The X-Files

Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent BY Katherine Angel. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 160 pages. $20.
The cover of Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent

When Susan Sontag was twenty-seven, she wrote in her journal about a feeling that had no name. X, she called it; people and things could be X-y. She defined it variously as “the compulsion to be what the other person wants,” “the scourge,” and “when you feel yourself an object, not a subject.” Sontag identified the source of X as this: “I don’t know my own feelings.”

Katherine Angel, in her 2012 book Unmastered, uses Sontag’s concept of X to try to describe what she herself finds difficult to pin down in her own sex life. X comes to denote that part of one’s sexual desire that is contingent on the desire of another. It is not always a bad thing, but it can be. Another word Angel uses for it in Unmastered is “porousness.” Porousness is a necessary part of living amicably with other people. When it comes to sex, porousness helps us grow into our desires. But Angel acknowledges that there is a danger in “intuiting the other’s desire and conflating it with one’s own.”

In Unmastered, this danger is implicitly at work when Angel asks her lover to tie her up: “Yes, he says, but when you don’t ask me.” Her desire to be tied up is conditional. It depends on her lover, on the fact she thinks he will enjoy it, and his enjoying it is part of what creates her desire to be bound. One day, her lover does tie her up: “He didn’t check in, he didn’t confirm that I did, in fact, want what I had said I wanted.” The fact that he didn’t ask, that he took her at her word, is, she says, precisely the thing she loves. But two pages later, Angel writes “I have sometimes—often—said things I didn’t mean,” which begs the question, was her desire her own, was it his, and does the instability of desire make it impossible to define? In an age when women are expected to know exactly what we want and to articulate it precisely, the strength of Angel’s book is her willingness to acknowledge the parts of our sexuality that are always changeable.

Angel’s new book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, is written in response to conversations about consent and truth-telling prompted by the #MeToo movement. Angel’s focus is on the kinds of speech that have been championed since the wave of allegations against powerful men broke in 2017: “In recent years, two requirements have emerged for good sex: consent and self-knowledge. In the realm of sex, where the idea, at least, of consent reigns supreme, women must speak out—and they must speak out about what they want. They must, then, also know what it is that they want.” But what if women don’t know what they want? Angel’s book is an attempt to make space for this question, a question encapsulated by Sontag’s X.

Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again draws on journalism, academic writing, and Angel’s own experiences to take a broad look at the way we talk and think about power and women’s sexuality. Divided into four sections—on consent, desire, arousal, and vulnerability—it uses examples drawn from the history of sexual science to the most prosaic of hard-core pornography. The book reads as a necessary contribution to the many conversations about sex and power we have all had since 2017, and Angel’s prose, clear and lovely, nimbly navigates the complexities of her subject matter. As it stands, the book is most relevant to heterosexual women. Angel writes that she hopes that the book’s preoccupation with sex and power will be relevant to everyone, but that “the fine-grained texture of those quandaries” which affects sex in queer and trans relationships is better left to other writers. This is a shame, because while her argument is convincing, it would be strengthened by a longer and more sustained engagement with ways that power dynamics and gender roles affect the sex had between every type of person.

Angel traces the ways in which the discourse around #MeToo has been influenced by something she calls “confidence feminism.” This is an umbrella term that refers to the attitude advocated in business manuals targeted at women—Lean In, #GIRLBOSS—and to the suffer-no-weaklings post-feminism of writers like Katie Roiphe and Laura Kipnis. On the face of it, these seem like quite different forms of feminism. But Angel demonstrates they have something important in common: both prescribe articulate self-assurance as the solution to women’s problems, whether in one’s personal life or in the workplace. Confidence feminism, as Angel views it, is an ideology of individual capacity, where woundedness is a sign of weakness, and weakness is a sign of failure. Katie Roiphe complains in her book The Morning After about women who, in her view, can’t put a man “in his place without crying into our pillow or screaming for help or counseling.” When Roiphe laments the college students at Take Back the Night marches who seem to her to “accept, even embrace, the mantle of victim status,” it might not seem like it has anything to do with Sheryl Sandberg’s argument that the gender pay gap remains what it is because women fear being unlikable if they ask for raises. But in each case the figure conjured is the abject other of confidence culture, “a figure,” writes Angel, “whom their confidence feminism renders intolerable and shameful: the woman who is hurtable.”

