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

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood