Amia Srinivasan is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford. Her interests are wide-ranging, running the gamut from death and octopuses to genealogy and the university. Her new book The Right To Sex explores questions around the politics of sex. If our desires are socially constructed, should they be subject to political scrutiny? Is the notion of consent sufficiently subtle to capture the complex ways that sex interacts with gender, class, race and power? In this interview, she talks to Adam Ferner about pornography, categories, and the difficulties in analyzing so diaphanous a subject matter. The interview has been edited for clarity and contains references to sexual subjects that some readers may find disturbing.
Your book discusses how sexual desires are constructed, and how some are socially sanctioned where others are not. You write about Adrienne Rich’s notion of “compulsory heterosexuality”, where people are compelled through cultural messaging to be straight. You point out, in line with a lot of feminist theory, that pornography is one area where people are trained to have specific desires. For the purposes of this conversation I’m going to take pornography in an expansive sense. I take it you think it extends beyond what comes up when you type “porn” into a search engine. I want to start with the question of whether or not we should subject our desires to political scrutiny. Does the heart simply want what the heart wants?
You’re absolutely right that, insofar as our desires are constructed or shaped by culture, I think the mechanism of that shaping goes well beyond pornography, despite feminists’ historical fixation on porn. But it goes beyond music videos and social media too. This was Adrienne Rich’s point: it’s a matter of who is rewarded, and who is penalized, and for what: which kinds of bodies are considered “high status” in the sexual economy. We’re not just talking about first-order desires – attractions to certain kinds of people or certain kinds of bodies – but also the shaping of higher-order desires: the desire to be seen to be the kind of people who are attractive to high status people.
Once we realize that our first-order and second-order desires are shaped in this way, what do we do? Does the heart simply want what the heart wants? To a certain extent, of course, yes. And to a certain extent, desires – no matter how socially constructed – are deeply ingrained. It’s not obvious we can change them voluntarily. Nor do I think it’s a particularly useful to self-obsessively try and re-train them all. This practice of “mental hygiene” can become an extremely narcissistic endeavour, one that distracts from and takes the place of actual politics. When turned on others, this narcissism becomes a form of purity politics that, in its authoritarian moralism, alienates and excludes.
That said, I think it’s important to distinguish two senses in which desire can relate to politics. When we talk about the political critique of desire, a lot of liberals hear a demand that we “discipline” our desire so that it falls in line with our politics. But there’s another way of approaching that question, which isn’t about disciplining desire under the sign of good politics; it’s about emancipating desire. We, as desirous creatures, are much more complex than the reigning ideology would have us believe. Very often, the reigning ideology tells us, “Be straight”, and we’re not, or it tells us, “Don’t fancy this person because they have a non-normative body”, and yet we find ourselves desiring what we “shouldn’t”. Resisting this, a space of possibility opens up. We free ourselves from what politics would have us desire. That’s the kind of emancipatory possibility I’m interested in exploring. I’d like to rescue that project from an authoritarian moralism, which says, “Be politically correct in the bedroom”.
Obviously the other thing we have to do is take on these systems of oppression and domination head-on. Sexual racism and heteronormativity are part of larger structures – psychic, economic, social, legal – that serve to systematically marginalize certain groups. They have to be dismantled as wholes.
One of your interlocutors, Andrea Long Chu, thinks that trying to want different things, which I suppose includes opening up new spaces of desire, is a fruitless enterprise. “Try arguing with an orgasm sometime” (as Catharine MacKinnon puts it). Chu thinks that often we just “want bad things”, and I wonder if we could push this further and explore the possibility that some desires are in fact constituted by wanting bad things? The “forbidden” act has a specific sexual valence, and whether it’s old-fashioned Freudian notions of “perversion” or contemporary Kink Theory, there’s a lot of research that suggests we can non-accidentally want things that are forbidden to us, or bad for us. This throws a spanner in the works when we’re trying to identify state-sanctioned desires as in some way destructive. This is the analytic philosopher in me coming out. It’s kind of a silly analytic question…
I don’t think it’s a silly question at all, but I guess I’m also an analytic philosopher! One thing that’s interesting about some of the cases I discuss in the book – like cases of sexual racism, where people, either as a matter of explicit or implicit policy, won’t date or sleep with people of colour, or cases of gay men who insist on “straight-acting” partners – is that the object of desire isn’t itself seen as transgressive. In fact, there’s something very vanilla about a white person dating another white person. So, as a “problematic desire” it’s structurally different from a desire to engage in BDSM or engage in a rape fantasy (I’m not casting a normative judgment on those). When you have exclusionary desires, which are shaped by and in some sense replicate systems of domination and social marginalisation, I don’t think the desire is a desire for something “bad”. What’s bad about the desire is that it’s both conducive to, and expressive of, a pattern of domination in a way that’s distinct from a desire for something that you’re not “supposed” to want.
Indeed, the sexual racist’s policy of not sleeping with people of colour might actually be motivated by a certain anxiety about avoiding transgression. A similar thing might be happening with the gay man who only wants to sleep with straight-acting gay men. Is there not an anxiety about homosexuality there? So even if you think that it’s important psychically to be able to want transgressive things, that doesn’t seem to me to bear on the question of whether those exclusionary desires are kosher or not.
In “Coda: The Politics of Desire”, you quote Audre Lorde: “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. But, once recognised, those which do not enhance our future lose their power and can be altered. The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined.” (100) This seems crucial, but I wonder if you could say more about the notion of “our deepest cravings”? When I look inside myself, most of the time it’s just a swirling maelstrom! How do we know what we really want?
In general, I’m far less confident about our ability to know ourselves than most philosophers. My work in epistemology is precisely about that. Many philosophers take self-knowledge to be a kind of free knowledge, where there’s a constitutive relation between being in a certain kind of mental state and believing you’re in that mental state; you can’t fail to understand yourself. I tend to have a much more psychoanalytic disposition. I think there are all sorts of things about ourselves that we don’t know, and we can only come to know with a lot of work, and often only with the help of others. I’m an extreme version of this. I’ll sometimes go to a restaurant and ask the person I’m dining with, “What do I want to eat?”
We talk through these problems with people. We have conversations. There are different ways of describing what’s happening in those conversations. Maybe I had some pre-existing desire and my friend, or my analyst (I don’t have an analyst by the way, but I’d like one…) helps me figure out what that pre-existing desire is. Another way of seeing those conversations, which is how philosophers like Daniela Dover think of them, is that they involve the creation of the self rather than the discovery of the self. Through conversation we make decisions about what kind of person we want to be, which of our desires we want to bring out and act on…
I have a kind of joke with a friend of mine that “happy people” are just very good at repression. They’re labouring under the misapprehension that they’re happy. Following that thought, which I guess is psychoanalytic in nature, it becomes very easy to lose your point of purchase. The idea that you might be mistaken in what you think and what you want can become very corrosive.
I also have that worry – not in a political sense, but in a more mundane, self-regarding sense. It wasn’t a joke when I said I want to undergo analysis – but why haven’t I? It’s not simply because it costs so much and takes so much time, it’s also because I’m not sure I want to know. When you get to a certain age you can come to think, “Well, if it’s functioning, however damaged it may be, don’t meddle with it”. Regardless of how well their lives are going, everyone is full of tragedy and unspoken pain and we all try in whatever way we can to make peace with that. Some of these pains might be un-acted-upon desires and it might be crucial to the survival and thriving of current relationships to refuse to turn inwards and explore these feelings. I think that quotation from Audre Lorde is wildly optimistic and it makes me feel very brave, and that’s very good, but I think you’re right that we do sometimes have things to fear about ourselves and that there are things we actually need to set aside. But, that’s not the same thing as endorsing repression. The analyst would say that it’s a matter of bringing it to consciousness, then placing it somewhere… I don’t know. Get back to me in thirty years!
To return very specifically to the conversation we were having, I really don’t want to say that a person’s desires are always fully reconcilable with the person they want to be. Sandra Lee Bartky, in Femininity and Domination, writes about this case of a woman who engages in sadomasochism, but who is distressed because it doesn’t fit with her political commitments and political self-conception. Bartky says there’s no “solution” here because her desires don’t fit with who she wants to be. She’ll be unhappy if she engages in BDSM, but equally unhappy if she refuses to act on those desires. For this person, that tension is one of life’s tragedies.
It’s true that in the “Coda” chapter I strike a hopeful note, but I don’t think it’s in denial of that basic, tragic outlook on life.
Let’s talk about categories and search terms. Whether it’s on dating apps or porn sites, users are encouraged to state their romantic / sexual preferences by referring to categories. “What’s your ‘type’?” “Are you into tall men?” “Blonde women?” “How essential is a GSOH?” On the one hand, being able to state preferences is politically important (as you point out, in relation to the gay rights movement). On the flip-side, we see how these categories are used to dominate, and you write about racist, fatphobic dating profiles that exclude people from certain groups. You also make the very good point that there’s something analogous between “the white person who doesn’t sleep with black people and the cis lesbian who as a matter of policy doesn’t sleep with trans women” (109). There’s a lot here we could discuss, but I wanted to start with a relatively formal question: While the categories themselves might be harmful (the rape fantasy or the depiction of a woman saying “no” but meaning “yes”), how exactly is the process of categorization itself harmful?
First of all, you might think that certain social kind categories are just intrinsically harmful. I’m thinking most obviously of racial categories, which have no basis in nature and which are brought into existence in order to mark our placement in a civic hierarchy. But there may be other categories, like “tall” and “short”, which aren’t necessarily like that. You could imagine a world in which people still had the terms “tall” and “short” but they weren’t tied to any discriminatory patterns. (In the actual world, short people are on the whole discriminated against.)
However, even if the categories themselves are fine, I think the use of those categories on dating apps might still be problematic. The reason for this is again about self-knowledge. If you ask someone what kind of person they’re attracted to they’ll give you a list of characteristics. But I bet, for every single person and their set of declared necessary criteria, I could find you some second person that they could be attracted to, indeed could love, who would fail to satisfy at least some of those criteria. That’s because we have this sense of what we want, and then other people take us by surprise. That basic fact – the ability of others to bring us up short and to push back against our preconceived understandings of ourselves – is ethically fundamental. It’s not just fundamental in romantic relationships; it’s fundamental in teacher-student relationships, in friendships, in all human relationships. What’s problematic about the dating app is that, even if users are selecting on the basis of these categories that aren’t shaped by and expressive of oppressive structures, it still encourages those users to think in terms of “deal-breakers” and “necessary conditions”. There’s something about the human experience of the other – being surprised, brought up short – that can never be captured by that criterial way of thinking.
We are taxonomic creatures. We go around the world categorising things. That’s unavoidable. We also taxonomise people, and I think that’s unavoidable too. But what this means is that we’re often interacting with a mere instance of a universal. A role. Right now, I could think of myself as interacting with “Interviewer”. But there are times when you’re going about interacting with people, and they’re interacting with you, and the other person brings you up short. You realise, “This person is an infinite source of possibility like me! How extraordinary!” Those moments of recognition are central to an ethical mode of relating.
That ties in very nicely with the aposiopesis that David Wiggins writes about – the suspension marks in a description of a person, the spaces we have always yet to fill.
That’s right. That openness to the way in which every person exceeds the category that we apply to them: that’s crucial. In the first-personal case, many of us have had the experience of feeling trapped by the categories other people use to think about us, even if those categories are “the right ones”. A trans person who is misgendered or a gay kid who hasn’t come out – these are people who just reject the categories applied to them. But we also have cases where people use for us categories that we don’t reject, but which nonetheless fail to capture us fully. It’s when we’re treated only as members of categories that we feel confined by them.
