The Right to Sex is a sharp, incisive book: it cuts to the heart of the matter. Its essays take apart feminist issues the same way you would take apart a device to try to understand it: you get rid of the outer casing, pry it open, and take in the many interconnected, minute pieces that make it work. And Srinivasan is so good at this–at zeroing in on the linchpin of the issues she is discussing, getting at their most fundamental or central aspects. The topics that these essays cover, too, are not straightforward or clear-cut: there is, of course, the question of whether anyone has a “right to sex,” but there are also questions around pornography, teacher-student relationships, sex work, and consent. None of these topics are new to feminism, and indeed Srinivasan is not really interested in putting forth some kind of “new” argument about any of them. What she is interested in, however, is trying to grapple with the ambivalence that lies at the heart of all these topics–and it is this emphasis on ambivalence that I think truly distinguishes this book as a collection of critical essays.
“The question, then, is how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion.”
Ambivalence, in The Right to Sex, is not about finding complication that is not there, but rather about the messiness that is inherent to any kind of intersectional approach to feminism. This isn’t an easy approach to take with regards to issues like consent or pornography, either; fundamentally, it means highlighting the many ways in which a feminism that is a straightforward project of uniting “all women” is bound to fail. All of this is to say, Srinivasan may take apart these issues and their structural underpinnings as you would take apart a device, but she isn’t interested in putting that “device” back together into a neat, discrete thing, so to speak. The exposed device is precisely the point: to open this thing, look at how it works, mess around with the things that make it work, and then leave it to its messiness. Srinivasan unravels the complications, yes, but she doesn’t offer easy answers.
For me, The Right to Sex works as a book not just because it is compelling in its ideas, but also because it is remarkably lucid in its delivery of those ideas. Srinivasan renders complexity in a sparse, direct style that is still able to preserve the heft of that complexity, and that is all the more impressive for how accessible it is. What I always ask myself when I read a book like this is: did I come away learning something new after reading it, or did it make me think about something differently? And in the case of The Right to Sex, the answer is: absolutely.
Thanks so much to FSG for providing me with an audiobook of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!