but Srinivasan lays out the stakes of these questions with an urgency that forces you to stay with her, to live in the difficulty of the politically inconvenient. “These essays do not offer a home,” she warns, but instead “dwell, where necessary, in discomfort and ambivalence.” This homelessness might leave some readers of The Right to Sex feeling unsated, hungry for clearer choices about how to live a feminist life. Well, that is the point. If the current state of popular, celebrity-adjacent feminism has not likewise left you feeling........

© New Republic

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