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Three new books explore the gap between sex that is good and sex that is virtuous, making the complexities of desire central to our conversations about sexual ethics.

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Becca Rothfeld. Image: Flickr. Nussbaum W. On the one hand, it is not hard to understand why consent and its absence are at the forefront of mainstream conversation. A focus on rape and assault is warranted in a culture where sexual crimes are so tragically common: one in every six women in the United States is the victim of rape or attempted rape, and 81 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

In the public imagination, sexual agency is mostly reserved for male philanders and predators; female pleasure is alien at best.

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Still, hollow consent, unaccompanied by inner aching, is at least as ubiquitous as sexual coercion. Sex that is merely consensual is about as rousing as food that is merely edible, as drab as a cake without icing. Even in our era of ostensible liberation, women face emotional and social pressures, both externally imposed and uneasily internalized, to appease men at the cost of their own enjoyment.

And who can blame them? There are vanishingly few contemporary contexts in which women are taught or encouraged to demand electrification, or indeed, to want actively at all. In the public imagination, they figure at best as passive consenters, accepters or rejectors of male propositions, at worst as the hapless prey of nefarious lechers.

In this picture, sexual agency is mostly reserved for male philanderers and predators. It is telling that MeToo has focused not on women asserting but on women assenting or failing to assent. A spate of books published this year have asked these neglected questions, urging us to interrogate the political and social sources of our desires and dissatisfactions. All three books move beyond the standard consent model, asking after the origins of our sexual preferences and practices.

The important question is not only whether a woman consents, but whether the context in which she consents is conducive to both pleasure and justice which may turn out to depend on each other, as an earlier generation of sex-positive feminists, among them Carol S. Vance and Ellen Willis, knew well. There are therefore both ethical and erotic reasons to reject misogyny: under patriarchy, women are not only oppressed but repressed, and men are not only monstrous but, fatally, bad in bed.

On the face of it, Nussbaum is less interested in the sexual dimensions of sexual abuse than either Angel or Srinivasan. Accordingly, she allocates less space to the victims of sexual violence than she allocates to the psychology and socialization of rapists and harassers.

Nonetheless, she senses—and sometimes suggests—that her analysis of male transgression has important implications for the women forced to pursue what passes for pleasure under patriarchy. Part I offers a theory of what is morally objectionable about sexual harassment and assault; Part II, which feels like an excerpt from a different book, provides a thorough if dense overview of U.

Nussbaum is a philosopher, not a historian or journalist, and she is more skilled at theorizing than she is at empirical or applied investigations. Her most abstract reflections, presented in Part I, represent the moral meat of the book, as well as its most convincing contribution.

Why are men so prone to objectify? Following Dante, she sees pride as inducing a deformation of the appetites. Rather than looking outward at—and therefore aspiring to—the good, prideful people look inward, aspiring to nothing more than personal aggrandizement. But her claim is not that pride is a personal failing. If male pride is indeed a function of widesps, it is not clear that the smaller-scale institutional interventions that Nussbaum recommends, such as introducing clearer language into sexual harassment statutes, can go very far toward eradicating it, at least in the absence of more comprehensive overhaul.

Still, it may not be within our power to do much more than chip away at the ballasts of our institutions, in hopes that legal shifts yield downstream transformations in norms.

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Modest but targeted changes—better incentives for women to come forward about assaults on college campuses, for example—may deter prideful men in the short term, even if they will not fundamentally alter the extra-legal structures that shape male character.

Where does this rather deflating conclusion leave the women against whom pride is so often wielded? Male pathologies turn out to have a female correlate, albeit one that feminists have sometimes underemphasized. To take the harms of patriarchy seriously is to countenance the extent to which it not only endangers but also corrupts its victims. When they can realistically hope for almost nothing, they learn not only to subsist on sour grapes but to forget they were ever capable of craving richer fare.

On the one hand, once we accept that desire is socially and politically constructed, it ceases to qualify as something natural and immutable that we have no choice but to accept. We are now in a position to critique objectionably exclusionary sexual preferences—preferences that reflect and reify racism, ableism, sexism, and the like. Well, is there? But an approach that initially titillates begins to madden when it is extended over the course of an entire collection. It paves no paths toward less ambivalent places. The short? The chronically shy?

Srinivasan recognizes tensions in her claim that attraction is politically mediated, but she provides little guidance to the quandaries she so perceptively sketches. But can we afford to refrain from venturing at least provisional resolutions? Ultimately, The Right to Sex provides little guidance as to how we should actually respond to the moral quandaries that it so perceptively sketches.

Who is right? Both carceral solutions and extra-legal solutions have their dangers. It is also easy to see how the lack of a legal framework can sometimes imperil the marginalized communities that Srinivasan ens us to prioritize, as in the case of campus Hot looking sex Boston, which do not always provide free counsel to the accused. But this statement does little to clarify what concrete alternatives to carceral feminism we should seek in the immediate future, given that we live, regrettably, under conditions of grave inequality. Is the upshot that feminists should abandon attempts to strengthen legal protections for the victims of sexual assault or harassment as they set about agitating for more comprehensive forms of justice?

Is it that we should decline to press charges against men who rape us? These are bitter pills, but I could probably be persuaded to swallow them, and even to prefer them over sour grapes. The rub is that Srinivasan does not explain which dish I should opt for and why, or whether I am under any obligation to curb my more wanton cravings.

Should women who yearn for sexual domination, or who seek to conform to patriarchal beauty norms, modify or ignore desires they have almost definitely inherited from chauvinists? Should they prefer perennial dissatisfaction to the fulfillment of a lust with an unjust origin?

What should we do with the unruly appetites we fear we can never tame? Maybe we need not tame them.

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In the end, it may be the unruliness of our appetites that redeems us—or so argues Angel in her incisive and elegant monograph, Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Againby far the most invigorating and original of these books. In four searching essays that treat consent, desire, arousal, and vulnerability in turn, Angel does not reject legal and material remedies but looks beyond them, seeking succor in the interstices of our erotic relationships—in the sheer force and fact of desire itself.

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They must, then, also know what it is that they want. Angel does not reject legal and material remedies but looks beyond them, seeking succor in the sheer force and fact of desire itself. But how are women supposed to figure out what they want? In an age of resurgent Cartesianism, we are too quick to forget that all people are opaque to themselves at least to some extent, and women, in particular, are bombarded with contradictory messages about whether to trust our own instincts or indulge our own inclinations.

Do our eager bodies belie our reticent minds, or vice versa? How much of our resistance derives from the internalization of repressive norms, according to which femininity is bound up with purity? How much of our eagerness derives from misogynistic imperatives, according to which we must satisfy men at all costs? Can any undiluted desires be extricated from the slush of sexist indoctrination? And besides, are diluted desires any less licit or forceful than unadulterated desire—if such a thing even exists?

Must we deny ourselves what we have come to want, even if we only want it because we have been mistreated? If these questions are unanswerable in theory, the immediacy of intimacy renders them even less answerable in practice. Of course, this does not mean that we should engage in non-consensual sex. But even a revolution cannot quite salvage the current model, which takes for granted that static and stable preferences precede and are only subsequently expressed by means of consent.

The former is free-floating and sui generis, whereas the latter is prompted by and attached to the specific people who occasion it. According to the popular picture that has so long predominated, men have biological drives that catapult them toward whatever body they happen to find in the vicinity, whereas women develop attractions in reaction to particular stimuli.

Those who find this dichotomy sexist have typically argued that female desire is as brutely biological as its male analog: all desire is anticipatory. Ingeniously, Angel argues the inverse, proposing that male desire resembles female desire: all desire is responsive. A desire that seizes us is always ethical in at least one regard: it originates not within but without. Nobody really knows what she wants until she finds herself in the hot, sticky throes of wanting it.

When I invite someone in—when I want them to enter—I can never be sure that they will enter in the way that I want them to. Nor do I always know in advance how I want them to enter. As Angel writes in her ecstatic chapter on vulnerability. Good sex—delicious sex, cake with icing—is a matter of finding the self ravished and remade in a ways that an individual desirer could never independently imagine or anticipate.

What this means is that we are beholden to desires that are not of our choosing and that can therefore reflect and replicate cultural pathologies that we do not endorse. But it also means that desire can wrench us out of our habitual narrowness, shattering the carapace of ideology and inaugurating a kind of tender transcendence. In the PhaedrusPlato paints a vibrant portrait of a man who encounters a beautiful boy and is dashed by the derangements of desire. Srinivasan must have something similar in mind in one of the few hopeful passages in The Right to Sexwhere she remarks:. Desire works through us, often despite our protestations, and for this reason, it can be better than we are.

Of course, it can also be worse. But whatever its content, a desire that seizes us is always ethical in at least one regard, just in virtue of its structure. Longing that assails is the antithesis of the longing harbored by the prideful, for it originates not within but without. Good sex elevates us to the extent that it insists on the singularity of its object. To desire is always to risk wholesale reinvention because the potential for revolution is latent in the act of desiring itself.

As long as we can want, we are not yet lost: wanting often wounds us, but it can also give us wings. Confronting the many challenges of COVID—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.

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