A Memoir of Female Lust
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When as a teenager Katherine Angel felt herself suddenly overflowing with lust, she began to wonder: Where are the similarly hungry women? In “Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell,” she says of her burgeoning erotic wanting, “The words I would have put this into, had I felt the urge — the words I still put this into — are these: I feel like a man.”
This is a book for every woman who has ever felt like a man for being sexual.
It is largely a sexual autobiography, but also self-conscious proof-positive that women are capable of being just as desirous as men. She writes poetically about having her partner ejaculate on her: “I love this. The sudden wet coolness on me. The smell: summer rain on cement. Fresh, open windows.” Of her lover’s swollen member, she says, “It is beautiful. It unnerves me, in its gorgeous attentiveness.” It would be a daringly personal work for any woman to write, but perhaps especially so for Angel, a Cambridge-educated academic and feminist who has researched female sexual dysfunction.
More than the personal risks, though, she explores the challenges and contradictions of being a sexual woman in a culture that — oh, you know — fears, suppresses and devalues female sexuality. Angel connects the way women are generally socialized to be “sympathetic, charming, unselfish” to the ways in which they take on male wanting as their own — or, as she puts it, the “porousness, in intuiting the other’s desire, and conflating it with one’s own.”
She beautifully details the Fun House mirror maze of desire. She writes of watching porn, “I imagine sex with her — or is it me? — through his eyes. I see myself as he might. I allow myself desire for her through my desire for him.” (That is an observation that completely jibes with sex research showing that female porn viewers spend a lot of time looking at the women’s bodies and the men’s faces responding to them.)
Not only does she find herself adopting her partner’s wants but also protecting him from his own masculine insecurity:
Yes, you are my big man, fucking me. Yes, you’re so big so hard. Yes, you are everything you feel under pressure to be. I am not disappointed! You know that deep well of fear that flickers in your eyes? I can see it, I can feel it, and I am telling you that it does not exist. I am pouring myself into that well; I block it up with my sympathy, my empathy, my acute feeling for your anxiety. I am proof of your masculinity, of your endless potency.
But this isn’t pure self-sacrifice, as she later admits in a characteristically complicating conclusion: “I lock him into his masculinity. I am anxious to protect it, for it pains me, it pains my femininity, to see it fragmented.” In Angel’s view, she’s as invested in her partner’s masculinity as he is in her femininity, and they limit each other because of it.
I spoke to Angel by phone about how feminism initially constrained her sexuality, what sexual empowerment truly means and why she decided to include the story of her abortion in a book about female desire.
It seems that writing this book comes with its risks, given the personal nature of it, the subject matter and your work in academia. Why did you feel compelled to take that risk?
At a very deep level there was a story I needed to tell as a writer, that was to do with understanding the way these very complicated questions about sexuality and feminism and power and gender kind of play themselves out in my life. There was a story I needed to articulate, and I needed to do so in a very particular voice. Part of that feeling was looking around and seeing how incredibly problematic we seem to find women, desire, women’s experience of their bodies, all those kinds of issues.