Emily Witt's latest book offers a new approach to sexology
Emily Witt’s Future Sex (2017) begins as the author turns 30: newly single, heterosexual and childless. Searching coupled friends’ ‘towels and coverlets’ for clues to stable monogamy and spending most of her money on travelling to weddings, she still imagines herself on a frictionless course towards sexual equilibrium, ‘like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot centre’. Instead, a succession of online dates and ‘nonboyfriends’ reaches a dreary nadir when a one-night stand suggests she get tested for chlamydia. Visiting a Brooklyn public health clinic, Witt realizes how closely her own aspirations align with the recommendations in the hammy 1990s health videos that play in the waiting room, which are equally remote from reality. She undertakes to ‘picture a different future’, compatible with the drifting kind of freedom that characterizes her experience.
In her explorations of online dating, webcams, polyamory and classes teaching ‘coregasm’, Witt avows to counter pessimism about women’s prospects for finding fulfilment. While surveying recent literature, she finds a circular logic: if sex without commitment made women unhappy ‘it was not simply bad sex but rather proof of her delusion that it could be good’. At the same time, Witt never lets the reader quite forget that whatever experimental domain she inhabits, she’s there by default – not because stable, long-term mutual monogamy ever seemed undesirable, just unattainable. Even at the book’s end, the author observes a group of ‘crust punks’ in Golden Gate Park and wonders, poignantly, ‘whether a declaration of purpose could protect you from failure’.
Though the UK edition gives over half its cover to the slogan-like subtitle ‘A New Kind of Free Love’, Future Sex isn’t a manifesto: it’s research, blended with a certain kind of storytelling. Accordingly, it has drawn comparison with new journalism and, perhaps in anticipation, Witt invokes Joan Didion in the book’s first few pages, when the possibly infectious one-night stand tells her he’s been reading Didion’s 1961 ‘On Self Respect’. (‘Her worst essay,’ Witt adds). Something of Didion’s cigarettes-at-the-abyss detachment can regularly be felt in Witt’s prose. When she moves to San Francisco, she observes: ‘The air smelled of beeswax, lavender and verbena, when it didn’t smell like raw sewage.’ It’s a line that could be taken straight from Didion’s ‘Goodbye to All That’ (1967).
For Didion, the cities of California where were ‘the centre was not holding’; for Witt, they are the place ‘where the future was going to be figured out’ – the crucible of ‘hyperbolic optimism’, according to two of the book’s subjects (polyamorist tech coworkers who share a girlfriend). En route to lunch at Facebook HQ, a bus stop at the Menlo Park veteran’s hospital where Ken Kesey took CIA-funded acid trips prompts Witt to reflect on the immense distance between today’s Silicon Valley and its psychedelic, hippie origins. There are drugs in Future Sex (dosed in sensible quantities), occasional spirituality (vague, usually connected to the drugs) and no politics; those park-dwelling crust punks are the closest glimpse of a counter-culture. Her fellow celebrants at the Burning Man festival, Witt notes, would in days ‘go back to work on the great farces of our age’, denuded of bikinis, faux fur and face paint: corporate lawyers and venture capitalists once again.
It’s this same socio-economic type – young, educated, solvent, footloose professionals – Witt implies, who will shape the future of sexuality. Like their 1960s forebears, they ‘believe there were primary choices to be made about sexuality’ but, unlike them, see attempts at Utopia as lessons to be learned. The background presence of the algorithm leads them to a conviction that everything is solvable, with enough diligence, homework and resources; memorably, Witt likens an aspirant polyamorous couple’s entrée into the sex-party circuit to ‘the way some couples would spend their energy systematically researching and eating at new restaurants in a city’.
For all Witt’s voracious intellectual curiosity, readers expecting a bonkbuster in the mould of Catherine Millet’s Sexual Life of Catherine M (2001) will be disappointed: the sex acts in this book number in the tens, not the hundreds, and those in which the author participates are even fewer. Having embarked with ambivalence on her ‘personal journey’, Witt remains an often-hesitant participant-observer. In a chapter on webcam sex, she expresses her fear that by performing – and publishing that she did so – no married, male editor would take her seriously again. Even at a sex party in a glossy hired apartment in San Francisco, she berates herself for being shy, loyal to a boyfriend in New York who didn’t want to join.
Celebrants at the Burning Man festival would, in days, be denuded of bikinis, faux fur and face paint: corporate lawyers and venture capitalists once again.
Does this make the book’s title a misnomer? Not if we can agree with Michel Foucault’s statement, in his 1983 Salmagundi interview, that ‘sexual behaviour is more than that. It is also the consciousness one has of what one is doing, what one makes of the experience, and the value one attaches to it.’ Indeed, in attending keenly to the contexts of sexual experience, Witt demonstrates the porousness of any distinction between sex and its setting.
Sex talk, we might say, is not just talk about sex, it is sex – or at least a part of it. Intriguingly, speech around sex in this book is sparing, sometimes strangulated. An encounter at Burning Man leads Witt to the orgy dome, where the much-anticipated coitus is heralded by a simple exchange of consents – ‘“Do you want to?” “Yes,” I said’ – and ends on the very next line.
A routine survey of participants’ feelings before a yoga-like class is typical of the neutralizing exchanges it offers: ‘Why are you crying?’ / ‘I don’t know’ / ‘Thank you.’ I was reminded, at passages like these, of a Sarah Kane play.
Internet dating, Witt says in an article originally published in the London Review of Books in 2012, and adapted into a chapter for Future Sex, ‘destroyed my sense of myself as someone I both know and understand and can also put into words’. For anyone who has struggled to find a way to respond to the question, ‘How are you?’ via an app at 6am in the morning, the line chills.
It’s not news that sex is hard to put into words. No doubt Witt has read Susan Sontag’s claim, in ‘The Pornographic Imagination’ (1967), that ‘making love surely resembles having an epileptic fit at least as much, if not more, than it does […] conversing with someone’. She may even have watched the episode of the era-defining Dawson’s Creek, in which one character explained to another that sex was ‘kinda like abstract expressionism’.
Describing how often someone’s written dating profile did not translate into chemistry in the flesh, Witt reflects that the body ‘is not a secondary entity’, that the ‘mind contains very few truths that the body withholds’.
This thought makes the great ellipsis in the Burning Man incident all the more stark and – I think intentionally – provocative. Witt’s disengagement, at times, from the specifics of intercourse also indicates the most striking comparison that the book offers. This is not between Future Sex and the more identifiably Utopian visions of the generations captured by Didion or Kesey and the one Witt presents. It is between Witt’s attention to the culture of sex (how it’s spoken of, understood, where it happens, in what relationships) and earlier waves of American sex research, in which the cataloguing of sexual behaviours – acts, positions, sensations – was paramount. If it feels improper to wonder about the particular physical mechanics of what happened in that orgy tent, that’s a shift from these earlier sexologists, for whom articulating precisely these dimensions of sex constituted the forefront of progress in sexual relations: from Alfred Kinsey’s photographic archive of positions to Samuel Steward’s exhaustive personal diaries to Shere Hite’s intimate surveys. However flawed these methods (and motivations), Future Sex made me a little nostalgic for them.
Perhaps the internet’s archival capacity renders these earlier researchers’ descriptive efforts redundant. But the ways we use our bodies seems, to this reader, a terrain still worthy of mapping, at least as much as the emotional and cultural landscape to which Witt attends. After all, as someone I know a little online once wondered: ‘Is the answer to the question, “Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever had sex?” “Literally inside another person’s body?” Because it is.’
Lead image: Burning Man Festival, Nevada, 1998. Courtesy: Rex Features
First published in Issue 186