It’s tempting to insist that women are themselves the authority on their desires; that they categorically know what they want. But is anyone an authority on themselves, whether on their sexuality or anything else? I don’t think so – and I’m not sure that insisting so gets us very far. Women are not the authority on themselves – not because they, unlike men, have difficulty detecting their ‘true’ desires, but because no one, perhaps especially when it comes to sex, is an authority on themselves.
In Vendredi Soir, Claire Denis’s film adaptation of Emmanuelle Bernheim’s novel, Laure is moving out of her flat where she lives alone. We see her packing up boxes to move in with her boyfriend the next morning; after spending a while mulling over outfits, choosing what to give away and what to keep, she gets in her car to drive to some friends’ for dinner. It’s a foul night – torrential rain and a transport strike have the roads in gridlock.
To the pulsating Tindersticks soundtrack, Laure sits in her car, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, humming along to the radio, and peering into other cars, where other faces stare ahead, their plans and movements stopped in time, all arrested in their compact universes. Emboldened by an ad on the radio suggesting passengers offer lifts to strangers out in the deluge, Laure invites a man, Jean, who has knocked on the window, into her car. The two sit in silence; there is a wordless eroticism between them. Laure cancels her dinner with friends, invoking the horrendous traffic as an excuse. She and Jean barely speak; they find a hotel, and have sex.
Afterwards, they go to a local restaurant and have a mostly silent, companionable meal. An arguing couple sitting nearby attracts their attention; the young woman soon storms off and goes downstairs to the toilets; Jean follows her. And then we – or is it Laure? – see him having sex with the young woman. This scene, portrayed in grainy, stop-start motion, has a vibrating ambiguity to it; we’re not sure if this really happens. Is it Laure’s fear, or fantasy; or is it ours? Laure has transgressed; has pursued wordless, physical pleasure with a stranger. Is this the scene that we, and she, are meant to fear – the punishment, the humiliation meted out to a woman who pursued pure pleasure? Or is it erotic to her, the possibility that not only has she had a purely sexual encounter, but that she too can be set aside by this man, for yet another woman, in the classic seedy setting: the toilets?
Laure does not, it seems, go out with the intention of seducing a stranger. Her desire for this man, or for anonymous sex, does not live inside her, waiting to be fished out. It emerges, in the hinge moment that is her last night of living alone, the transition to a more coupled life; in the discombobulating environment of Paris at a standstill; in the erotic – and vulnerable – possibility of a suspension of ordinary time, and with it a suspension of the rules. Laure, in a final scene in which she laughs giddily and runs away from the hotel, seems herself surprised at her own actions, and gleeful about the surprise; has she been taken aback by her own desire, her own pleasure? Sometimes, sexual desire can take us by surprise; can creep up, unbidden, confounding our plans, and with it our beliefs about ourselves. But this giddiness is only possible if we are vulnerable to it. If asked, we might not say that what we want is sex in a hotel with a gruff stranger. It might be inaccurate to say either that we did, or that we didn’t. Desire isn’t always there to be known. Vulnerability is the state that makes its discovery possible.
In What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety, published in 2011, Jaclyn Friedman tells the girls and young women to whom the book is addressed that ‘the first person you need to learn how to communicate with about sex is yourself’. If you ‘can’t admit to yourself what you want and don’t want when it comes to sex, you’re in no condition to share that information with anyone else’. One of the key difficulties facing women, Friedman holds, lies in the obstacles to discovering their ‘real’ desires. ‘When it comes to sexuality,’ the book asks, ‘how do you define yourself in a culture hell-bent on doing it for you?’ Similarly, in Mind the Gap: The Truth about Desire and how to Futureproof your Sex Life, Karen Gurney writes that ‘it’s essential to have a clear understanding of how your own sexuality operates before you can expect it to dovetail optimally with a partner’s.’
