Opinion | Can We Change Our Sexual Desires? Should We?

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ezra klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

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In 2018, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan published an essay entitled, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?” It was inspired by Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage and his misogynistic manifesto. And it caused a real sensation at the time. Although to be honest, I’ve never thought the title does it justice. It’s not really about a right to sex. It’s about maybe a right to desire. It’s about whether or not we should interrogate the meaning and construction of our desires. And in particular, it’s about what it means if the world says, for whatever reason, that we are not desirable.

Do we have the right to be desired? Do we owe each other desire? Do we need to take the cost of being undesired seriously? Can we change our desires in ways that make them more just or more free? And putting Elliot Rodger aside because, of course, as Srinivasan says, there are very good reasons he was not a desirable person. Putting him aside, what about all the people who aren’t desired for unfair reasons? For reasons of social pressure or even oppression.

Srinivasan’s new book of essays, “The Right to Sex,” includes that essay alongside other pieces about consent and pornography and student-professor relationships and sex work. The book has been causing a splash. It’s being published in the U.K. and it’s going to publish it in the U.S. on September 21. And these essays all ask a pretty fundamental question. Where do our desires and beliefs about sex come from? How much are they ours, and how much are they given to us?

And if they’re given to us, who gives them to us and how? If they’re not shaped well, can they be reshaped? Is that a proper question for politics, or is desire something to be left to individuals? One note before we get started. This conversation was recorded before the Supreme Court on September 1 permitted a Texas law prohibiting abortions after six weeks. My intention is to cover that in a future episode.

But if it seems like a weird omission from this one, that’s because it had not happened yet when we recorded this. As always, my email. If you have guest suggestions, feedback, thoughts, reflections — [email protected]

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Amia Srinivasan, welcome to the show.

amia srinivasan

Thank you so much.

ezra klein

Tell me about a distinction you make early in the book between sex that is free and sex that seems free because it is ubiquitous.

amia srinivasan

So this is a distinction that feminists especially in the late 1960s and 1970s started drawing in response to widespread dissatisfaction at the supposed sexual revolution that was supposed to set everyone sexually free. And of course, the sexual revolution did set people free in some deeply important senses. So the ability to have non-procreative sex, forms of non-normative sex — increasingly tolerated, if not approved of. Sex outside of marriage, sex outside of monogamous relationships.

But nonetheless, the women of both the U.S. and the British Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s felt, in an important sense, they were still having sex on men’s terms. And in fact, sexual freedom had become synonymous with having lots of sex, having lots of sex with lots of different partners, getting over your prudish hangups about having sex. And it wasn’t really about thinking creatively about the role that sex and desire and sexual hierarchy plays in human and social and political life.

That sense of dissatisfaction, I think, prompts us to ask what a kind of freer sex might look like. And I don’t know what a maximally free sex looks like, but I think we have some senses of what it doesn’t look like. So it’s not a sex that operates as a kind of commodity that people hoard or a kind of luxury status good that people hoard in order to climb a perceived sexual hierarchy. It’s going to be a sex that isn’t inflected by things like racism and classism and ableism.

ezra klein

I want to go back to something you said a minute ago, which is this idea that you can hoard sex as a luxury good. Tell me what that means. Tell me how you would do that.

amia srinivasan

(LAUGHS) I mean, you obviously can’t literally do that, because sex isn’t a commodity. Obviously sex is something that involves material reality, but it’s not something you can literally store in your basement, right. Sex is an activity. It’s something that we do with other people or with ourselves. But nonetheless, there is a quite commonplace, if implicit, understanding of sex as a thing that confers status.

And that’s not just sex with anyone. Sex with certain high status people, with certain high status bodies confers high sexual status on you. Of course, how much sex you should be having and with whom you should be having sex depends on how you’re gendered. So men’s status on the whole in general goes up the more sex they have. But that’s not true of women, because women are, in some sense, the sexual commodity. And of course, this stuff plays out in complex ways when you’re thinking about queer sexuality, which sometimes replicates those same kind of norms.

And different bodies and different people are going to be seen as accruing to you different amounts of sexual status. And of course, I’m using this idea of sex as a shorthand. Because it’s actually not sex itself that confers status. It’s the ability to have free sex with the person, right. So having coerced sex with someone doesn’t confer status on you generally. But also paying for sex isn’t really understood to confer status, right. Because in a way, it’s the wrong set of motivations, right. So the person is having sex with you for the wrong reasons. You want them to have sex with you because you yourself are high up in a sexual hierarchy.

ezra klein

It always strikes me and it strikes me in your book that it isn’t having sex with people that confers status, it is being desired by them. You talk a lot about incels. Young men who are often than not always angrily celibate. And one of the things that you point out is that they want to have sex with what they call Stacies. Not just anybody, but beautiful, thin, high status women.

And if you had secret sex with a Stacy, it wouldn’t do all that much for you socially. Or if you had paid sex with one, it wouldn’t do all that much for you either. But a lot of the debate about sex is about the value of being desired, the value of being seen as having high social status. All lines get attributed to Oscar Wilde, and this one does, too. But there’s just a line, right. “Everything is about sex — except sex. Sex is about power.”

And I think it’s more precisely about status. But I’m curious how you think about that, because we keep using the term sex, but it seems this just really operates through the medium of desire and public desire.

amia srinivasan

To take the example of the incel, the complaint comes in the form of not getting sex, not having access to sex. But it’s not really about that. So very few incels are interested in being what they call escortcels — incels who pay for sex. Because what they’re angry about is not lack of access to women’s bodies per se, but lack of, as it were, free access, right. They don’t want it to be a monetary exchange. What they want to be doing is exchanging their high status, which they think they’re unfairly deprived of, for sexual engagement.

