In a post-#MeToo world, consent has become the failsafe marker by which all sexual encounters must be judged; indeed, to a sexual culture that has cheerfully made all manner of kink mainstream, the absence of clear consent might be considered the only measure left by which any kind of sex should be judged immoral.
But as Katherine Angel shows in her succinct and thought-provoking book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, consent itself is a murky concept that cannot be separated from existing power dynamics: “Much sex that women consent to is unwanted, because they agree to it under duress, or out of a need to feed and clothe themselves and their family, or a need to remain safe.” There is also the danger that a woman’s freely given consent in one area will later be used to exonerate a man’s violation of different boundaries.
The solution to this sort of invisible coercion, in recent years, has been to shift the emphasis for women from mere agreement to “enthusiastic” consent – “the swelling of affirmative consent into something more ambitious: into desire, pleasure, enthusiasm, positivity”. But while this emphasis, which she attributes to the postfeminism of the 1990s, appears to offer greater equality and agency to women, it inevitably brings its own ambiguities, and this is the issue at the heart of Angel’s argument. Women are now exhorted to know and articulate their desires and boundaries confidently in advance of a sexual encounter, as if such certainty will offer them protection against violence. Not only is this clearly wishful thinking, Angel argues, but by demanding such a degree of self-knowledge, we risk losing part of what makes sex good in the first place – our willingness to be vulnerable and explore the unknown.
“We must not insist on a sexual desire that is fixed and known in advance in order to be safe,” she writes. “We don’t always know what we want and we are not always able to express our desires clearly.” This is in part because women grow up in a culture of misogyny, shame and double standards, but also because desire is innately social and responsive. To insist that women discover their sexual preferences independently and then communicate them clearly to prospective partners, or otherwise bear the blame if the experience turns out to be unsatisfactory or damaging, is just another, subtler version of the idea that it is a woman’s responsibility to avoid being raped.
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.
It is now a truism that there are instances in which consent is meaningless – most obviously if a person is deemed too young to make an informed decision about their own desires. Vanessa Springora’s memoir, Consent, is a troubling reminder that our horror at the idea of sex between adults and minors is relatively recent, and dependent on shifting cultural attitudes. Springora was 13 when she was introduced to the French writer Gabriel Matzneff at a dinner party she attended with her mother. He was 50. She articulates, with deliberate detachment, how she was ripe for grooming: “A father, conspicuous only by his absence, who left an unfathomable void in my life. A pronounced taste for reading. A certain sexual precocity. And, most of all, an enormous need to be seen. All the necessary elements were now in place.”
Matzneff’s taste for underage girls and boys was not a secret – he had written about it in pamphlets and his published diaries – but Springora’s frank account, translated here by Natasha Lehrer, of the two years in which he abused her is the more shocking for the ways in which the adults around her, including her mother, responded to “the situation”: “no one, apparently, was particularly disturbed”. She blames the ultra-liberal sexual attitudes of her mother’s generation of soixante-huitards (supporters of the unrest of 1968): “the fight against any curb on desire, any kind of repression, was the watchword of the era” – and the lionisation of (male) writers in French culture. “It is an immense honour to have been chosen by him,” one of Matzneff’s friends tells her.
There’s a tension in the frequent shift of perspective between that of the memoirist, now in her late 40s, head of a publishing house and the beneficiary of years of therapy, and that of the besotted young girl who adores this father-substitute so much that she allows him to sodomise her because her hymen is too tight. Springora wants to convey to the reader the all-consuming ardour of first love in order that we understand how she was seduced, but you sense her resistance to inhabiting that self again.
Consent is not a comfortable read, but it is immensely powerful, both in showing how a victim can regain control of her own story, and in considering how such men might be held to account. “Silence means consent,” she writes, explaining that she has finally chosen to tell her story for all the other girls Matzneff abused, whose self-doubt and fear of their own complicity has prevented them from speaking.
• Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent by Katherine Angel is published by Verso (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
• Consent: A Memoir by Vanessa Springora is published by HarperVia (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply