Sex. It’s personal in the most intense of ways. It’s beautiful and exhilarating and deeply unique to all of us. And it can be a theoretical minefield for those of us striving to be “good feminists.” With that in mind, I submit to you a pair of articles to ponder.
“This contrast—of women raring to assert their agency in one context, then willing, even eager, to relinquish it another—captured my interest.”
Sarah Resnick explores the push-pull of control and women’s desires in the context of Miranda Popkey’s début novel, “Topics of Conversation.” She asks us about the liminal space between the simplicity of embracing another’s authority, and assembling one’s own story as a means of control and therefore, power. Modern feminists are supposed to be in control, to know what they want, to not be afraid to ask for it, or to take it for themselves. But what if we want, sometimes, to give up control? What if, sometimes, that prospect is sexier than anything? Is that bad? Are we bad feminists? Resnick visits Amia Srinivasan’s essay, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” from 2018, asking whether feminism should have anything to say about desire at all, testing the lines between creating more binds for the people it means to liberate, and excusing patterns of desire that replicate broader patterns of oppression and exclusion. If a woman enjoys sexual submission, who are we to say she shouldn’t?
A year and a half later, Alexandra Schwartz tackles Srinivasan directly, examining her new collection of essays “The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century” in conversation with Katherine Angel’s new book, “Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again.”
“This is an ancient belief: that our most ardent desires dwell fully formed within us, only waiting to emerge… Has the time come to reconsider?”
This conversation broadens beyond control and desire and asks the question of where and how our desires — often perceived to be innate and even perhaps immutable — are actually shaped to a certain extent by social conditioning. How much is our gravitation towards a certain “type” simply our own preference, for example, and how much is subconsciously ingrained racism? From perceptions of beauty and attractiveness to reevaluating our values, Schwartz takes us on a thoughtful journey that circles down to the idea that “maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about how to shift what we want but instead… recognize that we may be wrong about what we think we want, and embrace the possibility of wanting something different.” And then we loop back again to control: “Vulnerability entails risk… and sex is never free from the dynamics of power. That is what makes it scary, and also, sometimes, wonderful.”
As scary as it can be to probe and question our own desires and wants, clearly it can also be wonderful. From a place of discomfort or the kind of ambivalence Srinivasan encourages us to dwell in, perhaps we can find a more expansive version of pleasure — and of ourselves. And isn’t that the kind of liberation we want from feminism in the first place?
Read, ponder, and enjoy. I hope you find these selections as thought-provoking as I did.
On a less theoretical note, tomorrow October 2nd is a chance to mobilize and defend reproductive rights and a woman’s right to choose. Visit https://womensmarch.com/mobilize to find events near you.