Pleasure and Justice
Three new books explore the gap between sex that is good and sex that is virtuous, making the complexities of desire central to our conversations about sexual ethics.
September 20, 2021
Sep 20, 2021
23 Min read time
Three new books explore the gap between sex that is good and sex that is virtuous, making the complexities of desire central to our conversations about sexual ethics.
Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability, and Reconciliation
Martha C. Nussbaum
W. W. Norton, $27.95 (cloth)
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (cloth)
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent
Verso, $19.95 (cloth)
One of the least interesting things a woman can do vis-à-vis sex is consent to it—yet lately, we seem to have less to say about female erotics than we do about male abuses.
On the one hand, it is not hard to understand why consent and its absence are at the forefront of mainstream conversation. A focus on rape and assault is warranted in a culture where sexual crimes are so tragically common: one in every six women in the United States is the victim of rape or attempted rape, and 81 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
In the public imagination, sexual agency is mostly reserved for male philanders and predators; female pleasure is alien at best.
Still, hollow consent, unaccompanied by inner aching, is at least as ubiquitous as sexual coercion. Sex that is merely consensual is about as rousing as food that is merely edible, as drab as a cake without icing. Even in our era of ostensible liberation, women face emotional and social pressures, both externally imposed and uneasily internalized, to appease men at the cost of their own enjoyment. Heterosexual women are forever licensing liaisons that don’t excite them—perhaps because they have despaired of discovering anything as exotic as an exciting man, or because it no longer even occurs to them to insist on their own excitement, or because capitulation to unexciting men is so exhaustingly expected of them and so universally glorified in popular depictions of romance. As the formidable Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes in her debut essay collection, The Right to Sex, her female students regularly report that they regard their erotic lives as “at once inevitable and insufficient.” In short, the young women in Srinivasan’s classes are resigned to sex that is consensual but underwhelming.
And who can blame them? There are vanishingly few contemporary contexts in which women are taught or encouraged to demand electrification, or indeed, to want actively at all. In the public imagination, they figure at best as passive consenters, accepters or rejectors of male propositions, at worst as the hapless prey of nefarious lechers. In this picture, sexual agency is mostly reserved for male philanderers and predators. It is telling that #MeToo has focused not on women asserting but on women assenting (or failing to assent). No doubt for partially strategic reasons, the movement’s proponents have rarely asked what good sex—by which I mean not virtuous but delicious sex—would look like for women, and under which conditions it might be realized.
A spate of books published this year have asked these neglected questions, urging us to interrogate the political and social sources of our desires and dissatisfactions. The Right to Sex follows Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability, and Reconciliation by Martha Nussbaum, renowned professor of philosophy and law at the University of Chicago, and the rousing Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Again by Katherine Angel, professor of creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London. All three books move beyond the standard consent model, asking after the origins of our sexual preferences and practices. Because they start by positing that “who we have sex with, and how, is a political question,” as Srinivasan puts it, they end by imagining an erotic culture in which far more than consent is required.
These books imagine an erotic culture in which far more than consent is required.
The important question is not only whether a woman consents, but whether the context in which she consents is conducive to both pleasure and justice (which may turn out to depend on each other, as an earlier generation of sex-positive feminists, among them Carol S. Vance and Ellen Willis, knew well). In a culture in which female pleasure is alien at best and anathema at worst, “bad sex is a political issue,” as Angel deftly argues. There are therefore both ethical and erotic reasons to reject misogyny: under patriarchy, women are not only oppressed but repressed, and men are not only monstrous but, fatally, bad in bed.
• • •
On the face of it, Nussbaum is less interested in the sexual dimensions of sexual abuse than either Angel or Srinivasan. In the introduction to Citadels of Pride, she insists that the “fundamental issue” raised by #MeToo is “not sex; it is power,” specifically power exercised by prominent men. Accordingly, she allocates less space to the victims of sexual violence than she allocates to the psychology and socialization of rapists and harassers. Nonetheless, she senses—and sometimes suggests—that her analysis of male transgression has important implications for the women forced to pursue what passes for pleasure under patriarchy.
The book’s three variegated sections set out to accomplish a great deal—perhaps a touch too much. Part I offers a theory of what is morally objectionable about sexual harassment and assault; Part II, which feels like an excerpt from a different book, provides a thorough if dense overview of U.S. law as it pertains to sexual wrongdoing; Part III, a monograph unto itself, focuses on the citadels of the title—the judiciary, the arts, and college sports, all of which are hotbeds of sexual crime that have proven especially resistant to reform.