The book demonstrates the importance of an intersectional approach to these issues, not least in relation to the violence performed by institutions. This comes out particularly in your critique of the prison system and (relatedly) “carceral feminism” (feminism which foregrounds the punishment of men who have committed crimes, rather than restructuring of the system that makes these wrongs possible). Legal responses can fall short, whether it’s because they’re inevitably ineffective (such as attempts to restrict the viewing of online pornography (62)), or because they can be too easily co-opted to serve regressive political ends (such as indecency laws being used to target gay, but not straight porn distribution (55)) or because carceralism is inextricably tied to capitalism and white supremacy (170–1) or because the bodies that enforce legislation are themselves heavily implicated (as we see with Daniel Holtzclaw (103) and more recently in the case of Wayne Cousens).
What’s my question here? I suppose I’m interested in the role you see institutions playing in progressive reform. Despite what you say about the importance of solidarity, you don’t seem drawn to the kind of coalition building we see suggested in Rae Langton’s work. You’re wary of institutions, underwritten by capitalism, which can co-opt and thereby undermine radical progressive projects. I may be wrong, but you also appear to be wary of some radical approaches, based on the history of a lot of radical feminist projects… So how do we move forward?
The short answer is I don’t really know. It’s not that I have no faith in the law, but we should think of the law as a tool, which very often has unintended consequences. It’s not that I want to abandon the law and embrace an anarchic approach to the state; rather, I want us to be brutally realist about state power, for all the reasons you mentioned. Sometimes the coercive apparatus of the state backfires fantastically, and very often it hits the worst-off people. Punitive laws aimed at cracking down on domestic violence can end up causing more violence against poor women and women of colour. And of course, the further empowering of the carceral state is the further empowering of a system that systematically punishes the worst-off women and men, simultaneously disguising the real social crisis, which is a crisis of economic inequality, the crisis of capital.
The radical feminist approach to carceralism has changed over time. In its early years – and I’m thinking here of a feminism tied to the Women’s Liberation movement in the US and UK, which began in the late 1960s – you saw a response to questions of sexual violence that wasn’t really tied to state power. It was all about forms of community organizing, about the economic emancipation of women, the socialization of care, and so on. Through the Seventies and Eighties in the US, radical feminists started to embrace the state’s carceral power. This resulted in legislation intended to target violence against women, but which formed part of an enormous crime bill that fuelled the growth of mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects poor men and men of colour and their families. I’m hostile to that approach, not least because it often goes hand-in-hand with seeking forms of coalition with the right. That kind of coalition only serves certain kind of women – wealthy, predominantly white women. It never serves the worst-off women, and I’m very uninterested in a feminism that deepens class divides rather than closing them.
I wanted to ask more about what you call “the old form of crime and punishment” (30), specifically as it stands in relation to “cancel culture”. I’m thinking particularly of trans-exclusionary radical feminists and how conversations around trans-identity have become increasingly divisive in recent years, especially on the Left. There’s been a lot of “cancelling” of certain cis women who, while engaging in anti-racist activism and pro-union work, say things that dehumanize trans women. In the book, you write about social media as a method for holding others to account. Do you see cancel culture as a re-inscription of this “old form of crime and punishment”?
When I talk about the old form of crime and punishment, it’s not because I’m against punishment per se. There’s a view of social norms that holds that insofar as they are going to be effective, they have to come with some sort of penalty for violating them (the philosopher Josh May recently pressed me on this point). But we still have a choice between different forms of penalty. You might think there’s a world of difference between losing your job or being put in prison, and having to attend a series of meetings where you confront the effects of your actions.
On my view, it’s not that feminists have to necessarily give up punishment, at least understood expansively. But feminists need to think more consciously about what we’re doing with the power, sometimes considerable, we have. A certain kind of feminist is in denial of the fact that getting socially shamed is a form of punishment. We’ve got to think more carefully about what we’re trying to do. What are the right tools for the job? What costs are we willing to bear?
