Does anyone have the right to sex? The term can, in theory, be applied to both men and women, but in practice it picks out not sexless men in general, but a certain kind of sexless man: He shot three women on the lawn, killing two of them, Katherine Cooper and Veronika Weiss. Rodger then went on a drive-by shooting spree through Isla Vista, killing Christopher Michaels-Martinez, also a student at UCSB, with a single bullet to the chest inside a Deli Mart, and wounding 14 others.
He was found dead by the police, having shot himself in the head. I am beautiful, and I am half-white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. But of course it is OK to say, for example, that rape should have a lighter punishment or even that it should be legalised and that slutty women deserve rape.
His manifesto reveals that it was overwhelmingly boys, not girls, who bullied him: But it was the girls who deprived him of sex, and the girls, therefore, who had to be destroyed. The answer to that question is complicated by two things. First, Rodger was a creep, and it was at least partly his insistence on his own aesthetic, moral and racial superiority, and whatever it was in him that made him capable of stabbing his housemates and his friend a total of times, not his failure to meet the demands of heteromasculinity, that kept women away.
Second, plenty of non-homicidal nerdy guys get laid. Feminist commentary on Elliot Rodger and the incel phenomenon more broadly has said much about male sexual entitlement, objectification and violence.
But so far it has said little about desire: A few decades ago feminists were nearly alone in thinking about the way sexual desire — its objects and expressions, fetishes and fantasies — is shaped by oppression. For some the solution lay in the self-disciplining of desire demanded by political lesbianism. But perhaps even lesbian sex offered no decisive escape: They insisted on the possibility of genuine sexual pleasure under patriarchy, and the importance of allowing women the freedom to pursue it.
Instead they insisted that women were entitled to sex free of guilt, including heterosexual sex, if they wanted it. Demands for equal access to the workplace will be more resonant for white, middle-class women who have been forced to stay home than it will be for the black and working-class women who have always been expected to labour alongside men.
Similarly, sexual self-objectification may mean one thing for a woman who, by virtue of her whiteness, is already taken to be a paradigm of female beauty, but quite another thing for a black or brown woman, or a trans woman.
The turn towards intersectionality has also made feminists uncomfortable with thinking in terms of false consciousness: The important thing now is to take women at their word. This is not merely an epistemic claim: It is also, or perhaps primarily, an ethical claim: Since the s, the wind has been behind a feminism which takes desire for the most part as given — your desire takes the shape that it takes — and which insists that acting on that desire is morally constrained only by the boundaries of consent.
Sex is no longer morally problematic or unproblematic: In this sense, the norms of sex are like the norms of capitalist free exchange.
What matters is not what conditions give rise to the dynamics of supply and demand — why some people need to sell their labour while others buy it — but only that both buyer and seller have agreed to the transfer.
It would be too easy, though, to say that sex positivity represents the co-option of feminism by liberalism. Generations of feminists and gay and lesbian activists have fought hard to free sex from shame, stigma, coercion, abuse and unwanted pain.
Thus feminism finds itself not only questioning the liberal distinction between the public and the private, but also insisting on it. Yet it would be disingenuous to make nothing of the convergence, however unintentional, between sex positivity and liberalism in their shared reluctance to interrogate the formation of our desires. Third and fourth-wave feminists are right to say, for example, that sex work is work, and can be better work than the menial labour undertaken by most women.
And they are right to say that what sex workers need are legal and material protections, safety and security, not rescue or rehabilitation. But to understand what sort of work sex work is — just what physical and psychical acts are being bought and sold, and why it is overwhelmingly women who do it, and overwhelmingly men who pay for it — surely we have to say something about the political formation of male desire.
Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had a real choice? One might feel that Willis has given with one hand and taken away with the other. But really she has given with both.
Here, she tells us, is the task of feminism: What I am suggesting is that, in our rush to do the former, feminists risk forgetting to do the latter. When we see consent as the sole constraint on OK sex, we are pushed towards a naturalisation of sexual preference in which the rape fantasy becomes a primordial rather than a political fact. But not only the rape fantasy. These too are political facts, which a truly intersectional feminism should demand that we take seriously.
The results are predictably grim. When he ignores their messages, abuse is hurled at him. Talking about it afterwards, the white guy expresses his shock, the Asian guy cheerful resignation. In the next episode, a ripped Ryan Gosling-type switches profiles with a pretty-faced chubby guy.
In episode three a fem guy trades with a masc guy. The results are as one would expect. In so doing, Grindr simply deepens the discriminatory grooves along which our sexual desires already move. But online dating — and especially the abstracted interfaces of Tinder and Grindr, which distil attraction down to the essentials: The gay men in my life say this sort of thing all the time; they all feel bad about it, perpetrators and victims alike most see themselves as both.
By contrast, gay men — even the beautiful, white, rich, able-bodied ones — know that who we have sex with, and how, is a political question. There are of course real risks associated with subjecting our sexual preferences to political scrutiny. We want feminism to be able to interrogate the grounds of desire, but without slut-shaming, prudery or self-denial: Some feminists think this is impossible, that any openness to desire-critique will inevitably lead to authoritarian moralism.
But there is a risk too that repoliticising desire will encourage a discourse of sexual entitlement. Talk of people who are unjustly sexually marginalised or excluded can pave the way to the thought that these people have a right to sex, a right that is being violated by those who refuse to have sex with them. That view is galling: This too is axiomatic. And this, of course, is what Elliot Rodger, like the legions of angry incels who celebrate him as a martyr, refused to see.
But the analogy complicates as much as it elucidates. Suppose your child came home from primary school and told you that the other children share their sandwiches with each other, but not with her. Suddenly it hardly seems sufficient to say that none of the other children is obligated to share with your child, true as that might be. Sex is not a sandwich. Of course, it matters just what those interventions would look like: But to think that such measures would be enough to alter our sexual desires, to free them entirely from the grooves of discrimination, is naive.
What works in one case will not work in the other. There is nothing else so riven with politics and yet so inviolably personal. For better or worse, we must find a way to take sex on its own terms. The difficulties I have been discussing are currently posed in the most vexed form within feminism by the experience of trans women. Trans women often face sexual exclusion from lesbian cis women who at the same time claim to take them seriously as women.
The phenomenon is real, but, as many trans women have noted, the phrase itself is unfortunate. There is no entitlement to sex, and everyone is entitled to want what they want, but personal preferences — no dicks, no fems, no fats, no blacks, no arabs, no rice no spice, masc-for-masc — are never just personal. But now you begin to see the problem with desire: This declaration, as Chu is well aware, threatens to bolster the argument made by anti-trans feminists: What we need, in other words, is to fully exorcise the radical feminist ambition to develop a political critique of sex.
The argument cuts both ways. If all desire must be immune from political critique, then so must the desires that exclude and marginalise trans women: The dichotomy between identity and desire, as Chu suggests, is surely a false one; and in any case the rights of trans people should not rest on it, any more than the rights of gay people should rest on the idea that homosexuality is innate rather than chosen a matter of who gay people are rather than what they want.
But a feminism that totally abjures the political critique of desire is a feminism with little to say about the injustices of exclusion and misrecognition suffered by the women who arguably need feminism the most. That said, the radical self-love movements among black, fat and disabled women do ask us to treat our sexual preferences as less than perfectly fixed.
Lindy West describes studying photographs of fat women and asking herself what it would be to see these bodies — bodies that previously filled her with shame and self-loathing — as objectively beautiful. To take this question seriously requires that we recognise that the very idea of fixed sexual preference is political, not metaphysical.
As a matter of good politics, we treat the preferences of others as sacred: That way, we know, authoritarianism lies. This is true, most of all, in sex, where invocations of real or ideal desires have long been used as a cover for the rape of women and gay men. But the fact is that our sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own wills — not automatically, but not impossibly either.
In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.