Nussbaum is a philosopher, not a historian or journalist, and she is more skilled at theorizing than she is at empirical or applied investigations. Her most abstract reflections, presented in Part I, represent the moral meat of the book, as well as its most convincing contribution. Nussbaum’s core argument has it that men misbehave because they objectify women—and that “the vice of pride,” inculcated in men by a patriarchal society, in turn underlies the tendency to objectify. Nussbaum has written extensively (and brilliantly) about objectification elsewhere, but for her purposes here, the phenomenon involves a denial of women’s autonomy (their ability—and right—to “make certain important life-defining choices for themselves, rather than having their lives dictated to them by others”) and subjectivity (their ability—and right—to exist as “centers of deep inner experience, whose feelings and thoughts matter greatly to them”). Sexual assault and harassment function to deny women’s autonomy in that they “typically ignore or ride roughshod over a woman’s capacity for consent—or exhort a pseudo-consent by threat—treating women as convenient objects, whose decisions don’t really matter, for male gratification.” Sexual harassers and assailants also fail to honor women’s subjectivity, regarding their victims’ “emotions and thoughts as irrelevant, as if only the desires of the dominant male are real and important.”
Nussbaum’s sharpest insight is that oppression inflicts a crowning indignity on women by distorting both their dispositions and their desires.
Why are men so prone to objectify? Nussbaum’s plausible if somewhat predictable answer is that, at least in our society, men are proud. Following Dante, she sees pride as inducing a deformation of the appetites. Rather than looking outward at—and therefore aspiring to—the good, prideful people look inward, aspiring to nothing more than personal aggrandizement. In Dante’s telling, the prideful are “bent in on themselves like hoops so that they cannot look outward at the world or other people.” Although people are often said to be “proud of” entities external to them, for Nussbaum, to take pride in something is necessarily to value it only insofar as it elevates one’s status: “instead of loving your house because it is beautiful or comfortable, you see it as a thing that brings you social distinction.” Pride of this sort is always comparative, never intrinsic, for “the whole point . . . is raising oneself up above others.” In normal parlance, it is perfectly possible to be “proud” of one’s child without adjudging her better than other children, but “pride,” in Nussbaum’s specialized sense, is altogether blinkering: it gives rise to objectification because it involves self-regard so acute that it blinds us to the reality of others. American masculinity, with its fixation on securing “comparative status” by means of wealth and sexual conquest, is imbued with pride of this sort, with the result that a woman is often regarded as a “token of money and status” rather than as a full-fledged person.
Critics may be tempted to protest that Nussbaum’s account individualizes a political predicament. But her claim is not that pride is a personal failing. Instead, pride is a defect instilled in men by warped institutions, in particular the “citadels” of the title. By Nussbaum’s lights, “sexual violence is not just a problem of isolated ‘sick’ individuals” but rather a function of “American hierarchies” and “long-standing traditions.” There is no problem with Nussbaum’s diagnosis, though it is not clear that talk of “pride” has much of an explanatory edge over familiar talk of “entitlement” and “privilege,” but rather with her proposed solutions, many of which seem too legalistic to eliminate a scourge that she concedes to be of cultural making. If male pride is indeed a function of widespread mores, it is not clear that the smaller-scale institutional interventions that Nussbaum recommends, such as introducing clearer language into sexual harassment statutes, can go very far toward eradicating it, at least in the absence of more comprehensive overhaul. Still, it may not be within our power to do much more than chip away at the ballasts of our institutions, in hopes that legal shifts yield downstream transformations in norms. Modest but targeted changes—better incentives for women to come forward about assaults on college campuses, for example—may deter prideful men in the short term, even if they will not fundamentally alter the extra-legal structures that shape male character.
Where does this rather deflating conclusion leave the women against whom pride is so often wielded? Male pathologies turn out to have a female correlate, albeit one that feminists have sometimes underemphasized. Nussbaum’s sharpest insight is that oppression inflicts a crowning indignity on women by dint of distorting both their dispositions and their desires. While “it is attractive for feminists to believe that victims are always pure and right,” Nussbaum writes, in fact—as Mary Wollstonecraft observed—“women’s personalities and aspirations suffer under inequality.” Indeed, as Nussbaum notes, it would be surprising if we were able to escape entirely unscathed from a society in which we are “schooled to servility and deprived of encouragement for autonomy.” To take the harms of patriarchy seriously is to countenance the extent to which it not only endangers but also corrupts its victims.
To take the harms of patriarchy seriously is to countenance the extent to which it not only endangers but also corrupts its victims.
