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This website uses cookies to help us give you the best experience when you visit our website. By continuing to use this website, you consent to our use of these cookies. The Right To Sex makes a case for how philosophical writing can contribute powerfully to public discourse on some of the most fundamental questions relating to embodied life — that is, to sex, gender, sexuality, racial justice, space, education, power, regulation and law.

A book that belongs to feminist theory and moral philosophy, it reviews arguments about abortion, rape, harassment, pornography, racial justice and masculine grievance, showing us how to interrogate their premises. This book has clarity in abundance, but it also asks us to bear with complexity when it is required.

But it casts them in contemporary contexts: what forms of conduct, such as harassment and rape, have been tolerated and rationalised? How best to organise the world so that justice, equality, and freedom can form the driving principles of our collective imagination and practice?

Although the book makes a strong intervention in the field of feminist philosophy, it does not moralise. Indeed, one of its chief strengths is to show how moral philosophical reflection takes place in the midst of ordinary situations: in the classroom, on social media, in both public and intimate spheres. The question of a right to sex immediately raises the questions: which sense of sex? And whose right is it? Whose right should it be? And is sex something to which anyone really has a right? Such questions pitch the reader into fields of power where men generally, within a heteronormative model understand themselves to have that right.

What justifies such a right, or set of rights, if they exist at all? This is, however, not the focus of the book, which rather begins by contesting the rationale used by heterosexual men to justify themselves in the face of charges of rape and harassment. Their justifications usually involve an appalling mash-up of claims to personal liberty and unfounded invocations of masculine and racial privilege.

Srinivasan takes these apart carefully and persuasively, but I missed a more sustained discussion of the rights of LGBTQI people, and women, to find sex where and how they want without discrimination and fear. That said, I appreciated her slow demolition of bad popular arguments. Consider the sexual accusations against black men by white women based on racist convictions about black masculinity, exemplified most horrifically by the lynching of year-old Emmett Till in in Money, Mississippi because he allegedly looked at a white woman store owner the wrong way.

Was Carolyn Bryant to be believed at all costs? How often are black men subject to such accusations still? Did we not absolutely require due process for Emmett Till? And what about those who believe that gay and lesbian people are out to seduce, convert and exploit their young children? Should the committed homophobes who espouse such views be believed at all costs? At the same time, Srinivasan points out how often men accused of harassment and rape turn on their accusers and seek to undermine their testimony, refuse to consider the seriousness of the violations they have committed, and end up in self-piteous postures that deny the suffering of women whose lives and work they have harmed or destroyed.

Srinivasan offers a capacious and careful consideration of arguments about censoring pornography. She draws from popular culture, online discussion, statistics, and feminist theory publications. Yet, she cautions against censorship, in part because pornography includes feminist and queer forms and has opened up work opportunities for women, especially under lockdown.

Those debates included Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin on one side, calling for state censorship of pornography, and feminist activists on the other, including Gayle Rubin, Ellen Willis, and Amber Hollibaugh, who made strong feminist arguments for sexual freedom, criticised the feminist alliance with the state, and allied with sex workers and their unions. Black feminists such as bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins also criticised an uncritical alliance between feminism and the state, pointing out the double jeopardy they experienced in relation to police powers, and calling for extra-legal forms of empowerment.

One way Srinivasan enters this debate is by asking how sexual freedom has too often been modelled on market freedoms, even libertarianism, and how this has informed some feminist views. In her view, mistakes are made on both sides of the censorship debates.

She contends that those feminists who have argued that all desires are fine to act on as long as there is consent and no harm done may not consider well enough what it means for desires to be formed under conditions of capitalism and patriarchy. But none of that was ever part of the version of feminism that championed sexual freedom. Sex is notoriously a field in which bad judgements proliferate.

But that insight alone does not mean that what we call freedom is really unfreedom, or that we should give up on trying to find ways to live more freely, including to pursue sex free of the fear of violence, censorship, punishment, and pathologisation. Clearly, Srinivasan opposes these forms of sexual entitlement concocted from masculinist privilege and consumer freedoms, a toxic combination, in her view, of patriarchy and capitalism.

She cites the case of a man who claims in court that he understood a woman to have owed him sex, appeals to a personal right to achieve satisfaction at the expense of that woman, and casts that woman as a violable and expendable creature. We do presumably want to claim that the world should be transformed to reflect the desirability of those bodies, the right of those bodies to be represented as worthy of sexual and intimate attention and love. Indeed, such groups already exercise that political right when they insist on better and more inclusive representation in film, TV, and visual culture more broadly.

Similarly, when queer and trans spaces — clubs, community centres, schools, and bars — are closed down, to prevent queer and trans youth from gathering as in Poland and Romania right now , we can expect they will demand that these venues be opened because they have a right to desire and to be desired, and a right to spaces where that desire can be free to express itself. This is both a personal and collective right, for it seeks to counter a form of bodily devaluation that reflects positions of social and economic inequality.

It is not reducible to a market freedom or forms of libertarianism. But we can see the important connection between trans and feminist arguments precisely through juxtaposing these two rights: the right of women to pursue sex without fear of domestic or anonymous violence, without state restrictions on their sexual freedom; the right of anyone to secure for themselves the category of sex that allows them to live and flourish in freedom, without restriction, without the threat of violence, including state violence.

Srinivasan is admirably dedicated to re-animating collective perspectives, and the version of freedom that she would most easily accept is a collective one. The Right to Sex examines different and conflicting versions of freedom through a wide range of cultural examples, and it does this extremely well: freedom as masculine entitlement, as white supremacist power, market freedoms, including the freedom to accumulate, and to treat sex as both commodity and property. She argues that even if a student initially consents to a sexual relationship with a faculty member, they can be badly harmed by relations such as these down the line.

I agree. Their job prospects can be undermined; they stand the chance of losing mentors and support and becoming subject to retaliation; losing a sense of their value as intellectuals. Her task is to understand how individual acts reproduce social structures of oppression sometimes through the very language of choice or consent.

But to for the collective transformation of such structures, there has to be some way that freedom can interrupt their reproduction. Srinivasan has impressive moral clarity about the harms of sexual harassment and rape, but she has some questions about whether turning to the state for ability is really in the best interests of women. That movement is inspired by the conference, Critical Resistance, which took place in , and the journal then created by that name founded by Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Ruthie Gilmore, Rose Braz, Beth Richie and others.

Its influential critique of the prison-industrial complex — and, especially, its debilitating effects on women of colour — established an anti-statist position within feminism that offered visions of radical social transformation outside of legal reform. The question of how to hold those who have done harm able without recourse to courts and prisons is perhaps the most important ethical dilemma for an anti-carceral feminism. Srinivasan demonstrates how the feminist philosopher can emancipate our basic ethical concepts from the stranglehold of patriarchy, capitalism, and state racism — and this is a remarkable and promising effort.

What would ability be if it were not the same as legal punishment? What would freedom be if it were not the same as market freedoms constrained by capitalism? This article appears in the 28 July issue of the New Statesman, Summer special. up. You are browsing in private mode. Show Hide image. Related articles. Bridget Jones and the Blair years. Tom Nairn: The prophet of post-Britain.

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