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Why Our Conversation About Consent Still Misses the Point

A convo with ‘Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again’ author Katherine Angel about what’s lacking in our bedrooms — and how to fix it

Our current framework for heterosexual sex relies upon women boldly and confidently stating what they want. But as writer and lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London, Katherine Angel explores in her latest book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, out now via Verso Books, the act of knowing ourselves and our desires is a far heavier task than contemporary consent rhetoric is willing to admit.

Debates around sexual assault, legal definitions of consent, scientific studies attempting to quantify sexuality and our cultural norms of sexual pursuit only complicate that task further. While some emphasize women’s desire as key to their empowerment, women’s desire itself is still used as a weapon against them in both the social and legal world. How is anyone, regardless of gender, expected to understand themselves in this greater ideological context in a way that produces sex that isn’t only consensual, but pleasurable? 

One potential key, Angel writes, is in embracing vulnerability — particularly for men. When men allow themselves to be vulnerable without pushing the belief that sex is something to be drawn from women, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn about our own desire. Below, Angel and I discuss why now is the time to reshape our political and philosphical conceptions of sex and its relationship to gender. Rather than insisting we know precisely what we want, Angel suggests that by leaning into vulnerability and destigmatizing the exploration of our own desire, we may have the freedom to attempt to figure it out. 

For many, the rhetoric of consent is likely seen as more significant than ever. Is that why you chose to write this book at this moment?

One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was that I felt that in these restatings of the importance of consent, some of the language around that in the media, or in articles I was reading and things I was listening to, there was this burden placed on women to be a certain kind of sexual person in order to keep themselves safe. So [there’s an expectation for women to be] somebody who can know what they want in the first place, which I don’t think is a given. And secondly, can they express that very confidently, partly in order to forestall this risk of sexual violence? 

My worry is that we’re applying this model of risk management to how we think about sexuality. Of course, we have to manage risk, right? Because that’s just life. Unfortunately, we’re very susceptible to sexual violence, that’s very pervasive. So of course, we do things to try to protect ourselves. But I really want to discourage people from internalizing that risk-management approach [and instead encourage them to] think about what it’s like to be a person. If we really think about, first of all, what it’s like to be a person, you don’t always know what you want, you change your mind and your desires change, which lots of good sex education and consent education acknowledges, of course.

But my fear is that some of the very well-meaning rhetoric around consent loses sight of what I think it knows, which is that women’s confident expressions of sexual desire are no easy thing, because it’s exactly those that come back to bite them in rape trials in the media, in various forms of shaming, precisely sometimes to let a man off the hook. So that kind of consent rhetoric, on the one hand, is saying, “Oh, you know, sexual violence is everywhere.” But on the other hand, it’s saying, “Be open in your sexuality, you have to be this particular kind of assertive, confident person for your own safety.” It’s placing the burden on individual women to have to embody some kind of ideal in moments when they might not know what they want, not least because they live in a sexual culture that makes it difficult for them to know what they want.

What’s ambitious and perhaps somewhat controversial about your book is that it invites vulnerability and confusion, which for a lot of women has been something we aren’t allowed to approach at all. Both are part of the rhetoric traditionally used against women — the idea that they don’t know what they want, that they’re giving off mixed messages. For women who feel the idea of consent is empowering, how can we safely build vulnerability into our framework for sex?

In one sense, my answer to that is that it shouldn’t have to be any individual woman’s responsibility to open herself up more to vulnerability, or, in fact, to really do anything in particular to [mitigate] the risk of violence. What women do — and what anyone does — in a situation where they’re at risk is we protect ourselves and we erect certain boundaries; we take certain fixed positions precisely because we’re trying to avert the risk of violence coming our way. And that’s completely understandable. But what I want to do is partly to encourage men not to see vulnerability as something that by definition makes a woman a target, but [rather consider] their own relationship to vulnerability as well. 

