Amia Srinivasan

Amia Srinivasan is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. The Right to Sex is published by Bloomsbury.

What does Fluffy think? Pets with Benefits

Amia Srinivasan, 7 October 2021

The idea that it is impossible to know what non-human animals are feeling or thinking can serve as cover for their exploitation, domination and extermination. Do we really know nothing of how animals, even animals as physiologically different from us as lizards or bats, feel about the burning of their forests, the melting of their ice floes, the contamination of their water? Or is it that we do know, and simply fear what acknowledging it would mean? In sex of all things, where humans so often misconstrue what other humans want, where the temptation to project our fantasies and images onto the other is always pressing, where coercion and control figure all too easily – can we ever trust ourselves to know, really know, what an animal wants? Perhaps one day there will be members of the animal species Homo sapiens who are able to have sex with other animal species in a way that has nothing to do with the will to dominate, fetishise or transgress. If so, I think, those people would be of our species, but not of our kind.

How would any of us – trans or not, binary or non – feel if others, convinced that they knew the truth of who we really were, insisted on referring to us using words that, so far as we were concerned, didn’t apply to us? If you think you would not feel like a failure or a freak, could it be because you can’t imagine being so wildly misnamed by the world? People use non-standard pronouns, or use pronouns in non-standard ways, for various reasons: to accord with their sense of themselves, to make their passage through the world less painful, to prefigure and hasten the arrival of a world in which divisions of sex no longer matter. So too we can choose to respect people’s pronouns for many reasons. We can do it because we buy into the idea that there is no simple sex or gender binary, or because we want a world in which the binary, whether it exists or not, is stripped of its cultural weight. But we can also respect people’s pronouns simply because we want to be kind, because we too know what it is to feel like a failure and a freak, because when we talk about someone, we want them to feel that it is them we are speaking of, really and wholly.

From The Blog
3 December 2019

Last Wednesday, at a time when I would have been delivering an undergraduate lecture on feminism, my students organised a teach-out on some of the themes of the course: capitalism, work and reproduction. I sat at the back of a crowded seminar room in Balliol College – the Oxford colleges don’t recognise the UCU, which means that when we strike it is only with respect to our university, not college, contracts – and listened as students spoke about wages for housework and sex work, marketisation and commodification, Rosa Luxemburg and Silvia Federici.

Sharky Waters

Amia Srinivasan, 11 October 2018

On 15 September​, 26-year-old Arthur Medici was killed by a great white shark off Newcomb Hollow Beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He was thirty yards from the shore, boogie boarding, when the shark attacked. A witness says that everything was calm until he saw ‘a giant eruption of water’ and then ‘a tail and a lot of thrashing’. Medici was pulled from the water...

Does anyone have the right to sex?

Amia Srinivasan, 22 March 2018

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: we are rightly wary of speaking of what people really want, or what some idealised version of them would want. 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.

Octopuses frustrate the neat evolutionary division between clever vertebrates and simple-minded invertebrates. They are sophisticated problem solvers; they learn, and can use tools; and they show a capacity for mimicry, deception and, some think, humour. Just how refined their abilities are is a matter of scientific debate: their very strangeness makes octopuses hard to study. Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. They are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.

Bundles: Remembering Derek Parfit

Amia Srinivasan, 19 January 2017

Amia Srinivasan’s article in this issue first appeared on the LRB blog. You can read it here.

Under Rhodes: Rhodes Must Fall

Amia Srinivasan, 31 March 2016

At the​ Rhodes Scholarship interview, candidates are often asked how they intend to ‘fight the world’s fight’, a phrase inherited from the scholarship’s founder, Cecil Rhodes. The exceeding ambition that has always been demanded of Rhodes scholars takes its cue from Rhodes’s own imperial fantasies: ‘Why should we not form a secret society with but one...