It does so by inciting what Nussbaum calls “retributive anger”—not anger of the sort that prompts the pursuit of justice, but spiteful anger that “burdens the personality.” Retributive anger leads feminists who are otherwise critical of the criminal justice system’s cruelly punitive approach to dispense with due process when sexual offences are at issue, conducting trials by Twitter and appealing not to juries but to mobs. Even more alarmingly, women living under patriarchy often develop what social scientist Jon Elster has called “adaptive preferences,” or a taste for so-called “sour grapes”—an allusion to “Aesop’s fable in which a fox, learning quickly that the grapes he wants are out of reach for him, quickly schools himself not to want them and to call them ‘sour’.” Women come to “act out the negative image of themselves purveyed by their dominators,” learning to want what they can realistically hope to have. When they can realistically hope for almost nothing, they learn not only to subsist on sour grapes but to forget they were ever capable of craving richer fare.
• • •
The vineyards where such withered fruits take root are, in large part, the subject of Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex. In the book’s exhilarating title essay, initially printed in the London Review of Books in 2018, Srinivasan maintains that attraction is politically mediated. Why else would so many people display such marked “racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system” in the romantic domain? Why else would so-called “incels,” or involuntary celibates—angry men who take to Internet forums to lament their sexual alienation and lambaste the women who decline to sleep with them—lust exclusively after the thin, blonde women touted as beautiful in movies and advertisements and portrayed submissively in porn?
The thesis of “The Right to Sex” is both persuasive and daring, and Srinivasan does not shy away from the difficult tensions that it throws into relief. On the one hand, once we accept that desire is socially and politically constructed, it ceases to qualify as something natural and immutable that we have no choice but to accept. We are now in a position to critique objectionably exclusionary sexual preferences—preferences that reflect and reify racism, ableism, sexism, and the like. On the other hand, once we get into the dangerous business of censuring desires, we risk encouraging a “discourse of sexual entitlement” of the sort that motivates incels and would-be rapists: if desire can be contested—if it can be wrong for someone to deny sexual interest in another person—then we may end up inadvertently validating the notion that “no” really sometimes ought to mean “yes.” Srinivasan’s appropriately inconclusive conclusion is that “there is no entitlement to sex, and everyone is entitled to want what they want, but personal preferences . . . are rarely just personal.” The ultimate question, as she formulates it in the final paragraph, is “not whether there is a right to sex (there isn’t), but whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.”
Well, is there? Many of us would like to know, but Srinivasan never tells us, preferring to “dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obliged 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 often answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion.” Dwelling in this place for the span of one essay, or even two or three, might have been productively provocative—especially when the place is as astutely imagined and as beautifully described as it is by Srinivasan. But an approach that initially titillates begins to madden when it is extended over the course of an entire collection. Though the book’s version of its title essay carries a new coda, the fresh material represents more of a scattershot response to Srinivasan’s critics than an attempt to resolve the dilemmas fleshed out in the original essay. It paves no paths toward less ambivalent places. It, too, is full of questions—“are the un-beautiful an oppressed class? The short? The chronically shy?”—rendered rhetorical by a lack of answers.
Srinivasan recognizes tensions in her claim that attraction is politically mediated, but she provides little guidance to the quandaries she so perceptively sketches.
Most of Srinivasan’s essays, which treat topics such as the ethics of pornography and whether teachers are ever morally justified in seducing students, take a similar form: they generally begin by identifying conflicting pressures and end by asking whether our clashing commitments can be reconciled, leaving the reader tantalized and aggravated in equal measure. Perhaps the most positive and definitive pronouncements that feature in The Right to Sex are exhortations to intersectionality, undergirded by the thought that a worthy feminism must not seek to honor what all women “have in common”—a tactic that ends up serving the interests of those who are “least oppressed,” but rather to protect the most vulnerable. This guiding injunction—reminiscent of John Rawls’s difference principle, according to which inequalities can be justified only if they are to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society—yields vital critiques of various aspects of #MeToo. The call to believe women, for instance, militates against a pernicious tendency to dismiss women’s testimony—but it also threatens to pit the word of the “white woman who says she was raped” against the word of “the black or brown woman who insists that her son is being set up.” Of course, there can be no uncomplicated rapprochement. But can we afford to refrain from venturing at least provisional resolutions?
Ultimately, The Right to Sex provides little guidance as to how we should actually respond to the moral quandaries that it so perceptively sketches. The last and longest essay in the collection mounts forceful arguments against “carceral feminism,” “a politics that looks to the coercive power of the state—police, criminal courts, prisons—to achieve gender justice.” Like Nussbaum, Srinivasan is skeptical of overly punitive responses to sexual violence—but unlike Nussbaum, she thinks #MeToo’s overreliance on legal remedies is to blame for its retributive flavor. Where Citadels of Pride has it that “the fact that so much of the #MeToo movement is social rather than legal creates a problem”—namely, “how to secure justice and protect equal dignity when punishment is meted out not by impartial legal institutions but by shaming and stigmatization”—Srinivasan believes “the feminists of Me Too appear, on the whole, to have a great deal of faith in the coercive powers of the state.”
