April 12, 2018

Amia Srinivasan's piece in the recent
London Review of Books of March 22, 2018,    [ref]
is an excellent write-up that considers
some recent events in the light of the
history of feminism.  I don't think I         The present crop of internet
agree with Srinivasan's angle-- but it's      feminists often seems rather
a pleasure to disagree with someone who       young and insulated from
knows what she's talking about.               knowledge of what went down in
                                              the 70s and 80s-- and many of the
                                              older feminists on the scene seem
                                              to be cleaning up the story and
                                              ignoring -- perhaps
                                              inadvertently-- elements from
                                              history they find inconvenient.
Srinivasan leads off with a
discussion of a misogynist
homicidal nut-job that found a       Does a mere nut-job become more
sympathetic audience on the net.     significant when they become a

She then backs up into a brief              WORST_ARE_FILLED
intellectual history of
feminism, beginning with                    I think she leaves the role the
Catharine MacKinnon's case                  opening story plays ambiguous.
against porn from the late 70s,             She does a transition away from
and going from there to Ellen               it that strikes me as less of a
Willis and the development of               logical connection than a verbal
"sex positive" feminism.                    flourish.  ("It used to be the
                                            case that if you wanted a
Srinivasan's discussion of the Ellen        political critique of desire,
Willis essay, "Lust Horizons",              feminism was where you would
leads up to the insight that Willis         turn.")
was making a case that's at least a
little more complex than it's often                 WORDS_OVER_THE_CRACKS
                                                    Once you finish the
   "Willis concludes 'Lust Horizons' by             essay, come back to the
   saying that for her it is 'axiomatic             beginning.  Does the long
   that consenting partners have a right to         opening passage serve any
   their sexual proclivities, and that              point except to provide a
   authoritarian moralism has no place' in          vague feeling that
   feminism. And yet, she goes on, 'a truly         this is important stuff
   radical movement must look ... beyond            we're talking about?
   the right to choose, and keep focusing
   on the fundamental questions. Why do we                  (Because the
   choose what we choose?  What would we                    nut-jobs are
   choose if we had a real choice?'                         on the beat?)

Srinivasan calls that an "extraordinary reversal":             Perhaps: if
                                                               only we had a
   "After laying out the ethical                               more rational
   case for taking our sexual                                  sexuality the
   preferences, whatever they may                              nut-job
   be, as fixed points, protected                              wouldn't have
   from moral inquisition, Willis      Srinivasan's            been so
   tells us that a 'truly radical'     view is that            frustrated?
   feminism would ask precisely the    either desire           Or would've
   question that gives rise to         is fair game            understood
   'authoritarian moralism': what      for criticism           why he was
   would women's sexual choices        *or* it is              frustrated?
   look like if we were not merely     necessarily
   'negotiating', but really free?"    "fixed". Is             Or is the
                                       that right?             thought really
                                                               as simple as
                                                               "Out of the
                                                               mouths of
                                                               nut-jobs, a
                                                               critique of
But here I have to wonder about                                desire'..."
what kind of utopian situation
Srinivasan is envisioning, what
kind of world can you expect          If you tried to sketch this out as
where everyone is "really free"       fiction you'd quickly get to
and we no longer have to              something more absurd than "Omelas",
negotiate with each other about       it'd be something like a porn-o-verse
anything at all, including who        scenario where everyone magically
gets to fuck who...?  That's          wants to do to everyone just what
such a stretch, even just as a        they want done... or perhaps a "Brave
thought experiment, you'd think       New World" variant with people tanked
that she would just call this         up on drugs that suppress any
the *reducto* and back away from      inconvenient excess desire?
it immediately.
Lurking underneath all this is dreams of
rationally designed utopias, where we will
reprogram desire, re-engineer custom and
guarantee a world of fairness to all.               It is true that these
Srinivasan goes off on a discussion                 days we tend to go with
of an analogy Rebecca Solnit introduced:            ideas like: the employee
                                                    is not free to choose
  "Rebecca Solnit reminds us that 'you don't        whether to have sex with
   get to have sex with someone unless they         the boss, because of the
   want to have sex with you,' just as 'you         power imbalance between
   don't get to share someone's sandwich            the two.
   unless they want to share their sandwich
   with you.' Not getting a bite of someone's            Going from that to
   sandwich is 'not a form of oppression,                the idea that no
   either', Solnit says."                                choice is ever free
                                                         if there is any
Srinivasan raises a potentially                          individual constraint
troubling case where a child is                          at all-- that's the
discriminated against by being the                       kind of idea only a
only one left out of an orgy of                          philosopher could up
sandwich sharing.                                        with.

