We’re Shaped by Our Sexual Desires. Can We Shape Them? 

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Do you know the story of Myrrha and Cinyras? It appears in Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, alongside more celebrated tales, like that of Orpheus and Eurydice; in fact, Orpheus himself sings of it. Myrrha, he tells us, was the princess of Cyprus, the daughter of King Cinyras, whom she dearly loved—but not as a daughter should. Tormented by forbidden lust, she tried to hang herself, but was discovered in time by her nurse. The nurse then arranged for Myrrha to go to Cinyras during a festival when married women (including Myrrha’s mother, the queen) stayed away from their husbands’ beds. Disguised by the dark, Myrrha spent many blissful nights with her father, until Cinyras at last thought to fetch a light to see the face of his young lover. On learning the truth, he seized his sword, to kill her. She fled and wandered the earth until the gods put an end to her misery by turning her into a tree. That is how we got myrrh.

Two thousand years later, this tale is as strange and harrowing as ever. (The poet Frank Bidart drew on it in his 1997 book, “Desire,” and his telling practically burns the page.) Why is Orpheus singing of such things? He has just lost Eurydice by turning back and taking a forbidden look at her as she followed him up from Hades. Maybe, having ruined his life by succumbing to his own desire, he is taking bitter comfort in the fact that someone else has done the same.

What makes Orpheus’ account of Myrrha even stranger is that it immediately follows the story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with a statue of his own making. (Cinyras is their grandson.) That is a happy tale, ending with an impossible wish fulfilled. But it, too, contains the bitter seed of female duplicity. Pygmalion’s statue is, in Charles Martin’s translation, “better than any living woman could boast of”—essentially, it is an ivory sex doll—and he’s moved to create it by his disgust at women’s wanton ways:

Pygmalion observed how these women lived lives of sordid
indecency, and, dismayed by the numerous defects
of character Nature had given the feminine spirit,
stayed as a bachelor, having no female companion.

Pygmalion’s attitude sounds like one that we now associate with incels: involuntary celibates. The most notorious example is Elliot Rodger, the twenty-two-year-old who went on a murderous spree in Isla Vista, California, in May, 2014, to avenge himself on a world of women who, as he claimed in a hundred-thousand-word autobiographical manifesto, acted like rapacious sluts with other men and yet punished him by denying him sex. Thwarted male desire, we know, is a dangerous thing—and so, Myrrha’s story tells us, is female desire fulfilled. Myrrha is cursed from the moment that she recognizes what it is she wants, and she knows it.

This is an ancient belief: that our most ardent desires dwell fully formed within us, only waiting to emerge. It’s at the center of contemporary sexual politics, too; few things have been more critical to the acceptance of gay rights in the United States than the notion that queer people are “born this way.” Change our desire? It seems easier to be changed into a tree.

Has the time come to reconsider? Amia Srinivasan, a professor of philosophy at Oxford and an occasional contributor to this magazine, thinks so. Her new collection of essays, “The Right to Sex” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), takes on a number of topics that are relevant, as its subtitle says, to “feminism in the twenty-first century,” such as porn, consent, and the prospect of sex between students and their teachers. But at its heart is the title essay, in which Srinivasan asks us to imagine what might be possible if we chose to see our own erotic desires as flexible rather than fixed. The essay caused a stir in 2018, when it was first published, in the London Review of Books, in part because its provocative original title, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?,” suggested to certain readers that Srinivasan was prepared to argue that some people did. In fact, she was arguing the opposite; it is “axiomatic,” she writes, “that no one is under an obligation to have sex with anyone else,” and “axiomatic” is a word that philosophers do not just throw around. Still, reading the essay now, you can see why people—conservative commentators, like the columnist Ross Douthat, but also a number of feminists—were freaked out.

Srinivasan begins her discussion with Elliot Rodger. He and other self-declared male incels want to rape and kill women, and, what’s more, they blame us for inspiring them to rape and kill. As many feminists have pointed out, the incel phenomenon is a particularly concentrated form of the misogynistic poison that is aerosolized throughout the general cultural air. Such men feel that they have a right to sex, but so have many men—and, until very recently, the law was often on their side. (Nobody was convicted of marital rape in the United States before 1979.)

