By Digvi Shah Sep. 24, 2021
In a world where we are talking about sex more than ever only to find it just as frustrating to navigate, Amia Srinivasan’s 6-part essay collection The Right to Sex serves as a manifesto on what direction this conversation can, perhaps, take.
Sex is not as taboo as it was a couple of decades back. In the age of the Internet and ever-evolving censorship laws, two sunflowers rubbing against each other is a thing of the past. But with all the progress, for most people, their first adolescent foray into sex is still watching two people kiss followed by the screen turning black. When two good-looking actors wake up next to each other, their bony shoulders poking out of white sheets, we presume they have done the deed. In other words, sex is not only private, it’s potentially, scandalous.
Srinivasan dares you to find one person who isn’t influenced by the world we live in. What porn you watch, what boy you want to impress, how religious you’ve been raised—everything plays a role in your sexuality. How can sex be private when it’s a microcosm of every public, political system that you’re exposed to? While reading the book, I was reminded of Janelle Monáe’s ‘Screwed’, where the lyrics go, “Everything is sex / Except sex, which is power / You know power is just sex / Now ask yourself who’s screwing you.”
We live in a country where marital rape isn’t illegal and arranged marriage is still the norm in most parts. Does this mean the husband has a right to sex?
In her titular essay, The Right to Sex, Srinivasan refers to Rebecca Solnit’s essay ‘Men Explain Lolita to Me’ where Solnit equates sex with a sandwich. Solnit says that “you don’t get to share someone’s sandwich unless they want to share their sandwich with you” to make the point that no one has the right to sex. While Srinivasan agrees with Solnit’s point, she argues that “Sex isn’t a sandwich.” Well, duh! Of course, it isn’t. She goes on to say that “… it isn’t really like anything else either. There is nothing else so riven with politics and yet so inviolably personal. For better or worse, we must find a way to take sex on its own terms.”
Sex, and everything surrounding it, is complicated; the phrase ‘right to sex’ even more so. We live in a country where marital rape isn’t illegal and arranged marriage is still the norm in most parts. Does this mean the husband has a right to sex? Even in the most progressive of spheres, misogyny runs rampant. Combine that with sex and wouldn’t that make sexual violence inevitable? Is it rape, if a young woman who doesn’t want to participate in sex does so anyway to avoid being labeled a tease? Is it unethical for students and teachers to be in a relationship if both parties are adults and willing? Should porn filmmakers be held responsible for the young people who treat porn as sex education? Is it then censorship if rape fantasies, female degradation and violence against women aren’t allowed in porn? If we start to restrict sexuality, are we regressing towards a time of ‘respectable’ and ‘morally pure’ sexuality only to be shared between a husband and a wife?
Its relevance to India, a country where politicians infamously have cited chowmein as a cause for rape, as a whole remains elusive.
Srinivasan asks these questions in a clean, direct manner. She doesn’t beat around the bush given the vast expanse of topics she covers. Each section is framed to make you consider if you agree or disagree; to raise more questions. The delight of reading this collection lies not in the confidence with which Srinivasan presents her points or the depth of understanding she shows regarding the topic—for me, the best part of this collection is the way she addresses questions that just as they pop into your brain. But despite its claims of objectivity, it is easy to see the author’s biases creeping in. The essays are predominantly centered around the west, or the metropolitan parts of India. Its relevance to India, a country where politicians infamously have cited chowmein as a cause for rape, as a whole remains elusive. Maybe, that is part of the challenge in writing such a book.
As a woman simply existing in this world, each recollection of a violation felt like reliving a trauma that I am, on some level, familiar with and yet the book didn’t leave me dejected or hopeless.
I picked up The Right to Sex in search of a nuanced exploration of sexual politics—a topic often relegated to the 240 character limit of Twitter. As a woman simply existing in this world, each recollection of a violation felt like reliving a trauma that I am, on some level, familiar with and yet the book didn’t leave me dejected or hopeless. In fact, what Amia Srinivasan offered to me was what she set out to do—explore “the politics and ethics of sex in this world, animated by a hope of a different world.”
loves writing relationship dramas, young adult romances, and coming-of-age stories. She is heavily influenced by works that explore the complexities of the female experience. In her free time, you can find her rewatching Derry Girls for the millionth time.