A few days ago I was on vacation on the Côte d'Azur. Just before the holidays, I had read with great enthusiasm Katherine Angel's Tomorrow, Sex Will Be Good Again, a book about the complexities of female desire. As part of the debate on sexualized violence and female self-determination, this is an important and very readable book in which Angel summarizes the feminist debates of recent years in a nuanced way.
It consists of four essays on the themes of consensus, desire, arousal and vulnerability, which kept recurring in my mind during my long walks in France. I saw women in their 70s on the promenade there, wearing strapless décolleté and still having a relationship with their own sexuality. Everywhere I encountered the French flirting culture with all its codes and rituals, which does not exist in Germany.
I had to think of the public letter, which hundreds of prominent French women - including Catherine Deneuve - wrote in 2018 in response to the "Me Too" movement that emanated from America. They called "Me Too" a witch hunt, a return to prudery, and a "face of hatred for men and sexuality."
With all the erotic confidence that surrounded me here on the Côte d'Azur, I asked myself: Are the conditions for sex really different here in France than in the rest of the world? Don't we need a book like Katherine Angel's to remind us that the female body is still a battleground for political discourse? That women are told from all sides how we have to behave in our bodies and our sexuality?
I received the answer during a short morning hike in a nature reserve near my home. As always, there were many joggers and people walking their dogs. The stable for the local police horses is there. A safe place. Especially at ten in the morning. Or so I thought, until I stopped on my path to photograph a plant. I heard a rustle behind me and turned around. There was a man in his mid-40s masturbating while staring at me.
Now I'm a tall woman and I used to do a lot of martial arts. I have no problem meeting aggression with aggression. Still, I didn't say anything and just ran away. In hindsight, my fear reaction annoys me. It doesn't fit my self-image as a woman and as a feminist. Even Catherine Deneuve would certainly have reacted more confidently. But one thing was clear to me after this unpleasant encounter: things are no different in France than in the English Garden or anywhere else in the world.
A new consensus is intended to counteract the abuses in our sexual culture
Sexual harassment is still part of everyday life for women. "One in five women," said Katherine Angel, "has experienced rape or attempted rape in her lifetime." Every third day in Germany a man kills his partner or ex-partner. Being a woman still means being on the alert, protecting yourself, anticipating dangerous situations.
Women who don't do this, perhaps because they're drunk or open about their sexuality, are labeled "stupid." If they experience sexual violence, they are accused of complicity. And not only in nature reserves, but also at work, in the bar, in the nightclub and especially in the bedroom.
Angel describes how a consensus discourse developed in the course of the "Me Too" movement, through which at least in private sexual assaults and abuse should be prevented. Building on the "no means no" of the campaigns against sexual violence in the 1970s, a clearly formulated consensus is intended to counteract the abuses in our sexual culture.
It is a fallacy that talking about sex inevitably leads to political emancipation
It is primarily up to the woman to formulate whether she wants and if so, what exactly she wants. Much like the '80s, when we learned about condom use and protecting ourselves from HIV, followers of consensus entertainment are hoping for good sex with no bitter aftertaste. Clear words should finally bring clarity to the sexual gray area.
Angel's "Tomorrow sex will be good again" is directed against the idea that such a consensus conversation between two potential sexual partners should be the silver bullet against both sexualized violence and bad sex. The title refers to a sentence by Michel Foucault, who in 1976 in "The Will to Know" describes the fallacy of the progressive bourgeoisie that "we only have to finally tell the truth about sexuality in order to free ourselves from the moralizing embrace (...) to free." So the fallacy that sex and talking about sex inevitably lead to political emancipation.
Angel challenges the "confidence feminism" that requires women to know what they want and don't want at all times, making them feel like they're failing or taking responsibility for their own misfortune when they don't. In doing so, she describes the omnipresent discrepancy between the brash self-determination rhetoric with which we publicly speak about female sexuality and the reality as it is experienced by women. A reality that is often so much more confusing and shaped by constraints and dangers than we want to admit.
The book is an attempt to rediscover the nuances for feminism
But just because Angel questions the value of consensus conversation doesn't mean she's siding with the relativizers and apologists and, like Catherine Deneuve & Co., sees the demise of erotica in declared consensus. For Angel, consensus is the bare minimum. But the absence of a crime, as Angel shows in a very clever and differentiated way, does not mean that the sex is really good and that the woman feels comfortable with it.
Your book is an attempt to understand the nuances of feminism to rediscover. No still means no with Angel. But even a woman who is not fully aware of her needs, who has never learned how to formulate her desires, or who is simply drunk has the right to live without sexual violence and also to feel pleasure.
"Bad sex is," Angel says, "a political issue," because it reflects a general imbalance of power and lust. An imbalance caused, for example, by the fact that women are still taught to be "overly concerned about men's feelings," that women still have to reckon with their sexual desire being taken as a basis, "about male violence to justify."
Or that young women feel pressured by ubiquitous online pornography to consent to sexual acts that they later find traumatic. An act of desire, according to Angel, is often still a form of social, emotional and physical risk management for women in everyday life.
"Sex will be good again tomorrow" is not a guide to navigating the confusing maze of childhood shame, power, lust, desire and vulnerability that is sexuality. Rather, Angel describes how confusion and vulnerability are still inherent in the female experience of sexuality. That things are just more complicated than we like to explain them to ourselves in the zeal of our indignation.
That salvation rarely lies in quick response or self-righteous advice, but always in the freedom of Socratic helplessness. Knowing that I know nothing doesn't make me a bad feminist any more than not punching the exhibitionist in the sanctuary or anywhere else.
The volume of essays by the film critic and author Katja Eichinger has just been published "Love and Other Neuroses" during construction.