Women who self-identify as involuntary celibates, who call themselves femcels, I mean, they often accuse male incels of hypocrisy. So they say, look, these are guys who claim that they’re just lonely and no one’s interested in them. But they’re completely uninterested themselves in romantic or sexual relationships with shy women or socially awkward women or women who don’t conform to normative standards of hotness.

So the game is entirely about status. So we can use sex as a kind of shorthand. But sometimes things go very wrong when we use it as a shorthand. So I’m thinking of people who think that somehow the solution to the so-called problem of incels is to redistribute sex. I mean, that’s just a kind of —

ezra klein

Robin Hanson, the economist, famously made this comment.

amia srinivasan

Exactly. And I think that’s just to misunderstand what’s really going on. It’s not about sex as such. It’s about a hierarchy of sexual desirability. It’s about sexual status.

ezra klein

And in the title essay of your book “The Right to Sex,” this is what you’re discussing. Jumping off from the incel case, but to the question of, how are our desires formed? And what does it mean to not be desired? Because the culture says you are not somebody who is as desirable. Can we say desire is political? Can we say it is problematic? Can it be changed?

So I want to explore that, and let’s start here. How do you understand the process by which our desires are formed?

amia srinivasan

So I want to offer nothing like a complete theory of the formation of desire. And I think you’ve got to leave that to a combination of psychoanalysts and the historians and the sociologists. But I think one thing that’s quite obviously true, although it’s an ugly thing to acknowledge, is that some of what’s itself quite ugly about our politics does shape this question of desirability and where people fall on a sexual hierarchy.

And so I think that’s clearest in the case of racism. And dating apps didn’t in any way create the problem, but they give us a nice quantifiable insight into the problem. And so you can see the way in which, for example, East Asian and South Asian gay men are very often, what I would call, sexually discriminated against on an app like Grindr. Black women. A similar thing happens on straight dating apps. They’re just seen as less sexually desirable.

And sometimes what you’ll have are people — this is more common on Grindr than it is on straight dating apps, I think, because straight dating apps — it’s important for the economy of those apps to have this pretense, at least, of romance. But gay men are pretty forthright about what they want and what they don’t want. So you get a lot of — in addition to saying, I don’t want a smoker, it’s also like — or like, I want someone who’s a bottom, you also say, I don’t want any Asian guys or any Arab guys.

So that’s not supposed to be a complete account of where desire comes from. I think that desire’s a lot more complicated than that. I don’t think it’s wholly determined by our politics. But I think it’s pretty clear that political forces shape at least hierarchies of desirability, which then, I think, interact in complicated ways with whom we actually do desire.

ezra klein

I want to ask about what it means to be unfairly undesired and when we would apply that condition. So you’ve used the example here of racism. And I think most of us would say that, yes, racism, socially imposed racism, is an unfair way in which people are devalued sexually and in many, many other facets of their lives. But other ideas come into here, too. Tall people, particularly tall men, are much more sexually desired than shorter men. And they make more money. They have all kinds of better life outcomes.

There are all kinds of issues simply around attractiveness. There are issues of you are smarter, you’re more articulate, able-bodied. When is something a desire hierarchy that we can say is problematic because it’s political, and when do we throw up our hands and say, we’re human beings, there’s a lottery in this, there is luck and unfairness, desire is hard to discipline, and we just have to leave that alone? Maybe we lament it. But it is not within the venue of politics.

amia srinivasan

So what’s so useful about the case of racism is that we have an independent grasp on racial domination as an oppressive structure. So we can recognize that there is an important link between, say, the racialized nature of policing in the U.S. or healthcare or education. And the racial discrimination that lots of women of color experience on dating apps or at predominantly white schools or in predominantly white institutions.

It becomes much harder in the case when we’re thinking about something like beauty. Right, the beauty lottery. I mean, we call it the beauty lottery. It’s complicated, of course, because beauty norms and attractiveness norms are hugely historically and culturally contingent and sensitive. So part of the luck here is not just a genetic lottery and a lottery of wealth, because of course, wealthy people have access to things like dental care and good nutrition. But also the lack of being born in the right time and place for your phenotype.

I mean, there’s two different ways of envisioning a project of critical interrogation of desire and hierarchies of desirability. So one way of thinking about that project is as a matter of disciplining our desires under the force of politics. So we think to ourselves, does my pattern of desire match up with the political commitments I avow? There’s a different kind of question, which is, to what extent am I really in touch with what I desire, and to what extent am I really just interpreting my relations to other people through a political lens that is not of my own making but was coercively enforced on me? That tells me that certain bodies are desirable or normative that might be getting in the way of possibilities contained within my desire.

So I think those are two very different projects. And often when we talk about critical interrogation of desire, I think people only have in mind the first project, which certain feminists in the 60s and 70s were interested in undertaking, right. So they were interested in forms of separatism from men. Also sometimes political lesbianism. So the embrace of lesbianism not just as a kind of sexual orientation, but an actual political practice.

But even that’s complicated, because one thing that was happening in the Women’s Liberation Movement was just women were just spending a lot of time with each other. And there was something, I think, genuinely erotically exciting for a lot of them. So even there I think the distinction between disciplining your desire and setting your desire free from politics is not a neat one.

ezra klein

This speaks to one of my favorite lines from the book where you write in response to critics that you are not, quote, “imagining a desire regulated by the demands of justice, but a desire set free from the binds of injustice.” So do you want to say a little bit more on that distinction?

amia srinivasan

Rather than thinking of a project, rather than imagining a feminist critique of desire as this Maoist interrogation which asks ourselves or maybe even worse, asks everyone else around us, are you having sex with the right people? Are you desiring the right people? But rather opens us up imaginatively to just the question of, what kind of sex and how might we want to engage with each other as sexual and embodied beings if we hadn’t been taught that only this form of sexuality is OK?

ezra klein

But so let me press on that project for a minute. Because structured in a sentence, “to free desire from the binds of injustice” sounds like it would make it more just. But as I take that effort, if we set desire free from the binds of dominant cultures, which I think is the way you would operationalize what you’re saying, it may not lead to desire moving in a more progressive way.

I’ll give some examples that I thought about as I was trying to imagine what that would look like. So you gave the example of racism as an oppressive way of shaping desire. At the same time, it has been a long and difficult project in human history to live well in diverse societies. There are powerful, seemingly pretty deep tendencies towards various kinds of segregation. And one story you could tell about human history is this laddering up of our ability to live with people who are more and more different from us.

Not our kin, not from the same place we are, not the same faith we are, et cetera. And so, set free, our desires might become narrower again. Or maybe from the right, you would get a critique like, there’s a lot of cultural energy. This is a very common alt-right view. There’s a lot of cultural energy going into suppressing natural desires right now for aggressive alpha males. Or the traditional’s right view is we regulate male desire through monogamy. But free from constraint, men would be wildly promiscuous.

So when you talk about unbinding desire, do you worry it might just lead in weird ways? That there is a lot of ways that we bind desire that are socially valuable or help with stability or actually are creating more just outcomes on some dimension than we might get otherwise?

amia srinivasan

Right. So I think I get off the boat of that argument — I’m not saying it’s yours — fairly early on. So what I want to reject is a picture on which there is this foundational human nature that’s discovered by evolutionary psychology read through the lens of the alt-right which says that we are all of necessity, deeply aggressive, acquisitive, boundary-drawing exclusionary creatures. And then we have to have the conforms of civilization that temper those tendencies.

I’m not saying there’s nothing to that story. I’m not saying that there is like, we are some kind of evolutionary blank slate and I also have a huge amount of time for a psychoanalysis, right. So there are resonances here with the Freudian picture on which civilization involves unnecessary repression of certain primordial instincts. But I think we are essentially social and historical creatures. And I think a lot of those stories that are told in right wing political circles are often — to be frank, it self-reports about fairly historically and culturally contingent experiences that people are having right now and then as a result of, I think, a fairly messed up political culture, including some very real things, like economic class division.

So the picture I have is not one of just letting their human nature, whatever that is, just run loose. I don’t even know what that means. I don’t know what that would look like. We are, to use a post-structuralist cliche — well, I’m like, we’re always already in a cultured place. So I don’t think that that flight from culture, that flight from politics is possible. So I think maybe more modestly the way of reading me is to think about, what would a creative and imaginative engagement with our sexual realities as shaped by politics look like?

And of course, I think that’s going to involve, in part, thinking about substantive political values, like thinking about things like equality and respect. But I also think it’s going to be about thinking about more ineffable quasi-mystical thoughts, like confronting the other in their wholeness and their radical alterity and infinity. Right, I think that’s an important part of a certain form of sexual and romantic encounter, right. But also not just sexual or romantic. I think it’s also part of what happens in good cases of family relations and friend relations, right. There’s this thing where you realize that the other is just not an object in the world, but like you, this locus of possibility and infinity.

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ezra klein

One question this all raises is simply the question of whether one’s desires sexually, to some degree even otherwise, can be changed. And how. To many of us, our desires feel relatively fixed, particularly by the time you’re an adult. Maybe certain people pull you out of them. But it doesn’t feel conscious. You appealed a minute ago to more quasi-mystical notions. And there is some of that in desire. It is both inexplicable and also feels somehow concrete. So do you think people can, with applied effort, change their desires?

amia srinivasan

So I think actually the malleability of desire is a more familiar notion than some people want to admit. So take people in long-term monogamous relationships. Right. I think most of those people have had the experience of having certain kinds of inconvenient desires, threatening desires for people outside of that monogamous relationship. And there’s a choice to be made about how you’re going to relate to that. Now you can’t shut it off or shut it on or turn it on or turn it off. That’s just not how the mechanism works.

But there is a kind of interesting subtle interaction with something more volitional. So you have a choice about, are you going to attend to that desire? Are you going to nurture it? Are you going to let it grow? Are you going to identify with it? Or are you going to try and set it aside? Now, it’s not always successful. But I think if you talk to long-term people in a lot of long-term monogamous relationships, they would tell you, yeah, no, I know what that experience.

And I mean, similarly, there’s also the experience of allowing someone you love to remain attractive to you and the way in which that’s just not a switch on or off. I think these are actually really common phenomena. None of them imply that we can choose what to desire in the same way we could choose what sort of ice cream to eat. But that’s not the picture I’m going for. The picture I’m going for is one in which we have a more complex relationship to desire than I think a lot of us want to admit.

I should just say for the record, though, that it has been extremely politically important historically, and I think to a certain extent still now, to think about sexual preference and sexual orientation in particular as something fixed. There’s a very good political reason why we speak in that way. And it’s because people had to fight very hard, especially gay and lesbian people, to protect their sexual lives, their identities, their practices, their partners, from the moral Inquisition of a dominant heterosexual culture that wanted to see them as aberrations who could be fixed.

