The unknowns of sexual desire

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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 has 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? Some- times, 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.

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. This is not a reason to dismiss consent; it’s a reason to question the limits of consent, and ask whether the burden of sexual ethics should be placed on consent, rather than, say, 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.

In Lovely Andrea, the artist Hito Steyerl charts her search for a bondage photo that was taken of her as a student in Tokyo. In one scene, she and a photographer are looking at a collection of images of women. He says, in a tone of curiosity and bemusement, not one of insistence, that ‘the models feel free when they are roped’. Women live with a heightened awareness of their vulnerability to assault, and of the complex bargains they have to enact in order to experience pleasure. And we are all, regardless of gender, born into a landscape shot through with violence, rigidity, and shame. Each of us develops our own complex and idiosyncratic erotics in response. Who knows why we do what we do, who knows why we want what we want?

I don’t believe that we can ever leave power behind in sex, that we can enter a zone blissfully free of inequality. I don’t believe that consent miraculously displaces the imbalances of power that operate in our every interaction. ‘Tomorrow sex will be good again’, said Foucault, wryly, playfully; that’s the ideal, and that’s the delusion. The negotiation of imbalances in power between men and women, between all of us, occurs minute by minute, second by second. And there is no realm, whether sexual or otherwise, in which that act of negotiation is no longer necessary. Whatever we do, in sex and elsewhere, we calibrate our desires with those of the other, and try to understand what it is that we want. But we don’t simply work out what we want and then act on that knowledge. Working out what we want is a life’s work, and it has to be done over and over and over. The joy may lie in it never being done.

- The above is an extract from Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent by Katherine Angel, now out in paperback.

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