On desire and reflections of self
My academic research focuses on Female Sexual Dysfunction, an umbrella term for diagnostic categories in the American and Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which has provoked much controversy. At stake in debates about Female Sexual Dysfunction are the questions of who can speak about female sexuality; what kind of language is appropriate to describing – and treating – problems relating to desire, arousal, orgasm, or pain; and, indeed, whether phenomena such as low desire or lack of orgasm are to be seen as medical problems in the first place.
The larger preoccupation that suffuses both this research and my book of literary non-fiction, Unmastered is how we talk, in the public realm about female sexuality – and with what effects. Unmastered is a lyrical and philosophical first-person narrative that uses my own experiences as a vehicle for exploring questions about desire, gender, power, and personhood. It celebrates pleasure and the erotic, while also pointing to – and seeking to resolve – the difficulty involved in speaking about desire as a woman.
Public debate about sexuality tends to urge us to take stark, polemical, either/or positions. I have long felt that this kind of language fails to capture, at least for me, what it feels like to grapple with questions about sexuality – the pleasures and ambivalences that characterise my thoughts and feelings about, for instance, pornography. There is a complexity and a richness that are too often glossed over in media debates about female sexuality. And this reflects, I think, a widespread discomfort with female desire: its mere fact, and its particular forms of expression (whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual).
Many strands of thought and writing have nurtured Unmastered. Two figures with which all my work inevitably grapples are Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault. Freudian psychoanalysis, with all its vices and virtues, stands for a way of understanding the self that urges us to look back, historically, at the events that have shaped us, and treats sexuality as inextricably linked to our wider psychological development. Foucault, in contrast, suggests that this urge to understand ourselves historically – and to understand ourselves specifically through sexuality (in particular, through the uncovering of a repressed truth about sex) – is itself a historically contingent phenomenon. We need not, the implication is, think of ourselves in terms of our sexuality, still less in terms of our repressed or denied sexuality.
Unmastered emerged in part out of a dialogue with myself about the psychological and emotional importance of sexuality – its pleasures and pains – to our lives as a whole. And it emerged from a strong sense that there are many ways, distributed throughout many cultural phenomena, of silencing and containing female sexuality specifically. There is, then, still something important and necessary about naming and voicing desire as a woman. Unmastered explores the cultural forces – the norms of gender, of power, of entitlement – that shape desire, while also creating a space for celebrating that desire. It also makes a case for finding language for one’s own, individual pleasure, against the backdrop of a cacophony of opinion and judgement on female sexuality. Of course an individual, private language, unmoored from society and culture, is a fantasy. And yet the insistence on creating space for the texture of an individual experience is important, especially given the widely available languages around sexuality that reinscribe a sense of shame and voicelessness.
Unmastered addresses these questions of how to speak about female desire – not only in content, but also in form. Various movements and schools of thought in the 20th and 21st centuries – literary modernism, post-structuralism and postmodernism – have undermined the idea of a stable, unitary self that can be straightforwardly identified and narrated. This fragmentation of an essential self has consequences for the act of narration, including narration of that self. Unmastered offers up a way of reflecting on sexuality, as it operates in an individual life, that refuses the pressure to reach a fixed, settled position, and instead embraces ambivalence, tension, change and multiplicity. This is because these features strike me as more accurate renderings of what it is to reflect not only on sexuality, but perhaps also on anything at all. The book therefore explores how, in an open-ended and ambivalent world, we might go about telling a story about the past, and about ourselves.
Katherine Angel is a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick.