Making Love Like An Intellectual
As an ascetic discipline, I invite you to read philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s essay in the London Review of Books, asking the question, “Does anyone have the right to sex?”
Trigger warning: this is utter insanity, comically so. But attention must be paid. People in the academy don’t think this is insane at all. The elites they educate don’t think so either. The essay is filled with academic jargon, but there’s an important point buried under all that gassy verbiage. It shows how the contemporary totalitarian mind thinks.
What Srinivasan confronts is a conundrum within the gender-theory left: if all sexual desire is supposed to be free, what happens to people who are not desired by others? In other words, what is a good sexual revolutionary supposed to do when people use their sexual liberty in ways that do not live up to sexual egalitarian ideals? Or, as the philosopher puts it so, um, lucidly:
Willis concludes ‘Lust Horizons’ by saying that for her it is ‘axiomatic that consenting partners have a right to their sexual proclivities, and that authoritarian moralism has no place’ in feminism. And yet, she goes on, ‘a truly radical movement must look … beyond the right to choose, and keep focusing on the fundamental questions. Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice?’ This is an extraordinary reversal on Willis’s part, which often goes unnoticed even by those familiar with the contours of the sex wars. After laying out the ethical case for taking our sexual preferences, whatever they may be, as fixed points, protected from moral inquisition, Willis tells us that a ‘truly radical’ feminism would ask precisely the question that gives rise to ‘authoritarian moralism’: what would women’s sexual choices look like if we were not merely ‘negotiating’, but really free? One might feel that Willis has given with one hand and taken away with the other. But really she has given with both. Here, she tells us, is the task of feminism: to treat as axiomatic our free sexual choices, while also seeing why, as MacKinnon has always said, such choices, under patriarchy, are rarely free. What I am suggesting is that, in our rush to do the former, feminists risk forgetting to do the latter.
But the sex-positive gaze, unmoored from Willis’s call to ambivalence, threatens to neutralise these facts, treating them as pre-political givens. In other words, the sex-positive gaze risks covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference’.
In other words, if you say that one’s sexual desire is immune from moral critique, then aren’t you giving a pass to bigotry? Srinivasan elaborates:
A presupposition of ‘What the Flip?’ is that this is a peculiarly gay problem: that the gay male community is too superficial, too body-fascist, too judgy. The gay men in my life say this sort of thing all the time; they all feel bad about it, perpetrators and victims alike (most see themselves as both). I’m unconvinced. Can we imagine predominantly straight dating apps like OKCupid or Tinder creating a web series that encouraged the straight ‘community’ to confront its sexual racism or fatphobia? If that is an unlikely prospect, and I think it is, it’s hardly because straight people aren’t body fascists or sexual racists. It’s because straight people – or, I should say, white, able-bodied cis straight people – aren’t much in the habit of thinking there’s anything wrong with how they have sex. By contrast, gay men – even the beautiful, white, rich, able-bodied ones – know that who we have sex with, and how, is a political question.
Oh, these dreary, dreary people. In Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a woman insults her lover by telling him that he “makes love like an intellectual.” One sees what she means. More:
There are of course real risks associated with subjecting our sexual preferences to political scrutiny. We want feminism to be able to interrogate the grounds of desire, but without slut-shaming, prudery or self-denial: without telling individual women that they don’t really know what they want, or can’t enjoy what they do in fact want, within the bounds of consent. Some feminists think this is impossible, that any openness to desire-critique will inevitably lead to authoritarian moralism. (We can think of such feminists as making the case for a kind of ‘sex positivity of fear’, just as Judith Shklar once made the case for a ‘liberalism of fear’ – that is, a liberalism motivated by a fear of authoritarian alternatives.) But there is a risk too that repoliticising desire will encourage a discourse of sexual entitlement. Talk of people who are unjustly sexually marginalised or excluded can pave the way to the thought that these people have a right to sex, a right that is being violated by those who refuse to have sex with them. That view is galling: no one is under an obligation to have sex with anyone else. This too is axiomatic. And this, of course, is what Elliot Rodger, like the legions of angry incels who celebrate him as a martyr, refused to see. On the now defunct Reddit group, a post titled ‘It should be legal for incels to rape women’ explained that ‘No starving man should have to go to prison for stealing food, and no sexually starved man should have to go to prison for raping a woman.’ It is a sickening false equivalence, which reveals the violent misconception at the heart of patriarchy. Some men are excluded from the sexual sphere for politically suspect reasons – including, perhaps, some of the men driven to vent their despair on anonymous forums – but the moment their unhappiness is transmuted into a rage at the women ‘denying’ them sex, rather than at the systems that shape desire (their own and others’), they have crossed a line into something morally ugly and confused.
In a recent piece for n+1, the feminist and trans theorist Andrea Long Chu argued that the trans experience, contrary to how we have become accustomed to think of it, ‘expresses not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire’. Being trans, she says, is ‘a matter not of who one is, but of what one wants’. She goes on:
I transitioned for gossip and compliments, lipstick and mascara, for crying at the movies, for being someone’s girlfriend, for letting her pay the check or carry my bags, for the benevolent chauvinism of bank tellers and cable guys, for the telephonic intimacy of long-distance female friendship, for fixing my make-up in the bathroom flanked like Christ by a sinner on each side, for sex toys, for feeling hot, for getting hit on by butches, for that secret knowledge of which dykes to watch out for, for Daisy Dukes, bikini tops, and all the dresses, and, my god, for the breasts. But now you begin to see the problem with desire: we rarely want the things we should.
