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Mending the Split

by Rita May

Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again

Katherine Angel

Verso Books, 2021

TW; mentions of sexual assault

In many ways, our bodies exist apart from ourselves. While we may think that we are intimately connected to the physical form that sustains our life force, we remain blissfully ignorant of the microscopic reactions propelling our every move. Despite attempts to refine our appearance through attending to hairstyles or fashion choices, the extent of awareness and control we have over our physical selves remains, to a large extent, illusory. As Adrienne Rich says in her poem ‘Waking in the Dark,’ ‘we are composed of molecules … arranged without our knowledge and consent.’ Despite such ignorance, these things — our bodies — are the homes through which we must navigate our whole lives, including the complex boundaries of sex, where control and autonomy mean everything.

What does it mean for sex to be ‘good’? In the 21st century, consent is heralded as the answer to all of our possible sexual troubles, from sexual dissatisfaction to assault. In order for a sexual encounter to be positive, affirmative consent must be present — that is, actions must be clearly communicated and agreed upon. Crucially, the onus of identifying and communicating consent seems to be increasingly falling on women. Third-wave feminism encourages women to take control of their own sexuality: to be sex-positive, well-educated, and vocal about their own desires.

As a result of this encouragement, there seems to be a growing implication that any woman who is incapable of perfect self-knowledge and self-assertion has no business having sex at all, and that if she were to have sex, it would certainly not be sex that any self-respecting feminist would approve of. Within such a sexual paradigm, the responsibility for female liberation falls upon the individual woman — to know herself, to assert her needs, and to be a role model for women everywhere. While modern feminist discourse promotes consent as the ultimate solution to healthy sexual relationships, in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel begs to differ. Although consent is an essential feature of good sex, it is far from being a magic formula that can erase all of the gender imbalances that continue to plague women’s sexual experiences today.

Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again critiques the ways in which such an emphasis on consent sweeps aside other factors that contribute to leaving women with that all-too-common sinking feeling after sexual encounters. Although she acknowledges that consent is evidently important, Angel reframes it as a bare minimum, and suggests that focusing on this facet of sex alone fails to acknowledge the unequal power dynamics inherent within heterosexual sexual relationships. This inability to acknowledge the pre-existing imbalances within many partnerships has the inadvertent effect of perpetuating the unhealthy dynamics that the concept of consent sets out to resolve. After all, you cannot dismantle a system that you do not notice.

Angel also points out that desire is very rarely a straightforward affair; a single individual can have multiple contradictory wishes, and sometimes desire is responsive to another person’s touch. Such observations suggest that putting affirmative consent on a pedestal may be ignorant idealism at best and, at worst, an artificial imposition that can prevent us from experiencing the thrills of new sexual experiences. Angel argues that while you cannot consent to something you do not even know you want, our desires do not always appear spontaneously. Desire can be responsive rather than spontaneous, and some of the most thrilling aspects of sexual experience, she says, are those through which we discover unexpected desires.

But how can this be so? There appears to be a contradiction in Angel’s suggestion that while consent is a must, there can be responsive pleasure to activities that you may not think you desire. If affirmative consent tells us that sex acts must be consented to prior to the event, and if you cannot consent to something you do not even know you want yet, then how is it that such experiences can be so thrilling, and even loving? Answers to this question, Angel notes, have often been weaponised against women through the suggestion that they do not truly want what they say they want, or, conversely, that their true desires are repressed and must be brought out. Much of her book critiques sexology’s quantification of desire through physiological cues, which are often inconsistent with women’s self-reports of arousal and desire. Research conducted by Meredith Chivers and her colleagues, for example, found that women responded physiologically to many kinds of explicit stimuli — such as a naked man walking along a beach or even bonobos having sex — regardless of their self-reported levels of sexual arousal. By contrast, men were only physically aroused by stimuli that aligned with their self-reported sexuality.

Such findings play into the idea that when women say no, they are not actually indicating that they are not interested. It is a common enough trope in popular culture for a man to seduce a woman despite her protests, only for it to be revealed through her physical cues that she did in fact want him all along. In Fifty Shades of Grey, one of the most (in)famous portrayals of female sexuality in today’s cultural landscape, Christian Grey ignores Anastasia’s cries of pain and instead focuses on her physical arousal, saying, ‘See how much your body likes this, Anastasia.’ Women’s bodies, then, can be used against them in the context of sex; rather than protecting them against those who may want to overstep their boundaries, bodies can invite the other in, betraying their owners.

If bodies can be turned against their owners, then perhaps the title of Angel’s book is naïve. Can sex ever be good again (and in fact, was it ever good at all?) if our bodies seem so misaligned with our sense of self? Where does the potential for desire lie — in ourselves, or in our bodies, disjointedly? Returning to Rich’s poem, she tells us that ‘The tragedy of sex / lies around us, a woodlot / the axes are sharpened for’. There seems to be no escape from the potential dangers of sex. Women, as Angel argues repeatedly, are in a bind. There seems to be no way for them to evade the possibility of harmful sex, even when they state their boundaries clearly. If they say yes, their desire could be used against them in the future — such as in the Rugby Rape Trial of 2018, when one of the defendants allegedly said to the victim, ‘You fucked the others, why won’t you fuck me?’ Yet even if they say no, their bodies could ‘betray’ them, showing signs of arousal that they do not feel. So where do we go from this tragic position where every tool in our arsenal is sharpened and used against us? How can we make sex good again?

