Katherine Angel's Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent was published in 2021 by Verso Press.
Are Men Human?
Erasure Is Not the Path to Freedom
When Was Sex Ever Good? A Black Feminist Provocation
The Pleasure and Peril of Sexual Vulnerability
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Are Men Human?
I expected Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again to be a polemic. Diminutive in stature (but not, as it turns out, in substance) with its pastel palette cover, the book and its titular proclamation, borrowed from Michel Foucault, looks and sounds as if Angel will lay waste to some camp or another on the battlefield of our contemporary sexual politics. Mercifully, I was wrong. Angel is measured and meticulous, which makes her book delightful, powerful, and worthwhile. Put broadly (but I hope not polemically), Angel asks us to dispense with the notion that women must know and vocalize their sexual desires, or that researchers must discover and disseminate the truth of women’s sexual desires, in order for women to avoid gendered pain or to seek erotic pleasure. The injunction that women ought to know their sexual selves, and its presupposition, that women’s sexual selves are knowable, turn out to be shared assumptions across a surprisingly wide range of pundits, sex researchers, feminists, and postfeminists. It is in part because those assumptions are embraced by thinkers and activists with such otherwise differing agendas that Angel’s interventions are more surgical than sledgehammer.
Curiously, for a book subtitled Women and Desire in the Age of Consent, some of Angel’s most prescient, indeed indispensable observations are about Men and Subjectivity in the Age of Formal Gender Egalitarianism (and Pluralism). While all four chapters concentrate their analytic energy on women’s sexuality—or rather, concentrate their analytic energy on why so much analytic energy is concentrated on women’s sexuality—each chapter also includes an unmarked coda on men, their pathologies and predicaments. Even as Angel herself criticizes the epistemological orientation and political directives of “consent culture,” she points out that the more myopic detractors of consent culture “treat male contempt of women’s pleasure and autonomy as a brute fact, while treating women’s maneuvering around it as an imperative.” If—and this is conceding more to the detractors than I would—we are indeed increasingly ratcheting up regretted or unpleasant sex to “ violative” or “assaultive,” this does not change the fact that bad sex is typically worse for women, not least because “it may well be that men learn they can get away with not caring about a woman’s pleasure, and that women learn they must prioritize male pleasure over their own pleasure and enjoyment. Who learns that their role is to acquire pleasure at whatever cost, and who learns that they must suffer sex’s consequences alone?” So much of #MeToo trains men on what not to do, and that is surely for the better, but might we also want to train men on how to do better?
When postwar sexologists sought to prove that women’s sexual desire was structured like men’s—“deep, libidinal, urgent”—their research, avers Angel, inadvertently decontextualized, singularized, and mechanized men’s desire, setting men “up to fail, too.” The “genital exhausts the sexual” for nobody, no matter how erect the erection. And if the “fantasy of total autonomy, and of total self-knowledge” is “a nightmare,” it is masculinist valorizations of sovereignty and mastery that make fucking for too many men compensatory, hostile, and acquisitive rather than exploratory, hot, and unscripted.It is masculinist valorizations of sovereignty and mastery that make fucking for too many men compensatory, hostile, and acquisitive rather than exploratory, hot, and unscripted.Click To Tweet
You might think I have dwelled on men in Angel’s Tomorrow because on most days I am one, but I think the book’s deepest political challenge is to men, even as she asks women to embrace their vulnerability rather than be hoodwinked into disavowing or disclaiming it. In order for the formative or simply instructive lessons of bad sex to be more evenly distributed across genders, in order for women and folks of all genders to open themselves unflinchingly to intimacy and erotic possibility, men have to stop being assholes, or at least be less “pushy.” That won’t make sex good again tomorrow, but it might make sex not as hopeless as it was yesterday.
Joseph Fischel is a theorist of social and sexual justice. He is currently coediting a volume titled “Enticements: Queer Legal Studies” and is completing a manuscript on the politics of sodomy. Fischel is an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University.
Erasure Is Not the Path to Freedom
It’s beyond cliché to observe that we are living in increasingly polarized times, but it’s still true, and it’s where we must start in understanding why a book like Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is capturing attention right now.
There is a lot to recommend in this book. Angel correctly rejects what she calls “confidence feminism” and what I call “fauxpowerment” — the seductive myth that individual women can just toughen up, speak more certainly, and buy the right things to empower ourselves to sexual freedom. And more generally, her call for more complex discourse around women, power, and sexuality makes her a welcome voice added to the many of us who loudly and wholeheartedly argue the same.
The gap between her larger points and the way she goes about making them is what makes Tomorrow such a maddeningly disappointing read. Despite her overarching calls for more openness, vulnerability, and fluidity in the ways we conceive of sex, she constantly flattens and erases existing discourse that does just that in an apparent effort to pitch herself as a “third way” escape hatch out of two polarized extremes.
The presence of polarization doesn’t mean everything is homogenous at each pole. In Tomorrow, Angel posits a monolithic “consent culture” that insists that women must always confidently know and speak their unchanging desires in order to stay safe and makes “getting consent” the sole responsibility of men who sleep with women. But no such monoculture exists. While it’s not hard to find people making these bad arguments, it’s also not hard to find feminist sources advancing decidedly more holistic and nuanced ideas about consent.
These are not obscure sources, either. Just off the top of my head, here is the explanation of consent provided by Scarleteen, the globally popular youth sex education site. Heather Corinna, the site’s founder and director, tells me it has been read hundreds of thousands of times and informs everything they do. Here’s a great discussion about the limits of the idea of “enthusiasm” in “enthusiastic consent” from sex educator Nadine Thornhill. (That it appears on YouTube is not incidental to its erasure from Tomorrow — Angel seems unaware that there is any meaningful discourse about sexuality happening anywhere on social media.) Here’s my own critique—on the very mainstream site Refinery 29—of how there has been too much emphasis on codifying the idea of affirmative consent and not enough on its deep social and philosophical implications. I could go on.
The distortions continue throughout the book. In critiquing what Angel posits as a near-universal conceptualization of women’s desire as “responsive” and men’s as “anticipatory,” she correctly notes that Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are offers a corrective to that overgeneralization. She does not mention that Come As You Are is a New York Times best seller and spawned multiple TED Talks—Nagoski is hardly a countercultural voice when it comes to gender and sexual desire. Angel’s critiques of Meredith Chivers’s research on sexual nonconcordance — the gap between our holistic experience of being sexually turned on and our body’s measurable signals of physical arousal — conflate bad journalistic interpretations of Chivers’s work with Chivers’s own much more curious and expansive approach to the data.
These elisions aren’t just unfair to those being erased — they paint an overly bleak picture of the current sexual culture, an undertow of unnecessary pessimism that threatens to drown the reader, instead of seizing the chance to illuminate multiple hopeful ways forward. When I interviewed Chivers for my book Unscrewed, she offered several hypotheses for why cis women tend to have higher sexual nonconcordance than cis men, including the possibility that cis women’s brains have adapted to stay clearer-headed even when we’re physically turned on, or that cis men’s elevated sexual concordance is forced by a homophobic fear response while cis women are on the whole less afraid of being perceived as lesbians.
Which leads me to the most damaging erasure in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again. Early on, in a footnote, Angel excuses herself from having to acknowledge queer and trans people for the rest of the book, writing, “the fine-grained texture of those quandaries are not mine to explore, and others are better placed to be doing (and to have done) that vital work.” She does not name any of the “others” she thinks we should rely on or reference any of their “vital work” again, nor does she even acknowledge that asexual, nonbinary, and intersex people exist. Instead, Angel relentlessly reinscribes the very toxic heteronormative hegemony that produces the dynamics she is seeking to change. If you want to move past the “what is” of the dominant sexual culture to “what can be,” why would you leave out folks who have been forced, by those who seek to negate the very fact of our desires and identities, to do just that? And how can you write, as Angel does, that “how we understand sex is inextricable from how we understand what it is to be a person” while refusing to even try to understand — and thereby denying that very personhood to — so many of us? As a bisexual woman myself, I can attest that there is no bright line separating “straight” sexual culture from a “queer” one — while small porous subcultures exist, we are all both cocreating and impacted by the dominant culture.The appeal of a shiny new ‘third way’ out of polarization is easy to understand. But it’s a fantasy. Iteration, collaboration, and community-building is the way forward. We only get free when we all get free together.Click To Tweet
The appeal of a shiny new “third way” out of polarization is easy to understand. But it’s a fantasy. Iteration, collaboration, and community-building is the way forward. We only get free when we all get free together.
Jaclyn Friedman is a writer, educator and organizer whose work has redefined the concept of “healthy sexuality” and popularized the “yes means yes” standard of sexual consent. She is the founder and former executive director of Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!), and the creator of four books, including Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and the recent anthology Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World.
When Was Sex Ever Good? A Black Feminist Provocation
What, exactly, are we talking about when we are talking about (good) sex? Is sex a physiological marker of gender? Is it an embodied repertoire organized around the pursuit of pleasure, profit, reproductive futurity? Or is it something else entirely? It is constitutive of “the human”? Or is it, as Michel Foucault suggests, a “dense transfer point for relations of power”? And what are those power relations, exactly, in the so-called age of consent? As I read Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, I found myself coming to these questions again and again. As a Black queer feminist who writes about possibilities and avenues for sexual freedom – freedom that would, presumably, include good sex – I was unsure of how to place myself in the conversation. Within the many (white) feminist conversations about sexual knowledge regimes that Angel traverses – psychoanalysis, feminist and queer theory, Western cinema, even sexology – Black women were often figured as paradigmatic examples of sexual injury presumptively in need of (white) feminist rescue, or as strictly disciplinary voices within white feminist conversations, ready to whip white feminists into shape.
Within the sexual universe that Angel constructs, the “age of consent” captures a post-1990s moment in the United States and the United Kingdom wherein white feminist and queer theorists and activists posit enthusiastic consent as one potential solution to systemic sexual violence against women. The logic goes a little something like this: if women can get clearer on their own desires and erotic aims, and communicate said desires and erotic aims clearly, confidently, and enthusiastically, women may avoid rape or the threat of it. Angel smartly observes that consent discourse counterintuitively grants the dubious power to undo centuries of systemic sexual violence against women to the voices and bodies of women. This logic is, indeed, flawed. From this standpoint, Angel proceeds to marshal pithy arguments about consent, desire, arousal, and vulnerability, and these arguments are anchored by solid and hearty feminist claims: “we shouldn’t have to know ourselves to be safe from sexual violence,” she concludes at the end of chapter 1, for example. Sexual negotiation will continue to be necessary, Angel cautions at the end of the book. Consent will not save us or liberate our libidos and desires, Angel argues. And I don’t disagree.Truly dwelling on and with Black female sex and sexuality might just be one paradigmatic starting place for a robust feminist conversation about when sex was ever good, whether sex is good, or when sex might be really good, for everyone.Click To Tweet
At the same time, I do wonder about Angel’s construction of a sexual universe wherein Black women are always already sexually injured or protesting the myopia of white feminists, and where Black men such as R. Kelly and Bill Cosby are undifferentiated agents of a patriarchal power that targets women, “especially Black women,” for sexual violence and harm. If we reduce patriarchy to the whims and violence of individual social actors, rather than a broader political economic structure and state apparatus, then we not only problematically reinforce well-worn tropes of Black men’s biological-cum-cultural sexual deviance, we also limit the possibility of reimagining a “tomorrow” when sex might be good precisely because it is untethered from the sticky, insidious violence of racialized state power. Angel takes both the age of consent and the #MeToo movement as politically significant events for all women. While she nods to Tarana Burke’s coining of #MeToo in 2009, she does not articulate #MeToo as a movement until 2017, when white feminists and nonblack celebrities such as Alyssa Milano took up the mantle of #MeToo to roll out public and prescient anti-rape campaigns. But what might it have meant for Angel to begin the #MeToo movement in 2009, or even to nod to (an) earlier period(s) —e.g., colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, the war on drugs and poverty, Black Lives Matter—where issues of consent, sex and sexual violence, and sexual negotiation were and continue to be of importance to (Black) women (at least)? Within a white-supremacist settler-colonial state, sexual violence is a structural and everyday reality for many of us. Yet, as Indigenous, Black, women of color, and lesbian feminist scholars and activists – some of whom (adrienne maree brown and Audre Lorde) Angel cites, though briefly – have long told us: Though systemic sexual violence is forged through racism and processes of racialization, Black women are not irreparably sexually injured. We don’t care to be the beached whales of the white feminist sexual universe, as Hortense Spillers would have it. Some of us really like to fuck, as Joan Morgan boldly claims. And truly dwelling on and with Black female sex and sexuality might just be one paradigmatic starting place for a robust feminist conversation about when sex was ever good, whether sex is good, or when sex might be really good, for everyone.
