‘This might be a watershed for American feminism’: Amia Srinivasan on repealing Roe vs Wade
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For years, feminists expressed frustration that things didn’t get better fast enough. So what happens when things get worse? The overturning of Roe vs Wade, expected in a US Supreme Court ruling this month or next, would be arguably the biggest legal setback to women’s rights in a western country in living memory.
Yet to Amia Srinivasan, the end of federal abortion protection was “absolutely inevitable. I wasn’t at all surprised”. A 37-year-old philosophy professor at Oxford university, Srinivasan has emerged as one of today’s most innovative feminist thinkers. She has appeared everywhere from The Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society to Vogue magazine. In her grand rooms at All Souls College, she holds forth with ease.
Srinivasan’s talent is to see disputes differently, often broadening what’s at stake. When it comes to not being surprised by the Supreme Court, it probably helps that she has been underwhelmed by decades of feminist progress, from 1960s liberation (which, she argues, barely changed our sexual hierarchies and desires) to the #MeToo movement.
While others celebrated how #MeToo held abusers to account, she warned the justice system would hit poor and ethnic minority men hardest. “The history of Anglo-American feminism has been the history of asking: what if the law just worked perfectly?” she tells me, her eyes almost rolling at my naivety.
Another example: after universities debated whether students could consent to sex with professors, she argued that such relationships should be banned not because the student always lacked consent, but because the teacher had failed in the task of teaching. “Power is an erotic thing, power differentials are very easily eroticised,” she says. (When I ask if this also means that company bosses should be banned from sleeping with their juniors, she demurs, saying that companies’ job is to make money, not to promote teaching.)
With abortion, Srinivasan insists what’s at stake is not the foetus. “Rates of abortion don’t really go down when you criminalise abortion.” Abortion rates have halved in the US in the past 40 years, while it has been legal. If Republicans wanted to go further, she says, they would have a different agenda: “Universal childcare. Universal healthcare. It costs a lot of money to go to the hospital and have a baby in the US!” (The average cost of childbirth for Americans with employer insurance is $13,800.)
The Supreme Court’s rightward shift is not coherent doctrine, but raw power, says Srinivasan. “Corporations having the right to free speech: was that what the American founding fathers had in mind? Er, no. Same with the right to bear arms. These decisions are entirely ad hoc, politically motivated and about consolidating the extraordinary coalition between the religious right and the economic right.”
In the US things may get even worse. “What else gets taken away? It’s pretty obvious. The right to desegregated schools. The right to access contraception. The right to gay marriage . . . Roe vs Wade is just the beginning.” Some states may try to outlaw women crossing state lines for abortions. Yet Srinivasan’s work is primarily interested not in how the law constrains women, but how politics, culture and technology do.
Srinivasan was born in Bahrain and has lived in various countries. She first arrived in Oxford as a Rhodes scholar in 2007. She is the Chichele professor of social and political theory, a post once held by Isaiah Berlin; she is the first woman, the first person of colour and by far the youngest person to hold the post. Has she ever felt uncomfortable at Oxford? “No,” she almost laughs. “I feel no more uncomfortable here than I do in lots of other places . . . I’m kinda from nowhere.” Her demeanour is pure intellectual self-confidence.
Her writings have ranged from the uses of anger (“anger, at its best, is a way of seeing clearly”) to the alienness of octopuses (“If only the octopus were more like us, we might be better at leaving it alone.”) The title essay in her book The Right to Sex, published in paperback last month, discussed Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old who murdered six people in California. Rodger had complained that women wouldn’t have sex with him. Srinivasan took seriously the idea that some groups are discriminated against by being seen as sexually less attractive (while noting that Rodger was a racist creep). Could our tendency to not desire people from certain races or with certain anatomy be unjustified discrimination?
In another essay, Srinivasan dismantled the idea that many abuse allegations are false — a question at the heart of the defamation battles of actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. A detailed 2005 UK Home Office study found that just 3 per cent of rape reports were deemed probably or possibly false by police. None resulted in a wrongful conviction. Yet for Srinivasan, #MeToo is too limited. “For poor, especially poor, immigrant, undocumented women in the US, sexual harassment is just one part of a much broader story.”
