In 2021, How Are Women Supposed To Be With Men?

Photo by Jordan Tiberio.
I am sitting in a pub in east London at the end of the November 2020 lockdown, trying to order a glass of wine via a cumbersome app. Opposite me, my always confident and quick-witted friend is recounting a dating horror story. Her dating horror story. 
She is trying to be brave as her eyes dart around the room. Her body – as our bodies so often do – betrays her. Stiff-limbed, she shifts in her chair, her posture belying fear while she attempts to deny her vulnerability to herself, to me. When bravery fails her, she dons the mask of humour. 
The previous day, she had been for a walk with a man she’d never met before. She was excited. He seemed so promising: attractive (in her eyes), intelligent and funny (via voice note), good job (financially self-sufficient), mutual friends (probably not a dickhead), progressive (exhibiting left-leaning politics on social media) and consistent at replying (likely lacking a problematic attachment style). Was he the holy trinity? Someone she could love, would want to have sex with and wouldn’t be bored to tears and/or subjugated by?
As they sat down on a park bench in the dark, talk turned – as it so often does – to sex. She had confided in him that she, along with one or two of our other friends, likes what she calls "a bit of light strangulation". Also known as "choking", this is not the same as strangulation and is a widely acknowledged (if not entirely straightforward) kink. They began to kiss and he grabbed – neither gently nor with prior warning – her neck. 
My friend felt panicked. Calmly, she made excuses. She checked her phone and instinctively, seamlessly imagined a realistic emergency, being careful not to alarm or alert him to the fact that he had railroaded a boundary that they hadn’t known one another long enough to establish. She didn’t have time to think about how she was feeling; survival mode kicked in and she had to use all of her energy to address his feelings, his needs, to anticipate his reactions. She went home. Once there, she was able to finally think about herself. 
She doesn’t want to dwell on it, she says. Everything is fine. Better to move on. But she has been shocked by her own vulnerability and is now dwelling in the discomfort that comes with the unwelcome realisation of it. 
"But you do like that…" another friend points out from across the table. 
"I do, sometimes..." my friend says. "I think. But not like that."
What happened on that bench was wrong. Consent is vital. It’s also not confusing. People should only have sex with people who also want to have sex with them. That’s not up for debate. But women are between a rock and a hard place. As lockdown eases and we rightly renew our focus on (male) violence and power, a lot is being asked of women, not least the question: How are we supposed to be with men? How are we supposed to be vulnerable enough to meet a mate but strong enough to establish boundaries?
I wish I had answers. I have tried. Oh, I am trying. Society tells me that I am a "victim". It also tells me that I am a "survivor". Can I be both? Do I have to be? Must I forever be a pinball ricocheting between passive and assertive identities because a cis man once abused my sexuality and exploited my vulnerability without consent? There is a disconnect. Some women’s economic power has supposedly increased in recent years. In 2015, for the first time, childless women in their 20s were out-earning their male counterparts. In other ways, socially, women’s power has theoretically advanced. The 2010 Equality Act enshrined in law the right for a person not to be discriminated against because of their sex. And yet, in cis heteronormative relationships, a palpable power imbalance which is at once related to sex and gender persists. Sometimes, it manifests violently. Otherwise it is always implied. I earn more than most cis men I’ve had a sexual relationship with in recent years. My friend earned more than that man who tried to choke her. Does that not count for anything in these equations? We are empowered, so they say, but we are also, sometimes, rendered powerless.
Part of the response to this structural inequality has been the girlbossification of sex and relationships. In relationships, we praise women who look like the girlboss: never anxious, confused or unsure. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our personal and professional lives are intertwined because emotional and sexual freedoms rely on our financial emancipation. 
As it is at work, this is about cultivating the illusion of control in the face of information which tells us we likely do not have it. We – women – are meant to know ourselves inside out, to understand our sexual desires in a watertight way and proclaim them clearly and confidently in the name of consent, of sex positivity and empowerment. We are meant to demand good sex. To state our consent to it positively. To do this even though, more often than not, we feel abjectly sex negative in heteronormative encounters with cis men. We are encouraged either to succumb to our inherent physical weakness or to defiantly prove that we are not vulnerable, even when we know that we are because we are women and our sexuality is regularly abused. Women are more likely to be subjected to sexual violence than men. The statistics paint a bleak picture and we are reminded of them regularly: In the UK, a woman is killed by a man every three days. On top of that, 97% of women aged 18 to 24 have been sexually harassed. 

