For Women, a World of Better Sex Is Possible
In her new book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Katherine Angel insists on a basic point: changing the kind of bad and damaging sex that women all too often have in a sexist society can’t fall solely on individual women.
There’s a scene in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s television series Fleabag where her character, Fleabag, finds herself in a confession booth on one side of a thin scrim from a character we know only as the Priest. Fleabag’s mother has recently died, and her best friend just accidentally committed suicide after her boyfriend broke up with her because he cheated on her with Fleabag. Fleabag is also in love with the Priest.
After some cursory confessions (I curse, I blaspheme, I have sex outside of marriage) and a few gentle encouragements from the Priest, the objects of her confessions switch from sins to desire: “I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because, so far, I think I’ve been getting it wrong.” She’s crying. She’s terrified. “So, just tell me what to do. Just fucking tell me what to do, Father!”
After a bursting pause, he does. “Kneel,” he says. She’s confused — what did he just say? “Kneel.” He says it again. She does it.
Off camera, he exits his side of the confessional. He pulls the curtain open on the confessor’s side. From her knees, she looks up at him. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but something between them has shifted: they’ve gone from confessor and priest, separated by a screen, to two equals. He kneels down in front of her and touches her face. They kiss. He is a priest; they are in a church, his church. It doesn’t matter. They want each other.
A few seconds later, they’re standing up, hands are moving around, clothes are about to come off, there’s heavy breathing. Then, suddenly, a bang. A painting in the back of the church has mysteriously fallen off a wall, its crash echoing in the nave like a bucket of cold water pouring onto their heads out of nowhere. She expected the Priest to give her instructions about how to live; instead, God seems to be the one instructing. The moment has passed. They look at each other. The Priest walks away.
In the space of those few minutes, Fleabag has moved out from under her charmingly sardonic protective shell, perhaps for the first time in the whole series. The Priest is also exposed: in his own church, breaking rules about celibacy he’s vowed to follow for the rest of his life. Their shared exposure allows each to make demands of the other (“Tell me what to do.” “Kneel.”) and to give in to those demands — and, subsequently, into whatever might happen between them. They do something neither of them would have planned or even expected — cutting against the popular wisdom about sex that urges us away from any sort of spontaneous erotic encounter.
The scene is shocking because the characters are transgressing, yes, but also because of just how much of their interaction is nonverbal. They’re communicating, picking up each other’s cues, even picking up cues from some third unknown entity that might be God, but saying very little. Their comfort, trust, and willingness to yield to each other affords them the room to go beyond where they thought they might go together — and to end their journey when it no longer feels right.
While Katherine Angel doesn’t reference Fleabag in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, it’s precisely this type of organic, unexpected erotic encounter, Angel argues, that mainstream feminism and its byproducts, what she calls “confidence culture” and “consent culture,” make nearly impossible. She addresses arguments in favor of a purely consent-driven approach to sex, whose proponents ask us to set rules and stick to them, to reject even the slightest discomfort in the name of complete safety, to make decisions about what we might want before we’re even presented with options.
This is tricky territory, attempting to critique contemporary feminist shibboleths about gender and sex. Angel wades in firmly but not brazenly, staking out a position that is neither reactive nor reactionary, but rather takes stock of the current sexual landscape — what approaches to sexual encounters exist and what sex is like for most women. It’s a breath of fresh air in a world where mainstream feminism often claims to give us the final answers to these questions.
Instead of attempting to design a blueprint for good sex, Angel instead poses questions that urge us to look at the larger forces governing our sexual interactions and interrogates how they might be better, beginning with an understanding that we can’t preemptively make our minds up about what we desire — rather, desire is created out of interaction born of a willingness to be surprised, uncomfortable, and delighted.
Figure It Out on Your Own
Mainstream feminism’s approach to the problems of bad sex and dangerous, damaging sex, Angel argues, has frequently taken the form of encouraging women to exert more “control” over our sex lives. The idea is that we as women have a responsibility to figure out what we want on our own, then come armed to each sexual encounter with a list of demands, non-negotiables, and rules — things we’ll consent to, things we won’t, things we want, things we don’t.
This, Angel argues, runs directly counter to precisely what makes good sex so good in the first place — the mutual opening up of the self to be surprised, to be unsettled, to do something we might not have expected we’d do, to find and create desire together with another person:
The rhetoric of consent too often implies that desire is something that lies in wait, fully formed within us, ready for us to extract. Yet our desires emerge in interaction; we don’t always know what we want; sometimes we discover things we didn’t know we wanted; sometimes we discover what we want only in the doing. This — that we don’t always know and can’t always say what we want — must be folded into the ethics of sex rather than swept aside as an inconvenience.