She jams around on this point:                              In practice this
                                                            is another area
  "Sex is not a sandwich. While your child does             where we have to
  not want to be shared with out of pity-- just             live with
  as no one really wants a mercy fuck, and                  inconsistencies
  certainly not from a racist or a transphobe--             filtered by
  we wouldn't think it coercive were the teacher            custom and
  to encourage the other students to share with             precedent...
  your daughter, or were they to institute an
  equal sharing policy."

But an "equal sharing" policy
is *not* sharing, it dissolves
the meaning of the act, and
actually in practice it's a
dodge to raise the price of
"sharing" beyond most people's      When I was in elementary school,
means or desire to pursue it.       they used the schtick "if you bring
It's a policy that *forbids*        candy to class, you must bring
sharing in the guise of             enough for everyone to share".

And it certainly would be coercive: We might go along
with that in a school classroom situation (as a lesser
evil), but it's because grade-school classrooms are
inherently authoritarian, and that's a situation we
rationalize away because of the distinction we make
between child and adult.

Srinivasan is in effect
flirting with a forced         It's actually something I find fascinating
infantalization of the         about this piece-- Srinivasan has an
adult population, somehow      intellectual acceptance of the fact that we
wishing for a world run        must accept people's strange desires; but she
like a classroom where         herself is filled with a strange desire of her
fairness rules could be        own for a world that is perfectly blind to
enforced...                    ethnicity, power, gender, and body-type to the
                               point where they no longer have no influence
Admittedly she is not          whatsoever on our desires.
(quite) following the logic
of her argument to that                         She would *like* to go with
conclusion ("Now class,                         MacKinnon, but understands
if you want to fuck someone                     how badly MacKinnon was shot
you should let someone else                     down by Willis-- nevertheless
fuck you, it's only fair").                     she feels compelled to try to
                                                trace an unpromising line.
I would gather she dreams of a world with a
list of qualities one is allowed to value                   (But that's a
(kindness, intelligence) and ones you're                    condition I can
not (body shapes, skin tones), but she has                  empathize with,
to halt at proposing it, realizing that                     though our
there's no good way to get there.                           obsessions differ.)

But where *can* this possibly go?  The evident
intelligence on display here will not take this
material off to an absurd conclusion, but those
conclusions *are* out there, and I see very
little you can do with this material except to
run off to one of them.

Shall we...

  o  Start some public campaigns to
     levelize the field of desire:
     "Fuck a Fat Woman, Today"

  o  Recruit an elite corp of Mercy Fuck
     troops, who will go where needed,        Srinivasan mentions as an aside:
     without question.
                                              "(The utopian socialist Charles
  o  Prohibit sex under any                   Fourier proposed a guaranteed
     circumstances.  Pump the                 'sexual minimum', akin to a
     world full of anti-hormones              guaranteed basic income, for
     to completely eliminate the              every man and woman, regardless
     biological components of                 of age or infirmity; only with
     sex-drives.                              sexual deprivation eliminated,
                                              Fourier thought, could romantic
  o  Prohibit all sex save                    relationships be truly
     teledildonics: forbid                    free. This social service would
     personal contact along                   be provided by an 'amorous
     with sharing of physical                 nobility' who, Fourier said,
     descriptions.                            'know how to subordinate love to
                                              the dictates of honour'.)"
Or what the hell, why don't we just flood
the net with disapproving remarks about
any sexual taste we find distasteful--

           And try to ignore the fact that
           we're eroticizing it further by
           painting it as forbidden.

She comments that feminists are
"... uncomfortable with thinking        Srinivasan is much less shy about
in terms of false consciousness:        making generalizations about
that's to say, with the idea that       "feminists" than I would be.
women often act against their own
interests, even when they take                 Myself, I would say that I
themselves to be doing what they               frequently see self-declared
wanted to do "                                 feminists acting as though
                                               they speak for all women.
"... a feminism that
trades too freely in                           And the feminists who don't
notions of self-deception                      like sex-positive feminist
is a feminism that risks                       ideas frequently just act as
dominating the subjects                        though they don't exist, or
it wants to liberate."                         are obviously obsolete...

