In The Right to Sex (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sept.), philosopher Srinivasan brings depth and nuance to the issues facing feminism today.
What do you mean by “the right to sex”?
For me, it encapsulates the idea that sex is both intimate and personal and so should be protected from moral and political inquisition, but also that sex is this political and social phenomenon that is shaped by and shapes our politics. In a way, the whole book is an attempt to dwell in that ambivalence.
You write that the law might be “the wrong tool for the job” of addressing the root causes of sexual assault. How so?
There’s something instinctively and intuitively right about the idea that if something is bad for women, we should make it illegal. But when you use the laws these ways, sometimes it goes well and sometimes it goes very badly. For example, the criminalization of sex work doesn’t get rid of sex work; it just turns sex workers into criminals. It invites the full, coercive force of the law against sex workers and makes the most vulnerable women more vulnerable.
Why is it important for feminists to acknowledge their power?
I think feminists are very comfortable thinking of themselves as not having power. The truth is some feminists—they tend to be wealthy, highly educated, usually white but not only white—have a great deal of power and have exercised it in the shaping of not just U.S. politics but global politics, helping to pass the Violence Against Women Act, which was part of a crime bill that massively increased incarceration of people of color; altering international law so that American capitalist prerogatives become the aims of international development; offering justifications for certain kinds of neocolonial projects. We’ve got to own up to that.
Why should inclusionary politics be “uncomfortable and unsafe”?
It can be extremely tempting to want to create for one’s self a feminist or queer space where everyone agrees and there’s no dissensus, no kind of challenge. Especially if one hasn’t felt safe in one’s own actual family home, that experience can be intensely nurturing. At the same time, I think that just has to be set aside at a certain point, because that kind of politics, if it’s carried on too long, becomes exclusionary. And what’s more, I think the drive for safety borne of homogeneity is incredibly politically destructive and is at the roots of lots of nationalism, of right-wing populism. It’s very obviously problematic in a right-wing case, but I think those of us on the left—and this is where I would issue a challenge to my Gen-Z students—need to think more critically about their invocation of safety.