Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

Is there a right to sex? Feminist philosopher confronts the politics of sexual desire

'Incel' violence is a clear example of the lethal danger of believing that anyone is entitled to sex. But feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan argues who is and is not sexually desired can still be an issue of political injustice. She speaks with host Nahlah Ayed about autonomy, preference, entitlement, and the moral and political complexities of sexual desire.

Amia Srinivasan argues who is and is not sexually desired can be a political injustice

In her book The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan explores the complex politics of desire, autonomy and entitlement. Her work dives into the moral and political complexities of sex, and what it would mean to achieve true sexual liberation. (Nina Subin/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

*Originally aired on September 23, 2021.

In her new book, feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan tackles a thorny question: does anybody have the right to sex? 

And if someone isn't sexually desired because of their race or another facet of their identity, is that an act of discrimination? 

"We need to, as feminists, be able to say, 'no one owes anyone else sex,'" said Srinivasan, a Chichele Professor of political and social theory at the University of Oxford. 

"But at the same time, I think it's undeniable that some of what's [ugliest] in our politics shapes who and what is considered sexually desirable."

IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed speaks to Amia Srinivasan about autonomy, preference, entitlement, and the moral and political complexities of sexual desire. 

Can you take me to the moment when you started to think, maybe we should be discussing the idea of whether people should have a right to sex?

One thing was the extraordinarily heinous massacre perpetrated by the so-called incel [involuntary celibate], Elliot Rodger. Swiftly after he attacked and killed various people, women and men, his so-called manifesto was released online. The texts he produced were incredibly violent, misogynistic, but also racist and classist.

No one has a right to sex in the sense that [Elliot] Rodger and incels like him, and many proponents of male sexual entitlement claim.- Amia Srinivasan

But there was also a claim on his part that he had been sexually and romantically marginalized because of his race. He was mixed-race. So this was not an accurate diagnosis as to why women weren't interested in him. Presumably he was pretty clearly a kind of homicidal creep. 

But the thought that some people are romantically or sexually marginalized for problematic political reasons is not, in principle, impossible or false. In fact, it's quite familiar as a phenomenon. Just think about the way in which, for example, certain women of colour are often thought of as sort of undesirable sexually or romantically under places of white domination. So that's [what] started me thinking about this question, about the way in which politics shaped desire and and this idea of of a right to sex. 

Students mourn at a candlelight vigil at the University of California (UCLA) for the victims of a killing rampage by Elliott Rodger, on May 26, 2014. Seven people died, including Rodger, and seven others were wounded. Prior to the murders, Rodger posted YouTube videos declaring his intention to annihilate the girls who rejected him sexually. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The reaction at the time to Elliot Rodger's claim — and most people would agree — was that no one has a right to sex in the way that we have a right to liberty or self-determination. I'm just wondering why, as a feminist philosopher, you felt compelled to explore this question. 

I think no one has a right to sex in the sense that Rodger and incels like him and many proponents of male sexual entitlement claim. They claim that they have a right to have sex even if no one wants to have sex with them. 

But there are some senses in which we do have a right to sex. For example, everyone has the right to have sex with themselves. People have the right to have sex with consenting partners, and the kind of sex that they want to have. That seems really obvious to many of us now. But that thought is a hard-won legacy of especially lesbian and gay activism. 

A member of the LGBTQ community with a book 'The Rights of Gay People' taped to his arm stands outside the Supreme Court after the decision to strike down the colonial-era ban on gay sex in New Delhi, Sept. 6, 2018. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

It's a very important part of that broad feminist and LGBT legacy that we just say, 'well, no one has to have sex with anyone if they don't want to.' So the kind of right to sex that someone like Elliot Rodger was asserting is a pseudo-right. I think it's really important to insist on that. 

At the same time, I wanted to push beyond the simple thought that, well, there is just no right to sex, which can stop us from confronting the way in which who and what is and isn't desired sexually can itself be a product of injustice. 

If someone doesn't desire somebody because they're transgender or because of their race or because of a disability, is that a form of discrimination in your view, or is it a preference? 

I think that the opposition between preference and discrimination maybe is a false one. So there are discriminatory practices for which people may not be blameworthy. Right. So it may be the case that [someone] is being discriminated against sexually, even though none of the people who are, as it were, doing the discriminating are themselves blameworthy. 

I also think there's an important difference between the person who's on a dating app and just open to everyone, letting their attraction just lead them, versus the person who says from the outset, "no rice, no spice" [a derogatory term sometimes used on gay dating apps which means no East Asian or South Asian men], who advocates a policy of discrimination. What you're seeing there is an identification with an act of exclusion rather than just a report of one's own preferences.

Because I think we've all had the experience of being brought up short by attraction. We think of ourselves as not being attracted to a certain class of people, like bald people, and then we find ourselves attracted to them. The problem with these deal breaker policies is that they close down that space for fun, spontaneity and for allowing our attraction to take us by surprise. 

But if we are talking about some of these proclivities … blamelessly guiding people towards a specific type of desire, does this not bring us down a slippery slope? What is it that allows this in the sexual instance, but not in an everyday instance as a defence against the idea that you are discriminatory? 

So maybe you're thinking of a case where someone's like, I just prefer not to have Black friends. I think that's a really good point, and that's what pushes me towards wanting to subject sexual desire to political critique. Because we just immediately know that that's not an acceptable thing to say in the arena of friendship. 

I think the reason, in the sex case, that people are more resistant... is because they are worried about a slippery slope in the other direction. They're worried, well, if you start subjecting people's desires to political or moral inquisition, where does that leave us? Isn't that going to play into a rapist logic on one hand? But isn't it also perhaps going to require us all to just walk around constantly trying to discipline our desires and preferences under the force of politics? 

So I want to hold both of these thoughts... and say, sex is this really private and personal thing and it is dangerous and unhelpful to expect people to just constantly be trying to discipline their desires under the demands of politics. At the same time, that can't be taken as a free pass for never politically interrogating who and what is desired.

I think that there's a kind of a space in between these two poles that allows you to not think of yourself as engaged in a project of politically correcting your desires, but rather sort of setting your desires free from politics. Asking yourself, what would it be if I just allowed myself to desire? To allow my desire to go where it wants to go, instead of allowing my desire to be shaped by what I've been taught to think and feel is desirable?

Q&A has been condensed for clarity. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above. This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth. 


This episode is part of our series called Body Language — exploring what our bodies express and repress, both literally and symbolically. Find more Body Language episodes here

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now