Stop the Robot Apocalypse: The New Utilitarians

Amia Srinivasan, 24 September 2015

Philosophers may talk about justice or rights, but they don’t often try to reshape the world according to their ideals. A new generation of moral philosophers is determined to break with this tradition of ineffectuality. The goal of the ‘effective altruists’ is not only to theorise the world, but to use their theories to leave the world a better place than they found it. Their leader is William MacAskill, a 28-year-old lecturer at Oxford.

After the Meteor Strike: Death

Amia Srinivasan, 25 September 2014

What’s​ really so bad about death? Unlike heartbreak, debt, public speaking or whatever else we may be afraid of, our own death isn’t something we experience. ‘Death,’ Epicurus said, ‘is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.’ Death is not an event in life. It isn’t, properly...

In the Long Cool Hour: Pragmatic Naturalism

Amia Srinivasan, 6 December 2012

‘These English psychologists,’ Nietzsche wrote in 1887, ‘just what do they want?’

You always find them at the same task, whether they want to or not, pushing the partie honteuse of our inner world to the foreground, and looking for what is really effective, guiding and decisive for our development where man’s intellectual pride would least wish to find it (for...

Armchair v. Laboratory

Amia Srinivasan, 22 September 2011

‘Blessed is he whose mind had power to probe/The causes of things,’ Virgil wrote, thinking of Lucretius. But for many, knowing the causal origins of things can be reason for anxiety. Just as we might worry that tracing our family trees will turn up slave owners or madmen, we might also worry that genealogical investigation into our most cherished beliefs, values and practices will...

From The Blog
7 March 2018

This morning the vice chancellor sent a message to all staff of the University of Oxford: Dear Colleagues, I am writing to follow up on yesterday’s meeting in the Sheldonian which my colleagues have told me about. I was very sorry not to be there myself but I had scheduled a trip to New York on university business before the meeting of Congregation was called. In light of the depth of feeling of so many colleagues we will convene a special meeting of Council today at noon and will be recommending that Council reverse its response to the UUK survey in line with Congregation’s resolution.

From The Blog
6 March 2018

As feared, 21 people stood up in Congregation today to block a debate and vote on revising Oxford's position on pension reform. At least some of the 21 were university administrators, and included the pro-vice chancellor for diversity, as well as other members of Council (the university's executive body). The vice chancellor was not there.

From The Blog
6 March 2018

At 2 p.m. today the University of Oxford's legislative body, Congregation, will meet in the Sheldonian Theatre. All academic staff are members of Congregation, and any twenty of them can propose a resolution for debate. For consideration today is a resolution that would revise the university's submission to Universities UK's September consultation on staff pensions. Oxford, along with Cambridge, was among the 42 per cent of employers who called for the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) to take 'less risk', which in practice means a shift from a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension. It now appears that one-third of the employers calling for 'less risk' were constituent colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.

From The Blog
6 January 2017

I first met Derek Parfit the summer I was 19, when my college boyfriend and I spent a day visiting Oxford. Parfit’s Reasons and Persons was the only thing written by a living person on our first-year philosophy syllabus at Yale. Passing All Souls College, we went to the porter’s lodge and asked, absurdly, if we could see him. The porter said Parfit was teaching a seminar in the Old Library. We stood outside the door, pressing our ears to it, hearing nothing but murmurs, debating whether or not to go in. Eventually the seminar ended and people started to file out. Realising we had no idea what Parfit looked like, we asked every man leaving the room if he was Derek Parfit. They all laughed: they must have been twenty-something graduate students. Finally, out came a man with a mane of white hair and a bright red tie tucked into his trousers, wielding a large Smirnoff vodka bottle. We introduced ourselves.

From The Blog
16 August 2016

‘I envision a world in which a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanised, with an agreement from the guardians, when it is difficult for the person to carry out household and social activities.’ These are the words of Satoshi Uematsu, the 26-year-old man who killed 19 disabled men and women in a care home in a Tokyo suburb last month, in the biggest mass murder Japan has seen since the Second World War.

From The Blog
21 July 2016

When I started my freshman year at Yale, in 2003, Locals 34 and 35 – the unions that represent Yale’s clerical, maintenance, custodial and food service workers – were on strike. As I moved into my dorm on Old Campus, I crossed a picket line. We all did. Some workers held up signs saying: ‘You should have gone to Harvard.’ There were no meals served in the dining halls; Yale gave us cash to eat out. Each morning we were woken up by chanting outside our neo-neo-Gothic windows: ‘What do we want? A CONTRACT! When do we want it? NOW!’ Early on we were addressed by the undergraduate dean, who cautioned us (after some stirring words about our being the best and the brightest) not to be in any rush to take sides on the current labour dispute – we had plenty of time, four blissful years, to think and reflect. It is widely recognised that Yale, the biggest employer in New Haven, Connecticut (the poorest city in the richest state) has the worst labour relations of any major university in the US; this strike was the eighth since 1968. Some freshmen ignored the dean’s advice and joined the strike, but the general mood, I remember, was one of entitled disgruntlement. Eventually a contract was agreed, the workers went back to work, and we started eating our meals in the dining halls.

From The Blog
2 December 2015

The Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have just announced the birth of their first child, a daughter named Max. Procreation has apparently turned Zuckerberg’s thoughts towards his legacy. In ‘A letter to our daughter’ posted (where else?) on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg explains that he and Chan want their daughter to ‘grow up in a better world than ours today’. The post was ‘liked’ by more than a million people, including Melinda Gates, Shakira and Martha Stewart. In response to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s congratulations, Zuckerberg wrote that Max ‘is clearly going to be a Lean In girl!’, referring to Sandberg’s 2013 handbook for women who aspire to be CEOs.

From The Blog
12 March 2015

At Crufts last week, as a five-year-old Scottish Terrier called Knopa (who competes under the name ‘McVan’s to Russia with Love’) was being awarded Best in Show, a protester stormed the floor holding a sign that read ‘Mutts against Crufts’, before being dragged off by security staff. PETA explained that the protest was against the practice of pedigree breeding, which leads to chronic health problems in purebred dogs as well as the neglect of mixed-breed dogs. (The BBC dropped its coverage of Crufts in 2008 after the Kennel Club refused to exclude from the competition some breeds particularly at risk because of generations of inbreeding.)

From The Blog
3 February 2015

The Counterterrorism and Security Bill 2014-15 has all but completed its swift passage into law. Sponsored by Theresa May and Lord Bates of the Home Office, it promises to expand the state’s paranoid reach in predictable ways: new powers to seize passports and bar UK citizens from returning home; a requirement that internet service providers collect data on users; a provision that airlines and rail and shipping companies may have to seek permission from the Home Office to carry certain groups of people.

From The Blog
10 December 2014

Serial is the world’s most popular podcast. It reached the five million download mark on iTunes in record time. It’s a spin-off from This American Life, which has been a staple of American public radio since the mid-1990s. Serial first aired as an episode of TAL in October, but now has its own home online. TAL is what you turn on when you’re doing the dishes. Serial demands to be listened to, then listened to again, compulsively, ritualistically; damn the dishes.

From The Blog
19 August 2013

Squatters have moved in next door. 195 Mare Street, a Grade II* listed Georgian villa built in 1699, is the second oldest surviving house in Hackney. It’s been derelict for years: windows boarded up, front garden overgrown. Until, that is, one evening last week, when I saw people passing bags and boxes over the gate. The next morning, some sheets of A4 paper had been posted to the railings.


The Right to Sex

22 March 2018

Amia Srinivasan writes: I entirely agree with Rebecca Solnit that women, despite what some men seem to think, ‘have the right to decide’ who gets to have sex with them, and that being denied sex by a woman isn’t a violation of any man’s rights. Indeed I describe this claim – right before I discuss Solnit’s sandwich analogy – as ‘axiomatic’. But...
David Bromwich worries about the coddling of students on American university campuses. But he makes his case too easy for himself by downplaying the underlying causes of their disgruntlement. Yale, where Bromwich teaches and where I was an undergraduate, remains one of the most racially segregated places I’ve ever spent time in. On the whole, in the dining halls, and in the classrooms too, white...

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