I think it’s interesting, sociologically speaking, that some of the women who are trans-exclusionary and who complain about being silenced or cancelled, effectively pioneered those same tactics of no-platforming other feminists in the Seventies and Eighties when the porn wars were playing out in their first iteration. There’s an obvious hypocrisy here. However, it raises an interesting question about the relationship those of us on the Left should have to dissent and disagreement. I don’t have a totally worked out view on this, but we know the two poles are bad: we know the liberal picture on which we’re all supposed to be engaged in the Millian marketplace of ideas, is both ridiculous and unproductive. At the same time, we don’t want people sent to the gulag for intellectual dissent.
I think it’s also very difficult to offer a critique of so-called cancel culture, because you don’t want to play into reactionary, liberal hands. But I do think this is an area that calls for more thought. A good Left is one that has a certain kind of fearlessness about the truth. It has to believe it has truth on its side and that truth can win the argument. It would be bad for the Left if we were to say that only liberals are willing to engage their opponents.
I read you as saying that you want people to see social media as a site of Foucauldian spectacle (where acts like public shaming have a significant legal, punitive function) and that you want people to question whether or not “cancelling” is simply a reiteration of the kinds of things they’re trying to criticize…
I think the notion of the Foucauldian spectacle is absolutely right. There’s this thing on social media where you can tell yourself you’re just one negligible part of something, but it’s very important, politically, that we ask ourselves which structures we are complicit in. You can’t just shrug off your responsibilities here.
Let’s continue with the thread about institutional critique. The first time we met, I had organized an interview between you and Catherine Dale at the Royal Institute of Philosophy. You’re now the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College. To some extent, these institutions fall at the conservative end of the academic political spectrum. How do you understand yourself in relation to institutional power, knowing as you do that when it comes to feminist critique, it’s very easy for one’s work – and indeed, oneself – to be co-opted by more conservative forces?
You’ve identified a very serious issue for anyone who thinks of themselves as a person of the Left and who finds themselves inside conservative institutions, which is to say nearly all powerful institutions. But it’s an especially pressing question today for anyone who ticks identity categories. When you are the young woman of colour then you become very attractive to a certain kind of project of institutional preservation. You can decide not to get involved in institutions at all – but if you’re an academic and if you don’t come from independent wealth then that’s very hard to do. It’s also hard if you’re someone who believes in the public university, which I do. I’m not psychically or politically ready to give up on the mission of the public university. So while I’m not generally a fan of the “fix the system from within” strategy, my particular preoccupations and intellectual dispositions have brought me to this place, Oxford, which I love.
If you’re going to be part of a powerful institution, you have to be vigilant about what projects you are participating in, knowingly or unknowingly. Sometimes you only realise too late. How do you make sure that, as a person of colour, you’re not “brown-washing” an institution? How do you avoid offering an apologetic on its behalf? You have to be relentlessly critical of the institution and willing to displease those people (I’m not saying there are any here) who are invested in your identity being mobilized in these ways.
I don’t think there’s an a priori method for negotiating this. I think it has to be done on the fly, by hearing what people say to you, and by being open to critique. In the good case, people say “How could you be a part of that thing?” and instead of being defensive, you genuinely consider the question.
You mentioned coming up against people within institutions who are invested in mobilizing certain identities in a specific way, but insights from Sara Ahmed suggest that it’s the system rather than the individuals doing the mobilizing. So how do you guard against that?
I think I’m very lucky in the case of both All Souls and Oxford because they’re both democratically constituted, which is a fading reality in UK higher education. Although Oxford and Cambridge are elitist in lots of ways, their constitution is such that they’re still run by their academics, who are by nature not part of a neoliberal project whose aim is to destroy the university and make it into a mechanism of the market. So there are possibilities within Oxford and Cambridge. All Souls in particular has changed a great deal over the years since I was first here; I think it’s unrecognizable in some ways, and that’s entirely because of who runs it – the Fellows. It’s important to me to be in institutions that have that democratic structure and allow for that kind of change.