So against that backdrop, the long historical crusade to either convert or kill especially gay and lesbian people, talking about our desire as simply something innate given unchangeable is, I think, very important. At the same time, I don’t really think — and you’ll see this in the writings of lots of queer people — that story doesn’t always fit with people’s own experiences of their desire. So I talk about in the book how Cynthia Nixon got into so much trouble almost a decade ago for saying something like, I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay and I choose gay, because it’s better.

And she got in so much trouble with gay and lesbian activists for implying that being gay was a choice for her and maybe for other gay people. And in a very conservative culture that thinks that homosexuality is only permissible because you have no choice over it, that’s a dangerous thing to say politically. But at the same time, and the Cynthia Nixon case, I think, shows this, I mean, that’s just not a narrative that fits perfectly well with the actual experiences of lots of queer people.

ezra klein

I’ve always understood part of the criticism of Cynthia Nixon on that, as she was simply erasing the reality of bisexual people and bisexual desire. When she made this a choice between being straight and being gay, you might say she was making a choice between cultures, which, fair enough. But there are a lot of people whom the authentic, lived reality of their desires is to desire people of both sexes.

And one of my broader questions on this is that all of this points to some of the pessimism that people feel around desire. I don’t want to speak for all people in long-time married partnerships, so people have different experiences of this. But a lot of what you were discussing a minute ago didn’t strike me as the shaping of desire. It struck me as the disciplining of it. Most people I know who are married, it isn’t that they don’t feel attraction to people outside their relationship, they simply don’t act on it.

It is the boundary, the binding of monogamy that keeps that from happening. And similarly, I think many people have been in relationships, myself included when I was younger, there were relationships where you wanted to feel desire for people that you didn’t. You loved them or cared about them for all kinds of reasons or you thought they’d be a great partner. And it just wasn’t there. And the applied effort to bring it there didn’t really work.

amia srinivasan

It’s not like I think the project is one that is best carried out through monogamous marriage. I was just trying to give people some way of getting on to the idea that something like this experience is something that they recognize from their own lives. I should just say, by the way, that I think there are very serious limits to the malleability of desire, and they probably vary from person to person. So I think for some people, it’s probably very fixed. And for other people, it’s a more fluid and open thing.

There’s a risk of suggesting that we should all undergo some kind of collective self-scrutiny of our desires and try and change them, whether it’s liberating them or disciplining them. And I don’t really. I mean, what I’m really interested in is the deeper structural transformations of which this sort of thing would be a part, right. So I’m really fundamentally interested in what happens when you interrogate, when you dismantle structures of racial domination, class domination.

Is that going to change, for example, how we relate to the question of sexual status? Are we no longer going to have a notion of sexual status? I mean, how many of these ideas are shaped by living in basically a capitalist world? So that’s the first thing I want to say. But to get back to this question about whether ordinary people and ordinary monogamous relationships have experiences of something like the malleability of desire, think about this other thing I was thinking about. So not pushing away or what I would think of as choosing not to identify with disruptive or threatening desires, but the cultivation of desire within one’s own relationship.

So of course sometimes it just doesn’t work. But of course, a lot of people do work at it. Now, one way of thinking about it is you’re working at it. So it’s a form of disciplining. I have to be attracted to my husband or my wife. There’s also a different thing, which is allowing the other person in front of you to be desirable. And so I quote in the book this I think pretty extraordinary email I got from a gay married man who’s been with his partner for many years.

And he describes his partner as a fat man. And they have a satisfying sex life. And he talks about how he needs to allow his husband to be sexy because he exists within a culture that says that the male body, especially probably the gay male body, is not sexy thing if it’s fat. And what he needs to do is silence those voices, the political voices that would presume to instruct his desire, and allow what’s right in front of him to be erotic.

So, I mean, that’s the kind of thing that I think is probably familiar to at least some people. And I think it is different from disciplining it. Because what he’s not doing in that moment is saying, you have got to desire this thing. It’s instead an attempt to quiet the voices that say, this is non-normative. And this is also an experience that’s very familiar to lots of queer people. I mean, queer shame, gay shame. Quieting that and allowing yourself to desire the thing that you do desire — I mean, that also is a project I think of unbinding, releasing that desire from the binds of injustice. I mean, it’s just not plausible to say that that’s a practice of discipline.

ezra klein

I want to go back to something intriguing you said a moment ago, which is that you’re not saying that all this is best done under the structure of monogamy. And I’m always interested in how our social structures shape our desires. You’ve brought up capitalism and racism. But monogamy is a big one. And it makes the choice of our desire very important. If you are working ultimately towards one choice for your life — and that choice is not just a sexual choice. It is the person you will raise children with. It is an economic choice. It is, as we’ve discussed, a social status choice.

That’s a lot of weight. (LAUGHS) It’s a lot of weight on that choice. I think that a lot of the questions of binding and unbinding desire have to do with the pressure of finding the one person who has to fit all of these different things in your life. I mean, I live in San Francisco. A lot of my friends are queer. I know a lot of people who are not in monogamous relationships. And it definitely strikes me that they are able to experiment with desire in ways that the people trying to find monogamous relationships or in them aren’t.

And so, it seems plausible — although there are other issues, obviously, with non-monogamous relationships. But it certainly seems plausible to me that part of why desire ends up being so highly regulated is because you’re operating under conditions of very high scarcity, or at least trying to. Whereas once that condition is lifted, there’s a lot more room to say, well, what is sexy about this person?