Who is right? Both carceral solutions and extra-legal solutions have their dangers. Nussbaum’s sense that “law, and ‘rule of law,’ embody a vision of equal dignity and fair due process” is much too rosy, given the racism and classism that beset the actually existing criminal justice system. But Nussbaum’s diligent history of how the law has been conscripted to protect women highlights the benefits, fragile as they are, of an approach that sometimes appeals to the state. Legal acknowledgment of the category of “sexual harassment,” a concept introduced by activists in 1970s, inaugurated what we can reasonably regard as a paradigm shift: before the term was coined, workplace abuse was “just life,” as one prominent feminist recalls. It is also easy to see how the lack of a legal framework can sometimes imperil the marginalized communities that Srinivasan enjoins us to prioritize, as in the case of campus tribunals, which do not always provide free counsel to the accused.
In light of all these complications, Srinivasan sensibly maintains that “a feminist politics which sees the punishment of bad men as its primary purpose will never be a feminism that liberates all women, for it obscures what makes most women unfree,” namely economic injustice and attendant material deprivations. But this statement does little to clarify what concrete alternatives to carceral feminism we should seek in the immediate future, given that we live, regrettably, under conditions of grave inequality. Is the upshot that feminists should abandon attempts to strengthen legal protections for the victims of sexual assault or harassment as they set about agitating for more comprehensive forms of justice? Is it that we should decline to press charges against men who rape us?
These are bitter pills, but I could probably be persuaded to swallow them, and even to prefer them over sour grapes. The rub is that Srinivasan does not explain which dish I should opt for and why, or whether I am under any obligation to curb my more wanton cravings. Should women who yearn for sexual domination, or who seek to conform to patriarchal beauty norms, modify or ignore desires they have almost definitely inherited from chauvinists? Should they prefer perennial dissatisfaction to the fulfillment of a lust with an unjust origin? What should we do with the unruly appetites we fear we can never tame?
• • •
Maybe we need not tame them. In the end, it may be the unruliness of our appetites that redeems us—or so argues Angel in her incisive and elegant monograph, Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Again, by far the most invigorating and original of these books. In four searching essays that treat consent, desire, arousal, and vulnerability in turn, Angel does not reject legal and material remedies but looks beyond them, seeking succor in the interstices of our erotic relationships—in the sheer force and fact of desire itself. Her investigation begins by targeting “consent and self-knowledge,” the “two requirements” widely regarded as key to good sex. “In the realm of sex, where the ideal, at least, of consent reigns supreme,” she writes, “women must speak out—and they must speak out about what they want. They must, then, also know what it is that they want.”
Angel does not reject legal and material remedies but looks beyond them, seeking succor in the sheer force and fact of desire itself.
But how are women supposed to figure out what they want? In an age of resurgent Cartesianism, we are too quick to forget that all people are opaque to themselves at least to some extent, and women, in particular, are bombarded with contradictory messages about whether to trust our own instincts or indulge our own inclinations. We are consistently informed by pick-up artists that when we say “no,” they mean “yes,” and we are more widely “punished and criticized ([we] are bitchy, bossy, angry) for precisely the confident, assertive poses and behaviors [we] are being asked to cultivate.” Well-meaning scientists, hoping to dispel the myth that women are less lustful than men, have complicated matters even further, demonstrating that women display physiological symptoms of arousal even when they purport to experience no desire.
Do our eager bodies belie our reticent minds, or vice versa? How much of our resistance derives from the internalization of repressive norms, according to which femininity is bound up with purity? How much of our eagerness derives from misogynistic imperatives, according to which we must satisfy men at all costs? Can any undiluted desires be extricated from the slush of sexist indoctrination? And besides, are diluted desires any less licit or forceful than unadulterated desire—if such a thing even exists? Must we deny ourselves what we have come to want, even if we only want it because we have been mistreated?
If these questions are unanswerable in theory, the immediacy of intimacy renders them even less answerable in practice. A woman in bed cannot but dwell in the “ambivalent place” that essayists are at least sometimes advised to clamber out of from the comfort of their distant armchairs. The fetishization of consent ultimately “places the burden of good sexual interaction” on the population already staggering beneath greatest epistemic burdens. Women must “perform a confident sexual self in order to ensure that sex is mutually pleasurable and non-coercive,” but everything conspires to prevent women from cultivating such a self. Angel concludes that “if we want good sex—sex that is exciting, joyful, and non-coercive—we need to not be required to behave and speak as if we do always know.”