We have, Angel argues, sacrificed opportunities for great pleasure in favor of the illusion of safety, which might reduce the opportunities for unpleasantness in a sexual encounter, but simultaneously curtails our opportunities for such pleasure. And mainstream feminism’s creation of a limited and often one-sided consent culture is supposedly intended to protect and empower women, but ironically ends up placing the burden of responsibility for a good sexual interaction on women by requiring us to be crystal clear about our desires, to the point of turning them into nonnegotiable demands.
This is supposed to be a key piece of how women achieve collective sexual liberation. But just how free are we if our sexual encounters are preemptively circumscribed by our lists of demands and by a pressure to respond to any propositions with a yes or no ahead of time? How free are we, how much pleasure are we free to have, if sexual encounters are reduced to a fulfillment of a predetermined checklist, as opposed to a collective creation of some as-yet-unknown third thing, in which the erotically unexpected — and unexpectedly erotic — enjoys enough of the oxygen created by mutual trust to flourish on its own?
Consent culture, as well as the good, safe sex it means to give way to, relies on “confidence culture,” which pushes women to halt at the sign of any hesitation and proceed only with what we already know with certainty. It’s easy to see how this could result in bad sex, or at least limited sex. If we approach a sexual encounter willing to participate in only what we know for sure that we want, we never give ourselves a chance to be surprised by our own ability to want, or even enjoy, something else from someone else.
Of course, giving ourselves that chance is risky — physically, mentally, emotionally. But the mainstream feminist reaction to the power imbalances that create such risks for women in heterosexual sex are just coping mechanisms that pretend that the inherent vulnerability and exposure to be found in sex can simply be bypassed by becoming well-informed, discerning women: Buy a vibrator! Arm yourself with certainty! Never be nervous again!
Tomorrow Sex pushes against that notion, insisting that “how we touch ourselves is not always a blueprint for how we like to be touched by another,” and that our sexuality cannot be found in total isolation from others. Again, there’s plenty of risk involved in embracing either of these claims. What if, in exploring heretofore unknown potential desires, someone goes too far? What if we never find a person with whom sex feels, or, to use Angel’s words, “miraculous; a magical collision, safe and risky in just the right degrees, comfortable and challenging in just the right proportions”?
Angel fully admits the thorniness of striving for the kind of sex she champions:
This is, of course, immensely difficult — wishful, perhaps. We’re lucky if we even have fleeting moments like this. And this kind of abandon is risky for women, given that many men do abuse the vulnerability that sex involves; given also the cultural readiness to read women’s abandon to sex as an abandon of autonomy or safety.
All the pressure on women — to know ourselves, to say what we want with confidence, to set clear boundaries — is a pressure to resolve individually, in our personal lives, what are in fact collective problems.
There’s the lack of recourse for women who experience sexual violence. We have to take our personal safety upon ourselves and err on the side of caution, because we know it’s unlikely we’ll have any real avenues for protection, justice, or recovery if we do experience violence. And there’s the fundamental problem of the subjugation of women under capitalism, in particular in the social-reproductive realm, which the power imbalances women experience in sex reflect. No cultural shifts, important as they are, will undo this, though of course there are plenty of reforms that would improve women’s lives — free abortion on demand, thorough and universal sex education, free birth control — to be won along the way to more radical change.
Toward Full Communion With the Other
While we might be able to work against gendered inequalities in our personal relationships, we won’t resolve the deep, entrenched inequities of capitalism on the individual level, even if that’s where we often feel them most acutely. This is the book’s central weakness: it recognizes the existence of power imbalances but neglects a substantial exploration into their roots or the potential for their eradication.
Still, Tomorrow Sex is a substantial contribution to feminist discussions about women’s sexualities for the simple reason that it describes with great, sensitive accuracy the reality of being a woman with a sex life in the twenty-first century. We’re constantly sexualized against our will, treated as objects for consumption from an early age. (While reading, my mind went back to the first time I was catcalled at age twelve). When we choose to act on our sexual desires, we open ourselves up to ridicule, derision, and judgement, and even risk forfeiting our ability to not perform those same acts in the future. As Angel puts it, “once a woman is thought to have said yes to something, she can say no to nothing.”
Angel’s primary object of study is women who have sex with men and the power dynamics that define such relations. Though many of the conclusions she draws about consent culture and its dampening effects on sexual encounters seem to me universal and applicable regardless of gender or sexuality, the woman-man dynamic remains central to her approach to the subject and shapes the way Angel approaches power as it relates to sex, as well as the way we read her argument. Dynamics of power — who might have more or be more willing to exert it — are more obvious in relationships between women and men in a sexist society. They’re also easier to perceive as entrenched and intractable.
Tomorrow Sex helped me imagine a world where sex could really be a communion with the other. It also left me with questions: how do we win that world? What concrete steps can we take? What are those reforms that could pave the way? Angel doesn’t give those answers, but it’s imperative that we find them so that we might create a world where, one day, we might all feel the freedom to be both confident and vulnerable enough to find ourselves doing something like unexpectedly, breathlessly, joyfully saying to someone, “tell me what to do.”