Even though on other dimensions, they may not be the right person for me or they may be different than the people I’ve dated in the past. I mean, you can’t experiment when the stakes are quite so high. So how do you think about the difference between how desire’s experienced under conditions of monogamy, or at least for that as a goal, and conditions of polyamory?

amia srinivasan

Yeah, I mean, I think that — a friend of mine said to me it might be the case that there’s some kind of duty to self — all else being equal — she’s a philosopher — there might be a moral duty to scrutinize one’s own patterns of desire and attraction. But once one’s in a monogamous relationship, the monogamous relationship might trump that, right. Because doing precisely that might constitute a threat to the relationship.

And I think that’s probably right. So I think there’s a kind of obvious sense in which polyamory or something like that is a more obvious context for forms of sexual experimentation. And it’s no surprise that people who’ve been more sexual utopians — I mean, someone like Shulamith Firestone imagines a non-repressed egalitarian sexuality that will break out of the monogamous relationship. Of course, monogamy for her is also very much tied up with the patriarchal family, right, and the family unit and procreation. Children who, on her view, are also oppressed.

I mean, I think one thing that’s absolutely true, and I think this is somewhat lost in the polyamory versus monogamy debate, is that polyamorous are absolutely right about one thing. So that even if it’s the case that for some people it does make sense for them to have a single romantic and sexual life partner, no one gets everything from one person. And I think in general, that’s a kind of overlooked truth of contemporary life. And that’s part of why you have an epidemic of loneliness and alienation.

And so we all need just more people. And that might take the form of more friends, more comrades. It doesn’t have to, I think, take the form of more lovers. The questions, though, that we’re asking about sexual desirability can also be extended, I think, in interesting ways to questions of personal affinities more generally. Right, and all of these relations that happen within the private sphere.

Like, who do you spend time with? Who are your friends? Who do you make community with? So while I think there are some very special things to say about sexual desire, I think some of the questions that we’re talking about actually extend more broadly into just questions that we also think of as being just in the private sphere and not politically interesting.

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ezra klein

I want to move to some of the other things shaping our desires. You have a wonderful essay in the book called, “Talking to my Students about Porn.” When you talk to your students about porn, what do you hear that surprises you?

amia srinivasan

I mean, it no longer surprises me that much, because I’ve heard it year after year. But the thing that really surprised me in the first instance was just how much time they had for a certain very 1970s, 1980s feminist critique of porn that feminists generally now think of as outdated, prudish, not something that we would seriously consider in the age of contemporary sex positivity.

And so I was teaching them these text — texts by people like Andre Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, because they are a really important part of the history of feminist thought. But I didn’t really expect these texts to be speaking to my students. I thought, in fact, my students would be very quick to dismiss them. Dworkin and MacKinnon advocated for the regulation of porn through the civil law. This was in a pre-internet moment before you had this pretty unregulable thing, the internet. But I also thought they would be dismissive of those texts because they would find them just prudish. And they would think of porn as something that could be as liberatory and emancipatory as the internet itself.

And so I was surprised to find that my students — and I should say, these are women and men and non-binary people — had a lot of time for the thought that Dworkin and MacKinnon express, which is that porn ideologically shapes what sex is for people. And so teaches them not just how to have sex in a mechanical sense, but makes sex what it is, establishes the normative ideals of sex. And I came to realize that the reason so many of my students felt this way — or I think this is right, they feel this way because they really came of age sexually in the age of internet porn in a way that people of our generation — that’s right, I think you’re six months older than I am — didn’t.

So we can think of internet porn as having been around for all of our lives, but it wasn’t, right.

ezra klein

Oh, it definitely wasn’t.

amia srinivasan

(LAUGHS) It definitely wasn’t.

ezra klein

I mean, I always think about this. I remember us getting our first home computer. And I remember us later getting a 28K baud modem.

amia srinivasan

Right. And you remember that sound.

ezra klein

I remember the sound. Say what you will, you’re not downloading internet porn.

amia srinivasan

No.

ezra klein

Or at least not much of it on a 28K or 56K modem.

amia srinivasan

No.

ezra klein

There’s just only so much you can do.

amia srinivasan

Right. And so I think the experience of the internet is just very, very different for, dare I say it, young people today. So for them, porn is ubiquitous. It’s really to hand. I mean, I should say, this is still only — half the world is online. And so for them, I think they feel like porn actually operates as a kind of sex education. And what we’re talking about isn’t indie porn. It’s not feminist porn.

It’s mainstream porn. And that’s because that’s what’s freely available on sites like Pornhub, right. Freely available because illegally pirated. And thereby systematically harming sex workers who work in the porn industry. But also meaning that the porn that’s viewed by young people all conforms to a pretty standard script. And what my students report is that it often has the — or at least they feel like it has the effect of bringing their various kinds of desires into a certain algorithmic conformity. Because there’s actually an algorithm powering all of this, right.

So you put in these different search terms, and the algorithm will make sure that a threesome means one guy and two women, right. So everyone who types that in is going to get the same set of — I mean, there’s some local differentiation depending on national tastes, which Pornhub does a very good job of tracking. But in general. There’s a move towards bringing it to conformity people’s preferences, because then it’s easier to sell things to them.

ezra klein

I’m really interested in the way algorithmic porn changes the kind of porn that is made and the experience of consuming porn, which were, as we just said, this bridge generation between ubiquitous online porn and you had to buy a magazine in a gas station or go to a weird sex shop and rent a cassette. And you were just saying that algorithmic porn brings things into conformity.

But another thing that it seems to me it does is push things towards extremism. Which is true for most forms of algorithmic content, that you have to stand out in a crowded market. Oh, you liked this little bit of rough sex? Well, here’s some real kink. Oh, you like the threesome? Here’s gangbangs.

amia srinivasan

Right.

ezra klein

Do you think that’s part of it, too? Because there’s a conformity direction, but there is also just more and weirder. And something that I hear about happening is just these rabbit holes that exist for pornography no less than they exist for everything else on the internet. YouTube, too.

amia srinivasan

YouTube, too. Yeah, I mean, YouTube especially, right. So that is the model. Right, if you can get someone to just keep on clicking through. And you do it by raising the stakes quietly. That’s really interesting. Yeah, and that makes sense of something that is true of internet porn. And I cannot stress enough, we’re talking about very mainstream internet porn. Because there is a lot of super imaginative porn makers, often women, queer women.

But it makes sense of what you get in mainstream porn, which is this superficial range in diversity. But these very clear through lines where, exactly as you said, you’re escalating. So you have a entry point, and then you’re escalating into more intensified versions of that thing you initially sought out.

ezra klein

One thing I’ve heard from younger people I know is the feeling that they have to live up to this more extreme porn. A feeling that you’re supposed to be into group sex or you’re supposed to be into kink. Because if you’re not, are you really game? Are you really a non-prudish person exercising your sexual choice in the world? I’m curious, in your experience with your students, if you think porn is really changing the way they have sex, or is it simply changing their expectations or models? I mean, does this act on the way people then play things out in the real world?

amia srinivasan

It’s really interesting, of course, that internet porn just gets more and more popular, but the rates of people, young people, having sex goes down. I don’t want to say that those are necessarily related. I think there’s a lot of things going on there. I mean, for one thing it’s — I can’t imagine — I mean, young people have a lot to be depressed about, right. I mean, I think they’re facing down certain forms of crises that, I don’t know, maybe aren’t particularly arousing. Then again, people like to have sex before the apocalypse, so I don’t know what’s going on.

But, yeah. I mean, it’s complicated, of course, because — so I remember speaking to a group of 17-year-old young women in school. And they wanted to say that some of their sexual experiences with boys were quite directly related to porn, right, on their understanding. So one girl said to me, well, they don’t ask me whether I want to have sex or not. They just like the fact that I’ve had sex before. It just makes them think that I’ve already consented.

Now she blames porn. But of course, we know that that’s a phenomenon that well transcends and predates the world of internet porn. And porn, I think, becomes a way of interpreting those experiences. So, yeah, I think there’s a really interesting question about whether how people having sex actually has changed. Or really it’s just about a set of normative expectations and disappointments and frustrations.

ezra klein

You have some interesting studies in the book suggesting that people who watch more porn have more aggression, have worse attitudes towards women.

amia srinivasan

Well —

ezra klein

I’m sorry, please —

amia srinivasan

I’m just going to say about those studies — I mean, I don’t endorse those studies. I just cite them. Because the obvious thing to say about all of those kinds of studies is that you shouldn’t confuse correlation with causation, right. So it wouldn’t be that surprising if men or boys with negative attitudes towards women or who believe various rape myths were more inclined to watch certain forms of porn and more inclined to watch porn as such.

The state of research into pornography, as a fact, is really bad in a lot of ways and pretty partisan. So it’s interesting to read through all of those statistics. But I don’t think the state of them allows you to actually say anything near conclusive about what is the worldly power of porn.

ezra klein

That’s my view on them, too. So I’m glad you brought in that caveat. One of the things that has always made me skeptical of the porn conversation is that even though I find it intuitive, is that, as we say, I grew up before the age of ubiquitous internet porn, but I grew up in the era that had the first really violent really realistic video games. And there was this ongoing panic that we’d have this very violent generation, particularly of young men, because of video games.

And then it just didn’t happen. Young people are less violent today than they were in, say, the 80s. And so I wonder whether the same is true of porn. To your point that those studies don’t feel totally reliable, because it’s hard to establish causality. One thing I do look at is the macro level statistics on this. Because porn is so ubiquitous for young people. And my impression is that this generation, it’s more content-oriented, it’s more cautious about sex — maybe too cautious. People are having sex later. They’re having less of it.

It’s a more feminist generation, I think it’s fair to say. And given that that feels in tension with the worry about what porn is doing to everybody’s minds, I wonder how you take that seeming discordance in the facts.

amia srinivasan

Yeah, I mean, I don’t really think it’s much of a discordance. I mean, I think it’s absolutely true that more young women, let’s say in the U.S. or the U.K., self-identify as feminists now than they did when you and I were their age. Those are the same young women who, when I teach them and they read actual text in the history of feminism, are just completely convinced about the awfulness of their sexual conditions.

So there’s this complicated question about what form that feminism takes. Right, that feminism, the self-identified feminism can often take a form of just simple, straightforward sex positivity, right. That’s not necessarily something that, in its Instagram incarnation, gives you a tool for offering a real critique of your sexual experiences. So, I mean, there’s a huge amount of data that shows that young women are less happy with their sexual situation than previously.

That if you talk to young women, especially college age women in the U.S. and the U.K., I mean, they’ll tell you that they don’t feel like they’re having sex on their terms. And I think a lot of embrace of feminism can also be understood as a reaction to that phenomena. So I don’t think the data are particularly clear cut. I mean, also, of course, they all think more about consent, because consent has been drummed into them. But consent training trains you in the asking and giving of consent. That’s not the same question of whether they’re having more egalitarian feminist sex. That’s just a question of whether they’re having sex that is constrained by the giving and asking of consent.

ezra klein

You say that you’re skeptical in the book of efforts to legislate or regulate porn, which some countries do try. But you make the point that they often end up regulating more marginalized desires. And you say that one partial answer to the pornography problem could be an emboldened sexual imagination. And I was thinking about what that could mean, particularly in a world where pornography helps create the sexual imagination people have.

So is one answer here that we should have public or philanthropic funding of excellent porn? Just because if that’s going to be how people learn about sex, you might as well make sure that some of the incentives in there are not simply standing out in the attentional game of Pornhub. How do you imagine this being shaped?

amia srinivasan

So let me just go back a second about legislating porn. I mean, my objection, my fundamental objection to trying to legislate porn is not about the practical issues. I mean, it is quite practically difficult. You can do it by using a vast amount of state resources. Right, inevitably what happens is that, as you were saying, forms of marginalized sexualities get punished.

But the primary issue is simply that I think legislation and regulation of sex work is terrible for the women who work in sex work. And I think that’s both true of prostitution and pornography. And the women who work in the sex work industry generally are some of the most marginalized and worst off women. And any decent feminist analysis has to center them. And I feel like legislation against porn, against prostitution — I mean, these are forms of — the most charitable thing to say about them is that they’re motivated by a misguided thought about how the law works, right.

So the thought is that legal regulation somehow makes those women better off because it magically removes them from the situation of having to earn money via sex work into better paying, better jobs. And that’s just absolutely not how it works. So my fundamental rejection of the legislation of sex work is a sex worker-centric argument. So what should we do? I mean, I don’t really know what we should do.

Yeah, so, I mean, one option I gesture at is, well, you could imagine states doing things like putting more resources in the hands of indie queer feminist porn filmmakers, of which there are quite a few. It’s not really clear whether that would trickle down to young people. Basically you’re not allowed to legally show pornography to underage people. So it’s very unclear what it would look like to have a state investment in films that were then supposed to alter how young people are thinking about sex. I don’t really have a solution.

When I talk about the reinvigoration of the sexual imagination, what I wanted to do was point out that lots of people think about porn as — we’re talking about filmic porn here. They think of porn as opening up the sexual imagination. Of course, that’s true for some people. Right, especially when you’re looking at more recherche or non-normative forms of pornography. But I was also just making the point that pornography as a film medium I think often weakens the imagination. It makes it more codified and reliant and lazy.

Right, it’s less good at generating its own content. It becomes a mimesis machine rather than something genuinely creative. I don’t have any solution for what it would look like to re-enliven the sexual imagination in a pornographic world. I mean, I think it would involve people watching less porn. But I have no idea how you’d be going about doing something like that.

ezra klein

So one thing you said is a bridge to another way technology has changed the culture of sex and desire, which is algorithmic swipe-based app dating. And I met my partner right before this happened. I met my partner right before the rise of Tinder and all of this. So it’s strange realizing the entire dating world is completely transformed from the one I inhabited. And I’m only starting to feel like I’m an old person. But so just like the internet made porn really abundant, it made potential partners really abundant.

And the thing now is to stand out in this very, very crowded attentional economy of people. I’m curious how you think that might be changing people or changing the way we express or communicate desire.

amia srinivasan

So you said actually early on in this conversation that people can take you by surprise. I think your phrase was something close to that. When we were talking about the malleability of desire, you said something like, people can take you by surprise. And that experience is one I worry that online dating doesn’t totally eradicate, but maybe it pushes against. Because it encourages us to make very quick snap judgments.

So sometimes what we do is actually put in quite strict parameters about what we’re interested in and what we’re not interested in. And because that’s our sense of ourselves and a sense of who we should be with. But in fact, if we met someone who fell outside those parameters, we might find ourselves just totally in love. I mean, I take it that for every single person, if I had them write down their necessary conditions and deal-breakers, for a partner I could find someone in the world who didn’t meet one of those constraints that they would be capable of being in love with and having a happy life with.

So I think the way in which dating apps and especially swipe dating apps encourage us to both distill ourselves into the basics, to allow snap judgments, but also encourage us to think of our desires in terms of deal-breakers and snap judgments, not as an overall negative, but unfortunate. On the other hand, I have lots of friends who’ve met their partners on dating apps, and I love most of those partners. And there’s a lot to like about that.

And there’s a lot, specifically, to love about the destigmatization of that. I think that’s a great thing. I love the way in which online dating is completely destigmatized and people can be more honest and candid about the fact that they’re looking for something. They’re looking for love. They’re looking for sex. I think that’s a good thing.

ezra klein

I agree with that. And I think it is a mistake to ever say these technologies are all good or all bad. This is a hypothesis I have, and I don’t know so I’m not going to be confident in it. But something I wonder about the way this changes people’s minds and their approach is that when you went up to someone in a bar or at a party, it was, at least for me, a whole process. And it took some courage and you’re invested in it.

And you weren’t going to do it 20 times or even five times that night. So you had an incentive to figure out the ways the two of you could like each other. Maybe it didn’t work, but you were trying. And one thing that I think is interesting about the abundance of potential people on apps is it seems to flip the question. It’s about filtering. It’s about trying to figure out why you might not like the person. Trying to look for these little signals that they’re not going to be right for you.

I mean, this seems particularly true for a lot of the women that I know who these apps can be very — you get flooded with dumb messages and worse things. But also just nice people who it’s very hard to tell apart — or potentially nice people. It’s hard to tell apart. And I wonder about how that shapes desire. I wonder about how it shapes desire for people to seem abundant and there are always more of them, as opposed to it’s scarce and it’s hard. And I don’t know, I wonder if you have any reflections on that.

amia srinivasan

Yeah, I mean, there’s this interesting philosophical set of questions. So it seems like on one hand, we love the people we love at least in part because of their qualities, right. Because of their musicality, their sense of humor, their kindness. And at the same time, you don’t really count as loving that person if you would trade for someone who’s qualitatively identical but just better on a few of those metrics, right, who’s just a bit funnier. That seems wrong, right. Because what it is to love someone is to, in a sense, love them independently of their qualities.

