A fascinating book looking – as the subtitle says – at a topic that can be very, very difficult to discuss: female desire. It’s difficult for many reasons: because ‘good girls’, apparently, aren’t supposed to possess sexual desire at all; because feminists who admit to having certain desires are often shamed (whether by others or themselves); because desire is such a visceral thing, so hard to put into words in any case.
Katherine Angel’s approach is a form of writing described by her publisher as ‘literary non-fiction’. Part fact, part memoir, part polemic, part poetry, it’s a bold attempt to tackle the challenges of ‘telling’ desire in a new way. She puts her own sex life on the page and is not afraid to go into the deepest of her fears and desires, telling the story of her sexual explorations with partners and some of their consequences.
Does it work? Maybe. As I read, I was gripped and moved by the stories that reflected many of my own experiences, not least as a feminist who is pro-BDSM. I was inspired by the bravery it takes to be an academic who is willing to take her work into such personal territory. There is no ‘yes, but it’s fiction’ to hide behind in this genre, and there is no shield of objectivity as there is in pure polemic or scientific writing.
But I was also left unsatisfied. While some of the language was beautiful, some seemed to fall short of the poetry Angel is attempting to write. And the polemic was incomplete because of that refusal to embrace objectivity, to follow an argument through to its logical conclusion. And, while polemic can widen its focus to reach out to many different kinds of women – can take on a global applicability – the text here becomes perhaps too specific to a very particular type of woman (educated, middle class, feminist), living in a very particular part of the world (the West), at a very particular time.
Nevertheless, it’s a book that will stay with me, and that I am sure I will read again. I think it’s a very brave, very moving and very intelligent contribution to the ongoing debate about female desire in the 21st century.