Over the past dozen years, Katherine Angel’s writing has sought to create intimate spaces for sexual joy in spite of the myriad socially constructed barriers against that possibility today. Her works, notably Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most
Difficult to Tell (2012), Daddy Issues (republished by Verso in 2022) and Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and
Desire in the Age of Consent (2020), navigate sexuality and sensuality with a thoughtful and radical political lens. Each is punctuated with fellow thinkers and practitioners, ranging from essayist Susan Sontag to artist Andrea Fraser. Foucault’s never-to-be-finished multi-volume publication on power and domination, A History of Sexuality (1976), surfaces as an ongoing influence and sounding board, with his sardonic quip, ‘tomorrow, sex will be good again,’ lending the title to her best-known book.
Katherine’s writing surveys contempo-rary discourse on how patriarchal violence makes pleasure difficult to obtain and needs difficult to express across gender and sexual spectrums. Identifying the core of these problems, her work tends to offers intimate and emotional propositions – rather than large-scale social ones – to alleviate them. It focuses not on the ostensible dead-ends of masculine culture or patriarchy, but rather on the beautiful nuances and possibilities of intimate communication. I encountered her work recently, through the exploration of consent in Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Again, which resonated with some of my own lived experiences of finding agency in an unsafe world. Our conversation touches on all three books, and explores additional ideas from psychology, literature, activism and leftist theory. We also look at recent shifts in feminist and queer movements and discourses, which includes rethinking access to education, based on consent culture and the importance of communicating desire. Each of these threads comes back to the question of how sexual partners can find eroticism through trust, and how mutual pleasure finds its way.
Rachael Rakes: I want to open our conversation with a quote from your 2012 book Unmastered: ‘One day I said, I’d like you to tie me up. And then one day he did. He didn’t check in, he didn’t confirm that I did, in fact, want what I had said I wanted. He assumed that since I had said it, I had meant it. He assumed that I had spoken the truth about my desire.’
This is a thrilling admittance that weaves together the joy of balancing trust and uncertainty in sex. The book intertwines auto-history, literary review and erotic reflections to consider forms of vulnerability and power dynamics in desire. Your more recent book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again is about, ostensibly, consent, presented in a more polemical tone and critical execution. Tonal differences aside, I find in both texts this drive to get to the root of desire as a way to understand and enact intimacy.
Katherine Angel: I wrote Unmastered so long ago it’s almost hard for me to keep it in mind, but there are definitely resonances between the two books and shared preoccupations. In that quote from Unmastered, I was feeling ambivalent about the ways in which we are supposed to manage risk.
Because, of course, we have to manage risk; that’s part of life, and especially part of life for those who are aware of the threat of violence – and we’re constantly reminded about violence. When we act pragmatically with risk in mind, we are reacting to the kind of contexts in which sex unfolds.
Rachael: Tomorrow Sex will be Good Again gets into the things that mostly women – and the book is weighted more on heterosexual dynamics for women, though it branches into queer spaces – are encouraged to do in the name of safety, given the prevalence of sexual violence and coercion in male-female relationships.
Katherine: Many of the ways we respond to the threat of violence are absolutely understandable. But it’s a response to a threat of violence. So, already, lots of possibilities are foreclosed. I’m trying to think through how to balance the fact that we have to try to be safe, with the fact that desire and sexuality don’t necessarily thrive on safety. The bind for women is that we have to take steps to protect ourselves, but that does sometimes compromise sexuality.
Rachael: Indeed, it is an unfair reality. What’s clear in Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Again is that you are not trying to give any quick answers, but rather exploring the problem’s contours. With that, I find Unmastered interesting in that it’s not always instantly satisfying in terms of solving issues of patriarchy, but rather offering an individual way of assessing the dynamics and enjoying sex within and despite them. There are moments of bliss, sexual openness, intimacy, even while you’re clearly saying at times, ‘I know I’m performing some masculine pleasing here.’ These are the rules that sexual partners must deal with – they are not perfect, but they are indirectly written together. Sexual intimacy unfolds within certain constructions of masculinity and femininity, domination and submission, while still finding pleasure, and still finding trust even according to these rigid terms.
Katherine: I also wrote that book in such a specific context, here in the UK, during what could be considered as the beginning of more mainstream feminist publishing. At that time, there were many confident assertions of opinion about how to be a feminist and how to be a woman. It felt necessary to find a way to, as you say, articulate what pleasure, joy and expansiveness can feel like in the sexual realm, in full knowledge of gender norms and expectations, and given the very real risk of violence, among other things. Unmastered was my way to try to carve out a little space, a place where you could have mixed feelings, but also where you didn’t have to let your politics dictate your sexuality. Back then, it was as if I was expected to have a certain type of sexual personhood given that I was a feminist. And I knew from my own life, and from the experiences of many friends and partners, that’s actually a really harmful idea.
Rachael: Your writing has instead found ways to apprehend or define desire through the interplay of trust and vulnerability. Could you expand on how you would define desire today, what it comes down to for you, or what it might consist of or need.
Katherine: I think there are different frameworks for understanding desire. There’s the biological, or the lines of evolutionary psychology; this idea that it’s just a ‘biological urge.’ And lots of things fall out as a consequence of that, including male aggression and violence. Furthermore, desire is never separable from the social and political worlds it exists in. That context can lead to a feeling that there are desires to be ashamed of, and there are desires you should try to change. For me, sexual desire is more complex.
I think that desire is shaped by our infancy and our infantile experiences, as well as our parenting or the caregiving that we’ve received. Psychoanalysis I believe gets that right; that who we are sexually is influenced by the interpersonal social dynamics we’re subjected to. What this means is that sexuality is different for everyone. It’s unique, it has a kind of hallmark, or a stamp. In Freud’s essay A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men (1912), he talks about how your object choice – the person or thing to which the libido or desire is directed – is shaped in the way that an infant skull bears the imprint of the maternal pelvic canal. It’s such a great image. I think people have been reluctant to think about how sexuality is shaped by family, and the way it is shaped by history.
Queer liberation discourses emphasise that it’s not that you’re gay because your mother was a certain way with you, but that you are gay because you’re gay, and there is no discussion to be had. You can’t be converted into being heterosexual. Due to these awful histories – of prejudice and conversion therapy – there’s sometimes a nervousness about thinking about the historicity of sexuality. Yet sexuality is profoundly historical. We are our sex lives – the ones we inhabit presently – and not the sex lives that we would have if we were born into a different family or a different context. I find that fascinating.
You want to have pleasure, but there are risks, and these risks are frightening, and maybe they’re also exciting too
Rachael: There is a persistent pre-dilection to detach the more intimate parts of sexuality from other aspects of social life, which keeps it taboo and underexamined in a wholesale way.
Katherine: With the social questions of power and risk and pleasure in sex, how do you negotiate these poles? You want to have pleasure, but there are risks, and these risks are frightening, and maybe they’re also exciting too. Regarding power – and this goes back to Foucault among others – there are going to be unequal power relations at different moments in sexual relationships. This can be a source of difficulty, and also a source of the erotic. So how do we navigate that? I think those questions apply to any sexual relationship, all under the dominating sign of heterosexuality and patriarchy. We still live in a heteronormative world. I have been greatly influenced by queer writers and theorists, who have also shed light on the heteronormative dynamics that structure many relationships and intimacies in life, such as friendships and kinships.
I’m so pleased that Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again has been picked up in lots of different areas: literary and political communities, but also sex education, and by sex therapists and queer activists. People seem to be using it almost as a toolkit. Not that it’s that kind of book. But I have had people write to me, saying they found it so helpful in a specific context, for example teaching teenagers about sex ed, or talking to menopausal women about sexual desire, or thinking about the left and its relationship to sexuality.
Rachael: That’s interesting to hear of it as a manual, because it’s not at all a book that says: ‘this is what you should do in this situation.’ Nor does it propose more structural changes.
Katherine: No, not at all. It’s very much anti-prescriptive.