So, though what Rodger did was aberrant, “his sense of sexual entitlement was a case study in patriarchal ideology,” Srinivasan writes. This is the consensus position. Then she asks us to look closely at what Rodger’s particular sense of sexual entitlement entailed. Rodger’s mother was Malaysian Chinese, his father white English; in his manifesto, he wrote of his fury at finding himself sexually rejected while “an inferior, ugly black boy” he knew was “able to get a white girl.” Clearly, Rodger’s desire for, and hatred of, women was amplified by a rigid, repellent racial hierarchy. But, Srinivasan wonders, is the incel’s system so different from the one that most so-called normal people in our society use when they go about looking for sex? Rodger, who was erotically obsessed with “the spoiled, stuck-up, blonde slut,” was not wrong to recognize that such a person was not likely to return his interest. He might have been looking at women reductively, categorically, but weren’t women doing the same, when they looked at him and saw (as Srinivasan puts it) a “short, clumsy, effeminate, interracial boy”?

Our sexual marketplace is explicitly and brutally judgmental, especially now that dating and hookup apps make it easier than ever to “shop” for partners according to a set of predetermined preferences—as if shopping for groceries by category online—and such “preferences,” Srinivasan thinks, tend to involve race. Certain bodies confer status to those granted access to them. “Consider the supreme fuckability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women,” Srinivasan writes, summoning the values of the marketplace in flesh, “the comparative unfuckability of black women and Asian men, the fetishization and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed towards disabled, trans and fat bodies.” So our desire is not some neutral, private thing. It is mimetic of other people’s, as the scholar René Girard postulated, more than half a century ago. It colludes with society to stratify and imprison us.

Feminism should help point the way out of this predicament, but feminism, Srinivasan believes, bears some blame for getting us into it in the first place. Female desire isn’t seen as an appropriate subject for feminist critique. Sex positivity rules the day: whatever a woman claims she wants is, by definition, a good thing, an expression of female agency, so long as it takes place within the bounds of consent. “Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic,” Srinivasan writes. “It is instead merely wanted or unwanted.”

That wasn’t always the case. Many second-wave feminists of the nineteen-sixties and seventies were concerned with analyzing sex and desire. Enough of Freud and his ridiculous theories, they said. Desire, in Catharine MacKinnon’s words, is not some “innate primary natural pre-political unconditioned drive divided along the biological gender line.” Who and what and how we want is political, conditioned by patriarchy, which is to say, by oppression. What is more, many feminists—“anti-sex feminists,” as they came to be known—believed that the fact of desire itself constituted oppression, at least when it was directed toward men. One obvious solution was to cut men out of the picture. Lesbianism was framed as a political identity, available to all women regardless of sexual preference, though, true to their moniker, some anti-sex feminists decided to go further. Srinivasan writes of a group called Cell 16, based in Boston, which “practiced sex separatism, celibacy and karate” and opened meetings with a reading of Valerie Solanas’s “SCUM Manifesto.”

On the other side were “pro-woman” feminists like Ellen Willis, who pointed out that asking women to reshape and restrict their desires according to their politics might not exactly be liberatory. The anti-sex feminists, they said, wanted to apply “personal solutionism” to a problem that was, at root, structural. Men had a lot of work to do, but women didn’t need to forswear their company while they got their act together: the bedroom was the battlefield. Eventually, Willis helped stake out a new position. Feminism, she demanded, needed to stop engaging in “authoritarian moralism” when it came to sex, and to start considering women as empowered sexual agents who got to decide what they did and didn’t like in bed without being told that they were colluding in their own oppression. Women had an absolute right to follow their own desires, within the limits of consent. This was sex positivity, and it anticipated the advent of feminism’s third wave, the one that we are largely still surfing.

Unsurprisingly, sex positivity has had more staying power than celibacy or political lesbianism. Sex is a useful thing to have on your side, but, Srinivasan believes, it comes at a cost. “The important thing now, it is broadly thought, is to take women at their word,” she writes. “If a woman says she enjoys working in porn, or being paid to have sex with men, or engaging in rape fantasies, or wearing stilettos—and even that she doesn’t just enjoy these things but finds them emancipatory, part of her feminist praxis—then we are required, many feminists think, to trust her.” She herself doesn’t seem to think so—her tone here is laced with skepticism, even sarcasm—but she stops short of saying that directly. One reason may be that she sees this kind of because-I-say-so feminism as the by-product of an indisputably good thing that happened to the movement, which is that it got more diverse, and consequently more tolerant. A lot of the fights during the second wave took place among middle-class white women; as feminism broadened its racial and cultural tent, Srinivasan writes, “thinking about the ways patriarchal oppression is inflected by race and class has made feminists reluctant to make universal prescriptions, including universal sexual policies.”


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