Part of the response to this structural inequality has been the girlbossification of sex and relationships. As in our professional lives, this is about cultivating the illusion of control in our personal lives in the face of information which tells us we likely do not have it.

Of course, only some women are afforded the privilege of performing such positivity. Those who are low-income workers, single mothers who can’t afford their rent or the survivors of trafficking rarely have the bandwidth to consider it. Yet, still, our society and our culture, from Sex and the City – where Samantha, Carrie and Miranda (unlike Charlotte) are cast as perverse feminist heroes because they never truly allow themselves to be emotionally or sexually vulnerable – to the BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People – where Marianne is implicitly condemned as "damaged" and "troubled" for wanting to explore kink – or Fleabag – where Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s chaotic character’s idea of exhibiting vulnerability is wondering if she has "a massive arsehole" while having the most glib and unsexy anal sex of all time – sneers at women who admit that they don’t always know what they want and valorises those who do. 
Though the number of people who identify as heterosexual is decreasing (from 94.6% in 2018 to 93.7% in 2019), according to the Office for National Statistics, the majority of people in the UK are straight. And anecdotally at least, they are not entirely spiritually, emotionally or physically satisfied in their intimate relationships. This has led to what some people are calling "heterofatalism" or "heteropessimism" and is usually expressed in the form of regret, embarrassment or hopelessness about the straight experience: a friend who regularly says that she "wishes she wasn’t straight", like when super straight Charlotte clumsily tries to join the "power lesbians" in Sex and the City. Or another who constantly laments her attraction to men with shame ("Why do I do it to myself?!"). It can also be seen in the macabre popularity of Blythe Robinson’s 2019 "comedy philosophy" book, How to Date Men When You Hate Men
Over the past decade, there has been a marked increase in the public attention given to issues of behaviour, how men treat women socially, including "mansplaining", and what is or is not appropriate sexual behaviour. Exposés of sexual harassment continue to result in high profile scandals, including the resignations of government ministers and stripping of awards from BAFTA-acclaimed actors. And the #MeToo movement, which spread virally in October 2017, confirmed the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. Everyone’s Invited continues to do this by enabling schoolgirls to highlight the prevalence of rape culture. These events are meant to be positive signifiers of progress but when you boil it down, that "progress" – as posited by supposedly radical books like Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism – is merely imagining a world without sexual violence, domestic abuse or harassment and with childcare that we can actually afford, which is hardly what we would call a utopia. Can we not do better than that? Shouldn’t we be concerned that these policy ideas are still relegated to the realm of the "radical"? 
It doesn’t feel like we have the space yet to ask for more. What would truly intimate, loving and pleasurable encounters or relationships with men actually look like? What, besides not being assaulted, do we want?
"I feel like we just carry the weight of everything," says 34-year-old Natalie (not her real name), who recently broke up with her long-term boyfriend after he walked out of their relationship and shared home with little explanation after a year of lockdown. "We do the emotional processing, we try to navigate men’s feelings and our own because that’s what women are taught to do. But when do we really get to think beyond damage limitation?"
This is because the veneer of our economic empowerment is thin. It barely conceals the cracks: that the gender pay gap increases with age because women are more likely to be subsumed by childcare responsibilities, that there is not a single place in the UK where it is affordable for a woman to buy or rent a home on her own. To be a cis woman who has relationships with cis men is to be constantly running risk assessments: Will this person hurt me? Will they leave me high and dry with a child/house/life I can’t afford? 
Well-meaning as it is, as Katherine Angel writes in her new book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, the "consent culture" that has sprouted in response to the movements and scandals of the last decade adds to the burden that all of the aforementioned places on women. It locates the societal and structural imbalances between men and women in individuals, asking women to be authorities on their boundaries and desires at all times. My friend was reeling because, that night, she realised that she was not an authority. She, like me and probably like you, had spent years doing everything in her power to avoid coming to that realisation. Similarly, Natalie is now acknowledging her vulnerability because, as she puts it, of her economic dependence on a man to pay rent on an expensive flat. "I’ll never allow that to happen again," she says.
But why, Angel asks, "should women have to know themselves in order to be safe from violence?" When we project ourselves into the world as though we do, we end up in an impossible situation between two falsely fixed and binary positions: we are either victims, valorising our vulnerability, or we are denying it entirely. We aren’t allowed to falter. 
As Angel puts it: "The consent discourse both acknowledges vulnerability and disavows it: you are vulnerable, therefore you must harden yourself; you are violable therefore you must cast yourself as inviolable. You must become iron-clad, impenetrable." Yes, our vulnerability to physical violence is what makes us unsafe. At the same time, vulnerability is necessarily entangled not only with the act of sex but with the experience of pleasure. It is the bedfellow of intimacy for without vulnerability, intimacy cannot exist. And without intimacy, love cannot exist. 