Rachael: At first you set up arguments from mainstream media sources, and a lot of more popular Twitter-style feminist rhetoric, that you patently don’t agree with. So, it seems as though you are going towards a problem-solution course. Then at the end, especially in the last chapter, ‘Vulnerability,’ you start to review more deeply critical or less popular references. Films like Mati Diop’s Atlantiques (2019), poets such as Adrienne Rich, artists like Hito Steyerl and polemical works such as Virginie Despentes King Kong Theory (2006) offer proposals around de-commodifying sex. You conclude by talking about balancing tension, trust and openness in personal intimacies. I appreciate how you make trust a huge factor of fuckability.
Katherine: I do think the odds are stacked against pleasure in a lot of ways. From my own personal experience I’ve had many, many moments of real pleasure, abandon and joy, but it’s not as if that’s easy. It’s not like any day you can just decide, ‘Oh, I feel completely able to be trusting and open and take that risk.’ We live in this patriarchal society that makes us feel shit about ourselves all the time, and many of us have had threatening or traumatising encounters. And that has an effect on our sexuality, and on desire and the possibility of desire. I think men fear sex, too. I think they are terrified of it. And I think that’s one reason why there is so much sexual violence. I’m not saying those things are natural or inevitable – violence isn’t inevitable. The more we can de-stigmatise sex, the more chances we have of being able to cope with the chasm that opens up when you are wanting or longing for something, and you may not get it, and you may feel humiliated.
It seems that we’re stuck in this age-old situation of: we might know this, but what does that actually do?
Rachael: Reading Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Again has made me reflect on my early experiences with consent, which were often traumatic in hindsight. I’ve been thinking about how expectations and education have changed so dramatically, at least in the context I came from, since that time. It’s hard to look back and see how little was available to young women to support the expression of consent, desire, or how to deal with coercive situations.
I find myself in my forties going back and reviewing situations that happened twenty-five years ago in terms of today’s discourses. Of course, change isn’t linear, and things are not suddenly all better, but I see what men got away with then, how much they ignored young women’s needs or desires. The profound misogyny and dismissal, and how little agency many young women felt they had. At least in terms of education and discourse, I have seen how that has changed.
Katherine: I’m forty-five, and looking back at that period, being a teenager and being in my twenties, no one really talked about this. The only time I would ever hear rape discussed was in the media, and usually in terms of ‘well, obviously she led him on.’ It was horrendous. For me, it was so strange, because it was also coupled with the post-feminism movement, which had this perspective that women are strong, competent; that we don’t need to take any shit and we can drink the men under the table. This attitude appeared alongside the absolute denial of the realities of women’s lives. It’s amazing we all made it through.
When you talk to young people nowadays, they seem so savvy and clear-sighted about these dynamics and the politics of it all. And that does give me hope, but the thing I really wonder is: how does that play out? How does that actually hash out for them in their intimate lives? Because I’ve talked to a lot of young women who seemed to have it as bad as we did. And maybe worse, because in other ways because the culture has also gotten worse. There is something so cruel in the culture, so punitive. Then there’s the whole question of pornography, which I just find so complicated.
I worry that knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to improved dynamics with men. The research is pretty depressing in terms of women’s experiences of sex, their expectations of sex. The statistics about sexual violence, coercion and bullying have stayed constant over time. It seems that we’re stuck in this age-old situation of: we might know this, but what does that actually do? Is it possible for women to really explore their sexuality in this culture that is so intent on prioritising male pleasure and punishing women?
Rachael: Let’s turn to Daddy Issues. I can imagine how this aspect is another essential puzzle piece in your ongoing thinking on culture and sexuality. The book moves away from the topic of sexual intimacy and violence to another structural aspect of masculinity and patriarchy.
Katherine: There are indeed threads and connections between Daddy Issues and Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again. I’ve always been fascinated by the phrase ‘daddy issues’ and the way it diagnoses a cultural, social problem but totally locates it to women. The attitude is, ‘Oh, she’s got daddy issues, and that explains her sexual choices.’ Part of the book was about forcing the lens back onto fathers in order to argue that it’s not about daughters, it’s about the dynamic. But it’s also about how those lessons of patriarchy are inculcated through these phrases or tropes. There’s so much in the representations of fathers and daughters that reminds us a woman’s sexuality is not her own, it belongs to someone else; it belongs to her father. Therefore, he quite naturally will be jealous and suspicious of the daughter’s sexual partner. He may even be violent, but isn’t it so hilarious and charming? His behaviour is justified because he loves his daughter so much. It is all about the men; about the rivalry between two men, and the daughter is just a prop. Her sexual agency and her desires are irrelevant. What she might want doesn’t matter, except when we want to scorn her for her choices.
I wanted to zoom in on the way in which heterosexuality and gender are articulated through these apparently casual dynamics. This gesture of making the woman responsible for her sexual choices and desires, and the way we’re always asking women to explain themselves sexually. Why did you do this? Did you really want this? If you wanted this, why did you do that? Daddy issues are another example of divesting collective political responsibility for these dynamics, with the burden put on to a woman who you can essentially feel contempt for.
Rachael: Daddy Issues also leaves open questions, which I recognise as a recurrent trend in the way you approach things. I think there is a form of praxis there. We know that patriarchy has to be overcome, but wholesale fixes aren’t a solution. Indeed, the need for broad fixes themselves are part of patriarchy.
Katherine: I like the way you put that.
Rachael: Maybe we could end with a quote from Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again. It reflects on Foucault’s thinking on power and sex, but also reminds me of contemporary queer, trans and sex-positive thinkers such as McKenzie Wark: ‘I’m not interested in the labels of dominance, submission, top, bottom, fucking versus being fucked. I don’t believe that particular sexual acts denote vulnerability or strength.’ I find this to be a liberating way of looking at sexual dynamics. It allows us to take the pressure off of ourselves of having a defined sexual identity; to be fluid about not only sex and gender but power, want, taste, fetishes.
Katherine: By the time I’d finished writing this book, I was thinking about how sex circulates in the current culture and trying to understand why certain even more positive elements make me uneasy or numb. Sometimes when we try to talk and think politically about sex, we end up taking these really reductive positions, oversimplifying people’s sexualities and personalities. We wind up suggesting that, essentially, there’s yet another hierarchy. For instance, you’re liberated if you do this or you’re left politically, these should be your desires, or these are your positions on sex.
I want to refuse that line of thinking and to say that sexuality is actually a very weird sphere. On the one hand, sex is so completely enmeshed with culture, but on the other it also always resists – it will always find a way around. Sexual desire is curious in that way. When people talk in very categorical terms about sex or about feminism, I just have an allergy to a lot of it because it speaks in tropes: the strong female character, who is a badass. Personally, I cannot bear that trope because I think ultimately it’s still borrowing from macho language. It’s borrowing from a worldview that thinks that you can divide the world into people who are weak and strong; into those you can admire and those you can feel fine about looking down on. I want to refuse it because I think it’s a lie, and I think it’s dangerous. I’m trying to disentangle the weird and wonderful world of sex from that hierarchy. It’s a complicated stance to take because people really use that binary language about themselves, and are very committed to describing themselves in certain ways sexually: I’m this, I’m that, I’m a top, I’m a bottom, I’m submissive, I’m dominant.
My work has been talked about in relation to submission. Unmastered frequently gets called a memoir of submission, which I find so odd. To me, it’s a book about sex, which is always about submission and domination. I don’t think I’m particularly submissive, or particularly dominant.
I want to be careful because people identify with categories which may do useful work for them, not least in terms of managing their safety. There’s nothing wrong with sex that’s contractual, especially if you’re dealing with physical danger. There’s nothing wrong at all with stating very clearly what the expectations are during sex, with saying, ‘I will do this, I won’t do that’. As I say in the book, if you’re a sex worker, or you work in the sex industry, that’s very important. It’s not that I want to tarnish that language in any way. But no one is ever just anything. Everyone is lots of things, including things that they don’t want to think about themselves, or that are repressed. So it’s important to me to keep that in mind, to say, fine, that may be a really useful, pragmatic stance to take. It may work well for us sexually and psychologically, but it’s still often a pragmatic response to the fear of violence. It should not be the case that we live in a world that is so full of violence that it shapes our sexualities so deeply.