Interestingly, given her focus on unintended consequences, Srinivasan backed the slogan “defund the police”, which had its own unwanted results. Hostility to the police seemed electorally unpopular in the US; it also jarred with a murder surge in poor neighbourhoods. Srinivasan admits that the slogan is not “a particularly good strategy” for policymakers or the general public, “because more people hear defund the police and what they imagine is an absence”. But she argues that the phrase can still be useful in “articulating an understanding” among activists.
Srinivasan talks in considered, academic sentences. She keeps her sense of fun hidden. Cautious of her privacy, she never cites her personal experiences. (Even so, the top Google suggestions for her are “amia srinivasan husband” and “amia srinivasan partner”.) She draws instead on her Gen-Z students, “the first generation truly to be raised on internet pornography”. They told her that online porn was making it harder for women to protest against unwanted sex.
Srinivasan discards the idea of regulating porn because that would hurt women who produce it. Moreover, when porn is regulated, she argues, it’s the unconventional forms that are pushed out. “What tends to stay is the porn that I find most objectionable, which is very mainstream, vanilla porn, which doesn’t contain very much violence but the whole narrative is that the very routinised physical domination of this woman by this man is so pleasurable to her that she just goes along with it.”
Srinivasan’s male as well as female students were concerned about porn. Likewise, the US abortion debate is not really men against women: 63 per cent of American women say abortion should be legal, as do 58 per cent of men. (The real divides are ideology and religion.) Is that notable? “There are plenty of women who are upholders of patriarchy. I don’t think any feminist issue has ever been a case of women against men. It’s never as simple as that.” Later I ask if she feels sympathy for men, confused by changing norms. Feminism, she says, is “a real threat to forms of entitlement and power that some, not all, men currently hold. One has to address the psychic reality of that. It’s so important to talk about what feminism can do for men. Almost all, maybe all men, have the experience of coming up hard against patriarchal norms themselves. For all people, gender norms are in one way or another too simple to capture their complexity.”
Srinivasan is sceptical of science showing hard-wired differences between men and women (“How do you distinguish between what is truly hard-wired and what starts being inculturated within days of birth?”). She imagines a utopia where gender doesn’t exist. She expects more people will identify as non-binary. And she backs trans rights against gender-critical feminists. I ask why that debate is so toxic: why isn’t it possible to debate how to protect trans people, while recognising concerns around, say, trans women in women’s sports?
Srinivasan hopes that “the space for more complex and subtle conversations” may open up as the rights of trans people become less precarious. She makes an analogy with gay rights. In 2012, Sex and the City actor Cynthia Nixon was criticised for saying that being gay was a choice. “It felt like she was giving succour to a homophobic rightwing. But she could say, and many gay and lesbian people do say, things like that now. They want to have much more complex conversations.”
Within feminism, as in all political movements, ideas go out of fashion. Onetime icons end up spurned, as Germaine Greer has been for her views on trans women. “I’m always telling myself when I get older I can’t be like that,” says Srinivasan. “In general, I can’t be one of these people who feels like I own feminism, or I own the left, or I own the set of ideas that I might have put out into the world.”
Where do feminists movements go if Roe is overturned? Srinivasan takes heart from the broad-based protests in Poland when the government restricted abortion. “The hopeful reading would be you’d have a resurgence of really radical grassroots feminist politics of the kind you saw in the US in the late 1960s and 1970s. Are we going to start having illegal abortion networks created again, run by women, complete with anonymous hotlines, where you call up and they help you cross state lines? This might be a watershed, a really galvanising moment for American feminism.” She pauses, perhaps aware of the wood-panelled tower she occupies. “But it might not be.”
On the Spot: Five Questions for Amia Srinivasan
When will the US have a female president? I want to know when it’s next going to have a proper leftwing president.
Crypto or cash? Cash.
The book more people should read? James Baldwin’s ‘Another Country’
Best way to break your online filter bubble? Do some real political organising. Go door to door.
Last thing you gave up? Twitter. I’ve haven’t been on in months.