A review of Emily Witt’s future sex: a new kind of free love
That same summer, during the Tory leadership election, Andrea Leadsom suggested that she was better qualified than Theresa May because she had children, unlike Ms May. Neither story went particularly well: not only did such rhetoric implicitly denigrate LGBT lifestyles, it also betrayed a certain ignorance of contemporary mores among heterosexuals.
As Brooklyn-based journalist Emily Witt observes in Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love, there is a significant portion of the sexually active adult population in the Western world for whom the old binary of single versus monogamous does not provide. plus an adequate descriptive framework. Thanks to contraception, sexual freedom and, more recently, digital technology, it is “people who had left for several years without bringing anyone home for family vacations, who had become accustomed to getting married alone, who, they knew it, embodied an anhistoric demographic whose numbers were now significant but lacked a sense of group conscience. They had sex partners who weren’t quite boyfriends, but neither were they trivial affairs. The lexicon fell short of the new paradigm: “Our relationships had changed,” Witt writes, “but the language had not changed.”
“A spirit of generosity without judgment guides Witt’s exploration”
It is in his capacity as a member of this unnamed constituency that Witt embarks on an in-depth investigation into various alternative lifestyles, encompassing everything from orgasmic meditation to porn webcams and polyamorous sects. Future Sex brings together a number of journalistic articles written for publications as varied as GQ, n + 1 and the London Review of Books between 2012 and 2016. Witt’s writing mixes anecdotal candor and disinterested, almost anthropological reporting. There are plenty of firsts in the opening chapter’s dating apps preview – his remarks about the weird and forced twittering of dating profiles will no doubt resonate with anyone who has had the pleasure of browsing like Tinder and OKCupid. – and a lot of these. in the following chapters on porn and swing. She approaches these subjects with a laudable open-mindedness tempered by a palpable instinctive mistrust; it is this feeling of ambivalence that makes her an endearing guide to this eccentric panorama of teledildonics, hexayurts and puddles of hugs, walking the fine line between curiosity and prurience.
Witt signs up with a company called OneTaste for an orgasmic meditation class, where she finds some of their cult slang (“They would describe themselves as feeling ‘swollen’ and use the word penetrate to indicate a personal breakthrough. using sex as a verb instead of a noun… ”) and does not quite manage to integrate the ritual aspect. She later decides to familiarize herself with Internet pornography on the grounds that, aside from political fears, it would be wrong to reject in its entirety “the most comprehensive visual repository of sexual fantasy in human history”. Witt’s attention shifts from the male end user (“I don’t know why, but knowing porn as a male lowers the specter of the eyeing man. You are invading his temple, his dread.”) To the question of one’s own jouissance, embracing the argument advanced by the late American feminist Ellen Willis, that a position of outright opposition to pornography and sexual fantasy is tantamount to the perpetuation of a culture of sexual shame . “I knew I wasn’t trying to inhabit the masculine,” Witt concludes, “If the force that guided my sexual desires became a physical sensation in my body.”
A similar spirit of non-judgmental generosity informs her exploration of the Chaturbate webcam site, where women (and men) perform, from the comfort of their own homes, in exchange for digital “tips” redeemable for cash. Witt’s first take is that this is just a technologically updated version of old-fashioned peep-show booths or phone sex. But as she gets to know camgirls and their personal stories, she discerns something altogether less shabby – a sense of intimacy and community. She maintains a correspondence with an interpreter, who tells her that she is in fact a virgin and believes herself to be “sexual on the Internet”. There is, in short, something more nuanced here than mere sex work, a dynamic reminiscent of the first phase of the digital revolution – “the internet of strangers rather than” friends “” – when technology was better known for facilitating novel forms of human contact than real-world networking.
Things take a surreal turn when we are introduced to a herd of polyamorists in the midst of San Francisco’s tech industry. We meet a couple, Elizabeth and Wes, who, in search of a “more experiential life”, are entering into a household with Wes’ best friend, Chris. The experience ends with recriminations as the pals learn the hard way that, as the independent group Interpol has said, there is no me in a trio. This episode prompts Witt to ponder the difference between the sixties heroine of “free love” and her 21st century iteration, and here is where her analysis is most insightful. There is, she notes, a world of difference between the experimental bohemian of the baby boomer generation and the “[o]80s and 90s bedients [who] seen the failures of the counterculture, took them as implicit lessons from our parents, and we held ourselves in the grip of averages, drug laws, health insurance, student loan repayments, college admissions… ”If that slightly overestimates the magnitude of the flashback – the counterculture of the 60s and 70s has not been ruled out by and large; in fact, many of its tenets have been embodied in mainstream culture in ways we tend to take for granted – the gist is undoubtedly correct: this generation is more conservative, more risk averse than its predecessor. And there are very good reasons for this, regardless of any collective moral setback. Witt again borrows from Ellen Willis, who noted that the ’60s adventure was contingent on a historically specific set of circumstances: “We felt secure enough, economically and sexually, to reject security.” Three decades of neoliberalism, compounded by the hardships of the economic recession since the 2008 crash, have shifted the landscape almost beyond recognition. The baby boomers had fun, and when they were done, they went back to the high paying jobs that awaited them; today the stakes are higher and you abandon the “normal” at your peril.
“The digital revolution seems to have been a false dawn in a way”
For Witt, however, the digital revolution seems to have been a false dawn of sorts: “It brought us people, but it didn’t tell us what to do with it.” Technology is a recurring and central motif in Future Sex, but many of the changes that led to this moment predate the internet, most notably the birth control revolution, which is covered in the final chapter of the book. Skeptical of monogamy but having failed, despite his best efforts, to cultivate a great appetite for the alternatives offered, Witt wonders if the unique army of today could constitute the modern equivalents of the ascetics of yesteryear. – although supported not by celibacy but by contraceptives – whose eccentricity was accepted on the grounds that contributed, in a broader sense, to the total happiness of the social body. It’s a heartwarming notion, not so much a refutation of old moral certainties as a subtle shift in their mandate: the new normal may not be so new after all.