These books reaffirm women’s rights to sexual pleasure. They are clearly not the villains in a sexual culture that too often works out unhappily for women; they pose genuinely important questions for women caught in the headlights of conflicting pressures and impossible demands. Many women desperately need to hear that they deserve to explore their own sexuality, free of pressure; that there may be things they want and like that are not given to them by their partners, or by the images they routinely encounter in the culture; that they can say no, and can also say what they would like. All this is vital, particularly given the shockingly inadequate sex education available in so many countries, and the near-total silence about female pleasure in the sex education that does exist – given, too, research that suggests pleasure is often a shockingly low priority for women themselves, who experience their partners’ pleasure and satisfaction as far more pressing than their own.
There may, however, be some wishful thinking at work in insisting that we have a sexuality that can be discovered separately from interaction with others. The difficulty with the notion of what one ‘really really’ wants – finding that out, and bringing it, as if it were an object, to sex – is not just that one has to start somewhere with sex: there is a first time for everything sexually, and it is necessarily unknown and full of uncertainty. It is also that every sexual encounter is unique, and has a powerful indeterminacy to it; we never know what is going to happen in any given sexual experience, or how we will feel about it – regardless of what we have done and liked before. Our sexuality is not something we can wholly discover alone and then slot into – or ‘dovetail’ with – another person’s sexuality. How we touch ourselves is not always a blueprint for how we like to be touched by another. Part of the joys of sex might precisely be in discovering new, different ways to be touched: in being vulnerable to the unknown.
The idea that we can discover our sexuality in isolation is an understandable response to misgivings about the miserable and distressing sexual experiences that so many women have. Having one’s boundaries violated; one’s stated wishes overridden, or experiencing little pleasure in sex might well make women mistrust vulnerability, receptivity, porousness. The importance of self-definition and boundary-drawing arises from experiences of racist violence and injury too. As Audre Lorde writes in ‘Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving’, it is ‘axiomatic’ for black men and women ‘that if we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others – for their use and to our detriment’.
For many women, life – and sex – are a complex tussle between the need to harden, fortify, and push away on the one hand, and the need to receive, dissolve, and allow on the other. Women especially know the vulnerability which reigns over their lives – they are made to know this, painfully, forcefully, too often, whether in the form of actual violence and invasion, or in the constant reminders of these. It is immensely appealing to fantasize oneself to be inviolable, utterly autonomous, and in possession of firm boundaries – and therefore able to ward off invasion. When you feel vulnerable, it’s tempting to brace yourself against vulnerability – the fantasy of hardening yourself so that nothing can hurt you. The collateral, however, is that nothing can reach you, either. How to protect oneself without denying vulnerability, with all its fruitfulness? ‘How’, asks Lorde, ‘to feel love, how to neither discount fear nor be overwhelmed by it, how to enjoy feeling deeply?’ We need to be vulnerable – to take risks, to be open to the unknown – if we are to experience joy and transformation. That’s the bind: pleasure involves risk, and that can never be foreclosed or avoided. It is not by hardening ourselves against vulnerability that we – any of us – will find sexual fulfilment. It is in acknowledging, and opening ourselves to, our universal and shared vulnerability.
Receptivity may also be a crucial part of pleasure. It is an exquisitely ambiguous trait; it’s welcoming, it’s open, and inviting – and, by that token, it’s also a risk. Being porous – being susceptible to the other’s needs and desires – is what makes one tender to the feelings of others, and what puts one at their mercy. To be met in one’s desire, and to be surprised in one’s desire, is an exercise in mutual trust and negotiation of fear. When it works, it can feel miraculous; a magical collision, safe and risky in just the right degrees, comfortable and challenging in just the right proportions. It’s rare, the strange alchemy of bodies and minds that can effect this melding of familiarity and unfamiliarity, of ease and surprise. Because it’s rare, it should be treasured. Letting go in sex – letting oneself go to places of intensity, to the hairsbreadth space between knowing and not knowing what you want, between controlling the action and letting the action take over –involves placing an immense burden of trust on the other, trusting them to renounce their liberty to abuse. I trust you, we want to be able to say, not to hurt me. I trust you not to abuse your power.
This is, of course, immensely difficult – wishful, perhaps. We’re lucky if we have even fleeting moments like this in a life. And this kind of abandon is risky for women, given that many men do abuse the vulnerability that sex involves; given also the cultural readiness to read women’s abandon to sex as an abandon of autonomy or safety. It is also what is rendered difficult by the lingering effects of sexual assault.