Angel’s position is that the post-#MeToo conversation around consent risks adopting the ideology of individual capacity promoted by corporate feminism as well as post-feminists like Roiphe. Though Roiphe argued against affirmative consent codes in the 1990s, Angel sees a subterranean complicity between her emphasis on assertiveness and the assertiveness demanded by consent culture. This is the kind of assertiveness that Gigi Engle was talking about, for instance, when she wrote an article titled “Anal Sex: What You Need to Know” for Teen Vogue in 2017. In that article she wrote, “enthusiastic consent is necessary for both parties to enjoy the experience.” These are the kinds of conversations we are encouraged to have before beforehand, in the bar, or in the cab home, as though drawing up a kind of legal contract, or negotiating the raise Sandberg wants us to ask for.

Katherine Angel. Photo: Matthew Sperling
Katherine Angel. Photo: Matthew Sperling

Angel herself supports affirmative consent standards—“Consent is a given,” Angel writes, and is “the least bad standard for sexual assault law.” But consent culture, the “widespread rhetoric asserting that consent is the locus for transforming the ills of our sexual culture,” arouses her suspicion. The problem, she writes, is that “consent has a limited purview, and it is being asked to bear too great a burden, to address problems it is not equipped to resolve.” To be a good sexual citizen today, a woman is meant to announce her desires confidently and use her “self-knowledge as armour for her own protection.” This puts the burden of managing sex on women, as though men were a fixed landscape around which women must learn to maneuver. As though unbalanced power dynamics and rigid gender norms were not present in every interaction where a woman is asked to enthusiastically say what she wants before sex kicks off.

Angel argues that “an attachment to consent as the rubric for our thinking about sex . . . ignores a crucial aspect of being a person: that individuals do not bear equal relationships of power to one another.” Bad sex cannot be fixed by consent culture, in part because of consent’s stress on individual capacity. Rather, bad sex, according to Angel, is structural, a product of the unequal power dynamics that run through all of our social interactions. Power shapes everything: how we understand gender norms, racialized notions of innocence, and determinations of who is entitled to sex education and health services. Rather than ignoring all this by insisting that women move through the world with complete, confident self-knowledge, Angel urges us to acknowledge the obvious: “We don’t always know what we want.” That not-knowing, the X that arises in everybody’s sex lives, is what Angel argues “must be folded into the ethics of sex rather than swept aside as an inconvenience.”

Of course, the problem goes beyond uncertainty. When women do verbalize their desires they are often punished for it. Angel cites the case of Ched Evans, a Welsh footballer who was imprisoned in 2012 for the rape of a nineteen-year-old girl. When, in 2016, Evans successfully appealed the conviction, the court deemed relevant evidence of the girl’s sexual history: previous partners who said the girl liked “unusual” sex. What was unusual about it? The men fucked her from behind while she was on all fours, and when they did so she said “Fuck me harder.”

Angel describes her anxiety about Unmastered’s frank accounts of her own sex life. “I could not forget, though I tried very hard, that were I ever to have to accuse a man of assault, my exploration of my sexuality on the page could bring me harm—could let a man off the hook.” This kind of vulnerability provokes a spasm of fear, and this shudder is the thing Angel calls “the collective warning: watch out.” To insist on desire as an unknown quantity opens us up to persuasion, “which shares a fuzzy border with coercion.”

“Pleasure involves risk,” writes Angel, “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.” Sex is social. The problem with the arguments of those like Roiphe, who heap scorn upon women who are wounded or unsure, is that we are all dependent on others. To believe we can solve the problems in our sexual culture with consent alone is as naïve as Lean In feminism, indulging as it does in a fantasy of sovereignty that imagines it can unbalance the power dynamics that we all negotiate with clear and assertive speech.

“Whatever we do, in sex and elsewhere, we calibrate our desires with those of the other, and try to understand what it is that we want,” concludes Angel. Power is not simply something men have and women don’t, or something women can “take back” in an exchange economy. It is everywhere. We are always being X-y, always “calibrat[ing] our desires with those of the other.” There is no “tomorrow” when sex will be fixed, only the everyday work of renegotiation, wondering, never quite being sure what we want, because what we want is always changing.

Madeleine Watts is the author of The Inland Sea (Catapult, 2021).