Sexual desire is political. Power determines the kind of people we are attracted to. It is not openly stated, but there is a hierarchy that decides that slim blonde women are eminently desirable, while East Asian men or black women are low on the list. In an Indian context too, there is a clear order of preferences. Fat people, or trans people or disabled people are deemed least desirable – because having sex with them does not confer status. The honest truth is that our hearts and desires don’t run free, they run along socially discriminatory grooves.
Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan wrote a viral essay on this subject called the The Right to Sex, taking off from the incel subculture of Eliot Rodger – ‘involuntarily celibate’ men who pity themselves for being sexually marginalised, and bitterly resent women for denying them their ‘due’. Now, she has expanded her ideas into a book with the same name, with six essays about the politics of sex.
With crystalline clarity, the book analyses MeToo, its search for justice and its missteps, the spectre of false accusations, and whether criminal punishment for sexual offences should be the main focus for feminists. It also explores the zigzag arguments over pornography – does it create rote responses, or can it truly free the sexual imagination?
During the MeToo movement, there was a widespread sense that women were suddenly enforcing a new set of rules, and how were men to know any different, back then? But if the lines between flirtation and harassment, coquettishness and refusal, sex and rape seemed blurred to them, it is because male pleasure has always taken priority, and now perhaps it cannot. Men once chose not to see women flinching, struggling, leaving and quitting – but now they are no longer confident that this will not have consequences.
It also analyses the mechanics of the false accusation, and the disproportionate attention paid to it. They are rare, but they do happen, and most often, they are levelled against certain classes of men, who are already subordinated by society. For wealthy white or savarna men, the false rape accusation is perceived as a searing injustice because it is their one sole “vulnerability to women and the state”.
But what is the way out of this male domination? Can criminal punishment produce social change at all? After the Nirbhaya outcry, or such incidents anywhere, the common response has been to put more cops on the street, and send more men to prison for sexual offences.
These ‘carceral’ solutions systematically harm poor people and people of colour in the West, says Srinivasan. This is why recent calls to ‘defund the police’ in the West have called for resources to be shifted to social services, support for survivors, and repair over retribution. On the other hand, patriarchal oppression cannot be reduced to just economic and social injustice either.
The arguments in each essay unfold meticulously – stating a side, doubling back on it, proceeding with care. The core question Srinivasan asks is: “What does it really take to alter the mind of patriarchy?” And though each glib response is complicated by her analysis, it is clear about one thing: “Collectivised, articulated and represented, the powerless can become powerful.”
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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