In her new book, Katherine Angel explores the nuances and complexities of consent, female desire, and vulnerability in a post #MeToo world, and asks whether explicit consent really does make sex good again.
In the 1970s, the philosopher Michael Foucault wrote an essay in which he picked apart the supposed sexual revolution. He teasingly promised that ‘tomorrow sex will be good again’, holding the prospect tantalisingly out of reach and arguing that good sex cannot simply be willed into existence. It’s an appropriate phrase for Katherine Angel to have borrowed for the title of her new book, in which she explores current notions of consent and desire, and asks whether saying yes automatically equates to good sex. (Spoiler: it doesn’t, as I’m sure every womxn reading this will already know.) Short but rich in ideas, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again picks apart discourses on sex, on female desire, on arousal, on vulnerability, and places them within the post-#MeToo framework of explicit, affirmative consent. It questions and explores the nuances and complexities of this type of consent, and the issues it raises in a world where women’s desire is intrinsically – and problematically – bound up with existing power structures.
I met Katherine over Zoom one April afternoon, when the issue of sexual assault and violence against women was once again very much at the forefront of the news. Once again, sickening statistics were being tossed into the air, waiting for someone to catch them and do something about them. Once again, women were coming forward, sharing their own stories of assault and harassment, sharing their own fears of walking alone at night and hoping that men would listen. As well as Sarah Everard, there were other stories, nameless ones, of the thousands of women facing domestic violence and sexual assault in their own homes during lockdown. With all of this in the background, it felt very relevant to be talking about ideas of consent and female empowerment. Not only is it a vital conversation to have at any time, but it seemed like something tangible in the face of so much insidious powerlessness.
Katherine wrote the bulk of the book in the aftermath of #MeToo, a movement which she says was valuable in a lot of ways but also had its shortcomings. ‘I began to feel quite disturbed by some of the language that was being used to well-meaningly try to improve sex between men and women [as the conversations around #MeToo were overwhelmingly geared towards men and women. Katherine also focuses on this in the book, explicitly stating that while many of the issues are undoubtedly the same and will hopefully resonate with other communities, she doesn’t feel qualified to specifically comment on the experience of LGBTQI+]. I started feeling concerned about the way in which I felt the burden was again being placed on women to resolve problems within our sexual culture, and also disturbed by some of the language and the rhetoric that was prevalent in the media. It seemed to me that it addresses women in a simplistic way, which not only denies the complexity of the situations that women find themselves in, but places the burden on women to be clear and confident about their sexuality. This type of language is nothing new, of course, but I think in the aftermath of something like #MeToo it’s even more important to question it. Ultimately, who is it benefiting?’
The notion of consent today ‘privileges a robust self knowledge’ of needs, wants, and desires. It not only assumes, but demands, that women are confident, assertive, and sure of what they want from sex: if they want sex to be enjoyable (and legal) they must speak clearly. The trouble, argues Katherine, is not only that women do not always know what they want – ‘and why should they?’ – but also that this kind of sexual confidence is exactly what our culture punishes women for having. It’s common in rape trials, for example, for a woman’s texts to be read, her clothes judged, her attitude deemed to be provocative. A throwaway comment can become a green light for sexual violence. Consent is absolutely vital as ‘the least bad standard for sexual assault law’, and yet the idea that consent must include very clear communication also opens up the possibility of it becoming, in Katherine’s words, ’a meaningless condition which women must fulfil if they can hope not to be sexually assaulted’.
It also places the burden of not only enjoyable sex, but sex free from violence, disproportionately on women. Again, this is nothing new, and is commonplace even outside of the sexual arena. Women are told constantly to not walk alone, to not walk at night, to carry a mobile phone but not display it, to wear flat shoes for running in and keep keys handy for self-defence. The question of why some men feel compelled to attack women, and what can be done to prevent male violence in the first place, is not one that has historically been asked. In the same way, Katherine argues that when it comes to sexual assault and bad sex, at least some of our attention needs to be elsewhere. ‘Why do some men feel entitled to make women suffer? Why do some men feel that women’s sexual pleasure doesn’t count? The language that we have around consent turns women into some sort of ideal sexual subject, one who’s confident and expressive and who knows what she wants, but it also assumes that women do not encounter the kind of misogynistic contempt and rage that some men reveal when faced with such a woman. We’re asking women to clearly express their desires as if we don’t live in a culture that constantly makes them feel guilty about that, and we’re also assuming that men respond appropriately. And when it goes wrong, which of course it does all the time, whose behaviour is called to account? Women’s. Without taking this reality into account, consent in itself is not very useful.’
