Sexual consent has been pushed to the forefront of the Irish consciousness repeatedly over the past number of years. In the wake of international movements such as #MeToo, we have been faced with our own reckonings in the shape of the Ulster rugby rape trial and the Cork rape trial, which saw a victim’s underwear used as evidence of sexual intention. Just in the past few months, tens of thousands of images shared without consent were seized by gardaí, leading to image-based sexual abuse becoming a criminal offence in Ireland.
Historically, female sexuality has been used as justification for oppressions by the Catholic Church and Irish State, many of which are only being uncovered and overturned now through actions including the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.
Taking all this into consideration, the sexual epoch we find ourselves in can be confusing and at times frustrating, with some work done and much more to do. With this in mind, is it possible to consider a future in which sexuality is embraced and consent is not just an ideal but expected without exception?
Alhough not specifically about Ireland, a number of Irish consent scandals are mentioned in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again. In it, Katherine Angel has dissected much of what there is to know about consent, desire, arousal and vulnerability: the four cornerstones of sexuality.
Resisting definitive and simplistic conclusions, Angel has been wide-reaching in her research (though potentially too restricted to cis heterosexuality), presenting us with an in-depth history of the study of sex. It is through her examination of sexology – from physical experiments to gender and pornography theory – that we develop a feeling that things are much more complicated than we might have assumed.
Room for nuance
What becomes clear is that, although many sweeping declarations have been made regarding sexuality (especially the sexuality of women), nuance is the rule rather than the exception.
In the book we learn that male and female desire have been historically split into spontaneous and reactive; the woman only following what the man initiates. Angel deconstructs this idea into its many potentially biased aspects, suggesting that no sex exists without context, nullifying the idea of a spontaneous and sudden thunderbolt of desire, and as such blurs the edges of the sexual binaries that have been used to construct our wider understanding of gendered desire.
Context is a recurrent theme in Angel’s investigations. She explores the studies that make up sexology and teases out the findings from their analytical experiments to present us with a much broader idea of sexuality as not a discrete function, but as something linked to the fabric of our beings and of society; something that cannot be truly understood through probes and questionnaires.
When it comes to consent, Angel asks us to consider the weight of the burden of consent on women. The context of female desire is not only of immediate pleasure, but is bound up in the knowledge of consequence. Even contemporary consent culture places the burden on the woman to be sure of the exact nature of her desire at all points during sexual acts, and desire itself can be used as a tool to enact violence on women with impunity.
On the rugby rape trial, Angel states that: “A woman’s (presumed) desire – even just once, for one man – makes her vulnerable. Her desire disqualifies her from protection, and from justice. Once a woman is thought to have said yes to something, she can say no to nothing.”
Ambivalence is a casualty in this discourse. Angel decries the loss of the right to not know your own mind at all times, elaborating that it can in fact be dangerous to be unable to articulate desire effectively, leaving us detached from ambiguity in the negotiation of desire.
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 doesn’t really offer us solutions but shows us some paths through the confusion, new ideals to strive for as we figure things out for ourselves.