Desire that dare not speak

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

Venus at her Mirror by Spanish artist Diego Velazquez
Venus at her Mirror by Spanish artist Diego Velazquez. Photograph: Getty Images

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).