Shoniqua Roach is a Black queer feminist writer and assistant professor of African and African American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Brandeis University. Her peer-reviewed work appears or is forthcoming in Feminist Theory, The Black Scholar, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, differences, Feminist Formations, Journal of American Culture, antipode, and Feminist Studies. She is currently at work on her book manuscript, “Black Dwelling: Home-Making and Erotic Freedom,” an intellectual and cultural history of the ways in which Black homes have been tragic sites of state invasion, as well as paradigmatic entry points for Black women artists, activists, and intellectuals to imagine, rehearse, and enact Black erotic freedom. Her research has been supported by an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) fellowship and the Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. She sits on the editorial board of Signs.
The Pleasure and Peril of Sexual Vulnerability
Nona Willis Aronowitz
I received an advance copy of Katherine Angel’s book at one of the lowest points of 2020: right before the election, right in the middle of a second COVID surge. The year had been dominated by conversations about health care, racism, and the future of our democracy. Sexual politics seemed less relevant to the cultural conversation than it had in years (which was unfortunate for me, since I too was working on a book about sex). Still, I’d been thinking a lot about the tension between pleasure and risk, pronounced during prevaccine pandemic times but an intrinsic part of most sexual experiences—or at least most good ones. So I was delighted to discover that the last chapter of Angel’s book was dedicated to this endless, exhausting dance of risk assessment.A feminism fixated on the elimination of violence, one that favors ‘empowerment’ over vulnerability, is bound to ignore women’s erotic realities.Click To Tweet
The first three chapters of this book—"Consent,” “Desire,” and “Arousal”—tread familiar ground, though are well-researched by Angel. But her last section on “Vulnerability” gets at the heart of what makes sexual pleasure so central to our identities, even as it’s also the source of much fear and anxiety. The chapter logically starts with the most literal of female vulnerabilities, the risk of rape. Through an analysis of Susanna Moore’s novel, In the Cut, Angel lands on the conclusion that acknowledging sexual danger and encouraging erotic exploration are not mutually exclusive, and that in fact, the former may fuel the latter. A feminism fixated on the elimination of violence, one that favors “empowerment” over vulnerability, is bound to ignore women’s erotic realities. Angel explains that we can never totally eliminate physical or emotional danger from sex; to do so would cut off an essential channel of satisfaction. The surrender, the act of “letting things in, being porous” is precisely what makes sex both unpredictable and worth it. When we totally let go with someone during sex, we’re saying, “I trust you not abuse your power.”
I immediately thought of the range of sexual experiences people have had (or rejected) during COVID—how this period has demanded that we constantly tinker with our individual risk thresholds when seeking out sex and intimacy. Suddenly, the corona-scolds caused me to recall the zero-tolerance empowerment feminists, while the horny, belligerent spring breakers giving the finger to initial quarantine reminded me of the character Telly in Kids, whose pursuit of unprotected sex with virgins during the AIDS epidemic seemed almost pathological. The people in between, the ones who sought out pleasure cautiously while knowing they would never totally be safe, were reaching for the alchemy Angel describes: “a magical collusion, safe and risky in just the right degrees.”
During this abjectly fearful period in history, I realized more than ever that the necessity of defining one’s boundaries did not necessarily have to restrict us further but could allow us to more safely identify and explore our desires—as long as we were willing to be surprised by both others and ourselves. One of the pleasures of sex is unpredictability, Angel writes, so immutable boundaries can cause us to miss out on the highest peaks of pleasure. There’s only so much we can control, and if we wait until we have utter autonomy and security, we’ll be waiting forever.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is a journalist, author, and editor. She's the sex advice columnist for Teen Vogue and has written for the New York Times, The Cut, Elle, VICE, and Playboy, among many others. She's at work on a book called “BAD SEX,” a blend of memoir, social history, and cultural criticism that examines the enduring barriers to true sexual freedom.