Desire That Dare Not Speak: For Too Long Female Sexuality Has Been Defined by Men. It's Time for Its Story to Be Told, Says Katherine Angel

By Angel, Katherine | New Statesman (1996), September 21, 2012 | Go to article overview

Desire That Dare Not Speak: For Too Long Female Sexuality Has Been Defined by Men. It's Time for Its Story to Be Told, Says Katherine Angel


Angel, Katherine, New Statesman (1996)


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.

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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? …

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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, Says Katherine Angel
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