tue 28/09/2021

Katherine Angel: Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again review – the complexities of consent | reviews, news & interviews

Katherine Angel: Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again review – the complexities of consent

Katherine Angel: Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again review – the complexities of consent

Consent as a binary cannot be everything we want it to be

Angel: consent is 'the least bad standard for sexual assault law'© Amy Key

Katherine Angel borrows the title of her latest book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, from an essay by Foucault.

The phrase parodies the supposed sexual liberation on the horizon in the ‘60s and ‘70s, picking apart the notion that sexuality and pleasure are intrinsically linked to some future freedom to speak. For Angel, too, there is no single place or time where desire will be perfect; the notion is, rather, a perpetual work in progress. Accordingly, in the ironically titled Tomorrow, she challenges the notion that consent means good sex. Sometimes, women do not know exactly what they want or how to express it; this worms out a problem in the crystal-cut standards of sexual consent we have learned to champion. Namely: how can we clearly express our desires, or non-desires, when we do not always know exactly what they are?

Angel is an academic at Birkbeck with a PhD in the history of psychiatry and sexuality. Her previous books, Daddy Issues and Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell deal respectively in fathers in contemporary culture and in her own experience of desire as a woman. In her third book, Angel continues her focus on the experience of women and the power dynamics of hetero cis relationships, explicitly leaving it to others to explore the dynamics of queer and trans sex. This acknowledgement that a single text cannot cover everything is perhaps indicative of her argument in Tomorrow, where she navigates a difficult argument that the binary governing consent has its weaknesses.

Front coverThough consent is clearly necessary and, as she puts it, “the least bad standard for sexual assault law”, there are problems with it. One such issue is that consent “privileges a robust self-knowledge about desire”. It demands self-assertion by women and a self-awareness that, paradoxically, women are often criticised for in the workplace and elsewhere. Thus, a conventional understanding of consent relies on speaking out, privileging women who are able to “perform a confident sexual self”. If we want sex to be good again, we need to reject the idea of self-knowledge as the be-all and end-all, separating out the idea of affirmative consent from sexual confidence.

Supplementing this full-bodied analysis of consent’s weaknesses, Angel charts us through the notions of “desire”, “arousal” and “vulnerability”. We must, she argues, read bodies from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. This involves a close unpicking of the assumed evolutionary basis of male versus female desire, and a rereading of physical bodies as not necessarily explicit manifestations of internal impulses. Just because a woman’s body seems to indicate arousal, arousal should not be assumed without listening to what women say. These chapters raise the difficulty of communicating what we want in a cultural and physical language so shaped by years of assumptions about women’s desires.

Changing the discourses that write the female body does not mean a complete dismissal of consent – indeed, it would be very difficult for Angel to justify this. Rather, she tries to widen its remit, reducing the pressure on consent as a guarantor for good sex. Instead, we should turn to “conversation, mutual exploration, curiosity, uncertainty”. This change is at the heart of Angel’s argument, although it is sometimes difficult to reconcile with the fact that consent has to be clear. Angel writes in her final chapter: “Asserting one’s boundaries – stating what one will and won’t do – may be an important ground for the possibility of pleasure in the first place.” But how are we to assert boundaries in a conclusive way while eschewing consent’s “conceit of absolute clarity”?

Her thesis seemed a little contradictory at this point, but the distinction may lie in the difference between knowing what you want before sex and knowing what you want during it. Working out and attempting to speak our desires in the process of exploration means self-knowledge emerges through trial and error rather than being “robustly presumed” in the first place. There is no presumption that a woman must know her own desire from the outset, although clarity is likely to be required at some stage or other. This also retains the “vulnerability” that Angel argues is inherent to the joy and magic of sex. Since part of what is good about sex is losing one’s self to another, setting boundaries as one goes along makes more sense than binding oneself to a foregone conclusion via a single word. This ties in with the argument that consent should be ongoing, but Angel extends her focus beyond that: consent, she argues, should be extended into varieties of speech, not compartmentalised into one confident affirmative we may never be able to achieve.

What Angel seems to indicate, then, is that good sex means we should make “conversation, mutual exploration, curiosity, uncertainty” more like consent. She is right – consent as a “yes”/“no” dichotomy cannot be everything we want it to be. We must recognise that language cannot say everything, especially for women, who have not historically been given the chance to shape it according to their own needs and desires. Instead, we can try to speak in a half-language of desire, in unfinished words, and keep on attempting to work out what we want.

It is a nebulous alternative to the binaries of consent, and acknowledges the risk of not being understood, or of being wilfully misunderstood, when it comes to sexual relations. But Angel’s point is that this risk never goes away; desire is inherently unstable. But instability does not have to mean subjugation, and if we look around us at medial and cultural portrayals of female desire, it is clear that women are too often told what they want. Precisely because we have not yet (will perhaps never) reach the pinnacle of perfect representation, notions of consent should continue to change and develop.

The best way to deal with this is to stretch out consent temporally and linguistically, acknowledging that it will be part of the same process as exploring desire, instead of occurring prior to that experience. There should be many moments to say yes or no, not just one. As much as consent is an absolute, it is also a process to be individually navigated.

@bunt_lydia

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