Despite the tantalising title of her book, Angel never suggests what good sex — beyond simply consent — might look like. Her book is a critique of the current status quo with little discussion of how feminism might change its appraisal of sex moving forward. Where she does touch upon other factors that can make sex good, her discussion centres around the concept of vulnerability. Vulnerability is a state that can bring about some of the most treasured joys of connecting with other humans; despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it is by its very nature frightening. As Angel explains, ‘That’s the bind: pleasure involves risk, and that can never be foreclosed or avoided. It is not by hardening ourselves against vulnerability that we — any of us — will find sexual fulfilment. It is in acknowledging, and opening ourselves to, our universal vulnerability’. Angel reminds us that sex is, fundamentally, an act where many of one’s weaknesses, hopes, and wishes are laid bare in front of another individual, where we must trust that the other does not take advantage of our metaphorical and literal soft underbellies. The provocative and sardonic claim that ‘tomorrow, sex will be good again’ must therefore hinge upon this vulnerability, and the respect for one another which is needed to trust that vulnerability will not be violated.

Of course, saying that we ought to have respect for our sexual partners is a truism that neglects the state of a society in which sexual violence is too often treated as an unsavoury reality we must live with. As the revelations coming to light through the movement Everyone’s Invited have indicated, the number of teenagers, and in particular teenage girls, who have had strangers and partners alike violate their trust is far, far too high: one violation is one violation too many, let alone the thousands of violations documented online that are indicative of a society where sex has clearly gone wrong.

Nearly five years after the rise of #MeToo, we are yet to see any substantial changes in the way women are treated. It seems unlikely that further exposure to how women are mistreated will change prevailing attitudes. Indeed, society is so desensitised to sexual violence that the rape and murder of a Black woman is not likely to make more than page 12 of the papers. In our current sexual-political climate in which the notion of equal power negotiations in sex is clearly missing, a future where sex can be good still seems like a pipe dream, as the last stanza of Rich’s ‘Waking in the Dark’ bleakly acknowledges:

But this is the saying of a dream

on waking

I wish there were somewhere

actual we could stand

handing the power-glasses back and forth

looking at the earth, the wildwood

where the split began

So where did this split begin, between ourselves and our bodies, between ourselves and those we sleep with?

As Angel makes clear, an individualist approach to sexual liberation is not working. Women cannot simply “girl-boss” their way out of the complex social dynamics that govern the way in which different genders are taught to act towards one another. Perhaps this social foundation is the beginning, the proverbial wildwood where all our troubles began. Sex is, fundamentally, a cooperative act — one where there must be a back-and-forth exchange of power, a give-and-take between sharing one’s own vulnerability and taking pleasure in another’s. It reduces social mutuality to its bare bones, revealing what human connection means in the first place.

Hélène Cixous — who, as one of the founding mothers of post-structuralist feminism, is better equipped than most in navigating the complexities of gender, sexuality, and verbal articulation — tells us that human life itself is fundamentally defined by a precarious balance between wanting to love others and knowing how easily one can be hurt in the process. In Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing, she writes: ‘It is our motivating force. That is what living is: the search for love. And its substitutes. Because we also discover how few possibilities there are to exercise love. The scarceness, incidentally, is related to the scaredness: the fear everyone has of losing. Of losing oneself.’ For Cixous, the self and other are undeniably different entities. Yet it is not the space separating the two that defines humanity; rather, it is the yearning for the implausibility of connection in spite of undeniable separation.

Such a yearning to touch another (both physically and metaphorically) can be as healing as it is frightening. Queer and disabled writers in particular have often written on the power of sex to transform the mind. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes the ‘healing of recognition’ through her own experiences as a queer, disabled, South Asian survivor of incest. In Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, she explains that having sex with people who looked like her and understood her needs and traumas felt like ‘going home’. Similarly, in Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation, Eli Clare notes that it was only when he was among other queer people that he was able to process his own childhood sexual abuse, and allow desire to come to the surface instead of shutting down. Only through another person could he finally understand ‘what it means to want my hand on a lover’s skin, the weight of a lover’s body against mine. A bone long fractured, now mending.’ Sex, for those whose vulnerability has been exploited in the past, can be not only a source of pleasure but also of healing, of homecoming. The same act that can, at its worst, turn our bodies against ourselves can also restore our sense of self: this is the terrifying and exhilarating puzzle of sex.

Having said all this, I, much like Angel, am still unable to tell you why or how sex will be good again. Yet where Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again does not, or cannot, elaborate, other authors have filled in some of the gaps. The model of the autonomous sexual self, disconnected from power imbalances and vulnerability, is idealism of the worst kind. It is unable to combat, and in fact perpetuates, the systemic issues that prevent sexual partners from engaging as equals. Sex and consent are not like legal contracts that can simply be agreed upon, performed, and then forgotten. Our needs and desires are constantly evolving, and healthy sexual communication involves acknowledging our evolving selves in a vulnerable setting. This vulnerability, in turn, seems to get at something deeply human within all of us — the desire to feel at home within our own bodies, to cultivate connection with others, to feel safe despite it all.

Perhaps if our conversations around sex were to revolve around Angel’s reminder that ‘vulnerability can be a form of care,’ it would completely change how we, as a society, approach sex. Perhaps then we will be one step closer to this ideal of “good sex”, perhaps one step closer to achieving something that is not just ‘a dream / on waking’ but ‘somewhere / actual we could stand’, finally as equals.

RITA MAY reads Psychology, Philosophy, and Linguistics at St. Hugh's College. Her current interests mainly involve rats and long, undisturbed naps.

Art by Chen Chen.


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