A provocative, elegantly written analysis of female desire, consent, and sexuality in the age of MeToo
Women are in a bind. They are told that in the name of sexual consent and feminist empowerment, they must proclaim their desires clearly and confidently. Sex researchers tell us that women don’t know what they want. And men are on hand to persuade women that what they want is, in fact, exactly what men want. In this environment, how can women possibly know what they want—and how can they be expected to?
In this elegantly written, searching book Katherine Angel surveys medical and psychoanalytic understandings of female desire, from Freud to Kinsey to present-day science; MeToo-era debates over consent, assault, and feminism; and popular culture, TV, and film to challenge our assumptions about female desire. Why, she asks, do we expect desire to be easily understood? Why is there not space for the unsure, the tentative, the maybe, the let’s just see? In contrast to the endless exhortation to know what we want, Angel proposes that sex can be a conversation, requiring insight, interaction, and mutual vulnerability—a shared collaboration into the unknown.
In this crucial moment of renewed attention to violence and power, Angel urges that we remake our thinking about sex, pleasure, and autonomy without any illusions of perfect self-knowledge. Only then will we bring about Michel Foucault’s sardonic promise, in 1976, that “tomorrow sex will be good again.”
One of the most powerful pieces of television I’ve watched this year is Michaela Coel’s searing show I May Destroy You. Like many people, I was struck by how well Coel portrays the myriad complexities that surround issues of consent and desire. When Maya at Verso offered me the chance to read Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, which deals with similar themes, and in fact references the show, I jumped at the chance. Many thanks to Maya for my proof copy, which I received in exchange for an honest review.
This topic is timely, fascinating, and vital, and Angel’s book, though short, makes a huge contribution. Divided into four sections, ‘On Consent,’ ‘On Desire,’ ‘On Arousal’ and ‘On Vulnerability,’ this extended essay probes the rhetoric around consent, the #metoo movement, and female desire, revealing the places where disparities and contradictions lie hidden. I have to admit, as a feminist, I think I have previously aligned myself with certain tenants of consent culture without perhaps analysing it in enough detail. As Angel points out, though, we do have to start somewhere. There is nothing wrong with saying that consent is essential, of course, but this book explores the reasons why that cannot be the end of the discussion. The link between confidence culture and consent culture is examined, and Angel posits that by putting the onus on women to know what they want, this rhetoric ignores the unknowability of desire, its mutability, its reliance upon context.
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is elegantly argued and extremely well researched. I learned an awful lot about the study of desire, about the work of sexologists, and about the conflicting scholarly opinions on these unsurprisingly contentious topics. For such a slim book, it packs in a lot of information, but it is written in an accessible, thoughtful style that is never less than fascinating. There is a point in the text where Angel observes that were she ever to accuse someone of sexual assault, her own frankness and openness in discussing her sexuality would almost certainly be used against her: the truth of this hit me hard, and, I think, demonstrates just how important these conversations are.
I found this book extremely thought-provoking, and I very much hope it is widely read. Angel’s arguments are compelling, nuanced, and eloquently expressed; I found myself nodding in agreement (and doing my usual thing of reading out passages to my slightly terrified husband) at several points. Her central theme, that sex is not an object to be given or taken, but an encounter, an interaction, a conversation, seems so obvious but is so often forgotten. This is a powerful, important book – it addresses the vital question, as posed by Angel herself: “Why should women have to know themselves in order to be safe from violence?” There are no easy answers, but the conversation is a crucial one, and this book is a valuable contribution to it.
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel will be published in March 2021 by Verso Books and is available to preorder here.