The Burden of 'Yes'

By Anne Enright

Liberated from the August 19, 2021 

issue of The New York Review of Books

One day Zeus and Hera were quarreling. They called Tiresias and asked him which of the two, man or woman, got the most pleasure from sex. Tiresias answered that if the pleasure were divided into ten parts, the woman enjoyed nine and the man only one.

—Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

The sex researcher Shere Hite, who died last fall, was brilliantly able to make an audience feel uncomfortable. She was a champion of the clitoris, a body part that seems to be rediscovered every few decades, along with the always unexpected news that vaginal penetration may be superfluous to women’s orgasmic, as opposed to reproductive or libidinal, interests. This potential autonomy is, in some cultures, so abhorrent that the clitoris is mutilated or removed; perhaps that anatomical structure needs not just one but many defenders. Hite was an advocate of female pleasure without penetration. In 1976, when she published The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality, it seemed as though such a thing had never been suggested before. She took the penis out of the discussion.

Katherine Angel describes a lecture given by Hite in her first book, Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (2012). Angel is a British academic with a Ph.D. in the history of psychiatry and sexuality, and part of a new generation of female writers who are revisiting ideas of female submission. The talk is given in a boxy, gray room in Bloomsbury, London, and Angel finds herself increasingly irritated and fidgety as she listens to Hite’s thoughts about sex: “Gradually, the starkness of her vision—supported by murmuring around me—becomes clear: penetrative sex is unpleasurable, and demeaning. Women, she says, should abandon sex with men.” Angel has no interest in doing any such thing. “I want to growl,” she writes, “in defense of the men who, because they responded to me, because they loved me and wanted me, gave me so much pleasure.”

At a seminar about pornography, Angel is unconvinced by a man who has seen “more pornography than anyone.” This man argues that the form can be joyful and positive, not to mention democratic, especially since it went amateur. He speaks (this must have been some years ago) of the educational value of such footage, because of the way it “can show you ‘what goes in where.’” Angel’s heart sinks at this remark. Why is porn always about penetration? “Pornography guy” “has a quiet swagger. He holds your gaze. He likes being the person he is.”

Angel is not against pornography as a form. She quite likes looking. She understands the erotic potential in pornography’s “frenzy of the visible” and is suspicious of people who tell other people what they should like or not like. At a large feminist gathering, a speaker decries pornography’s emphasis on male violence and female submission, and ends with “a wholesale ruling on the importance of polite, gentle sex within committed relationships.” Something about this makes Angel uneasy. What about people who, whether in a romantic relationship or not, “have sex that plays with power, that involves poses and gestures of submission and domination”? Why is there no way of discussing these interests, as a woman, without being accused of delusion, ignorance, or collusion? Angel is not satisfied by the invitation to raise her consciousness in this regard, and runs off with a pal for mid-afternoon gins.

Angel finds something positive in pornography’s fantasy of an unproblematized, desiring woman. The male viewer “tries to insert himself into that endless loop of arousal and desire, of hunger and satiation.” In order to effect such an insertion he would, of course, have to get offline, in which case he would be inserting himself into another human being. And though I am stating the obvious here, the difference between the imagined and the real sexual encounter is worth restating, because it is surprising how quickly the other person gets lost or accommodated when we talk about wanting—and how, when we think we are talking about sex, we may actually be talking about reverie.

“The desire to speak desire…is also erotic; it contains its own excitement.” Unmastered is a sassy piece of truth-telling about the unruliness of sexual impulse: “These fantasies—of submission, abandon, extremity—stand hand on hip, daring the feminism of my youthful politics to stifle them.”

Angel is not afraid to put her life into her work. Unmastered is a personal account of a highly charged erotic relationship and is written in lyrical scraps that echo the sense of undoing she experiences during sex. There is an interest in being scattered or rendered absent by being penetrated. She quotes Susan Sontag’s early diaries: “Fucking vs being fucked…. The deeper experience—more gone—is being fucked.” When she introduces the idea of violence to the relationship it is done almost as a plea for coherence. In the middle of frenetic sex, “nothing happens in sequences; nothing is discrete…. I want him to do something like hitting. Something—something—that would stop me in my tracks.”

Over time, this impulse settles into a more steady, managed kind of masochism:

When he grabs my hair, when he presses my throat, when he holds my hands down, I know—because I feel—that this is pitch-perfect. It is pitch-perfect because I can feel his tenderness, his humility, in this exploring, this wading into the sea together.

