EARLY IN HER BOOK Future Sex, Emily Witt describes a friend who refers to “a ‘non-ex’ with whom he had carried on a ‘non-relationship’ for a year.” Witt struggles with the same ambiguities as her friend. She has relationships with people that she can define only by what they are not. The problem for Witt — indeed, the problem for many of us in our 20s and 30s — is that the way we have relationships has changed, even though the narrative arc of romance, courtship, marriage, and reproduction has not. “I was a person in the world,” Witt writes, “a person who had sexual relationships that I could not describe in language and that failed my moral ideals.”
Future Sex collects new material alongside a number of essays Witt has previously published in slightly different forms in London Review of Books, Matter, and n+1. These essays have a common interest in contemporary American sexuality, and range in subject matter from polyamory to orgasmic meditation to the corporate bacchanal of Burning Man to extreme porn shoots in the sketchy side streets of San Francisco. That last essay, on the filming of the online female-directed porn series Public Disgrace, where women are bound and punished in front of a room full of strangers, was originally published in 2013 under the title “What Do You Desire?”
The question “What do you desire?” is never directly asked in Future Sex, but it is the animating premise of the book. “What do you desire?” forms both foundational inquiry and narrative momentum. It nags through the book like a koan.
And “What do you desire?” is an important question, because it allows that you might not know.
In the last three years, several books have addressed the conditions that sexually active young women find themselves facing. Memoirs like Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object and Lindy West’s Shrill confront the inescapable sexism that takes a toll on women’s daily lives, whereas Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex and Nancy Jo Sales’s American Girls train reporters’ eyes on the lives of young, mostly white, mostly heterosexual, mostly upper-middle class women and girls.
While Valenti and West confine their observations to personal experience, accounts like Orenstein’s and Sales’s view the 21st-century culture of sex and relationship as an essentially combative one, for which young women are inadequately armed. In their view, women are held hostage by contemporary “hookup culture,” yet they are blind to the real conditions of their kidnapping. They focus on young women’s reports of rape and harassment and sexual abuse. They argue that women should learn “defensive” skills. They suggest that girls should be protected from their own poor choices. They implicitly make the case for the committed, monogamous relationship as the only safe option and the only valid expression of female sexuality. Such judgments worries young women into a corner. No matter what they say, an older woman is always there to tell them that they do not really mean what they say.
These books contend that the college-age women who film themselves naked, who give a lackluster blow job, or have casual sex with a Tinder match have been produced by a culture of hypersexualization and corporate control. They are therefore more wanton than women of previous generations, but passively so. That the blow jobs were lackluster or the casual sex made them unhappy is presented as proof that there is a problem with the culture, and signifies that it is stacked against their best interests. These books tell stories about willful deception and unhappy promiscuous women, and rarely explore with any degree of seriousness the ways in which young women might locate sexual freedom and autonomy in new technologies and the changing sexual landscape.
Instead of accepting the existing catalog of sexual and romantic models, Future Sex explores the ways in which these paradigms are both essentialist and insufficient. In one such piece, titled “Internet Dating,” Witt traces the different stories told about the popularization of Grindr and the normalization of Tinder. If Grindr was originally described as a way for gay men to find sexual partners, Tinder was marketed to heterosexuals as a safe and mostly polite platform where women would be able to find a romantic partner. “I saw two cultures with distinct stories about the right way to act and to be, with differences in what they were willing to declare about themselves,” writes Witt. “Two sets of symbols and gestures that would end the same way, with two people in a room together and no guidance.”
Our desires are often complicated and mediated, but in Witt’s essays, those of young women are frequently met with the charge of false consciousness. In “Live Webcams,” Witt focuses on women involved in broadcasting themselves on the website Chaturbate. These women have varying accounts of what they enjoy about webcamming. One winsome 19-year-old, otherwise celibate, considers the idea that she might be “internet sexual.” A Southern Baptist redhead explains that before webcamming, she had never experienced control of a sexual encounter. A 44-year-old Iowan woman describes entering a “hermit phase” of her life and discovering “mass intimacy.” In her conversations with these women, Witt suggests that webcamming might function as a space “where women could go to consider their desires, where they could learn what attracted others to them, and discern and name what they found attractive.”
There is no established narrative arc that applies to the stories that these “cam girls” tell about their lives. But the methods Witt suggests — discerning and naming what we find attractive — may be the means by which new narratives might begin to take form.
Future Sex begins in 2012, when Witt moved from New York to San Francisco at the age of 30. “I had not chosen to be single,” Witt begins, “but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated.”
Witt decided to go to San Francisco because it is now, as it was during the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the place that most embodies the conviction that the future can be better. The ethos of contemporary San Francisco, seeped in the tech-utopianism of nearby Silicon Valley, is one in which technology has the power to reshape society in ways that better fit our needs. It envisions a future in which our relationships are intentional and desired, not circumscribed by habit.
San Francisco is also frequently associated with the ideal of “free love.” The exiled utopian socialist John Humphrey Noyes coined the term “free love” in the 19th century, and the concept was revived on a mass scale in the 1960s and ’70s. It meant freedom of sexual expression for all people. Free love was palpable in the polyamorous future envisioned by Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land; it was there in the revolutionary politics of the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground, who believed that free love would help produce a new politics; and it was present in arguments of prominent feminists who rejected the institution of marriage and heterosexual monogamy, arguing, as Gloria Steinem once famously said, that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
But the utopian future of sexual freedom envisioned in the 1960s did not become our present. The sexual freedom of our parents’ generation was presented to those of us born in the 1980s and ’90s as a failed revolution. We grew up with the lingering funk of their regret, a regret that was exacerbated and rhetorically reinforced by the AIDS epidemic, panic about which pervaded the air of our early childhood.
Our generation is often accused of hanging back in an extended adolescence, but that view implies a level of choice that the structural conditions do not, for most of us, allow. It isn’t that we are delaying adulthood, so much as the milestones of adulthood — housing, marriage, and children — have become increasingly cost-prohibitive, if they haven’t drifted entirely out of reach. Freedom of sexual expression is going to look different for us because of the evolution in economic, environmental, technological, and social conditions, all of which have been changing for over 100 years.
In Future Sex, the suggestion is that freedom of sexual expression cannot be found in the narratives of free love or science-fictional utopias, because they are the stories of a previous generation. We need a new set of narratives we can tell ourselves about the way we live our lives now, and what we’re staring at is a blinking cursor on a blank screen. The story might begin to take shape if we sit back and try to answer the question: What do we desire?
Witt attempts to locate some of these new narratives in the different approaches she finds in San Francisco. She spends time with the group OneTaste, who practice orgasmic meditation, a 15-minute “practice” which involves all the gestures of trying to get a woman off, without orgasm being explicitly the end goal. The people at OneTaste adopt an almost tyrannical insistence on openness, disclosure, and the processing of feelings, and part of that insistence involves language — “penetrate” indicates an emotional breakthrough; being aroused is described as feeling “tumesced”; they use “sex” as a verb. Despite her discomfort, Witt frames the group’s dedication to sexual fulfilment as one worthy of consideration. Theirs is a method that tries to repurpose language to give names to the kinds of sexual expression they’re looking for. “The people at OneTaste were looking for a method to arrive at a more authentic and stable experience of sexual openness,” writes Witt, “one that came from immanent desire instead of an anxiety to please.”
In Witt’s survey of the sexual and romantic landscape of the Bay Area, the relationships of her friends, and her own experiences, she diagnoses a peculiar failure of language. “Many of us longed for an arrangement we could name, as if it offered something better, instead of simply something more familiar.” Many of the people and cultures Witt writes about try to reconsider sexual experience and find a language adequate to describing the way we live, and want to live, our lives. This quest is crystallized in Witt’s examination of a polyamorous couple in San Francisco: “they were seeking to avoid the confusion and euphemism of their generation’s dating scene by talking through their real feelings, naming their actual desires, and having extensive uncomfortable conversations.”
When Witt is at her best, she offers readers her personal experience as a lens to examine what it’s like to be alive and desiring. When the book falters, it is largely due to her focus on the white, heterosexual, upper-middle class social spheres of the Bay Area and New York, a focus that displays a kind of opacity toward the experiences of queer, poor, or minority communities living in places elsewhere. Witt never presents herself as somebody who has all the answers. She is both unsure and searching, and the book’s conclusion is neither proof nor disputation of an original conviction about sex or desire. “I still did not feel as free as I wanted to,” Witt writes in the final pages of the book. “Sometimes I could not cross the barriers that keep people from expressing their desires.”
The culture of the Bay Area Witt depicts in Future Sex is in large part one of “hyperbolic optimism.” As coined by a Google employee Witt profiles, hyperbolic optimists “thought that an action was right if it promoted individual happiness, regardless of its effect on others […] [T]he way they approached sex had roots in a libertarian idea that if the right dynamics were set up every problem would work itself out.” The problem with hyperbolic optimism is that human emotions are brittle and tricky. People still fail and hurt one another, and a good relationship doesn’t cure anybody of unhappiness or carelessness. We all make mistakes.
Among the conditions of being young are the experience of feeling formless and making mistakes, and these mistakes are those that Sales and Orenstein cite as the symptoms of their concern. But sometimes you do not arrive at adulthood with any clear sense of what you desire. Witt quotes the book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, in which Samuel Delaney describes the bygone porn theaters in Times Square as places where he could explore the nuances of his own desire: “What waits is for enough women to consider such venues as a locus of possible pleasure.” Risks of pregnancy, violence, and disease have tended to keep women from exploring their sexuality. But the discourse of self-preservation and worry taught to us by our mothers and popularized in books like Orenstein’s and Sales’s has encouraged the belief that the danger is best avoided, that safety lies in the stable, committed, and probably monogamous, relationship.
I have personally found that discourse to be a frustrating and inhibiting one. While reading Future Sex, I came upon a poem by Maggie Nelson, included in her collection Something Bright, Then Holes, in which she notes, “I hate the phrase ‘self-preservation’ / I mean, what exactly is one / preserving?” And it is often difficult to know what you’re meant to be preserving when you have not interrogated your own desires and found a language to articulate them, even when such an interrogation may be accompanied by risk and pain.
At a sex party Witt attends in San Francisco, hosted by a group of polyamorous Google employees, a set of rules are posted on the walls. “Enthusiastic consent” is encouraged. Enthusiastic consent should be the goal of all sexual encounters. But you will not respond with “Yes!” to every sexual encounter you ever have. Sometimes you might respond with “Yes … ” or “Okay?” The pursuit of sexual freedom, not to mention gender equality, involves treating young women as autonomous subjects. It involves giving women the liberty to discover what they want to say “Yes!” to on their own terms; and allowing that they will sometimes make mistakes, and sometimes get hurt; and that an unhappy experience is often proof of nothing more than an unhappy experience, not a referendum on the perils of the culture at large.