Book Keeping: A Reader's Community

Excerpt: Unmastered

Katherine Angel


Today’s women, we’re told, have more options in exercising their desire than ever before in history. And yet the way we talk about desire is virtually as constrained as it was for the Victorians. There’s an essential paradox at the heart of female sexuality: What we demand in our public lives is often in direct contrast to what we crave in our intimate lives. In the tradition of Susan Sontag and Virginia Woolf, Katherine Angel has forged a path through cliché, convention, and secrecy, and the result is Unmastered, a searching and idiosyncratic account of her studies in sex as an academic and of her experiences of sex as a woman.



Nearly ten years ago, in that sweltering summer, that heat wave summer, when to walk just half a mile meant a sticky sheen of sweat, I developed a phobia of moths.

*   *   *

I had never liked them, my nervousness shaped no doubt by my mother’s fear of the things. Her brother used to breed huge African specimens in their East Anglia home; they would fly up at her, startled, out of her shoes, her bedclothes. And then there was a teenage summer spent in a Gothic pile in France, where hordes of angry bees rattled behind the chimney, and disconcerting noises-off unsettled the most rational of family and guests. Fat armies of sated flies and flotillas of dark, wide moths appeared every night in a bedroom in which my sister eventually refused to sleep.

*   *   *

When the stay was over—but only then—we speculated giddily about dead bodies under floorboards.

*   *   *

So far, so manageable. But when that heat wave brought fatter, more alien moths to a tiny university town where I was deeply in love, and caught in the headlights of a Ph.D., dislike burgeoned into something else: an all-consuming terror whenever one would flap and flutter into view. Its blurry agitation would have me darting across a room before I knew what I was doing. Once, I leapt out of a shower in panic as one frantically ricocheted around the folds of a curtain. Out like a shot, I stood dripping shampoo on the hall carpet. The worst prospect: a moth sticking itself to my wet skin. It might disintegrate. A wing would be detached from a body; several different bits of moth might be stuck to me.

*   *   *

Dead, dismembered moth.

*   *   *

I went to a friend’s next door to rinse my hair.

*   *   *

There was a phase of nervously checking, at arm’s length, the curtains in my bedroom before sleep, poised to sprint from the scene should one rise from the lurid floral pattern. The pleasure of open windows on summer evenings was fraught with danger: those awful things, drawn to the light. Static, embracing a wall, they were almost worse, for they would inevitably move, taking disorganized, fitful flight. And when they were immobile one could see, if one dared look, their dreadful texture, their vile components.

*   *   *

I dreamt, once, of one pinning me down on the stone slabs of a suburban garden. It settled softly on me, trapping me under its insect blanket.

*   *   *

The wings—warm and dark, flimsy but strong. The furry texture of the body.

*   *   *

Those fucking moths.

KATHERINE ANGEL is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine at Warwick University. She has written on sexuality, pornography, and the relationship between culture and desire for The IndependentProspect, and The Observer, among others. She lives in London.

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