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Do you know the story of Myrrha and Cinyras? Myrrha, he tells us, was the princess of Cyprus, the daughter of King Cinyras, whom she dearly loved—but not as a daughter should. Tormented by forbidden lust, she tried to hang herself, but was discovered in time by her nurse. Disguised by the dark, Myrrha spent many blissful nights with her father, until Cinyras at last thought to fetch a light to see the face of his young lover. On learning the truth, he seized his sword, to kill her.

She fled and wandered the earth until the gods put an end to her misery by turning her into a tree. That is how we got myrrh. Two thousand years later, this tale is as strange and harrowing as ever. Why is Orpheus singing of such things?

He has just lost Eurydice by turning back and taking a forbidden look at her as she followed him up from Hades. Maybe, having ruined his life by succumbing to his own desire, he is taking bitter comfort in the fact that someone else has done the same. Cinyras is their grandson. That is a happy tale, ending with an impossible wish fulfilled. But it, too, contains the bitter seed of female duplicity. Pygmalion observed how these women lived lives of sordid indecency, and, dismayed by the numerous defects of character Nature had given the feminine spirit, stayed as a bachelor, having no female companion.

The most notorious example is Elliot Rodger, the twenty-two-year-old who went on a murderous spree in Isla Vista, California, in May, , to avenge himself on a world of women who, as he claimed in a hundred-thousand-word autobiographical manifesto, acted like rapacious sluts with other men and yet punished him by denying him sex. Myrrha is cursed from the moment that she recognizes what it is she wants, and she knows it. This is an ancient belief: that our most ardent desires dwell fully formed within us, only waiting to emerge.

It seems easier to be changed into a tree. Has the time come to reconsider? Amia Srinivasan, a professor of philosophy at Oxford and an occasional contributor to this magazine, thinks so. But at its heart is the title essay, in which Srinivasan asks us to imagine what might be possible if we chose to see our own erotic desires as flexible rather than fixed. Still, reading the essay now, you can see why people—conservative commentators, like the columnist Ross Douthat, but also a of feminists—were freaked out.

Srinivasan begins her discussion with Elliot Rodger. As many feminists have pointed out, the incel phenomenon is a particularly concentrated form of the misogynistic poison that is aerosolized throughout the general cultural air. Such men feel that they have a right to sex, but so have many men—and, until very recently, the law was often on their side. Nobody was convicted of marital rape in the United States before This is the consensus position. Certain bodies confer status to those granted access to them. It colludes with society to stratify and imprison us.

Feminism should help point the way out of this predicament, but feminism, Srinivasan believes, bears some blame for getting us into it in the first place. Sex positivity rules the day: whatever a woman claims she wants is, by definition, a good thing, an expression of female agency, so long as it takes place within the bounds of consent. Many second-wave feminists of the nineteen-sixties and seventies were concerned with analyzing sex and desire.

Enough of Freud and his ridiculous theories, they said. One obvious solution was to cut men out of the picture. Lesbianism was framed as a political identity, available to all women regardless of sexual preference, though, true to their moniker, some anti-sex feminists decided to go further. Eventually, Willis helped stake out a new position. Women had an absolute right to follow their own desires, within the limits of consent. Unsurprisingly, sex positivity has had more staying power than celibacy or political lesbianism.

Sex is a useful thing to have on your side, but, Srinivasan believes, it comes at a cost. One reason may be that she sees this kind of because-I-say-so feminism as the by-product of an indisputably good thing that happened to the movement, which is that it got more diverse, and consequently more tolerant. The first is anathema to love, the second to sex, and both are anathema to dignity. But it did. And there is another major tonal shift.

Srinivasan takes her critics seriously, citing the tweets and the columns of the opposition. Of course, if the old sexual order had been upended, Srinivasan would not need to write a book addressing the problem of male domination. This requires her to go spelunking through sexist Reddit thre, racist reality-TV shows, and other icky places. But what is most painful is often what is closest to home. Sometimes when we say that Asian men remind us of our cousins, we are saying: we know too much about how these boys and men are raised.

Another question is: why think that white boys and men are raised any better? Is sophistication to be found only in Caucasia? Srinivasan is talking about the unsettling experience of being categorized by others, and looking hard at the way that she might be tempted to adopt these . For each of her points, as this passage makes clear, she can find a counterpoint. But why should it be comfortable?

Conversion therapy, too, is about trying to change what people want, and by all s the experience is not only hell; it is also ineffective. Yet conversion therapy serves a politics of repression. Srinivasan is after liberation. The process of self-interrogation may be painful, but it is part of the quest, she maintains, for greater joy.

Antonio hangs around the club where he knows Pablo likes to go, waiting to bump into him. He has been ambushed by desire, and is determined, as Pablo soon learns, to satisfy it. Desire changes, and not usually by the mechanism of conscious choice. We meet someone; we want them. Then we meet someone else. Srinivasan recognizes this. Erotic desire, Angel argues, does not sit within us, fully formed, waiting to be mined like ore.

It takes shape through a process of exploration, and, ideally, collaboration. But Angel thinks that this kind of happy discovery is compromised for many women. One clear reason is the threat of male violence. A less obvious culprit is the safeguard that contemporary feminism has formulated to defuse that threat: affirmative consent. Too bad. Angel worries, too, that the focus on consent treats any sexual encounter between a man and a woman as a possible crime scene, which it is up to the woman to police. Her focus is on the dynamics of heterosexuality.

It is a relief when she moves from science to film and literature—that is, to fiction, where the most complex human truths are told. Vulnerability entails risk, Angel reminds us, and sex is never free from the dynamics of power. That is what makes it scary, and also, sometimes, wonderful. Angel is not proposing that we do away with consent. After all, Angel points out, fondly, what is more vulnerable than the male body, which makes its desires so openly known?

One challenge that Srinivasan and Angel confront, as theorists of sex and desire, is that sex and desire are hard to theorize about. And sexual desire can be a creative act, an invitation to imagine. Some fought to restrict and ban it, though, as Srinivasan points out, laws restricting sexual expression and its depiction tend to do no favors to women and queer people.

Or sex can—if they choose—be something more joyful, more equal, freer. Maybe no one can know—at least, not until such a choice becomes a necessity. They are in an ideal kind of love, inhabiting a private world of two. Then Laurence announces that he is trans. Fred is furious. She feels betrayed. Her mother pushes her to leave; her sister points out that Fred likes men.

But Fred decides that she will try to make it work: she, too, will do her best to wrestle with ambiguity, to expand her own imagination of what desire can be. None of us are static, stable beings, with some fixed, internal true north. The real question may not be whether we can manage to change but whether we can afford not to.

Alexandra Schwartz has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since e-mail address.

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