Complicating Consent: The Millions Interviews Katherine Angel

February 25, 2021 | 1 book mentioned 6 min read

When I read Katherine Angel‘s first book, Unmastered, I badly craved the experience she described: A feminist enamored with a dominant man, analyzing the power dynamic and its eroticism from multiple angles. I was astounded by Angel’s brain and how clearly she articulated nuances of desire I understood so acutely, but hadn’t yet experienced outside my own fantasies. Years later, I find myself on the other end of a similarly gendered relationship, having also written a book about the experience

So clearly, Angel’s work has had a big influence on me. And that impact continues with her new and very important book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again (Mar., Verso). This nonfiction tour-de-force is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring themes of consent, power, sex, and the Me Too movement.. This is the kind of book that seeks not to create dichotomous binaries, but to complicate the narrative.

coverTomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again certainly merits further conversation, and I was lucky to be able to have one with the author herself. 

The Millions: Why do you think the current discourse around consent is shortchanging many of us, perhaps especially women? 

Katherine Angel: Well, first of all, let me just say I’m a supporter of consent education. It’s obviously completely crucial that consent is respected and is taught as part of education starting from a young age. But I feel very disturbed by the way in which in some of that consent rhetoric, the onus is placed yet again on women to embody a certain kind of behavior, and a certain kind of personality —somebody who’s explored their sexuality and found out what they want, and is able then to communicate that without fail to sexual partners. But it can be very difficult to speak confidently and clearly about your sexual desire. Expression of sexual desire gets used against women, especially women of color, in courts of law. 

The implication of some of the consent rhetoric is that we can only be safe from violence if we know what we want. And the truth is, we don’t always know what we want — not least because a misogynistic culture makes that difficult. Self-knowledge is something we like to insist we have in our culture. But the fact is, we don’t. And my worry is that in insisting on it, we make women’s safety a condition of their own states. And I think that’s a sort of a strategy for risk management — but I think we should name it for what it is. It’s risk management. It’s not sexual violence prevention. 

TM: The way we’re thinking about consent mostly in these very legalistic terms of, “You either gave it or you didn’t” also reinforces, I think you’re saying, this very contractual idea of sex. That it’s a scarce resource women are withholding, and men are asking for, right? 

KA: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, contractual sexual relationships can be very important. For sex workers or for BDSM sex— there are all kinds of contexts in which the idea of a contract is actually what protects people. However, my worry is with the way in which a legal concept has come to sort of stand-in for what I think is a much wider kind of ethical conversation about not just sexual interactions between people, but interactions in general, where we have to contend with power dynamics. We have to contend with the “otherness” of the other person who might want something different from us and we have to negotiate our own desire in relation to another person’s desire. 

There is sex that is bad and not strictly assault, but that’s not a reason to handwave that away, as I think some critics do. On the contrary, it’s a reason to say, “Okay. What is it that makes sex bad? Why do so many, women especially, experience depressing, painful sex? And why is that something that the culture seems so resigned to? So, I want to acknowledge the importance of the legal conversations, but to say that conversation must not take the place of something much wider and deeper in terms of our cultural preoccupations. 

TM: As you say, any sexual relationship is really about power. And any power relationship is really about sex. 

KA: Right. There’s no sexual relationship in which individuals aren’t dealing in the excitement of feeling one’s own power, and the power of the other — feeling one’s self vulnerable. And that is also true for men. I think a lot of the harm that’s done in the world is done through men’s denial of their vulnerability — and also women’s collusion with that denial. I mean, women can hurt men during sex too, if we want to. Genitals are very hypersensitive parts of their bodies, and it’s also very easy to hurt men psychologically and emotionally. Men undeniably commit the majority of violence. But we all sometimes collude in this kind of denial of men’s own vulnerability. And I think that denial is often at the heart of men’s own sadistic feelings towards women. 

My utopian ideal is if we could live in a society where everybody could feel their vulnerability and try to ride it with excitement. That we wouldn’t have to harden ourselves against that vulnerability, whether in the form of very inflexible notions of our own desires or very inflexible contracts, or in the form of insisting, as in the consent rhetoric, that we know exactly what we want. Because not always knowing is part of the pleasure of life and sex, and unfortunately, it’s also what makes it very risky. 

TM: I love your utopian vision. Of course, I can see the critique that is a privileged one, right? 

KA: Yes. It’s obviously really important to acknowledge that very, very few people have the luck and the privilege to be able to kind of experience that vulnerability, even fleetingly. Because the reality is that women, especially women of color, are disproportionately subject to sexual violence. Men worldwide are punished for not being masculine enough, and that’s not even to mention the violence and discrimination trans people face. 

So, all those things are in the mix, such that for most people, touching that vulnerability is just not an option. But I suppose the thrust of my book is that I really want us not to give up on that hope anyway, and I want our feminist rhetoric not to collude with resignation. And that’s why writing about this kind of stuff is really frightening, because you’re unleashing something very subtle into a really unsteady terrain, where there’s a lot of trauma.

TM: And there’s sort of this pressure when you experience bad sex or sex you’re not sure is assault, to then categorize it. But that pressure is furthering a certain kind of patriarchal, either/or mentality of, “things can’t be subtle and fluid, and you have to decide who’s bad and who’s good.” It’s interesting that the danger I feel in writing down my own story is coming at me from both sides. I’m afraid of the trolls and the misogynists, and I’m also afraid of the Twitter court of public opinion and upsetting those who feel I’m somehow betraying the cause by expressing my ambivalence about whether I was assaulted or abused or consented. 

KA: Yes. And, I mean, on the one hand, consent is the bare minimum for good sex. But it doesn’t guarantee good sex. Consent is just consent. It’s dangerous to inflate it into enthusiasm and ecstasy. These things are different. Agreement to sex is just agreement to sex. So, that’s the kind of the legal side of it. But beyond that, we should really be listening to what makes so much bad sex possible. And that these very constrained horizons for women about how much pleasure they can expect, how much joy they are entitled to? How much sexual exploration they’re invited to play with. 

The world really caters to male heterosexual desire. It doesn’t cater to women’s sexuality. When it addresses women’s sexuality, it tends to do so in ways that kind of re-inscribe this sense of punishment and guilt and responsibility. And the flipside of that is that male desire is represented overwhelmingly in terms of kind of conquest, and sort of joyless satisfaction. And that’s also why sex is often bad for the women who sleep with them, because I don’t think men are well-served by that. I don’t think men are encouraged to explore the unknown in themselves and the vast kind of breadth of sensations they might be capable of. And that kind of narrowness leads to unpleasant sex for women, because it’s so often so focused on such narrow kind of physical parameters. 

So, I really think it’s about on the one hand, like, really taking seriously that very basic kind of consent education. But on the other hand, really trying to think imaginatively about what ideas we might try to loosen and what kind of unknown sort of experiments and pleasures we might allow ourselves if we weren’t so intent on closing sex down.

is a journalist and the author of the forthcoming memoir Open: An Uncensored Memoir of Love, Liberation, and Non-Monogamy (Harmony, Jan. 2022).

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