Mati Diop’s Atlantique, her 2019 directorial debut film, tells the story of Ada, a young woman in Dakar, due to marry a wealthy local man, Omar. Ada, however, is in love with Souleiman, one of many construction workers on a local site that has not paid its workers in months. Souleiman, along with many others, sets out by sea in search of work in Spain. He fails to return – or rather, resurfaces in an eerie, ghostly form – and in time, Ada reluctantly marries Omar. She later leaves him, miserable. When she tells him she is not coming home with him, he lashes out: ‘you didn’t get me hard anyway’. This is a familiar ploy on being rejected: the insult, the punishment, the retraction of the statement of desire.
Why does sex’s refusal provoke such rage? What uncertainties, what vulnerabilities are being managed and deflected in men’s relationships to sex, and at what cost, not just to women’s pleasure and safety, but to men’s experiences of joy also? Many, including Freud, have argued that the development of heterosexual masculinity involves an urgent need to dis-identify with the mother – the mother on whom we have all been dependent for life. For boys, this need can become inextricably entangled with hostility – and with a refusal or rejection of all that is considered feminine, all that is associated with the mother. This includes, of course, dependency, vulnerability, porousness. One has to de-feminize in order to escape being compromised by relationships; one has to divest oneself of the dependency associated with childhood.
In much popular consent-rhetoric, women are urged to embody an ideal of the confident, actively desiring woman. If we know what we want, and express it clearly, we are responsibly managing the risk of sexual violence; we are more likely to avert harm. But this idealized figure the actively desiring woman is double-edged. She often figures within feminist thought as the horizon of possibility: in a truly liberated world, women could be just as lustful and vocal about it as men. And she figures, too, of course, as an object of desire for men, an object of fantasy: the woman who is the pornographic trope, game for everything and anything, un-repressed, liberated. But being the object of a masculine fantasy has a fraught status: she can invite approval, excitement, delight, but she can also – and sometimes in the same person – provoke disgust, contempt, hostility. A sexually desirous woman may become both the fulfilled wish and the hated object, and a man can simultaneously be avid and judgemental; aroused and punitive.
Some men feel hostility towards what they want; some men have contempt for what they desire; for some men, the ‘acquisition’ of their desire leads inexorably to hatred for it – a dynamic DH Lawrence captured in his 1929 pamphlet, Pornography and Obscenity, when he wrote that many men, after having sex with a woman, ‘triumphantly feel that they have done her dirt and now she is lower, cheaper, more contemptible than she was before’. Men can also experience a sense of emasculation in relation to the desirous woman, since being the active desiring partner is meant to be a man’s role.
‘I find it even more motivating – even more exciting! – when a girl says no’, a young man tells Delphine Dhilly and Blandine Grosjean in their 2018 documentary, Sexe Sans Consentement. Yet another reason, then, that consent culture’s frantic valorisation of saying yes is short-sighted: women who say no, or express reluctance, may be more attractive to men not just because this shows they are not promiscuous, but because they present a sought-after challenge to men, a challenge whose success will affirm masculine prowess. (Seduction experts – pick-up-artists – who wax lyrical about overcoming women’s ‘token resistance’ and ‘last-minute resistance’ don’t actually want a world in which women don’t feel sexual shame; they just want to be the ones to override it. They need women’s reluctance in order to feel their own power.) Women may feel safer saying no because this safeguards men’s feeling of power, and they know that undermining those feelings of power can be dangerous.
None of this terrain is hospitable for women to experience abandon, or the pleasures of vulnerability, of openness. And men, too, have plenty to fear from such an abandon, since they are socially punished for abandoning a stance of mastery. Sex is a realm of intense precarity, as well as hurt and trauma for many, regardless of gender. What’s more, an ideal of joyful vulnerability may be so murkily inaccessible to our dominant understandings of sex that the language of clear, transparent self-knowing about desire is made all the more appealing as a result.