The research is so shocking in terms of what women's expectations are around sex. More often than not, they define good sex as sex without pain. So the bar is still incredibly low for women.

katherine angel
"I used to think that sex and love were things that happened to me," Natalie reflects, "but now I am realising that I play a part and have control over what happens to me. But I wish men were able to engage in conversations about it too."
Sex is about power, particularly when it is occurring between a cis man and a cis woman. We know that. So now what? Beyond the obvious, I mean. And by obvious I am referring to what ought to be basic political requirements to enshrine (if not ensure) women’s safety: safe and affordable housing, universal access to free childcare, decent sex education in schools which starts young and involves men in productive and compassionate conversations about consent and true intimacy. 
This, Angel tells me, is "the million dollar question". 
"I thought a lot about pessimism and optimism when I was writing the book, that feeling that things change but also don’t in some ways," she continues. 
"The research is so shocking in terms of what women's expectations are around sex. More often than not, they define good sex as sex without pain. So the bar is still incredibly low for women. And I think that's suffused throughout culture and it's internalised."
It’s worth returning to Rooney’s portrayal of heterosexuality in Normal People because of the attention it received for being "progressive". In truth, even a Marxist novelist like Rooney struggled to imagine a "good" man in Connell. He was nice to his mum, just about able to talk about his feelings on his better days and considerate in the bedroom, all of which ought to be a given. That in itself makes an important point: letting a cis man – even a "good" one like Connell – into your life feels like torture not because men are inherently bad but because the structural inequalities which dictate what is and isn’t possible for women privilege them and undermine us. 
We keep reading that gender is becoming more fluid. That young people are rejecting heteronormativity. That the needle is moving. But for heteronormative relationships, is it really? Economic and emotional dissatisfaction aside, there is an orgasm gap: 80% of people with vaginas don’t orgasm during heteronormative penetrative sex. If similar polling which gauged women's emotional satisfaction in relationships existed, it would likely expose a parallel lack of fulfilment.
Years since #MeToo, there are still limitations on what women are allowed to use their voices to do. We can highlight the injustices we’ve experienced and we can confidently gloss over them but are we encouraged to ask for more? We need a language which facilitates conversations about good sex and good relationships. 
Sex education, Angel says, should start young. "We should be opening up conversations about human interaction because one of the problems with the way we think about sex is that it is cast as being separate from social life." 
As things stand, she notes, the woman who is able to have good sex and relationships with men is "a kind of individually achieving woman who's transcended the sexist world that she lives in and has made it to the top." The problem with this, she adds, is that "most people don't make it to the top".
"Everyone," Angel concludes, "deserves pleasure and joy. So, how can we be more realistic about sex? How can we start from the reality, which is that people, for all kinds of social and cultural reasons, find sex a really difficult area. They're afraid of it with good reason. Women have good reason to be afraid of being vulnerable." 
A conversation which is not led solely by women needs to take place. Men and women must find ways to be safely vulnerable in order to explore our desires and figure out what sort of relationships we want to have. Long before Brené Brown began talking to corporate executives about the importance of "vulnerability" in achieving material and professional success, Audre Lorde proposed this: "That visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength."
We ought to return to Lorde’s question when imagining what that might look like: "What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?" 
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.

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