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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 - ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com

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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
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
ezra klein
amia srinivasan
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
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
ezra klein
amia srinivasan
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
ezra klein

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

amia srinivasan
ezra klein

There's just only so much you can do.

amia srinivasan
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
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
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
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
amia srinivasan
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
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
amia srinivasan
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
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.

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