August 26, 2021   6 mins

If you were a greengrocer in Soviet Czechoslovakia, it would be prudent to display, in your window, a poster proclaiming: “Workers of the world, unite.” This is the famous example Vaclav Havel used, in The Power of the Powerless (1978), to illustrate mass conformity to Communist dogma. Havel’s greengrocer probably never thinks about that slogan, let alone believes it; he puts it obediently in his window to signal compliance with the regime. As Havel puts it: “If he were to refuse, there could be trouble.”

I was reminded of Havel’s greengrocer when reading The Right To Sex, a much-lauded new book on women and feminism by Amia Srinivasan — the holder of Oxford University’s prestigious Chichele professorship of social and political theory, a position previously held by luminaries such as Isaiah Berlin.

Despite — or perhaps because of — her standing, she opens the book with a statement typically found in the preface of any contemporary woke writing about women; I’ve come to think of it as a direct equivalent to the greengrocer’s poster:

“At birth, bodies are sorted as ‘male’ or ‘female’, though many bodies must be mutilated to fit one category or the other, and many bodies will later protest against the decision that was made. This originary division determines what social purpose a body will be assigned.”

Yes, commissar, the statement says, the definition of “woman” in my book about women is “anyone who identifies as a woman”. No, commissar, biology is not a thing.

That politically essential disclaimer out of the way, Srinivasan dives into the messy business of sex and feminism. Is it possible, she asks, to make the “sexual marketplace” more welcoming to people who are not conventionally attractive — without telling people who they should or shouldn’t shag? Can we make porn less harmful to young people without banning it? Can we chart a course between believing women who make sexual assault accusations and avoiding miscarriages of justice — which might disproportionately impact minorities?

The Right To Sex has been breathlessly received by all the usual bellwethers of correct opinion. A gushing profile in Vogue promised that The Right to Sex “will radically change the way you see feminism”. Corbynite clickbait queen Ash Sarkar tweeted a photo of it as “absolutely extraordinary” beach reading. And the Ground Zero of gender-woo fog-weaving, the queer theorist Judith Butler, lauded the book (somewhat ironically, given her own notoriously impenetrable prose style) in the New Statesman as a beacon of “clarity”.

And indeed, taken one at a time, Srinivasan’s sentences are models of clarity. Taken together, though, her paragraphs and overarching arguments are not. One lengthy section — the coda to the book’s titular essay — dispenses with even the pretence of a sequential argument, instead offering some 40 pages of numbered paragraphs responding to critiques of The Right To Sex. And even where the text is arranged as a sequential argument, Srinivasan piles references together with examples and musings usually without bothering to spell out what they imply.

Instead, what we get is rhetorical questions. Sometimes several are arranged in a row, with none answered directly. “Is anyone innately attracted to penises or vaginas?” she asks. “Or are we first attracted to ways of being in the world, including bodily ways, which we later learn to associate with certain specific parts of the body?” We are left to speculate on how Srinivasan would actually answer the questions she poses.

Was this, I found myself wondering, the result of woolly thinking on the author’s part? This seemed unlikely, given Srinivasan’s successful career as a philosopher, an occupation that demands verbal precision. Rather, the cumulative impression is of intentional evasiveness. A tiptoeing across the minefield of contemporary debates about desire, personal autonomy, prostitution and exploitation. But is this mindless conformity? I came to think it less a matter of Havel’s greengrocer, than of another twentieth-century thinker who lived through an era of sharp constraints on what may be said: the German philosopher Leo Strauss.

For it’s one thing to be a shopkeeper, obediently sticking a poster up to signal compliance and a desire to be left alone. What if you’re a public intellectual? Few intelligent people hold unambiguously to the dogmas of the day, but where blasphemy incurs meaningful costs, communicating a less than flawlessly orthodox opinion in public writing is a risky business.

In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss argues that writers in repressive social contexts have historically often conveyed a message at two levels. Where orthodoxy is enforced by persecution, Strauss argued, truth-telling can still be achieved by an author “provided he is capable of writing between the lines”.

