Blood today, Sex tomorrow: battlegrounds of consent culture
Ilya Naishuller violent thriller movie Nobody with Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex will be Good Again
Katherine Angel’s slim book-length essay Tomorrow Sex will be Good Again has attracted the attention of various commentators looking for means to rethink today’s conundrums of sex, coercion, and power. The book’s context is Angel’s previous quizzical sex-positive memoir ‘Unmastered.’ The former work was a literary poem in impressions and aphorisms. The narrative displaces the author into scenarios glimpsed in pornography, with many sections ending with variations on the phrase, ‘Fuck me, oh fuck me.’ That is until about two-thirds of the way through when an unwanted pregnancy tips her into ‘a tunnel of grief, into its numbing, invisible embrace.’
Tomorrow Sex will be Good Again makes much of the forensic sexology of the past. Angel suggests that this pathology dominates contemporary attitudes, framing them in polarities from consent and refusal, stimulation and arousal, clitoral and vaginal orgasm, drives and vulnerabilities, to minds and bodies. Essentially her argument is based around ambivalence, the impossibility of knowing enough to give (rational) consent, in the pell-mell of the vicissitudes of attraction, passion, curiosity, and self-preservation. The alternative to consent she proposes is conversation. In Angel’s account, the other side of this conversation, the hetero-normal male, is not polarised. He is an animal, a chopper wheedling one-eyed monster whose vulnerability lies only in the rejection of his impetuous urges.
Angel points out that the contemporary culture of consent, and even more so its validated counterpart ‘enthusiastic consent,’ retrenches an idea that it is possible for a person to marshall, negotiate, or choose — opining with an utterance or behavior, the experience of unwanted sex, or being raped. Consent is a strange marriage of shame and self-affirmation, or flattery and degradation. It is being singled out as an attractive sexual partner and wanting sex. That desire may incorporate vacillation does not sit well with the response cycles of sex research. Angel queries how the yes of a single moment, or in a corroborating impassioned gesture, whatever that might be, may speak of indelible consent.
The book’s title derives from the words of French theorist Michael Foucault. In this comment, he critiqued a 1970s’ countercultural conviction that liberation from Victorian sexual repression beat a path to existential emancipation. Foucault also points out that, as subsequent generations, far from being quiescent around sex, Victorians were excited. They endlessly engaged in defining aberrations, drilling down to determine normal sex. Against a background of sexual research that seeks to fix knowledge, Foucault warns, ‘We must not think that by saying yes to sex one says no to power.’ For an individual, a sexual agreement may be informal, but consent culture is atavistic, evolving from archaic contracts of marital or contractual sexual unions involving negotiated exchange, typically a trousseau. Angel points out, an aspect of sexual pleasure is that you simply don’t know what you want and need and are going to get.
In the pornographically informed central section of the book, ‘On Arousal,’ Angel critiques the treatment of men being erect and women being wet as the same thing. Sexual response cycle theories propagate this assumption of equivalence of desire, arousal, orgasm, and resolution. A compelling sequence assuming a heteronormative dichotomy of fucking and being fucked as the restricted instrumentality of the entire sex economy — be it top, bottom, giving and receiving, or taking and getting. In certain traditional marital agreements, having, holding, honoring, obeying express similar power structures. In sex work, the function of the hard penis accompanied by hard cash is brought into a relationship with money as the soft medium of multiple transactions, a transference, liquidity, and wetness.
Angel’s account suggests women’s choices are conflicted and unresolved. Masculinity is relatively clear cut, either Harvey Weinstein, scheming and powerful, or scientific, men researching sexual response with driven curiosity. This maleness is never hesitant or reflective. It is recognizable in the world of porn, the hyper-masculinity of fraternity pledges, and the stoic potency of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. It isn’t so sharply defined in the little punk hitting on you, who won’t take no for an answer, the reclusive sexual predator, the charming pedophile, or even the entitled co-worker. Yet another uncounted masculinity dwells in the nuclear family. In this configuration, the easily aroused and quickly satisfied male and receptive female appear to coexist in harmony, sometimes sufficient to discuss the sex they want and don’t like.
This habitual symbiotic sociosexual unit of parents and children features in the movie ‘Nobody’ (Ilya Naishuller 2021). Like the everywoman of Tomorrow Sex will be Good Again, Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk), the every-guy protagonist of the film, is conflicted. At the start, he’s a routinely oppressed wage slave. He’s so unassuming and reformed that he opposes his son’s defensive aggression against hoodlums raiding his home to the consternation of friends and relatives. Often, in movies such as this, loving partners seem to have come together impetuously. They never thought to ask anything about each other’s background, wilfully embracing them as an unanswerable enigma. A crisis is needed to discover how they turn on and tick, to find out what they want, need, and how they are going to get it.
It emerges that Hutch is the Nobody of the title, a paternal absence, decorous and unassuming, who changes into an aggressive fireball halfway in. The transmogrification of his benign fatherly aspect turns on an act of chivalry, defending the honor of a lone woman on a bus from five men. In this elegantly sagged fight scene, the lubrication of arousal is sublimated in the slick blood of the several violently penetrated male bodies, following Hutch’s declaration, ‘I’m going to fuck you up.’ This statement is regarded as rhetorical and met with enthusiastic affirmative consent from the group. From the bus, Hutch expels the conductor and the woman who he is defending. Therefore, the long space is reserved as an exclusively alpha male two-way battleground, allowing pain to be exchanged with relative equality. Once the action is initiated, it will not reach its denouement until a final gesture. This gruesome act displaces the pornographic trope of pushing excessive arousal through agitated stimulation, manual or with a vibrator. This motif of excess is transformed into an aberrant function. Hutch pierces the larynx of one delinquent with the straw from a take-out shake left behind by the threatened woman. This calculated gesture of bodily entry initiates a sequence of traumatic brutality where would-be assassins, seeking vengeance, are thwarted, punished, damaged, and killed.
Hutch returns home from the bus encounter, reverting temporarily to his family-man mode. His wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) tends his injuries. Their conversation succinctly establishes an intersection between the violence on the bus, later described as ‘salvation day, and the couple’s problematic intimacy. He says, ‘we haven’t had sex in months, we haven’t made love in years,’ suggesting a connection between his abstinences in multiple forms. Later that night, Becca removes a large bolster that acts like a soft wall dividing their bed. From this point, the narrative settles into the urgent dynamic of conventional action movies. It’s a caper involving the brother of one of the guys from the bus, an aggressive Russian mobster, Yulian (Alexey Serebryakov). Uninvited, Hutch enters his lair, where the Russian, like a dragon, guards an illicit hoard of banknotes. Havoc and destruction are inevitable, but first, there is a conversation. Believing Yulian to be weary of his brutal avaricious lifestyle, Hutch suggests that they cease further intercourse. It’s a genial and pertinent suggestion, reneged in the ensuing bloodbath.
In most respects, Hutch is a generic movie figure, the action male. He is a type motivated to defend past injustices, with revenge or restitution habitual and forceful motifs. In Huch’s case its reversion to a repressed (hyper-masculine) personality. Active patterns of behavior resonate with Freudian or Lacanian conceptions of the ego. Situations in the movie are theatres where men or their female surrogates strive for ego-ideal — The ego ideal’s effect is to undermine life’s achievements — they will unfailingly fall short of the infantile ideal ego’s perfection.
In movies, traditional norms of masculinity can apply to women too. Women action movie protagonists such as Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games or Wonder Woman, Diana Prince adopt masculine traits of dominance, avoiding appearing weak, violence, risk-taking, and desire for adventure led achievement. Men fight to maintain the projected appearance of faultless hegemony. Women, edging towards some improvements in their status, look to masculinity for the way to defend gains.
Both situations, book and movie, assume a vestige of mutual desire for erotic connection or conflict. A conversation is a means, as Angel describes it, ‘To be met in one’s desire, and to be surprised in one’s desire… an exercise in mutual trust and negotiation of fear.’ My attempt to draw a parallel between the accounts of conversations sees the protagonists, Hutch, and Angel herself, projecting rigid dictums in fluid circumstances. Whenever an unstable power relation is in operation, arousal is conflicted between active and passive agents, top/bottom relationships, mediated through tentative or harsh bodily interactions. Essentially both cultural outputs, book and film, predicate their ambivalence, their not total commitment to participate, but curiosity to find out what will happen, on the mechanics of cause and effect. Falling back on scientific certainties, such as that when physical forces meet, the stronger will prevail.
Angel’s title, Tomorrow Sex will be Good Again connects her work to the upheavals of 1968. The activists of this period dared to conceive of society as liquid. They rejected capitalist top-down production, visualized in factory machines, simultaneously subduing raw materials and pacifying the workforce. Free society meant negotiated agreements. For this reason, advocates conflated free love, mercurial, not knowing where it will flow, with society in continuous evolution. If there is an inherent problem with conflating consent and contract, it is a problem of hierarchy. When the entitled hoodlums on the bus confront Hutch, they are poised to get fucked up. Like the articulate and privileged sexual participant confidently negotiating with the unspeakable desire of brute sex. Incredulous, they ask, ‘What are you still doing here, old man?’
Katherine Angel, Tomorrow Sex will be Good Again: Women and Desire in
the Age of Consent, London, Verso, 2021.
Nobody (Ilya Naishuller 2021)