Venus at her Mirror by Spanish artist Diego Velazquez. Photograph: Getty Images
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Desire that dare not speak

For too long female sexuality has been defined by men. It’s time for its story to be told.

Female sexuality – it’s everywhere, right? Our media are saturated with it; women pout out at us from every screen, unveil their desires in every story. Female sexuality: yawn.

But it’s not female sexuality that is everywhere. It’s not even, as many might argue, a fictive female sexuality, defined by the projections and fantasies of others. What is everywhere is anxiety about female sexuality, discomfort with female desire.

That’s what everyone can get on board with. It’s marvellously inclusive; no one is left out, everyone has a view.

**

My early twenties. I’m sitting in the living room of the flat my then boyfriend shares with two other men. We’re all talking, drinking. Boyfriend goes next door to get another bottle. Somehow – I have no memory of what led up to this – one of the flatmates is saying, his head cocked, “When your girlfriend gives you a blow job, you know she really loves you.”

Aw. Aw.
How lovely. Girls – so giving! Girls give blow jobs, not because they want to, not because they might conceivably enjoy it (I’m sorry, what?), but because they want to show you how willing they are to do something from which – ugh – they must naturally recoil.

They do it because they love you. They do it because they lurve you. Pat us on the head, boys. The things we do for love.

**

Female (hetero)sexuality may, in some form or other, be increasingly visible. But that visibility is almost always coupled with a concerned commentary. We very rarely discuss female sexuality (whatever we understand that to mean) without also worrying about it.

Conservative discourses about female sexuality are all too ready to attack women – the US radio presenter Rush Limbaugh’s delightful views on women’s access to contraception may be an extreme version, but they are a version, nonetheless, of a lingering and powerful discomfort with women pursuing sex for mere pleasure’s sake. There are concerns, too, about the shaping of sexuality by forces outside it, the desires of men, or the increasing ubiquity of pornographic tropes.

I find it easy enough, rhetorically at least, to dismiss the Limbaugh version of sexual politics – to see as absurd the view that women are not entitled to pleasure in the same way as men are. I say easy to dismiss rhetorically, because it is not easy to counter these views concretely in the context of name-calling and sexual violence, as women everywhere well know.

The power of this context is what makes the concern with cultural products – pornography, advertising, language – a voice worth listening to. The problem, however, is this: when you are, as a woman, trying to ignore the Rush Limbaughs of the world, when you want to embrace your sexuality, you encounter an immovable fact: wherever you turn, there is someone worrying, someone diagnosing, someone wagging a finger, someone offering sage advice.

The concern about the effect of external forces is pretty much a reflex gesture when we think about female sexuality. Yet it is not a reflex gesture when we think about male (hetero) sexuality. This imbalance is instructive. Women must, it seems, fit into an uncomfortable and narrow space. They have to negotiate the feeling that desire and lust are not their province. But they also have to take the risk that when they do voice desire, that desire is judged for not actually being theirs, but only a performative effect of male sexuality.

By the time the boyfriend comes back into the room, after only a minute or two, the scene has changed somewhat: I am waving my arms about wildly; the flatmates are confused; I am agitated, inarticulate. I am trying to explain why I find this gratitude for women’s alleged sacrifice of pleasure to be so patronising, so pernicious. Why assume it is a pleasure given, rather than a pleasure experienced, a pleasure shared? Granted, it may not always be a pleasure, but why assume that it isn’t? Even the phrase “giving a blow job”. Do men “give” cunnilingus? I struggle to explain. I am incandescent, and strangely wordless. Wordless because whatever I say, the figure of female complicity, of no possible agency, is there; we speak nothing more than our desire to please someone else. We experience it only in order to please someone else. We’ve convinced ourselves that we do something for ourselves, when really we do it for the other. Our desire, our pleasure, is invisible. It cannot be seen, and it cannot be read.

**

It is vital to ask questions about the relationship between desire and the factors that can shape it. But we don’t pose these questions in the same way when thinking about male heterosexuality. Male desire is taken for granted. My point here is not that there is, for either men or women, such a thing as a natural, authentic desire, unshaped by social forces – an autonomous sexuality waiting to be uncovered beneath the cultural tropes of pornography. Nor am I suggesting that we should not ask questions about what desire is and how it is shaped. My point is rather that we talk as if we only really believe in the powerful effects of culture when we think about women. Women’s desire is constantly malleable; men’s desire just is.

**

Chris Kraus, in her “theoretical fiction” novel I Love Dick, asks: “Don’t you think it’s possible to do something and simultaneously study it?” I think this is possible. I think it is possible – in fact, important – to have a knowing and generous relationship to your sexuality and your desires. To see your sexuality for what it is: a culmination of myriad forces. It is possible, and important, to apply a clear-sighted critique to it while enjoying it.

It is possible, but it is difficult. This is because discussing sexuality in the public realm relies on two unsatisfying polarities: on the one hand, seeing forms of desire as shaped by culture (which is often misogynistic) and therefore rejecting these; or, on the other hand, embracing pleasure and therefore relinquishing any critical awareness. It is as if there were only two choices – being critical, or being a dupe.

Not only are these stark choices naive, they are limiting. And in demanding that women in particular feel compelled to make these choices, we hold them up to a far more exacting and costly standard in the experience of being a person, living in a social world, than we do men. We all confront the complexity of desire in a problematic, often horribly unjust world, yet we ask that women’s desires be accountable to political rationalisation in a way that we don’t with men’s. So, while it is vital to keep exploring how our desire is shaped, it is equally vital to assert the right to desire: to inhabit and express it without being made to feel ashamed.

**

This commitment to explore desire without shaming it suffuses my book Unmastered. It came out of a sense that there is something important about evoking pleasure and celebrating the erotic, precisely because there is still something highly fraught, and therefore necessary, about women articulating their own desire. The difficulty of doing this is, I think, related to a widespread discomfort around female sexuality. I have found that discomfort painful in my life, and I wrote the book out of a need to find a way of writing and thinking critically about gender, desire and feminism which didn’t make it difficult to celebrate the rich and unruly joys of sexuality.

Pornography is an example of a phenomenon on which we are urged to take one of two positions – either a libertarian shrugging-off of questions about power and representation, or a view of it as wholly harmful. For me, however, pornography is many things: exciting, helpful, problematic, irritating. In other words, these blunt positions seemed hopelessly removed from what it feels like to grapple with the challenges raised by sexuality. Indeed, they rely on effacing and removing the detail and the granular texture of experience.

Unmastered is a philosophical, first-person exploration of desire as it has figured in my life – close up enough to convey its texture, its edges, its folds. The book asks questions that I don’t think can ever be answered fully, though it is important we ask them. How do we know what our desire is? Can we see women as having sexual agency? How do ideas about masculinity, femininity, power and weakness operate in a sexuality and in a life? What do we feel entitled to say?

Roland Barthes once observed that each time he read about photography, he would “think of some photograph I loved, and this made me furious”. Grand narratives – generalising diagnoses – frustrated him. He vowed that instead of writing about photography he would write about individual photographers: “Nothing to do with a corpus: only some bodies.”

My experience is just mine. Yet individual stories are important, not because they can wholly represent anything else, but because they insist on specificity, on experience, on detail. They can give voice to what is silenced in polemical debate. And they can give space to the complexity within each sexuality. So, no corpus for me, then. Only some bodies.

Katherine Angel is a research fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick. Her “Unmastered: a Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell” is published by Allen Lane (£15.99).

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war