What should I do with my sexual freedom? This isn’t a question that everyone gets to ask. To have sexual freedom is to have real privilege, and on first glance, it might appear to be something that everybody would want. Who wouldn’t wish for such a gleaming horizon of sexual possibility? Yet Emily Witt, the author of Future Sex, had been brought up to believe – as many of us of a certain background are – that there comes a point in life when to have this freedom is in fact a bit of a mistake. A bit shameful. As though it signalled that somewhere along the line, you’d taken a wrong turn. By your early thirties, weren’t you supposed to be married, or at least in a steady relationship, not deciding to stay out all night and take drugs and maybe have sex with random people just because they were there – and you still could?
Witt is part of a group – not large, but not insignificant – who find themselves still toying with their sexual freedom long after almost all of their peers have chosen a more conventional life. Her decision to explore this freedom to its fullest extent – which is what Future Sex is about – is partly borne by the sense that she didn’t really want it, and therefore feels like she doesn’t belong amongst those who don’t belong, and consequently, too, from her willingness to find out what can be gained from this uncomfortable position. It’s not a self-interested mission, though – far from it. Her project is to reclaim what might as well be called ‘outsider’ sexuality, so as to make it less stigmatised – and also perhaps more enjoyable for people like her, who have come to it unwillingly.
Most of Witt’s explorations relate to the role of technology. She asks what can we do now, thanks to technology, that we couldn’t before? The emotional and psychological goal of her adventures – that journey out to the far horizon of sexuality, bringing back the findings and making them a healthy, not-weird, not-shameful part of our lives – is tied to this question. That gleaming horizon of sexual exploration meets the similarly gleaming horizon of connection and liberation made possible by technology. Inevitably, then, she starts with the obvious – indeed, with that thing that used to be shameful and is now perfectly acceptable – online dating.
Have you ever had someone older tell you how much they wished online dating was around when they were young? Those who suffered through video dating or personal ads, or who had nothing at all, relying on mere happenstance, often view that monotonous clicking through possible loves – all those endless options – as entirely a good thing. It’s an enthusiasm Witt doesn’t share. She seems to have had an bad experience of online dating, based partly on being unhappy with the fundamental disjunction at its heart. “The right to avoid the subject of sex was structurally embedded in the most popular dating sites,” she says, “otherwise women would not have used them” – yet, of course, sex is what everyone’s there for. Or, mostly there for. Witt sees it as insurmountably problematic that you talk about music and films with someone, playing this kind of ‘getting to know you’ game, when really you’re just thinking about boning them. I disagree with her – isn’t talking about stuff like that part of the fun? She also sees this refusal to plainly state one’s sexual desires as especially problematic for women, because it perpetuates the idea that casual sex and a serious relationship are mutually exclusive – women are time and again warned that if you chase the former, it precludes the latter. Yet being opaque about sex, as these sites encourage you to, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re corroborating in a lie, or that you’re perpetuating a groundless bad girl/good girl dichotomy.
Sex endlessly lends itself to suggestion, fantasy, implication, talking around, not about – to think we are engaging in deception by not being explicit about it in our online dating dismisses the very many subtle ways in which it can otherwise be part of the conversation, and the many ways you can also negotiate the various things you might want or need from someone.
(It’s also worth mentioning that OKCupid, the site Witt uses, in fact encourages its users to be extremely forthcoming about sex, via their hundreds of questions that ‘match’ you to supposedly similar users. These questions appear to be answered with relish by many OKCupid users, despite the fact it means the internet – and therefore who knows who else – therefore has access to information on, for example, how they feel about cutting a partner during sexual play, or whether they would be willing to squeal like a dolphin during sex).
In any case, Witt doesn’t find anyone from the internet she wants to have sex with, which doesn’t seem, as far as I’m aware, a typical experience. On her Longform podcast, she says the chapter on online dating was the first she wrote, and that she did so several years ago, when she was just getting into her stride. I think she might just have had bad luck with it and don’t really agree with its pessimistic tone – I know too many people who have suffered equally through grim internet dating but sooner or later found someone there they liked, and are happily together with, squealing like dolphins, or otherwise contentedly occupied.
After this somewhat prosaic beginning, Witt moves straight onto the distinctly weird. Orgasmic Meditation is – well, let’s just say that if you were hanging about at the San Francisco base of OneTaste, the home of orgasmic meditators (I mean, why would you be, but just say you were), they would grin at you and casually drop the term ‘stroking practice’ and you would be like stroking practice? Back those fingers the fuck up AWAY from me.