   That's the trouble all right,                  This is the main thing
   and I would say there are many                 that really impresses me
   feminists willing to take that                 about Srinivasan: she
   risk.                                          doesn't oversimplify to
                                                  try to win an argument.

Consider this claim:

  "The important thing now is to take women at their
  word. If a woman says she enjoys working in porn,
  or being paid to have sex with men, or engaging in
  rape fantasies, or wearing stilettos-- and even
  that she doesn't just enjoy these things but finds     But, consider Katha
  them emancipatory, part of her feminist praxis--       Pollit at _the Nation_:
  then we are required, as feminists, to trust her."
I would say that there's a tremendous amount
of double-think on the subject of trusting
women-- e.g. if a woman accuses a man, she is
to be believed under all circumstances, if she
announces she's changed her mind and wants to    (Won't you tell us who
retract the accusation, she will be ignored      pressured you to change
completely.                                      your mind?  Never mind,
                                                 we understand.)

There's this passage that I think goes
off the rails gradually, step by step:

   "When we see consent as the
   sole constraint on OK sex,
   we are pushed towards a
   naturalisation of sexual      Srinivasan keeps getting
   preference in which the       tangled up on this point:
   rape fantasy becomes a        everything is either fixed    Even if one's
   primordial rather than a      or mutable, natural or        desires are
   political fact."              social.                       theoretically
                                                               capable of
   "But not only the rape                                      modification,
   fantasy. Consider the                                       there's still
   supreme fuckability of        (She's gotten used            the question of
   'hot blonde sluts' and        to the rape fantasy           why you should:
   East Asian women, the         case, but still               why must you
   comparative unfuckability     balks at ethnic               listen to
   of black women and Asian      fetishes.)                    Srinivasan's
   men, the fetishisation and                                  critique?  Or
   fear of black male                                          anyone else's?
   sexuality, the sexual
   disgust expressed towards      HETEROPHILLIA       
   disabled, trans and fat                                   
   "These too are political facts, which a                   
   truly intersectional feminism should                      
   demand that we take seriously."            Okay, so go to it:
                                              take 'em seriously.
   "But the sex-positive gaze, unmoored                      
   from Willis's call to ambivalence,                       That means you
   threatens to neutralise these facts,                     don't get to wish
   treating them as pre-political givens."                  them away, right?
   "In other words, the sex-positive gaze                    
   risks covering not only for misogyny,        See you gotta trust
   but for racism, ableism, transphobia,        women, except when
   and every other oppressive system that       they like something
   makes its way into the bedroom through       you don't want them
   the seemingly innocuous mechanism of         to like, then you
   'personal preference'."                      get to-- express
                                                your ambivalence at
       I'd like to raise the question           them!  Take that!
       of what exactly Srinivasan thinks
       is *riding* on this?  If only we
       could get people with ethnic
       sexual fetishes to reflect, they
       might modify their behavior, and--          BLOND_AMBITION

       Then what?  Racism goes away?  Why
       would you choose *this* particular
       ground to fight racism?

  Then there's that phrase "the
  sex-positive gaze"-- it's an
  absolutely beautiful dodge.  The
  usual feminist phrase is "the
  male gaze", suggesting that men
  can demean by the very act of
  looking.  Srinivasan extends       To have an object of desire, one must
  this, and in effect dismisses      reduce it to a mere object, one rules
  the sex-positive feminist as       out all other characteristics and ways
  being no better than men.          of being.  Sexuality corrupts all.
                                     Gaze on your gazing and feel the guilt.

                                               (Where do we get the crazy idea
                                               that feminists are lost in
                                               neo-victorian prudery?)

    "But a state that made analogous
    interventions in the sexual
    preference and practices of its
    citizens-- that encouraged us to
    'share' sex equally-- would
    probably be thought grossly

        Um.  "Probably"?

    "... many would welcome regulation that
    ensured diversity in advertising and the

       I guess.  But then many wouldn't.
       And haven't we got more important battles?

    "But to think that such measures would be
    enough to alter our sexual desires, to free
    them entirely from the grooves of
    discrimination, is naive."

       Well, like, uh... duh?

    "For better or worse, we must find a
     way to take sex on its own terms."        Oh, the shame of it all.
                                               Trapped in a world with
                                               human sexuality.