Of course, this does not mean that we should engage in non-consensual sex. Consent is a “given,” “the bare minimum” (though it is not clear exactly how Angel thinks we should secure it, given the impossibility of the sort of certainty it may seem to require). What the invitation to good sex means is that consensual sex is not good enough, for “much sex that is consented to, even affirmatively consented to, is bad: miserable, unpleasant, humiliating, one-sided, painful.” The gendered disparity in pleasure that currently prevails is “of grave importance, even if it is not, strictly speaking, assault.” What makes so much sex so bad, beyond idiosyncratic failures of interpersonal chemistry, is “gender norms in which women cannot be equal agents of sexual pursuit, and in which men are entitled to gratification at all costs.” In other words, the consent paradigm privatizes a problem that in fact demands a political response, namely, a revolution in the resources we afford women to explore their hungers.
But even a revolution cannot quite salvage the current model, which takes for granted that static and stable preferences precede and are only subsequently expressed by means of consent. In her chapter on desire, Angel explains that some sexologists have distinguished between “anticipatory” desire, said to be characteristic of men, and “responsive” desire, said to be characteristic of women. The former is free-floating and sui generis, whereas the latter is prompted by and attached to the specific people who occasion it. According to the popular picture that has so long predominated, men have biological drives that catapult them toward whatever body they happen to find in the vicinity, whereas women develop attractions in reaction to particular stimuli. Those who find this dichotomy sexist have typically argued that female desire is as brutely biological as its male analog: all desire is anticipatory. Ingeniously, Angel argues the inverse, proposing that male desire resembles female desire: all desire is responsive. We should not “treat male desire as a biological given” but as a “socially enabled, sanctioned, and enforced behavior.”
A desire that seizes us is always ethical in at least one regard: it originates not within but without.
There is some measure of parity, after all; women don’t know what they want in advance for the same reason that men don’t—because desire is not prior to the contexts that generate it. Nobody really knows what she wants until she finds herself in the hot, sticky throes of wanting it. It is for this reason that “pleasure involves risk, and that can never be foreclosed or avoided. . . . When I invite someone in—when I want them to enter—I can never be sure that they will enter in the way that I want them to. Nor do I always know in advance how I want them to enter.” Unpredictability is not just an unavoidable fact of sexual life: it is also the essence of eroticism. As Angel writes in her ecstatic chapter on vulnerability,
part of the joys of sex might precisely be in discovering new, different ways to be touched: in being vulnerable to the unknown. . . . . That’s why the invitation to sex is daunting, and why it can be so moving. To be met in one’s desire, and to be surprised in one’s desire, is an exercise in mutual trust and negotiation of fear. When it works, it can feel miraculous.
Good sex—delicious sex, cake with icing—is a matter of finding the self ravished and remade in a ways that an individual desirer could never independently imagine or anticipate.
What this means is that we are beholden to desires that are not of our choosing and that can therefore reflect and replicate cultural pathologies that we do not endorse. But it also means that desire can wrench us out of our habitual narrowness, shattering the carapace of ideology and inaugurating a kind of tender transcendence. In the Phaedrus, Plato paints a vibrant portrait of a man who encounters a beautiful boy and is dashed by the derangements of desire. The man’s “whole soul throbs and palpitates”; he flushes; he sweats; he suffers from vertigo; he begins to neglect his old pursuits, to take less interest in his family and friends; he organizes his time differently, striving to re-write his life in the boy’s lustrous image; and, at last, he transforms into a new creature, for he begins to sprout wings.
Srinivasan must have something similar in mind in one of the few hopeful passages in The Right to Sex, where she remarks:
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 act against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.
Desire works through us, often despite our protestations, and for this reason, it can be better than we are. Of course, it can also be worse. But whatever its content, a desire that seizes us is always ethical in at least one regard, just in virtue of its structure. Longing that assails is the antithesis of the longing harbored by the prideful, for it originates not within but without. Nussbaum’s objectifiers impose crude fantasies on their objects, but someone smashed open by an unexpected need is in thrall to its precipitant. Good sex elevates us to the extent that it insists on the singularity of its object. To desire is always to risk wholesale reinvention because the potential for revolution is latent in the act of desiring itself. As long as we can want, we are not yet lost: wanting often wounds us, but it can also give us wings.
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September 20, 2021
23 Min read time