Kate Bradley reviews a highly readable intervention into recent debates amongst feminists around consent politics and desire.
Katherine Angel, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent (London: Verso, 2021). 160 pp. £8.79.
Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is ‘a provocative exploration of female desire, consent and sexuality in the age of #metoo’ – for once, an accurate description on a dust jacket. The book is short, rich with ideas, and accessible despite its lengthy list of citations. It’s split into four essays: ‘On Consent’, ‘On Desire’, ‘On Arousal’ and ‘On Vulnerability’, each taking on hegemonic ideas in feminist and mainstream Anglophone thinking, pushing readers to think more carefully about our language and approaches to sex and sexual violence.
In ‘On Consent’, Angel turns her gaze on histories of feminist thinking about ‘consent’. Using lots of examples from films, (post-)feminist thinkers and moments of public discourse (e.g. around sexual assaults on university campuses), she critiques consent as the framework for understanding sexual violence. She writes:
We need a robust critique of consent, not in order to vilify young women supposedly attached to victimhood, but out of solidarity with all women for whom sex can turn into an unhappy bargaining point, a false choice or an economic necessity for survival. (p.28)
Consent, Angel argues, is a concept born of the belief that sex for a woman is a sort of ‘giving in’ – that women are the objects, not agents, of sexual encounters. The concept of consent generates poor analysis of sexual encounters, and comes from a society structured to devalue and underdevelop women’s agency even where it accepts their quasi-contractual ‘right’ to say no. It doesn’t help us tackle women’s frequent experiences of ‘bad sex’, or agreement to sex within coercive contexts. Angel challenges us to think beyond consent, towards a vision of sexuality that could be joyful and fulfilling for everyone involved.
Angel rehearses some of the more traditional arguments around consent – about how women’s appearance is used to justify rape in courtroom cross-examinations, for example – but she often finds ways to take a nuanced view or ask a novel question. Angel doesn’t fall into familiar traps; she also criticises the culture of demanding that young women ‘noisily’ proclaim their desires – present across mainstream publications such as Cosmopolitan and sex-positive feminist movements alike. A refrain of the book is that we must be open to the uncertainty, malleability and complexity of desire – for people of any gender.
Neatly dovetailing with the section on consent, ‘On Desire’ and ‘On Arousal’ focus on the ways that women’s and men’s desire have been conceptualised through decades of scientific and mainstream investigations. Men’s desire, Angel argues, has been left fairly untouched by the world of ‘sex studies’, since it’s assumed to be an immutable biological drive. Meanwhile, women have been probed, questioned and cross-examined to find some essence or truth to their sexuality. Even where this is enlisted to a liberatory or feminist project – such as enabling women to be confident about their desires – it still implies that women’s problem is that they don’t know what they want, whilst men, it assumes, always do. Once again, as in most pornography, the gaze is on women, a heightened scrutiny that is often itself a deadener to desire.
Angel shows that the stakes of this century-long probing of women’s desire are higher than you might imagine. In trying to find the truth about what women want, mainstream thinking about sex tries to pin down women’s desires so that we might avoid sexual harm in future by stating clearly what we want. In this paradigm, sexual violence is figured as the result of a mistake, a miscommunication between two parties. This framework is useless if we accept that some people don’t care about women’s desires, or indeed enjoy overriding them.
Throughout the book, Angel hints at what these narratives do to the imagined subject of the heterosexual man. By assuming male sexual appetite is a drive (as compared to women’s more ‘receptive’ or fluctuating levels of desire), men are held to an unrelenting, exhausting pursuit of sexual conquest, or else they risk social exclusion or chastisement. In cultures where ‘masculinity is libido, appetite, excitement’ (p.84), Angel argues, we are holding men not only to unrealistic standards, but to standards that can create a very twisted psychology of resentment and frustration if the goal of permanent sexual conquest is not achieved. We can see the echoes of this in some of the high-profile instances of misogynistic violence around the world – Elliot Rodger, for example, or Anders Brevik. Still, aiming to understand violence is not the same as aiming to explain it away or inspire sympathy – Angel certainly doesn’t.
I found the chapter ‘On Vulnerability’ least convincing. The chapter is Angel’s foray into utopian thinking about sex and desire, arguing that vulnerability – of both or all people involved – is the key to making sex joyful and fulfilling. Sometimes, the chapter appears to assume that sex is already a terrain of vulnerability for all participants, which puts the cart before the horse if we seek to change how negative sexual encounters play out. When Angel writes ‘I don’t believe that particular sexual acts denote vulnerability or strength’ (p.108), it feels like she has made a leap, as everything she has said before this implies certain sexual acts do denote vulnerability or strength – because they are embedded in heteronormative and patriarchal contexts. Perhaps what she means is that sexual acts aren’t inherently one thing or the other, with which I agree. But it will take explicit efforts to change power relations in sexual encounters to realise the mutual vulnerability she is celebrating. This seems a disappointing swerve after Angel has argued, helpfully, that ‘it is on sex’s contexts that we should focus our emancipatory energies’ (p.68),
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is also limited by its focus on cisgender, heterosexual men and women. Although Angel signals an awareness of this limitation at the start of her book, it seems like a missed opportunity to discuss how struggles for LGBT liberation may play a part in reshaping the contexts in which sex takes place, and reshaping gender and sexuality more broadly. Focusing on heterosexuality alone tends to naturalise gendered relations even when questioning them. This is where it feels that Angel’s writing would benefit from being discussed and developed in activist and organisational contexts where its application to political struggles could be brought out.
Embedding this sort of discussion in organisational spaces would also help shift the focus of these arguments from discursive change – the familiar province of feminist academia – to material change (at least raise questions about the relationship between the two). As Angel herself points out about the #metoo moment, change in the way people talk about an issue doesn’t necessarily and uncomplicatedly lead to wider shifts in power and material relations. Discussing Angel’s ideas about consent and desire in anti-sexual violence activist and organising contexts would be a good next step.
Recent events at Verso, the publisher of this book, have shown again why it is crucial to engage in productive conversations about sexism and power on the left – and why it is integral to do more than simply talk about it. Last month, a former worker at Verso revealed how poorly the publisher handled a sexual harassment complaint against a senior member of its staff in the US. As she pointed out, simply publishing books on the topic of sexual harassment wasn’t enough to claim feminist values or change the internal dynamics in the organisation when a problem arose.
I think Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is definitely worth reading. Too many socialist attempts to reckon with sexual violence try to take the ‘sex’ out of ‘sexism’, focusing mainly on the prevalence of sexual violence across society or the structural power imbalances that make some people powerless to say ‘no’. Whilst these are important conversations, we rarely talk about sex and desire as a part of the structuring of society, and so we miss the nuances of a conversation about consent, sexual desire and power. Radical thinkers who engage with psychoanalysis (e.g. Lacan) have tried to reckon more with these topics, but these ideas have limited reach in left-wing organisations. The absence of accessible political conversations about sex and power can leave us hopelessly ill-equipped to think about sexual relationships politically, which then impacts how we deal with instances of sexual violence or abuse. This is another reason to read Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again – as well as the fact it is short, thought-provoking and incisive.