A better representation of the reality in which gender interacts with other social identities is of central importance in The Right to Sex. Amia Srinivasan, the author of this book, encourages readers to contemplate which experiences should be discussed more in order to promote all women’s rights and be closer to substantive gender equality. Specifically, this book is a collection of essays regarding desires and desirability as constructed by our sexual politics, while not absolving us from thinking about those who are implicated in this. Srinivasan critically discusses the mainstream anglophone feminist discourses and points out how feminism focusing on “women’s ‘common’ oppression leaves untouched the forces that immiserate people who are already worst off.” Take the example of ‘Believe women’ in the #MeToo era, an attempt to show how lots of women were being disbelieved when making credible accusations of sexual violence. Black women in particular were decreed more vulnerable to sexual assault due to the stigmatization of black male sexuality, yet we more readily believe the accusation of a white woman against a black man. Paradoxically, the distortion of black male sexuality led to considering black women “as sexually promiscuous and rendered them unrapeable, thus more rapeable.”
Bearing this complicated reality in her mind, one of Srinivasan’s important attitudes is to avoid zero-sum logic, bringing her position in contradistinction to so-called thereby being apart from what ‘carceral feminism’ tends to follow. The term ‘carceral feminism’ was coined to describe a tendency of politics to consider the coercive power of the state – especially law – as the main solution to achieve gender equality. A critical issue, however, is that legal restrictions tend to make porn industries and mainstream masculinity flourish, and lead to the censoring of diverse sexualities. For instance, the British government had promised to institute an ‘age ban’ on porn in 2017, which was dropped in the end following widespread concerns due to not only privacy issues but also its balloon effect. Critics warned that under-18s could simply use porn-hosting platforms out of the force of law such as Twitter or would easily circumvent the law by using virtual private networks (VPNs). Moreover, this proposal tried to make porn viewers prove their age using verification systems, and one of them was created by ‘MindGeek’ which has a near-monopoly on porn sites. In addition, taking Nepal’s legislation in 2018 for example, the list of banned digital porn websites in response to sexual assaults against women included queer platforms and some informative sex education web pages. In this sense, can we say that legal restrictions actually help bring about gender equality? These examples show that we need to be cautious about imposing legislative provisions on porn from an intersectional and a nuanced perspective.
Moreover, it should also be noted that legal restrictions on the sex industry more generally, would invariably harm the people already reliant on it and make them more financially vulnerable. Historically, most radical, second-wave feminists in the late 1960s and early 1970s saw sex work as a construction of the patriarchy and protested against it. The popular way governments in countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and France, identified the problem was realized as the ‘Nordic model’ which mainly focused on regulating the sex work industry by criminalizing the clients of sex workers and treating sellers as exploited victims, thereby expecting a decrease in ‘demand’ of prostitution. Rachel Moran who wrote Paid For, her memoir about working in the sex trade, also campaigned for adopting the ‘Nordic model’ by insisting that she would not have worked in this industry if there were other options to cope with livelihood. The belief underpinned by this legislation, however, is that a sex worker has other choices available to her, which does not contemplate the women whose sources of income are bound up with the industry. Thus, Srinivasan argues what should be at the forefront is “what the law does for and to the women who work in the sex industry.” Indeed, it is right to say that what sex workers need is not rescue or rehabilitation but proper protections of safety, security, and reproductive rights. Nevertheless, recognizing the rights of those who work in the sex industry cannot be a simplistic division between viewing them as workers who want to continue versus sexually and economically oppressed people. Discussing and uncovering the politics of desire and the various motivations and purposes for sex work might be a stepping-stone to understanding its complexity; we cannot simply regard it as either voluntary or compulsory labor.
First of all, political critique of desire should try to understand “what sort of work sex work is” – the reality is that it is overwhelmingly women who do sex work and men who pay for it. As what Srinivasan argues, the political formation of male desire is relevant, thereby merely saying sex work is ‘just work’ can never explain that it is sexed. Since individuals’ sexed desires and gendered structures are all intertwined within a person and among relationships, how we understand sex work as intersectional feminists is a vexed question. In this light, the experience of Tilly Lawless, a woman working in a brothel in Australia, would enlarge the discussion and provide some clues to this question. In her Ted Talk titled ‘Sex work is integral to the feminist movement’, she criticizes the tendency to blame the monetary transactions between clients and sex workers, assuming those who pay for it are always mainstream wealthy-white men. Of course, she also recognizes that a flagrant power imbalance existed while working and there will unfortunately be bad clients. However, when moving to a suburban area where more migrant and working-class people lived, she enjoyed her experiences with her clients by feeling a genuine connection and caring deeply about them; people who were often excluded from social ‘desirability’ and ‘dateability’. She gives an example of a pregnant woman who wanted to try lesbian sex before giving birth by describing it as ‘one of the most transcendental sexual experiences of my life.’ Furthermore, she also asks, “unless paying for close-contact labor from any person is wrong, how can this [sex work] be wrong?” It should be noted that, her viewpoint does not try to ignore how interactions between sex workers and clients reflect the inequality of the world; instead, she began to empathize more with her clients when she could afford to choose to meet clients who have diverse desires regarding sex. What these experiences of Tilly Lawless indicate is that the environment in which sex work occurs shows us how desires and hierarchies are formed in certain social domains, which has been ignored so far. Similarly, Srinivasan also points out the importance of improving the conditions for current sex workers. Exploring how sexed desires may vary within different social identities and conditions, not simply emphasizing the voice of ‘common’ oppression, would let us constitute ‘a plan for an ideal society.’
In a nutshell, so as to better represent the ‘genuine’ reality, “the important thing now, it is broadly thought, is to take women at their word,” when she says she enjoys her work in the porn industry, being paid to have sex, and finds it emancipatory. The originality of this book encourages us to rethink that listening to the diverse and complex experiences of those who have been unjustly marginalized or excluded from mainstream sexuality, well-off class, the Caucasian, or able-bodiedness could be the crucial first step towards enhancing all women’s rights in the twenty-first century.
Bernstein, Elizabeth. “The Sexual Politics of the ‘New Abolitionism’.”, differences 18, no. 3 (December 2007): 128-51.
Cellan-Jones, Rory. “UK’s controversial ‘porn blocker’ plan dropped.” BBC News, October 16, 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-50073102.
Lawless, Tilly. “Sex work is integral to the feminist movement.” YouTube, October 24, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hi_OwpNndo8&t=1s.
Lawless, Tilly. “Sex worker Tilly Lawless on the right to touch.” Prospect, June 16, 2022. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/society-and-culture/sex-worker-tilly-lawless-on-the-right-to-touch.
Moran, Rachel. Paid For – My Journey Through Prostitution. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Srinivasan, Amia. The Right to Sex. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.