I don’t mean that there aren’t other great universities in the country – there certainly are – but, undeniably, there’s a systematic political campaign of running these universities into the ground. This project, led by conservative politicians and facilitated by highly-paid administrators, is not motivated fundamentally by economic considerations; it’s ideological to the core. It’s motivated, I think, by a hatred of the idea that we would, as a society, spend money on investing in our future citizens and in free inquiry. There’s a lot that’s problematic about Oxford and Cambridge – most of all, who ends up studying here, though that’s slowly changing. The answer isn’t to burn down Oxford and Cambridge, it’s for us to all collectively stand in solidarity and make sure that what remains true of Oxford and Cambridge is once again true of other British universities.
I wanted to finish with a question about analytic philosophy: Do you think that your training in analytic philosophy helps or hinders your theoretical engagement with desire? Do you think analytic philosophy equips you with the right diagnostic tools? One reason to ask this is because of the well-documented and disturbing issues with sexual harassment in the discipline. Do you think there’s a connection between the way analytic philosophers conceptualise desire and these abuses?
Can I ask why you’re focusing on “desire” in particular, as opposed to feminism more broadly?
I think I’m focusing on desire because of the history of analytic philosophy construing itself as a rational, scientific enterprise, and a mode of thinking that (in Russell’s militaristic terms), “divides and conquers” puzzles. The thought is that analytic philosophy is in some ways inappropriate as a way of understanding so diaphanous a subject. And obviously it’s a leap to say that the mode of philosophy might create certain social problems among its practitioners, but I don’t think it’s impossible.
I think there are at least two questions here. One has to do with me in particular. You asked whether my training in analytic philosophy has affected, or positively affected my ability to think about these questions. Then there’s a more structural question about philosophy as a discipline and how it orients itself in relation to questions of desire.
In answer to the first question, because my training as a philosopher is so central to how I make sense of anything, it’s very hard for me to separate out which bit is the philosophy and which bit is what I was before. But in general, I’m very grateful for my training. There are habits of clarity and care and slowness and truth-seeking and a certain kind of fearlessness which I deeply prize about analytic philosophy, for all of its limits and sins. I don’t know where I’d be without it. I remember coming to philosophy as a graduate student and feeling this relief at being able to finally put into words so many of the things I wanted to say. Whether or not that’s conceptually possible, I don’t know, but that’s what it felt like. There’s something really emancipatory about philosophy and I still experience those small moments of emancipation.
Regarding your question about philosophy as a discipline, I think there are a few things about the general approach of analytic philosophy which means it may not cope as well as some other disciplines when it comes to desire. Analytic philosophers don’t love resting in ambivalence. They like a paradox, of course, but the point is to dissolve it, not embrace it. With the problems we’ve been discussing, political problems, you might think it is often futile trying to provide a clear and precise normative answer for how we’re to proceed. And you might think that political philosophers often purchase their clean simple answers by abstracting away from life. You see that happening sometimes when philosophers talk about desire, though there are of course plenty of important counterexamples (Sandra Lee Bartky is one).
There’s another aspect of some analytic philosophy which limits its capacity to talk about desire, which is this assumption about the transparency of the self which we spoke about before, and also this assumption that the “best” self is the rational self, a perfectly coherent self, a self that has put all of its desires and beliefs into a perfect harmony. The moment you take seriously the unconscious, those pictures of the self are no longer tenable – neither the self that knows itself, nor the coherent, perfectly consistent self.
One thing we were talking about was the idea that the “good” self may be the repressed self, a self that lies to itself in order to make its way into the world. I don’t think that’s a picture of the self that analytic philosophy finds very easy to take on board.
I find it hard to imagine analytic philosophers discussing desire in a way that isn’t damaging – but that’s one of the triumphs of your book. You manage to bypass these limitations and say things that are worth saying!
The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan is published by Bloomsbury.