(Verso Press, 2021; hbk, £10.99)
‘What does a woman want?’, Freud’s now infamous lines, could be uttered as a genuine question ― or as an exasperated retort, replete with exclamation. Between these two poles lie a multitude of complex positions that mark (or give lie) to our cultural assumptions about sexual relations. Katherine Angel’s new book, which takes its title from a line in Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, arrives as a clear-eyed intervention in this confusing climate of claims and counter-claims. The best thing about Tomorrow Sex will be Good Again (and there are so many good things about the book) is that Angel does not shy away from all of the complexities and nuances that feed into how we represent heterosexual desire; she also does not pull any punches about what needs to change in actual behaviour.
The book’s subtitle is ‘Women and Desire in the Age of consent’, and in many ways she addresses primarily women (and their representation), and men by inference or consequence. Four overlapping essays set out the title’s central problem with how consent and desire are depicted and policed especially. Women today are urged to tell their sexual partners what they want, clearly and without equivocation so that how to proceed may be set out contractually on both sides; this is ‘affirmative consent’, saying yes to sex. But as Angel points out, women are socialised into feeling that they are responsible for men’s well-being, and for anticipating repercussions from saying no to sex; consequently their ‘no’ may be expressed ‘cautiously, gingerly, covertly’. Loud, clear affirmation of consent is advocated widely but this begs the question of ‘whose yes [or no] is meaningful’, or even heard. Consent culture in self-help literature or popular culture (as opposed to the act of consent itself, a distinction that is important) talks to women ‘in the tones of a cheerleading friend, exhorting positivity and self realisation (you go girl!)’; they cast women as sassy and strong, using ‘confident self-knowledge as armour’ for their ‘protection’. Yet aspects of consent culture ‘skirts evasively’ around vulnerability, vilifies vulnerable women with an attendant abject horror. ‘Bad sex’ or behaviour that might not be labelled as assault may be equally humiliating, painful, and frightening. Angel is not dissing consent (‘a given, the bare minimum’) but as she puts it, ‘consent has a limited purview, and it is being asked to bear too great a burden, to address problems it is not equipped to resolve’ except in a legalistic way.
At the heart of the conundrum of sex and sexual desire is a sense that women and men don’t always know what they want, that we don’t always express our desire clearly, that sex is part of our sociability as people, which does vary from situation to situation, from individual to individual, and is also context dependent. Such an acknowledgement may be risky but should not be ‘paralysing’. Sex necessitates a physical conversation between individuals, where to be open and attentive to the other ― a relinquishing of power as a form of care ― is to engage in ‘mutual exploration, curiosity and uncertainty’.
This slim title is wonderfully readable, wry and ironic in turns, with telling quips and phrasing as it ranges over how desire and consent is represented in popular culture, sexology, history, pornography, feminism, advertising, as well as in literature and film. Angel’s attentiveness to language brings home a powerful argument about how we represent ourselves to ourselves, and the consequences of those choices, for good or ill. It reads vulnerability not as a calling out for abuse (though she recognises that that may happen) but as a form of openness, ‘hankering after nourishment, contact, recognition in the embrace of the other’. This is risky, open thinking about sex and desire that dares to take both power and pleasure seriously. Towards the end of the book, Angel asks tellingly, after Audre Lorde, ‘How can sex matter less, so it can yield more?’