Angel borrows the title of her book from a sardonic line in the first volume of Michel Foucault’s extensive study of sexuality. The French philosopher was paraphrasing the stance of countercultural progressives in the 1960s and 70s, who mistakenly cast sexuality and pleasure as a proxy for political emancipation, thinking this would help throw off the moralising tendencies of their parents’ generation. Angel is equally concerned that simply saying something doesn’t amount to anything beyond saying it: “Speech and truth-telling are not inherently emancipatory.” If someone tells you confidently about their sexual proclivities, it doesn’t make them politically enlightened (or interesting).
It is ambivalence that Angel wants to recover from the tangle of #MeToo, feminism and consent culture; an appreciation of desire and arousal as multifaceted and mysterious, rather than something that can be boxed up and packaged as acceptable or unacceptable. We are still left with the question of how to do that while also taking into consideration the abuse and mistreatment that has gone before, how to ensure that tomorrow sex will be good again when Angel has made it clear to us that this is a delusion, a sardonic statement by Foucault?
Angel acknowledges that the solution she proposes for men and women – to embrace our vulnerability, “to take risks, to be open to the unknown” – is “immensely difficult – wishful perhaps”. But on an issue that is perennially contentious among feminists, she makes a clear and well-researched case for asking “whether the burden should be placed on consent, rather than, say, conversation, mutual exploration, curiosity, uncertainty – all things, as it happens, that are stigmatised within traditional masculinity”. It is, as she says, a “utopian horizon”, but one worth chasing.
Humans are notoriously bad at self-knowledge and self-expression – a reality that “must be folded into the ethics of sex rather than swept aside as an inconvenience”. Sex is not an object to be bartered but an unfolding, a conversation. It is also, by definition, relational: we don’t simply discover on our own what we like, once and for all, and then apply it with partners. “Working out what we want is a life’s work, and it has to be done over and over and over”, Angel concludes. The pleasure may lie in it “never being done”.
While she bookends the work with opinionated considerations of sexual dynamics, in the two middle sections – “On Desire” and “On Arousal” – Angel refutes scholarly research, dismantling misleading pseudo-scientific conclusions about female sexuality. She examines the ways in which women’s desires (or lack of desire) have been scrutinised, pathologised and misunderstood – from Freudian psychoanalysis and the sexology of Alfred Kinsey, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, to the findings of modern researchers such as the clinical sex therapist Rosemary Basson.