But wait, I thought we were supposed to celebrate transgenderism not so people could be who they wanted to be, but so that they could be who they are? So confusing! It’s almost like this is a scam.
To take this question seriously requires that we recognise that the very idea of fixed sexual preference is political, not metaphysical. As a matter of good politics, we treat the preferences of others as sacred: we are rightly wary of speaking of what people really want, or what some idealised version of them would want. That way, we know, authoritarianism lies. This is true, most of all, in sex, where invocations of real or ideal desires have long been used as a cover for the rape of women and gay men. But the fact is that our sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own wills – not automatically, but not impossibly either. What’s more, sexual desire doesn’t always neatly conform to our own sense of it, as generations of gay men and women can attest. 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.
OK. I’m not entirely sure what the point of this essay is, except to say that sorry, homely LGBT people, you don’t have a right to expect sex from others, but you can hope that perhaps they will be persuaded to reject society’s standards of attractiveness and want to poke you anyway. Or something.
Well, there’s more to it than that. What this wordy essay boils down to is a recognition that sexual desire is inescapably moral and social — something that a conservative Christian like me certainly believes. There is no such thing as truly autonomous desire. If I’m reading this thing correctly — and I may not be, as it is written in a language not my own — Srinivasan is trying to defend (within the context of radical feminism ‘n stuff) the liberty of people to desire who they want to desire, even when they do not desire what is politically correct for them to desire.
Good luck with that. Social Justice Warriors can no more stop themselves from hyperpoliticizing sex and everything related to it. Take a look at this agonizing by someone named Hannah Trees, regarding “normalizing pronoun sharing at philosophy conferences”. You have to read this thing to believe it. Excerpts:
Last month, I attended the Central APA meeting in Chicago to be part of a panel on queer productions of knowledge.  I do not usually expect big events to be queer-inclusive spaces, but I was very excited to see that the conference was providing pronoun stickers for everyone in attendance. When I arrived, a volunteer told me that pronoun stickers were available to put on my name badge and pointed me in the direction of a nearby table in the middle of the main floor of the conference center. The large rolls of various types of stickers – “SHE,” “HE,” “THEY,” “ZE/HIR” and write-your-own – were readily available for the duration of the conference.
Now this young harridan wants it to be mandatory:
Most importantly, cis people’s refusal to engage in pronoun sharing practices reinforces the deeply engrained idea that we can tell which pronouns someone prefers simply by looking at them. It encourages people to jump to conclusions about other’s pronouns because it supports the current norm of simply making assumptions about how others identify, rather than attempting to shift the social etiquette to one that encourages the sharing of and asking for pronouns. We have to remind ourselves that although it might seem superfluous for someone who identifies as a man and has a beard and wears a shirt and tie to let others know that he prefers he/him/his pronouns, there are people who look and dress like that who do not use he/him/his and who do not identify as men. Until we all stop making assumptions about pronouns, the simple act of making an introduction will remain a social nightmare for those people who don’t fit the cisnormative mold.
Moving forward, I hope that the APA maintains their commitment to LGBTQ inclusivity, but more needs to be done to ensure that everyone understands the full import of pronoun sharing practices. There are many very simple changes that we can all make: include your pronouns on your website and in bios; when introducing yourself in any context, but especially when in front of a large audience (as a session chair or at the beginning of teaching a new group of students, for instance), tell the audience your pronouns; if you are introducing someone else before a talk, ask them what pronouns you should use in your introduction. These are not practices that should be relegated to explicitly “queer” spaces; there are queer people in every area of our discipline, and in that sense, all spaces are queer spaces. Furthermore, when we leave APA meetings and return to our home departments, there will be no name badges and pronoun stickers to fall back on. When we ask our undergraduates to introduce themselves at the beginning of the semester, it is up to us to make it clear that verbally sharing one’s pronouns is a normal and easy thing to do. Of course, this is not the only thing that must change in order to make philosophy more inclusive, but it is small shifts like this that make the difference between a climate that is rife with seemingly innocent microaggressions and one that is genuinely welcoming of individuals of all genders.
Don’t do it! I swear, these people. If this is where the philosophy discipline is headed, then why would normal, non-neurotic people bother with it?
The sexually-obsessed Left ruins everything it touches.
UPDATE: In response to a reader who protests my paying attention to articles like this, saying that “everybody knows” it’s stupid crap, reader Beowulf writes:
Everyone knows it is nonsense? 20 years ago everyone knew marriage was between a man and a woman. 5 years ago, everyone knew what a man and woman were. Look around at media coverage of this stuff, no one knows these things anymore. If you know, they will destroy your career. What starts in the academy among a bunch of lunatics ends up in your kid’s school, reaffirmed in television and film, social media, and ultimately your church. Maybe your business. Try telling the 9th court of appeals it is nonsense when you are being sued for everything you have because of what you know.