In the early 2000s, a woman named Nicole Daedone decided that the orgasm was a ‘generalised sexual energy in the world’ (along the lines of Wilhelm Reich) and that you can separate it from emotional intimacy so that it becomes instead a way of feeling both grounded in your own body and connected to others. A charismatic Californian, Daedone founded OneTaste in order to bring this idea to the world, by way of orgasmic meditation. This is a 15-minute, um, stroking practice, performed on women by a partner – not a sexual partner, just someone else at OneTaste you instinctively trust, like a facilitator wearing latex gloves. You might want to check out the website. Bravely, Witt gets stuck in. Her prose, luminous throughout, is at its best when she describes Daedone:
“She told this story to a deeply attentive audience, who seemed so eager to laugh that they would find hilarity in the mildest of verbal miscues or the blandest of risqué jokes. When she would use a colloquialism, or when she would mime a toke from a joint, the room would explode with laughter…She made statements that had protean referents, like the idea of “becoming the person you were always meant to be” or “accessing your inner teacher”…the failure of chronology or logic did not affect her power over the room, because her strength as an orator lay in the intensely personal nature of her disclosures, the ease of her gestures, and her glossy appearance.”
That sly jab at the end! It’s fantastic. Yet despite nailing OneTaste for its clear and worrying cult of personality, Witt intrepidly OMs – as some rando wanking you off is called here – with a gentle latex-gloved facilitator. She reports that she feels sad afterwards, “as I sometimes did after sex”. Later, on the OneTaste Facebook forum, she watches video testimonies of people saying things about OM’ing like: “The moment you realise you’ve built a life based on ‘stroke for your own pleasure’”. She does not relate. She doesn’t go back for more, but in that irritating cultish way of the proselytiser, OneTaste pursue her, only stopping when she leaves San Francisco for good.
It would be easy to call them full-on bonkers, but Witt is more subtle than that. She credits them instead for searching for “a more authentic and stable experience of sexual openness, one that came from immanent desire instead of an anxiety to please.” This is fair, though they do seem rather anxious to please Daedone. In any case, Witt notes that also part of OneTaste’s philosophy is the idea of women putting their own authentic, stable needs before the needs of others; to learn to take rather than always to give. This is a nice ideal, for sure, and, as she says, “their method was strange, but at least they believed in the possibility”. Indeed. Witt also never suggests that the OM practice might be seen as degrading, or terrifying, or that OneTaste might exploit the fragile or easily deluded. Perhaps it’s hard to say these things when its practitioners appear to be wholesome, shiny, and grinning with orgasmic good health.
Witt’s fair-mindedness is also on show when she tumbles down the rabbithole of internet porn. She watches a brutal kink.com shoot in front of a live audience, in which they are invited to shout ‘you’re a worthless cunt!’ at the female performer – which they do enthusiastically – while she gets gagged and tied and electric shocked and fingered by them. It’s grim. Yet Kink’s stated aim is only to “demystify alternative sexuality” – and what’s more, its performers are feminists. They have no truck with the anti-porn feminism that emerged in the seventies; they are instead proud descendents of visionary pornographers of that era, such as Annie Sprinkle. As with One Taste, Witt understands that however Kink’s choices make you feel personally – aroused, indifferent, scared – they are trying to be true to their aim of demystifying, and making available, sexual alternatives. “A better sexuality,” she says, “would be discovered by people who explored the widest range of sexual practice.” This is commendably non-judgemental, especially perhaps considering Kink’s oeuvre.
Yet just as most of Kink’s live audience is male, 95% of porn’s audience is male – it’s nothing new to say we still have far to go in making it either more feminist or more women-friendly, which are not necessarily the same thing. Sadly aware of this, Witt tries to figure out what, if any, of it she likes. In her final reckoning, there’s not much that does it for her, and she ends up falling back on her open-minded, not especially enthusiastic stance, crediting the wild variety of internet porn she finds as “an exploration of the human body and what it looked like and what it could do”. In that it gives rise to what seems like almost infinite variation – and is endlessly fertile, polymorphous and imaginative – it is, she implies, a relative good.
A more uplifting sidenote – Annie Sprinkle, decades down the alternative porn path, now describes herself as an eco-sexual, which means “she finds sexual stimulation in nature”. She should start running wilderness quests – they’d be a lot of fun. Wonderfully, there’s also a culture of sadomasochism in eco-sexuality, “people who might, for example, run naked through a field of nettles.” It makes me happy that the radical porn pioneers are now such tree-huggers. (Or nettle-cuddlers. Or whatever).