Women are disproportionately subject to sexual violence, and vulnerability is seen as an opportunity by pushy men, by predatory men. That’s what I wanted to try to loosen, that association of vulnerability as something that you have the right to exploit, in part because vulnerability is just the baseline state of human life. We’re all vulnerable; we were vulnerable as babies, and we still are. It’s dangerous to deny that, and not least for men themselves — a lot of pain in men’s lives comes from the inability to acknowledge vulnerability, the inability to tolerate it and the way in which it can feel like something so humiliating that they then have to go and commit violence in order to rid themselves of the shame. But also, because pleasure and vulnerability are so entangled in ways that make us all at risk. 

In a way, it’s like trying to normalize the idea of vulnerability, so that it doesn’t become the ground for anything else. It’s just the baseline condition, especially for sexual life.

Right, being vulnerable has a negative definition and connotation, but in the actual lived experience of being vulnerable, you can be vulnerable to pain, but you can also be vulnerable to pleasure — it’s a state that could have a more neutral connotation to it. It seems that for men especially, there is a lot of work to be done to make vulnerability normalized. In actual practical terms, do you have thoughts on how this work might be done, and what exactly that work is?

It’s very difficult, and the book isn’t a practical how-to. But the basic requirement is that sex education should be absolutely pervasive, and it should be socialized. Knowing what you want, and then the flip side of that being that women have to constantly protect what they want, even if they want sex — that’s the bind that women are in. Even if you want sex, you have to protect yourself so hard, because somebody might want to extract it from you in a bullying way or a painful way, and that’s so inimical to pleasure. 

If sexual desire in women couldn’t be used as a weapon that men can then turn on them, that would change the whole picture. It’s very difficult to give a formula. If I knew the answer, I’m sure [other] people would know it, too. But it’s partly about a kind of education in social life and exchange and curiosity about people, as opposed to seeing ourselves as these individuals who are just out for ourselves.

You talk a bit about the pickup artist and their tools. Oddly enough, although it seems as if their idea of desire as something to be mined and negotiated is a toxic approach, there’s almost a kernel of truth to the underlying idea of negotiating desire.

Pickup artists are really fascinating. Reading pickup artists’ stuff is really instructive, because it’s this kind of distillation of so many things that we all get taught about desire, but especially what we get taught about the differences between men and women. It’s such a binary conception of the world — the idea that men want sex, and they chase women and women have to kind of gatekeep and decide when and how to give up this precious resource. 

But there is, as you say, a kind of kernel of truth to that, which is that women know about the sexual double standard, they know that they will get shamed if they’re too enthusiastic about sex, or if they give it up too quickly. Those ideas are so pervasive, even if the culture is changing. Pickup artists do have this weird insight, that there can be this disjunction between what women might want, and what they can do in the social realm. So they understand that, but of course, they use that against women, because what they use that to do is bully women into sex by saying, “I know you really want it,” and then also invoke the physical body as proof that women want sex: “She was so wet, therefore, she wanted it.” Physiological arousal isn’t desire, it’s not even pleasure, it’s not consent. It’s none of those things. 

It’s quite uncanny reading about pickup artists, because they understand something of the bind that women are in. But the question is, why? Why does so much hang on sexual conquest for them? There’s this amazing book by Rachel O’Neill called Seduction where she did these in-depth, sociological studies of pickup artists and lots of interviews. The kind of melancholy for these men is the pursuit of this horizon that never appears — it’s always getting further and further away. It must hang heavily on men who don’t feel able to accrue that kind of capital through sex, through acquiring beautiful women. I don’t think that’s a realm suffused with joy for men — it’s a burden, it keeps them up at night. It makes them feel ashamed and humiliated and inferior. That leads to violence and contempt because women become the scapegoat for their feelings of shame. 

It’s useful to look at those darker edges of masculinity, but I feel like I want to be careful in this area, because I don’t want to portray masculinity in just a purely negative light. It’s like anything else: It’s a set of repertoires in the world that can be used to playful ends or to harmful ends. In some ways, the phrase “toxic masculinity” has been useful as a way of pinpointing certain things about how men feel entitled, but it’s also worrying if we start really thinking in reductive terms about masculinity and femininity. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a more playful approach to these things as parts of all of us, that don’t have to come down to this dog-eared, sort of aggressive acquisition of somebody else’s body?