This is an invocation rather than a description and seems to contain no physical pain (the sea?), but it shows both participants deeply attuned to the needs of one who is submissive. The masochist is—at least in the writing of it—in charge.

Angel is reluctant to reverse the polarity of the power relations in bed. When she goes on top, the position feels “deeper, rageful, guttural” and she is afraid of “becoming a man.” Her partner’s passive enjoyment also disappoints her, though she knows she is being reductive: “I lock him into his masculinity.” She cannot do otherwise: “I was weaned on this—the hypostasized, brutal man; the yielding, deferring woman. So, by the way, were you.”

Well, up to a point. If we are talking about culture, then the trope of the brutal man and yielding woman is everywhere to be found. But if we are talking about gender dynamics in a child’s early life, then I have to say that I was weaned on slightly different stuff. I push back at this kind of appeal to the reader, in part because I find it seductive—hard to tell if it is an invitation to submissiveness or to feminist anger—but I am also wary of the way it echoes, albeit faintly, the abuser’s I know what you are, better than you know yourself.

“I ask him if he would tie me up. Yes, he says, but when you don’t ask me.” Her partner does finally surprise her, and the previous balance of humility and perfection is broken: “There is utter silence between us, just feelings of rupture.” She does not want a safe word, and she is grateful that he did not check in with her first. “Afterward, he undoes the belt. We have some lunch and go for a walk.” Sometime later, the love affair begins a “silent, sideways keel.” Angel experiences “torrential unhappiness” after an abortion, and the relationship comes to an end.

Her willingness to be honest, personal, and sometimes off-message makes Angel a useful contributor to discussions about sexual politics. This is a writer who insists on the contradictory and shifting truths of the individual life. In her new book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, she recasts her interest in power in light of the Me Too movement, but her resistance to “polite” sex remains. The book is broken down into four chapters—“On Consent,” “On Desire,” “On Arousal,” and “On Vulnerability”—and in each, a free-ranging discussion of female difficulty and feminist response turns up some useful, irreducible distinctions. It is a book about heterosexual consent that makes arguments against consent politics, and though these are sometimes social, Angel is also interested in biology and in the mechanisms of desire.

Angel points out that many kinds of bad sex can also be consensual—a sex worker, for example, may say yes without enthusiasm. So consent can distinguish sex from assault, but it cannot be used to distinguish good sex from bad sex, and although Angel aligns herself with the usual legal position on the matter—“consent is a given, the bare minimum”—she does not think that the rhetoric of consent is the way to transform the ills of our sexual culture. She questions those who urge women to have a conversation about sex before going into the bedroom.

This “injunction to women to clearly know and speak their desire,” to be vocal and affirm our willingness, continually and with enthusiasm, is not the way to make us happy in bed. “That we must say what we want, and indeed know what we want, has become a truism it is hard to disagree with,” Angel writes, after which she does just that. The book argues for uncertainty and vulnerability. Throughout, Angel tries to defend a sense that sex requires relinquishing control. There is, in good sex, a reciprocity of destruction; it involves confusion, dissolution, and a merging of identities that frees us from gendered roles. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is part of an emancipatory project that, paradoxically, asserts a need not to be strong.

 

The book encompasses feminist arguments about social inequality—you cannot assert an equivalence of desire between men and women when there is no equivalence of power. The statistics Angel quotes show that women in general are not having a great time: “Women suffer disproportionately from sexual difficulties, pain and anxiety. They report lower satisfaction at their last intercourse as well as over a lifetime.” Angel does not speak of childcare, wages, or domestic labor, but she does note that women’s problems are made worse by prevailing power structures: for example, women of color are more in danger of being sexualized, exploited, or raped, and the rate of conviction for their rapists is lower than even the abysmally low conviction rates in the general community.

Given all this, Angel is concerned that consent “is being asked…to address problems it is not equipped to resolve.” You’d think it might at least help to cure those inequalities, but she seems to say it reinforces them. Consent “represents sex as something a man wants, and something a woman agrees or refuses to yield.” Moreover, our current “fixation on yes and no” puts the onus back on women to fix the general wrong that is being done to them. Women’s speech now bears a heavy burden: “That of ensuring pleasure; of improving sexual relations, and of resolving violence.”

Desire is not knowledge. Angel’s description makes desire seem almost like the opposite of knowledge: “A woman…might not either want or not want sex; she might be hovering between these stark stances. We don’t always begin with desire.” In order to consent, a woman must know what she wants, and that knowing may be not just unavailable to her, it may stymie the sexual enterprise, which is one of exploration and discovery of the previously unknown. Our desires emerge in interaction, they are uncertain and unfolding, and this can be, or should be, unsettling. Sex is destabilizing: “We need to articulate an ethics of sex that does not try frantically to keep desire’s uncertainty at bay.”