All sex involves play with power and relinquishing; with the ambiguous space between knowing and not-knowing. In all sex, we are quintessentially vulnerable: unclothed, injurable, both physically and psychologically. And asserting one’s boundaries – stating what one will and won’t do, one what likes and doesn’t – can be an important ground for the very possibility of pleasure in the first place. There is safety and reassurance in outlining in advance desires, pleasures, utterings of do and don’t, yes and no. This kind of preemptive negotiation – with oneself as much as anyone else – may be a necessary condition for experiencing pleasure, release, and exploration at all; the only position from which pleasure can have a chance to emerge. And in the face of pushy men schooled in entitlement to women’s bodies, an emphatic assertion of self-knowledge, of one’s limits, makes compelling sense.
The risk is that these boundaries – assertions of what we want and who are – become a fixed part of oneself, rather than a strategic stance; that they begin to fix and harden, when one of the pleasures of sex is precisely its changeability, its ability to unfold in ways unpredictable to us; our own capacity to end up somewhere we had not expected. We must not mistake a strategy to avert injury for something it is not: the essential truth about ourselves. Holding tight to what we know about ourselves can be a symptom of the problem, rather than its ideal solution. The known shouldn’t constitute the limits of our horizons; we should aspire to more.
In Sex, or the Unbearable, Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman point out that anxiety can signal our ‘too-near approach to what we’re driven to enjoy’. Sex, they suggest, becomes invested with ‘such a weighty burden of optimism as well as with an often-overwhelming burden of anxiety’, because the closer we get to enjoyment, ‘the greater our need to defend against it’. Sex can induce anxiety and defensiveness precisely because it is a realm in which we risk intense pleasure. Relinquishing control can be so destabilizing that we want to short-circuit it, and defend, as Berlant and Edelman write, ‘our putative sovereignty’. And here’s the nub of things: sex, and desire, compromise our sense of sovereignty, of knowing ourselves, and of being in control. They pull the rug out from under our feet. No wonder that, in women, this might provoke a frantic holding-on; and no wonder that in men it might provoke feelings of helplessness and rage that need to be compensated for.
It can feel risky to insist on sexual desire – and on ourselves – as unknown. It opens us up to persuasion, which shares a fuzzy border with coercion. Not being certain about what one wants can empower precisely the coercive strategies that some men use with such confidence and impunity. If women don’t know what they want, men do – and they talk women into it. It’s understandable, then, to take refuge in the insistence that we know what we want, in order to prevent male violence. But we need to be able to encounter the other in excitement, curiosity and openness, and the emphasis on assertive desire in women obscures the tender, fraught negotiation of what is unknown. Consent education is vital; we should only have sex with those who want to have sex, and we should respect what another says about her desire or her lack of it. But a rhetoric of consent that privileges the emphatic assertion of self-knowledge does not ultimately help women. More fruitful would be a sexual culture that fosters conversation, mutual exploration, curiosity, uncertainty – all things, as it happens, that are stigmatized within traditional masculinity.
Relationality and responsivity characterize all human interactions, whether we admit it or not. We must not mark that responsivity as a lesser virtue, that relationality as a weakness to be overcome. Desire isn’t always pressing or urgent; pleasure isn’t always self-asserting; and others make their claims on us, claims to which we will sometimes want to yield. Why consider as a flaw the act of yielding, the fact that we are susceptible to others? Feelings, sensations, and desires can lie dormant until brought into being by those around us. We need to be able to allow this, too; we need not to fight so hard against our own porousness, our own malleability.
In the final analysis, how we understand sex is inextricable from how we understand what it is to be a person. We cannot deny that we are flexible, social creatures, constantly ingesting, incorporating and reformulating what we take in. The fantasy of total autonomy, and of total self-knowledge, is not only a fantasy; it’s a nightmare. A soul ‘which is not bound’, writes Gillian Rose in Love’s Work, ‘is as mad as one with cemented boundaries’. The task is to ‘accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable around the bounds’. Sometimes, the deepest pleasure is in letting someone in.
This is an excerpt from Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, out with Verso.
Image © Linda, Fortuna future