There is no right to sex, but we should talk about the politics of desire

A review of “The Right to Sex” by Amia Srinivasan

Paperback cover of The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan

Sex, which we think of as the most private of acts, is in reality a public thing. The roles we play, the emotions we feel, who gives, who takes, who demands, who serves, who wants, who is wanted, who benefits, who suffers: the rules for all this were set long before we entered the world.

The above quote is taken from the introduction to Amia Srinivasan’s essay collection The Right to Sex, and it summarises why we all need to talk about sex. There’s a lot going unsaid that needs saying, and it’s not just a discussion between intimate partners — it’s a public conversation with societal implications.

Important to note is that Srinivasan’s approach to her essays is not to convince or persuade a particular point of view, which is a good approach to essay writing (IMO). What they do is “put into words what many women, and some men, already know.”

Thus, the book’s subject matter is varied. There’s a chapter on pornography, which looks at feminist arguments for and against it, whilst also discussing the impact pornography is having on society and interpersonal relationships. Another chapter offers a case on why professors shouldn’t be having sex with their students — a controversial subject lacking in analysis. And amongst other ideas explored in the book, Srinivasan examines the politics of desire.

As the title suggests, one essay in the book covers the idea of a “right to sex.” This chapter has a focus on incels: an ideological group of (majority white) men who feel entitled to women’s bodies for sex, several of whom have taken their misogynistic rage to its most violent conclusions and committed mass shootings.

Srinivasan discusses in this essay, amongst other things, how incels are not really angry about being denied sex. Rather they resent being denied the sexual status they feel entitled to. It’s not really about the act of sex at all, but the incel’s belief about where they should stand within the heteronormative patriarchy and how they think women are denying them said position.

What struck me is that “incel” was initially a term coined by a woman, who set up a support group for both men and women struggling to find the romantic and intimate relationships they desired. It was nothing like the hate group we know today.

Returning to the idea of a “right to sex”, we should be clear that this would inherently mean coercion. Nobody is entitled to another person’s body. The right to sex, therefore, cannot exist. Ever. Srinivasan emphasises this point herself: “There is no right to sex. (To think otherwise is to think like a rapist.)”

For most of us, this is the end of the conversation. What else is there to discuss? We can all agree there can never be a right to sex, and some would say any subsequent discussions about who is desirable and gets to have sex is banal.

However, Srinivasan proposes that who is desired and gets to have sex is a conversation we ought to have. Consider this:

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?

For some, the absence of sex is just sheer bad luck. Whilst a small minority will indeed have a great number of sexual partners throughout their life, it’s a different story for the majority. Some of us might only find a very select few who want to have sex with us. And some may not find anyone at all. This is hardly a social injustice to be corrected. After all, we just agreed that there can never be a right to sex.

But from a young age, we are taught what desire and desirability looks like. When people fall outside this model of desirability, particularly those who belong to marginalised groups, is it not worth considering how much desire is entwined with discrimination?

Another question Srinivasan poses, which I had never given much consideration, is how much sexual orientation is reduced to genitalia, specifically genitalia from birth. She asks, “Is anyone innately attracted to penises or vaginas? Or are we first attracted to ways of being in the world, including bodily ways, which we later learn to associate with certain specific parts of the body?”

The Right to Sex is full of thought-provoking ideas like this that have reframed how I think about sex and desire.

Another example of something I never previously considered is the reality of false rape allegations.

Relative to the number of real cases of rape reported, there exists a tiny minority of false allegations. A certain sect of straight, middle-class, white men insists that false allegations are more pervasive than the statistics suggest. So they live in fear of the vindictive woman out to ruin his life. It doesn’t matter to these men that even when men are rightfully accused and taken to court, they are often protected by their wealth and status within society. Consequences are anathema to these men.

What I’d never considered before, however, was this (emphasis mine):

many, perhaps most, wrongful convictions of rape result from false accusations levied against men by other men: by cops and prosecutors, overwhelmingly male, intent on pinning an actual rape on the wrong suspect.

It’s men most often weaponizing false rape allegations. Yet I guarantee no man has ever feared another man falsely pinning a rape on him. It’s always women that the man fears will ruin his life.

Furthermore, the men falsely incarcerated for rape are disproportionately Black men. Srinivasan talks more about the racist history of false rape allegations in the book. But what I thought was interesting to highlight is how straight, middle-class, white men are most fearful of false rape allegations, and yet statistically they’re the least likely to have a false rape allegation levied against them. They’re also less likely to suffer consequences even if they were falsely accused.

Another point I’d never considered comes from the chapter on pornography…

I am part of a generation whose first sexual experience — wanted or otherwise — was porn. In my case, it was unwanted. I saw my first porn video when I was 11 years old. A classmate had it on their phone and showed me their screen without warning me what would be on it. My experience is incredibly common. I suspect it’s not uncommon for some boys to have that experience at an even younger age.

Women’s first sexual experience will also be mediated by porn. Even if she herself has not watched porn, if she has sex with boys then it’s certain her first sexual experience will be with a boy who has.

The chapter on pornography might be my favourite essay in the book. There’s too much I could say to summarise effectively in a review. But what I found particularly interesting was Srinivasan’s perspective on sex education.

Sex education in this country is poor. Terrible, even. Yes, it’s better than the sex ed. children get in many of the states in America, but the UK’s curriculum is still severely lacking. However, conversations about improving sex education most often focuses on what is being left out. This is an important point, certainly, and was my focus whenever I’ve previously complained about insufficient sex ed.

However, Srinivasan makes a compelling case for sex education to be something more, something that should endow young people with an “emboldened sexual imagination.” Sex education does not have to be limited to what previous generations have defined sex to mean. Rather we can teach young people that we get to be the authority on sex, and we can choose to make sex “something more joyful, more equal, freer.”

There’s a lot I’ve left out in this review. I didn’t even touch upon what Srinivasan has to say about sex work. And there’s so much more that can be said about the chapters I have mentioned. But you should read them for yourself.

For me, this book was eye-opening. I didn’t go into this book entirely ignorant of the subjects Srinivasan discusses, but I put down the book having learnt so much more than I realised I had wanted to learn.

It’s possible that if you’ve taken a gender studies module at a university — or a whole course — you may already be familiar with some of the concepts and arguments put forward in this book. But there’s so many ideas I’d never heard articulated before that I feel confident in recommending this book.

And to re-emphasise the point, we really do need to be having more discussions about sex. We should talk about the politics of desire. We are not slaves to the desires dictated to us by the society we live in.

With this in mind, I’d like to end with my favourite quote from the book:

Desire can take us by surprise, leading us somewhere we hadn’t imagined we would ever go, or towards someone we never thought we would lust after, or love. In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.