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There Is No Sex in the Abstract
Selections from Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again
On Thursday, I’ll share highlights from your discussion of how to make your own pain legible to others. This week, I’ve been reading an interesting critique of consent-centered culture.
It’s been Library Hold Summer for me, and one of the books I really appreciated lately is Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. It’s a thoughtful book. I didn’t always agree with Angel, but I finished the book very interesting in having a conversation with her.
A major theme of the book is the limit of consent as a framework for ethical and kind sex. Consent is necessary but not sufficient.
One genre of consent-emphasis makes consent a question of purely “what will I not get in trouble for?” rather than “how do I will the good of my partner?” Consent apps like The Consent App and YesMeansYes exemplify this approach. As described in USA Today:
After you digitally sign the agreement, you are asked to hand the phone to your partner so they can read it over and sign the consent form. The final step is to take a selfie together to show that both of you are "coherent and willing participants."
Once agreed upon, the agreement is stored in The Consent App's "vault."
There are plenty of practical objections to make (you can change your mind after initially consenting, your partner may attempt something you haven’t discussed) but Angel has a broader objection:
The problem, instead, is that an attachment to consent as the rubric for our thinking about sex—the problem with our being ‘magnetized’ by it, as Joseph Fischel puts it—ignores a crucial aspect of being a person: that individuals do not bear equal relationships of power to one another. The attachment to consent as the overarching framework for thinking about good and bad sex amounts to holding onto the fantasy of liberalism, in which, as Emily A. Owens puts it, ‘equality simply exists.’
She spends a chapter or so drawing out how mixed a yes or no can be for reasons of financial, social, cultural pressure, etc. Talking about consent and contracts can make it sound like our decisions are sharper and more fully our own, made in some abstract disconnected space, than is possible.
But the most interesting part of her critique of consent-centered culture was focused on internal tensions.
It’s tempting to insist that women are themselves the authority on their desires; that they categorically know what they want. But is anyone an authority on themselves, whether on their sexuality or anything else? I don’t think so—and I’m not sure that insisting so gets us very far. Women are not the authority on themselves—not because they, unlike men, have difficulty detecting their ‘true’ desires, but because no one, perhaps especially when it comes to sex, is an authority on themselves. And why should women have to know themselves in order to be safe from violence?
This a broader critique than just Yes-Means-Yes-But-You-Can-Change-Your-Mind-Later. Angel objects to a framework that presumes we know ourselves well and thus are always in a position to confidently weigh what we think we want. She’s also skeptical of some of the often recommended approaches to self-knowledge:
Gurney writes that a woman brought up in a family which encouraged her to seek pleasure without shame, and who enjoyed masturbation as part of her early sexual experience, will have ‘learned exactly how she liked to be touched.’ But she overstates the case. Our sexuality is not something we can wholly discover alone and then slot into—or ‘dovetail’ with—another person’s sexuality.
Sometimes, people talk about sex as though it’s something you can “get good at” in the abstract. Or they talk about dating as a way to “pick up women” as though women are an undifferentiated mass. But what Angel is emphasizing is that relationship, sexual or otherwise, is personal and specific.
You can learn sound principles (consent being one of them) but you need to be able to see your partner and know them as a person to will their good in particular. Your knowledge of yourself is limited, so as your try to will your own good, you can’t be guided only by your own feelings and guesses about how you’ll feel next.
Caring for yourself or for another requires attention both the the micro—the specific Thee you love—and the macro metaphysical question of what their (or your!) good consists of.