Throughout Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine makes this subtle point: that most of the time we are talking about the wrong things. Autonomy, respect, and above all pleasure are words that don’t often make an appearance in consent discourse, and yet are the foundations of what we expect consent to provide. ‘Attempts have been made to widen the notion of consent, to spice it up, to try and force it to accommodate all of the complexities that we encounter, and yet really we should be looking beyond this legalistic notion of consent and towards something different. We should be asking ourselves why some people – some men, in particular – cannot cope when faced with rejection. Why do they find it so humiliating, why so fury-inducing? There are very deeply ingrained notions of gender and power that we need to be questioning.’
These notions of power are threaded throughout the book. In our society, male heterosexual desire and pleasure are prioritised above all else. Female pleasure and comfort during sex is often discounted, and Katherine argues that the resulting bad sex, even if it doesn’t count as sexual assault, deserves to be taken seriously as a problem in its own right. ‘Sometimes women experience sex which makes them feel used and miserable and humiliated, and that deserves compassion and conversation – particularly when it’s so bad that women mistake it for sexual assault. I’m not sure when we started to normalise bad sex and even joke about it. In popular culture bad, painful sex is seen as simply a part of life, especially when girls and women first start having sex, and that really disturbs me. The bar is set so depressingly low for women’s expectations.’ Yet she also points out that men are victims in their own way, of a gender binary that enforces both a masculine ideal and a certain idea of power. When I ask how we can help men in this situation, Katherine laughs. ‘Give them lots of queer theory to read! It sounds mad, and of course many men are not going to be receptive to reading that kind of work. But there is so much queer theory that looks precisely at constructions of gender and masculinity, and I think it’s vital that we try to unlock our rigid notions of gender norms. We’ve created a social and cultural hierarchy in which men are supposed to be in control, where they are prioritised, and where it follows that women are not autonomous beings in charge of their own sexual desires. Why does our notion of masculinity come with this assumption that men shouldn’t show vulnerability, for example? The erotic is not incompatible with vulnerability, and in fact every single one of us is inherently vulnerable in sex, both physically and emotionally. I’d love for everyone to be able to acknowledge that they are scared in sex, and for that to be the beginning of a new erotic relationship.’
This idea of vulnerability in sex is given a whole chapter to itself in the book, and is an argument that is both very persuasive and very tricky to navigate. Acknowledging the fear and precariousness of sex, embracing those vulnerabilities, talking about them rather than reacting negatively to them, and having a better chance of great sex as a result – it sounds like some kind of sexual utopia. It also sounds terrifying to most people and is, as Katherine admits, something of a privileged position. Like consent itself, the idea of being vulnerable in sex favours those who are actually able to say yes or no, those whose experiences enable them to consider the idea of opening up to another, those who are not carrying the trauma of assault, those who are not navigating the power dynamics of an abusive relationship. And it’s vital to consider this privilege, because it’s here that a sexual, social and cultural issue becomes an overtly political one too. Women’s high susceptibility to sexual violence is often linked to their dependence on men, and the effects of economic austerity policies, for example, disproportionately land on women. Structural social phenomena discriminate against women in a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and these feed into the binary power dynamics that ultimately result in assault.
There is also the issue of education. A recent study found that a majority of students entering UK universities favoured some kind of ‘consent test’, because they didn’t feel that they or their peers were well-enough equipped to deal with issues of consent within adult relationships. Education on sex and relationships is woefully lacking in most schools, and Katherine is adamant that this, along with a reluctance to talk to children about vulnerability and pleasure within sex, is a problem. ‘It’s a really difficult thing to consider, because children are inherently vulnerable. But we already talk to them implicitly about pleasure, all the time, and what we are teaching them – albeit in a covert and unfair way – is that men’s pleasure is more important than women’s. Girls should grow up feeling entitled to sexual joy and excitement, not ashamed or fearful of their desires. Those are complicated conversations to have, but they aren’t abstract questions. We’re constantly schooling ourselves and others through the media over what desire is, what pleasure is, and who has the right to feel those things. So why not do it explicitly?’
Refreshingly, however, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is not prescriptive. It isn’t a how-to book, and it doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Instead, it offers a thoughtful, nuanced articulation of the problems and issues we face surrounding sexual assault and bad sex, without rushing to a solution. For Katherine, the aim in writing it was to ‘offer a ‘kind of plea – not a simple one, and not one I make glibly – for those that can to think about softening in their attitudes to consent, and desire, and sex. I really feel aggrieved at a world that doesn’t allow us to dwell in vulnerability, because I think that means we cut off not only kindness and care but also pleasure.’ In a society and culture in which women have traditionally been told, in male-focused language, what they want, this argument for uncertainty and vulnerability also opens up the possibility of finding a new language for female desire; one in which women can not only express themselves without fear of reprisals but positively embody those notions of kindness and care and pleasure, in which women do not always have to know what they want in order for sex to be safe. Against a backdrop of continued violence against women, it’s a wonderful thought.
Many thanks to Katherine Angel for her time in this interview.
Feature image: Katherine Angel by Stacey Yates.