New Left Review’s socialist critique of Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex was never going to be an easy read. I started off heady with excitement at the thrills it might contain; then I found it a bit embarrassing and effortful; and then, once I was finished, I just wanted to go to sleep.
Pearl before swine, perhaps. NLR’s editors don’t often show interest in sex, a fact which can be deduced from either their dress sense or their prose. We should be grateful when they do. This said, some of the journal’s recent articles – ‘Struggles of the Roofless’; ‘Philippine Noir’; ‘After the Blast’ – sound like pornos directed by Ken Loach. In fact, all these pieces are about radical politics in the Global South – a field which, in its sequence of premature ecstasy and clammy frustration, resembles what gossip columns used to call a ‘Ugandan discussion’.
When a socialist philosopher does indulge in sexual exploration, we shouldn’t avert our eyes. Caitlin Doherty’s review of The Right to Sex begins with a potted biography of its author, an Oxford professor. Srinivasan was born to a banker and a dancer – two professions with different understandings of ‘bump’ and ‘line’ – and now inhabits ‘the elite Anglophone university’. Against this I’d contend that, to judge by their Twitter ‘discourse’, Oxford students speak a language only distantly related to English.
In any case, it is Oxford’s ‘associated population’ which Srinivasan now addresses. Rather than promoting the Varsity Ski Trip, she explains that this means explaining why she has explained to her common-room colleagues that they shouldn’t explain academic explanations to her. Doherty, sounding like one of my Durham mates, comments that this is ‘no mean feat in the kind of prestigious institution in which, as the author often reminds us, she resides’.
Having bottled and binned the decrepit male farts of Oxford, Srinivasan describes their Incognito Mode adventures: ‘hot blondes suck dicks, get fucked hard, end up with semen on their faces’. I have absolutely no idea whether this is an accurate description of internet porn. After asking some Oxford postgrads to tell her what they think – a different kind of sadomasochism – Srinivasan comes away shocked: ‘The psyches of my students are the products of pornography’.
At this point Doherty faults Srinivasan for her ‘high liberalism, offering up in place of social power the utopia of the blank slate’. I hate it when people do that. Flagging, I perked up when Doherty reached Srinivasan’s fourth chapter, ‘On Not Sleeping with Your Students’. Here, Srinivasan discusses the concept of ‘bureaucratic sex creep’: a category of pseudo-jurisprudential periodisation, not a nickname for Stephen Toope. Her conclusion: ‘Instead of debating whether teachers should or shouldn’t be fucking their students, we should ask why they wouldn’t simply rather teach them’.
I’ll be sure to quote that in my next DoS meeting. (My supervisions are another matter: as Srinivasan surmises, ‘the talk of poetry and understanding is just a form of flirtatious flattery’.) Doherty is sceptical about all this: ‘We must then ask whether an account of human sexuality that refuses to theorise what is ambiguous and complex in the intermingling of sexual desire and social power offers us much more than a synchronic account of the flip from good to bad’. Theorise what? Offers what? My face hit the keyboard: I was a blank slate, I had been fucked hard.
At last, Doherty drop-kicks the sitting duck. Now that socialist criticism has discredited corporate feminism, ‘the classroom has replaced the boardroom as the terrain of feminist analysis’. Hence the rave reviews for Srinivasan’s phallic sketches of the City of Dreaming Spires. But Oxbridge sex is not normal sex: as Srinivasan readily concedes, ‘her students are developmentally much younger than their non-institutionalised counterparts’.
Immature? Institutionalised? I downed my sambucca and rested my feet on the nearest college porter. How ridiculous. At least Doherty concedes that Oxbridge students’ cluelessness ‘does not render them unsuitable for sex’, although my girlfriend begs to differ. She ends with a reproach to Srinivasan’s fans: drawing lessons ‘from this solipsistic quad of mirrors will only trick the observer into mistaking their gowned reflection for the sight of the town beyond’. And so, unexpectedly, your TCS correspondent ended up with the semen of self-awareness on his journalistic face.