It’s to love them. Their essence, their haecceity, their utter specificity. At the same time, we all know that we at least fall in love with people and continue to love them because of their specific qualities. So there’s this problem here. Philosophical problem. I don’t think it’s much of a real life problem. But then it becomes a bit of a real life problem in the case you’re thinking about.

Because you could be in a situation where you are having that experience of falling for someone initially triggered by some of their qualities, but there’s also something that happens where you are just pulled in and you’re having that experience of profound human connection. But then you’re also very alert to their qualities, especially because if you found them on a dating app and then the dating app gives you the sense of lots of other people who might max out on those qualities a little bit more. So, I mean, I haven’t thought about this before, but given what you’re saying, it could be the case that the world of online dating and the possibilities it opens out into makes that philosophical conundrum something that all of a sudden people live in a more salient way.

ezra klein

I think that’s a really interesting way of putting that. One of the things that you touch on throughout the book is how desire might be different outside the conditions of intense economic inequality and scarcity that we have. And you challenge feminists and others to think more about that in their work. But to flip that, I do think something you see in some of the dating dynamics in apps and in the modern world is that class signals very easily.

And this has been going on for some time. We pair up much closer to our socioeconomic status now than we did in the past. It certainly seems to me apps are supercharging that. If part of the hope is that we could have a more egalitarian sexual world under more egalitarian economic conditions and dating is becoming a driver of inequality, how does one think about that?

amia srinivasan

Yeah, so I mean, I think increasing the patterns of partnering up and family-making are drivers of inequality. But, I mean, it’s always been a profound driver of inequality. I mean, the bourgeois nuclear family is about the consolidation and replication of wealth. Dwindling rates of marriage among lower economic strata in the US, for example, are often tied to just how expensive it is to run a family these days, right. I mean, how impossibly expensive it is to own a home and have children.

So it’s no doubt been exacerbated and inflicted by social media probably more in the U.S. than in the U.K., because in the U.K., you can read someone’s class off their accent immediately in a way that you can’t in the U.S. So in the U.S., looking at their photos and seeing where they hang out and what their friends look like and where they’ve gone on holiday is a better indicator of class. In Britain, it’s slightly different. You don’t need a social media profile to know someone’s social and economic background.

But I don’t think there’s anything new going on here. But I agree that it’s probably unsurprisingly getting worse.

ezra klein

And then always a question we use to end the show. What are three books that have influenced you that you would recommend to the audience?

amia srinivasan

The first book is — it’s a book about the legendary and extraordinary Black feminist activist and scholar Barbara Smith, and it is called “Ain’t Gonna to Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” It’s edited by Alethia Jones, Virginia Eubanks, and Barbara Smith herself. And Barbara Smith is a Black lesbian feminist, one of the founding members of the Combahee River Collective, which issued the Combahee River Collective Statement, one of the most important foundational texts in intersectional feminism.

And Barbara Smith is someone who has just been of central importance for the development of Black feminism in the U.S., also Black women’s studies. But she’s moved through history very quietly, in part because she has this very strong commitment to collectivity. She’s not really interested in the cult of the individual — although she deserves the cult. So this is a book that’s about her and includes text by her. Some of them unpublished letters. It’s just an extraordinary set of documents, so I love that.

The second book is a book called “Revolting Prostitutes,” which I engaged with pretty closely in my book. It’s written by two British sex workers, Juno Mac and Molly Smith. And it is the most dispositive defense of sex work decriminalization I have ever read. Maybe the most dispositive case for anything, any policy recommendation I’ve ever read. And what it does is it shows that the argument for decriminalization in no way rests on the idea that sex work is good or unproblematic.

That it’s free of patriarchy. That it should exist in the Marxist utopia. It’s not about that at all. Right, what it points out is that there is this profound tension between choosing to use the law to symbolically punish the men who buy sex and actually making the women who work in sex work who are usually socially and economically marginalized, better off. And can I just make a shout out here?

“Revolting Prostitutes” is one of the texts on this extraordinary open source document that’s been put together by Heather Berg, Angela Jones, and PJ Patella-Rey, which is called a Sex Worker Syllabus. It’s a Google doc that’s floating around Twitter. And it’s this extraordinary compendium of writing by sex workers who are really at the forefront, I think, of contemporary thinking in feminism. So I’d recommend that.

And the final text, the third text, is called “Feminist International.” It was published in English last year, and it’s by Veronica Gago. And it’s one of the most important texts to come out of the International feminist movement that culminated in the International Women’s Strike in 2017. And that International Women’s Strike came off largely in thanks to the organizing work of feminists in Argentina and Poland, both of which in the last decade or so have seen the emergence of these quite extraordinary mass radical feminist movements that create these really surprising coalitions between working class people, unemployed people, sex workers, trans people, Indigenous people, students, and the traditional union left.

And so it’s a really interesting case study for those feminists who think that — those Anglo American feminists who think that a mass feminist politics needs to be grounded in a narrowly biological understanding of womanhood and of women’s solidarity. But it’s also, I think — and this speaks to some of your interests, Ezra — an interesting case study for those on the left who think that so-called identitarian concerns are at best marginal to the hard work of material politics.

ezra klein

Your book is “The Right to Sex.” Amia Srinivasan, thank you so much.

amia srinivasan

Thank you, Ezra. [MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of The New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Roge Karma, and Annie Galvin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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