There’s a section of the book where you talk about sex research. It seems that a lot of what’s been done so far has only served to diagnose and label female and male desire. I’m wondering if you think that there’s really much need for further scientific research on sexual function and desire in the model that’s been pursued in the past?

I’m sort of tempted to say that I don’t think there’s any need, but I think that in the book, I’m looking at some very particular areas of research. Sex research is a really broad field — there’s all kinds of work being done. I’m interested in how invested we seem to be in the idea of the body as being able to tell us something. A lot of these researchers, they’re very smart people, they know that finding out about physiological arousal doesn’t mean you’re finding out about sexual desire or consent, and they’re careful to make those distinctions. But in the culture, the way this stuff is taken up, it’s very quick to turn those findings into these categorical statements about what female and male sexuality is like. 

My skepticism about it is partly that you can study the physical body in a particular setting, you know, rigged up to graphs and sensors, and looking at porn. You can study that, but it’s not clear what you’re studying. Because in the realm of sex, nothing is repeatable — how you respond to something in one moment or in relation to one’s stimulus or in relation to one person is never going to be the same the next day or the next year.

I think we have to get away from this idea of sexual desire as being lodged within ourselves, because we only ever interact sexually in a world that’s full of cultural norms about sex and desire and gender, in relation to particular people, in relation to the messages that we imbibe every day about how men and women are supposed to be. So I’m very skeptical of the hope that’s placed in some of this research. The findings can often be interesting, but I’m not sure what they tell us. 

I’m very worried that how people use that research is to try to reinscribe this idea of women as very complex and emotional, and men as very physical, in ways that I don’t think serve anybody. It’s often linked to attempts to classify sexual behavior or sexual function. My interest is always in the individual case: Everyone’s sexuality is different, so what do we do, ultimately, with this research? I don’t know.

Elsewhere in the book, you establish that the rubric of consent isn’t itself a rubric of desire, despite both being such key components of sex. How do we navigate this rift?

One of the things I’m cautioning against in the book is the conflation of consent with desire and enthusiasm. One of the reasons there’s very gung-ho language about being really clear about what you want and giving enthusiastic consent is firstly that women haven’t been allowed sexual enthusiasm in a way that men have, and we need to correct that wrong. 

But it also comes out of a feeling that we need to raise the bar, like we shouldn’t just be thinking about sex as something that women agree to, we should be thinking that women can have powerful sexual desire, and we want to enable that. The problem is, if you conflate consent with enthusiasm, you make it very difficult to distinguish, to capture the fine-grained nature of all the ways in which sex can be technically consensual, but really bad, because people consent all the time to sex that turns out really badly for them. We need to preserve that distinction, because if every time you give consent, that’s presumed to be the same as enthusiasm or desire or pleasure, and then we’ve let this legal language — which is about distinguishing between assault and consensual sex — just kind of climb all over all the other ways in which we need to think about the wrongs of bad sex. 

In a way, part of the argument of the book is to say, there are these legal arguments over here, and [then there are] these discussions about notions of consent. Some critics of consent have tended to demarcate it as an area of inevitability: “Oh, there’s bad sex, and people are now calling bad sex assault, and bad sex is just bad sex, and you learn to deal with it and you toughen up.” I really couldn’t disagree with that more, because I think that bad sex is exactly where we should be looking. It’s about the expectations that women bring to sex — very low expectations, in fact — and the expectations that men bring, which are pretty instrumentalizing and coercive. That’s where we need to look.

It’s important to get the law right. It’s important to improve our legal notions of consent. It’s important to make sure the law works for women. But let’s not let legal thinking take up the space of political thinking, which is, what kind of sexual world do you want to live in? What notions of pleasure do you want to enable? Who has the right to pleasure? I think that’s the more fruitful direction.