Books

Sometimes “Yes” Isn’t Enough

A new book argues that sexual consent policies shortchange the complex desires of women.

Man kissing woman on a red blanket.
A scene from Claire Denis’ Vendredi Soir. Wellspring Media

After Katherine Angel, a British academic, published a book about desire, Unmastered, in 2012, she noticed how often other women told her she was “brave” for doing so. An aphoristic meditation on erotic longing, Unmastered included much of Angel’s own experience, and she knew what they meant. “Writing publicly about my sexuality,” she observes in her intriguing, philosophical new book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent, “could, until the day I die, be used as evidence against me.” In rape trials, for example, the victim’s expressed interest in sex at some past date has often been used to argue that she must always be available for it. If, Angel writes, “I ever 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.”

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To Angel, this reality seems at loggerheads with what she calls “consent culture—the widespread rhetoric asserting that consent is the locus for transforming the ills of our sexual culture.” Consent culture originated in 1990, with Antioch College’s famous affirmative consent policy, which dictated that members of the campus community obtain verbal consent before initiating each “level” of sexual activity. At the time, Antioch was ridiculed for the policy, but it has increasingly become a model in college communities. In Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, Angel argues that consent culture, and the assertion of female desire it demands, is not the panacea that its most energetic proponents proclaim it to be. It’s not just that exhortations to sexual frankness clash with women’s uneasy awareness that they could later be punished for speaking openly of their desires. Angel also believes that those desires are poorly served by a campaign designed to stem sexual abuse—that women are being urged to experience their sexuality in a way that lessens their pleasure, freedom, and intimacy.

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Angel does agree that consent is “the bare minimum” to achieving “all our emancipatory desires.” What she objects to is “consent rhetoric,” a self-help-like insistence that women be able to understand and fully articulate their desires to a partner from the outset of every sexual encounter. (Because Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is “primarily about the effects of power imbalances and rigid gender norms on how we think about sex and violence,” it mostly deals with relations between cis men and women.) One book she quotes argues that if you “can’t admit to yourself what you want and don’t want when it comes to sex, you’re in no condition to share that information with anyone else,” a seemingly uncontroversial statement that gets Angel’s back up. The purpose of such advice is to foreclose the kind of misunderstanding that often leads to bad sex as well as to murky situations in which two parties walk away from a sexual encounter with very different beliefs about how consensual it was. But sometimes, Angel argues, you don’t know what you want, and having sex is a process of discovery. Why should women feel obliged to arrive in bed armed with a fully developed sexual profile in order to feel safe from being forced?

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Paradoxically, both the champions of consent culture and its critics—who complain that such rules and regulations treat women like fragile children who can be traumatized by a night of crummy sex—tout the role model of “an idealized, gutsy woman who knows what she wants and can shout it from the rooftops.” This reminds Angel of the “confidence culture” feminism of figures like Sheryl Sandberg, whose Lean In has been widely criticized for implying that much of the gender-based power imbalance in the workplace can be solved by women being more assertive about and committed to their own ambitions. Angel insists that both the advocates for and dissenters on this emerging standard of consent are the products of a form of “post-feminism” in which “weakness or insecurity must be avoided at all costs; where self-expression and poses of sassy confidence are imperative, and where individual self-work will ward off sexual violence.”

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Angel is bending each side’s argument to nearly the breaking point here. Nobody actually believes that sassy self-assertion is enough to shield a woman from a determined rapist. Proponents of “affirmative consent”—which dictates that each partner must explicitly (or in some cases “enthusiastically”) agree to each element of a sexual encounter—see themselves as helping to avoid miscommunications that leave one partner feeling violated, not as preventing the deliberate use of force. Objectors to new campus sexual assault policies, like Laura Kipnis, are far more concerned with how fairly institutions handle alleged transgressors than they are with the rise of consent protocols. Nevertheless, Angel does have a point when she complains that consent culture is a sexual ethics shaped by the threat of violation because its primary purpose, what it was designed to do, is to prevent assault. Why, she asks, should women be expected to organize their entire sexuality around protecting themselves from men’s aggression?

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Good sex involves improvisation and surprise and ever-shifting contexts, Angel points out persuasively, which can’t be done justice by an ideal that “privileges a robust self-knowledge about desire, and a capacity for vocal expression of it.” The notion that what we desire can be a fixed, known quantity, formulated inside ourselves and brought forth complete into the world when a potential partner shows up strikes her as misguided. It’s delusional, she maintains, to believe “that we have a sexuality that can be discovered separately from interaction with others.” We might embrace an opportunity in a particular time or place and with a particular person that we’d otherwise reject. In Claire Denis’ 2002 film Vendredi Soir, a young woman about to move in with her boyfriend has a one-night stand with a stranger. “Her desire for this man,” Angel writes of the film, “or for anonymous sex, does not live inside her, waiting to be fished out. It emerges, in the hinge moment that is her last night of living alone, the transition to a more coupled life.”

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Angel elaborates: “We need to be vulnerable—to take risks, to be open to the unknown—if we are to experience joy and transformation. That’s the bind: pleasure involves risk, and that can never be foreclosed or avoided.” But, she says, women are being urged to formulate a prefab menu of desires as a way to fortify themselves against the risk of coercion, donning a verbal coat of armor that will prevent them from ever becoming fully naked. Rigidity like this is what Angel most objects to, and although she mentions it only briefly, the infamous story published on Babe.net about a pseudonymous woman’s spectacularly terrible date with comic Aziz Ansari presents an excellent example of how anti-erotic it can be when each partner sticks to a preexisting script. In that case, his was a porn scenario and hers an indie rom-com.

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Angel has a point: A lot of bad sex and possibly all sexual assault result from one or more parties trying to impose acts and their meanings onto someone without concern for that person’s feelings or desires. Rape is a solipsistic one-man show intended to turn its victim into a thing. Why then emulate what seems like the failed masculine practice of entering into sex with a to-do list devised alone and beforehand, a set of desires and preferences that apply regardless of partner?

Except that Angel hasn’t really convinced me that consent culture does this. It doesn’t, for example, always insist that women map out their preferences beforehand. The Antioch policy allows for couples to negotiate throughout sex, deciding on the fly whether both of them are game to try this or that. This seems to allow for what Angel claims consent culture denies: that you might start out thinking you do or don’t want to do something, but change your mind along the way. Good sex should be, as Angel writes, a “conversation,” and isn’t that exactly what asking someone for their consent initiates?

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And after all, wouldn’t observing affirmative consent protocols have rescued Ansari and “Grace” from an experience that hurt her and embarrassed him? His desire, baldly stated, amounted to I want you to perform raunchy, commitment-free sex with me to prove what a big shot I am, while hers was along the lines of I want you to fall in love with me to prove how special I am. Those positions are irreconcilable, and the process of negotiation might have led one of them to realize that and call the whole thing off.

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Perhaps the “emphasis on assertive desire in women,” as Angel writes, “obscures the tender, fraught negotiation of what is unknown”—specifically, the parts of ourselves and our desires we aren’t aware of (yet). But such negotiations can only transpire gratifyingly in a context of trust, specifically the trust that each partner can hear and accept the other’s “no” without retaliation or anger. This, obviously, is very difficult for some men, raised to believe that women are merely the means to an end. The women who have sex with men like that are not in a position to view sex as a realm of wondrous self-discovery. They need a more forceful intervention than fraught tenderness. It’s true that women shouldn’t have to make themselves more “like men” in order to feel safe and get what they want, but until men change, what choice do they have?