A lazy read of The Right To Sex garners all of the orthodoxies we’ve come to know and love in elite woke feminism. Trans women are women; prostitution should be decriminalised; the solution to porn is not legislation but more sex education; hook-up culture is fine except when it isn’t, in which case it’s all men’s fault; anyone who isn’t bisexual should re-evaluate who they fancy in the light of identity politics. Each of these orthodoxies is presented with moral certainty, as simple statements: “Third wave feminists are right […] that sex work is work, and can be better work than the menial labour undertaken by most women”.

But having made a simple statement of the official position, our lucid Oxford professor proceeds to convey a sense that everything around that position is hopelessly muddled. Sex work is work, but:

“to understand what sort of work sex work is […] surely we have to say something about the political formation of male desire. And surely there will be related things to say about other forms of women’s work: teaching, nursing, caring, mothering. To say that sex work is ‘just work’ is to forget that all work – men’s work, women’s work – is never just work: it is also sexed.”

If you take at face value the poster Srinivasan put in the window of her greengrocer’s shop, asserting her belief that biology is not a thing, parsing what any of this means beyond the initial assertion of orthodoxy is like nailing jelly to a wall.

And I came to think that this is, in fact, the hidden structure in this seemingly structureless book: the repeated, maddening contrast between confident pronouncements of theoretical orthodoxy and miserable, inconclusive rummaging in the less than positive real-world outworkings of this orthodoxy. Read in this way, The Right To Sex is an accurate critical summary of woke feminism: clarity in theory, amoral mess in practice.

The text asserts that this mess can’t be solved, for to do so would be to embrace “authoritarian moralism”; but at the same time, the subtext demurs. Srinivasan approvingly mentions government interventions to force parents to accept state-sponsored sex education, or advertisers to create more “inclusive” marketing, policies with more than a striking resemblance to moral values imposed by authority.

The subtext, then, is that authoritarian moralism is good, but we can’t say so. The question is which morals? The things we can’t say in approaching this are hinted at in one of the book’s strangest and most Straussian glitches.

Strauss suggests that one means a writer may employ to signal a double meaning is to present the orthodox position in flat, affect-less language that bores the reader, and the text’s real argument in vivid, thrilling, memorable terms. And just such a slippage occurs in Srinivasan’s abrupt gear-change from a language of bloodless abstraction to the mythic register of gods and monsters when discussing “patriarchy”.

“What,” Srinivasan asks, “does it really take to alter the mind of patriarchy?” The personification is startling against a backdrop of generally arid prose. What is this thing, “patriarchy”? How can an abstraction have a “mind” like some creature out of myth?

The careful reader, reflecting on this eruption of the mythic, might be drawn toward a question so profoundly un-askable under mainstream feminism that it could conceivably pose a threat even to shortlistings for appointment to (say) prestigious professorships. Is “patriarchy” not fact but mythology?

And if in fact there were no such thing as “patriarchy”, we might then speculate on what actually shapes the often difficult terrain of men, women and sex. And that in turn points to themes so glaringly absent from Srinivasan’s book it’s hard not to read it as pointed: biology, children, and love.

You don’t get appointed to prestigious Oxford professorships without being both clever and canny. It’s now commonplace to acknowledge that the age of “free speech” is over, and The Right To Sex responds pragmatically to this state of affairs. It recites every conventional woke opinion the commissars could demand, while between the lines sketching the contours of an entirely different argument, conveyed in the only register such a thing could be conveyed in without trashing a prestigious career: esoterically.

And this shadow message implies many heresies: that the refusal to address love, biology, and children are driving us and our discourse mad. That loveless sex is hell. That pornography is hell, and is devastating young people, who long for loving sexual commitment. That trans women are not women. That “patriarchy” is a paper tiger. That there are irreducible trade-offs to be made between identity groups.

It’s of course impossible to know whether Srinivasan means this argument to emerge from her meandering if mercifully short volume. Given her prominent standing in an institution whose role is to shape elite youth into morally correct regime functionaries, she wouldn’t tell me if that were the case.

Either way, the esoteric reading is the more charitable one, so I’ll go with it. The alternative is that the youngest ever holder of Oxford’s prestigious Chichele Chair is peddling a poorly structured sheaf of arid witterings based on an incoherent worldview; is doing so under the name of “feminism”; and is being lionised for it in Vogue. I prefer to think someone of her evident wit and considerable prose skill understands exactly what she’s choosing not to say.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.