Much of the book is spent discussing and sometimes debunking ideas about female arousal, and Angel is alert to the absurdities involved in the research. The sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who managed to be both liberating for women and very creepy, reported that, under laboratory conditions, and while they watched, women had a capacity for multiple orgasms, remaining at near-orgasmic levels for much longer than men. Feminists of the 1970s found this resarch useful and empowering. A more recent experiment, by Meredith Chivers and colleagues at Queen’s University in Canada, found that women have a physiological response to pretty much anything that looks sexual, including a video of mating bonobos. The women participating in the experiment said that a video of mating bonobos did not arouse them, the evidence of their vaginal plethysmograph, which records changes in blood flow, notwithstanding.

“Women, it seems, are physically turned on by everything,” Angel writes. Sadly, we do not seem to know this. Or we cannot admit to knowing this. In the same experiment, men usually said they were not turned on by mating bonobos, and the laboratory equipment agreed with them. Male arousal is “specific to their stated sexual desires and orientations.” They know what they want, they know that they want it, and if their body does not agree, then there is always Viagra. The manufacturer of the blue pill, Pfizer, as Angel points out, “cannily sensed that the failure of desire in a man is oxymoronic.”

This research, which seems to speak of female polymorphous unconscious desire, is, as they say, “much touted.” You might get tired of the bonobos. (I never do get tired of them: bonobos do it every which way; they are the only primates other than us who have sex face-to-face, the only nonhuman species to engage in tongue-on-tongue kissing; they are matriarchal, which may explain all that, or none of it, depending on your point of view. I am also not turned on by bonobos.) The dark side of this research is the implication that women are always interested in sex, if only they could admit it. This is a fundamental tenet of rape culture, which also implies that women are deceitful, self-deceiving, or unworthy of agency.

This discordance between a woman’s mind and her body (if that’s what it is) reinforces male fears that female sexuality is unruly, perplexing, and mysterious. The idea that desire is a simple, biological, and unstoppable drive for men but not for women is also a tenet of rape culture, and helps explain those times when women paradoxically consent to sex in order not to be raped.

Angel argues that, unlike the drives of hunger or thirst, desire does not operate on a deprivation model for either gender. She does, however, support the idea that male desire is “spontaneous” and female desire “responsive” to explain why women are perceived as suffering from a lack of overt sexual interest. The intention to have sex doesn’t “just happen” for women as often as it does for men; it may, however, be elicited. She quotes contemporary work by Rosemary Basson, the director of the Sexual Medicine Program at the University of British Columbia, that describes a kind of loop in which the sexual setting, “the relationship, the power dynamics, the safety and trust…are all critical in enabling or impeding the virtuous circle of arousal and desire.” So men can persuade women into bed by supplying context first (“love,” perhaps) and then by arousing them. This also feels a little transactional. No matter where we start from, we are always back in the same place.

And really, you can get sex studies to say anything you want them to—there are women who are inconvenienced by orgasms while doing ab exercises at the gym, and women who can induce orgasm while in fMRI machines, by the power of thought alone. It is not clear to me, in the discussion of the “circularity” of female desire, what “linear” male desire might look like (apart from the obvious). You are always, when talking about desire, in some psychic space where before and after are hard to identify. Are men feeling specific or nonspecific desire when they search for images online? Does Viagra also improve their wanting? For Angel too, male desire is not just a biological given, it is “socially enabled, sanctioned and enforced behaviour.” Context is important for men as well, if only they could admit it:

Men, too, are motivated to pursue sex for non-sexual reasons, just as women are—by a need to assert their masculinity; by the link between erection, ejaculation and power; by the social punishments that follow if they fail. It is not that women have reasons and incentives for sex while men have pure desire; it is that we render men’s non-sexual motivations—their reasons, their incentives—invisible.

For either gender, sex and desire compromise our sense of personal sovereignty: “No wonder that, in women, this might provoke a frantic holding-on; and no wonder that in men it might provoke feelings of helplessness and rage.” We are rendered by wanting into a state of unbearability. This is why male desire “gets refigured so insistently as triumph over the woman; as denigration of her; as humiliation of her.” When this happens, men are working out the aggression they feel toward their own weakness and discomfort. How can we help men not to be “existentially destroyed” by refusal? The answer, for Angel, is an acceptance of a “joyful” vulnerability by both genders, though her discussion of male sexuality is pretty scant. A happily vulnerable woman says yes to sex while a happily vulnerable man refrains from violence, it seems. By these lights, men are afraid they will be refused, and women are afraid they will be hit. So much for a “mutuality of destruction”—this lack of equivalence seems deeply unsexy to me.

Her path out of these difficulties is not entirely clear, but consent is not a part of it. The burden of sexual ethics should not be placed on consent, but on “conversation, mutual exploration, curiosity, uncertainty.” “Yes” and “no” are words that should, you might think, form an important part in such conversations and curiosities, but Angel argues that these limit the uncertainty sex thrives upon, or at least the kind of sex that involves mutual need and equal risk: “Sex, if we are lucky, is not just exciting and satisfying; it also touches on our deepest fears, our deepest pains. And yet, how not to scare ourselves?”

Some people say they use consent to clear a space where they can “scare” themselves without harm, but Angel just can’t find a line that divides the inside of a sexual interaction from its outside. “Sex is not an object,” she writes. “Sex is not something to be given and taken.” She insists that consent is not just insufficient as “the rubric for our thinking about sex” but also counterproductive, paradoxical, impossible, hard to do, and sometimes plain wrong. If you line them up, the list of reasons she gives or quotes is daunting: some women have too little power to give meaningful consent, some women have been conditioned by shame to refuse sex. The burden of “yes” makes a woman responsible for what happens to her, and sex should involve a release from responsibility. In order to verbalize her desires, a woman must know what they are, but such knowledge is not actually possible because sex is a process not of ordering up something already known but of discovering something new. And besides, there is the question of who does the “ordering.” She quotes Foucault’s maxim: “We must not think that by saying yes to sex one says no to power.”

She can also get a little weird. Some men, she writes, are turned on when women say “no,” and this is “yet another reason, then, that consent culture’s frantic valourization of saying yes is short-sighted.” This makes you wonder what women are supposed to say when they know what they don’t want. Underlying these sometimes strange arguments is a resistance to American feminist “confidence culture.” For Angel, this is based on “an almost manic insistence on strength” and finds all vulnerability unbearable or traumatizing: “You are vulnerable, therefore you must harden yourself; you are violable, therefore you must cast yourself as inviolable. You must become iron-clad, impenetrable.”

Much of the writing by women about sex and power begs the question: whether penetration requires submission from—and there is, tellingly, no great or polite word for this—the penetratee. Does it make us lesser? Or does it make us lesser because men say that it does—or least some men, some of the time? The stark binary of penetration has produced many books about women and sex, some of which don’t actually mention it, at least not in a positive way, so it is good to read someone who is thinking from the inside of this heterosexual experience.

The model of desire that Angel puts forth, however, fumbles ideas of before and during, and considers all boundaries transactional. She seems to really struggle with ideas of female agency and with female imagination. “Knowing beforehand” may not be, in a biological sense, how female arousal works—penetration is always surprising—but there are many categories of knowledge. The aim of good sex might be to be “gone,” but you have to leave from someplace, and that place surely is one of consent.

According to Angel, “a lack of desire or interest is the most frequent complaint in women.” It is impossible to say how much of this anomie has to do with inequality or a woman’s sense of the unfairness of her life. Feeling “lesser” does not always feel sexy unless, perhaps, you are reading Foucault. A bit of “confidence culture” might not go amiss here. Angel may be irritated by an underlying puritanism in American feminism, but that is no excuse for going all French.

Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again opens with the story of a woman who has won a competition run by the porn actor James Deen, in which the prize is to have sex with him on camera. The resulting footage is full of the woman’s indecision as, Angel says, she reckons with “the spectators inside her head.” As well she might. It feels important to point out that an argument taken from pornography is not always an argument about sex. It may be the case, as Angel says, that women feel exposed when they show desire, but they might also, in less exposing circumstances, not feel that way. What did humankind do before the Internet? It is a great mystery, and one that future generations may not be able to solve. It is always too late to put the porn genie back in the bottle.

I was born in Ireland in 1962, so my formative years were unbothered by pornography (apart from reading Norman Mailer), but they were twisted and thwarted by Catholicism. I was twenty-two years old when contraception became legal, though in my hometown of Dublin you could find it if you knew where to look. Sex, in those years of change, was terrifying and also political; it was usually undertaken within a relationship, and it felt absolutely emancipatory. As least that is how I remember it. I don’t know if tomorrow sex will be good again, but I do know that yesterday it was fantastic.