In any case, Witt never instantly damns or praises what she finds, and it’s a pleasure to read a writer who is so alive to ambiguity, and who can so smartly tease out the contradictions and absurdities of such complex sexualities. When she turns her attention to live webcams, she amusingly finds they’re not only a fairly tame world but also strangely reminiscent of crap experimental theatre. She becomes a habitué of Chaturbate, where she watches a young Midwest college student who “seduced her audience by dressing like an American Apparel model, revealing the depths of her existential despair”. This student talks about Foucault and Camus whilst occasionally flashing her breasts. She does a twenty-four hour marathon on Chaturbate to thousands of viewers, which includes “recounting a near-death experience with elements of psychedelic mysticism” and quoting from novelist Tom Robbins. When Witt interviews her, the student says she is not sexually active in real life and considers herself to be ‘internet sexual’. Chaturbate and its denizens shade so much into absurdity that whilst they are clearly not unproblematic, they are also pretty damn funny.
Also, although it repeats one tired old pattern – that the majority of its viewers are male, the majority of performers female – there does appear to be something new and worthwhile about Chaturbate. One of its performers calls it an ‘introvert’s paradise’, because she has control over what she does: “I’ve never been in control of a sexual encounter until this,” she says. This is alarming in and of itself, but it also says a lot about a need for safety, a need to put down boundaries and reclaim power – and Chaturbate guarantees this. Witt finds that women use it for virtual casual encounters, without fear of risks and stigma. “Chaturbate,” she says, “could be the equivalent of the darkened porno theatre of the twenty-first century, but more welcoming to women, 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”. The medium affords this freedom; the separation between performer and voyeur ensures the former’s control, the latter’s distance – it is a rare thing for a female performer to have so much choice of context and content, and to remain so remote from her audience. Also, while Chaturbate is free to join and watch, it has the extra lure of being a meritocracy. You can make money on it, in the form of appreciative ‘tokens’ of payment from your audience (the midwestern student reports she made $1500 during her twenty-four hour marathon) – and the more creative you are, the more absurd or silly, the better you’ll do.
Witt is impressed by the people she sees pulling a living together on Chaturbate, but also amazed that they’re so casual about it: “This is going to be the thing with our generation,” says one. “I think cam modeling, or having a porn blog, that’s going to be the thing we did.” It’s a perfect case of future sex – of mass intimacy enabled by technology, self-revelation and self-exposure into the ether.
It feels slightly ill-fitting, then, that Witt’s next stop on this gleaming horizon is to meet some polyamorists in San Francisco. If free love emerged as a narrative in the 1960s, and the practice of having sex with whomever you like has gone on since the beginning of history, then polyamory hardly suggests futurity. Yet her argument here is not about what is done, but how, and by whom. Her description of 21st century San Franciscans is perfect:
“By 2012, the young people who came to SF were neither dropouts nor misfits…They were children who had grown up eating sugar-free cereal, swaddled in Polar Fleece jackets made from recycled plastic bottles. They had studied abroad in West Africa and volunteered in high school at local soup kitchens. They knew their favourite kinds of sashimi and were friends with their parents. They expressed their emotions in the language of talk therapy.”
She finds three of these ideal citizens – all of whom work at Google and are in their early twenties – engaged in a polyamorous relationship that involves spreadsheets, reading lists, sex parties, plenty of MDMA and an insistence on honest, open communication:
“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…it began to represent something better, a desire to improve human culture, to seek out a model of sexuality better suited to the present, to its freedoms, to its honesty.”
My friends and I read legendary polyamory guide ‘The Ethical Slut’, by Dossie Eastman and Janet Harvey when we were in our twenties, and I was amazed at how systematic and thorough its recommendations were, and how functional and happy all the relationships described in it were (though the latter clearly depended on the participants’ willingness to do the significant affective labour of the former). Witt’s young Google trio, also fans of ‘The Ethical Slut’, soon encounter a classic stumbling block – two of them fall in love and the other is left out. This is revealed over the course of a year, bit by bit, arguably inflicting just as much hurt and isolation on the one shut out as the same situation might have done if it had played out monogamously (i.e. you break up with someone and get together with someone else). In any case, in a situation where there are inevitably winners and losers, they manage to treat each other with kindness and respect. They work things out and (not to spoiler things) all happily wind up at a wedding of two of the three at Burning Man.
Ah, Burning Man! “The epicenter of the three things that interested me most in 2012: sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs, and futurism,” says Witt. This rings a bell – when I went, in 2011, ‘how to do polyamory’ sessions, party drugs and dressing as your totally utopian avatar were Burning Man basics. Witt goes to a naked steam bath with a guy she meets and has sex with him, and other than that, does what we all do at Burning Man: wander through the bright yellow of the day and the LED-shot night, dance to terrible repetitive beat music, marvel how the playa looks like the surface of the moon, make new friends you’ll never see again. It’s only a place dominated by sex if that’s your main aim when you’re there. Otherwise, really, it’s just a very long party. I understand the need to include it on a tour of the sexual horizon, though – it seems like a crucible of possibility. But Witt has already covered polyamory, and it is not obvious that random sex in a desert and dusty orgies otherwise offer new ground.
She returns to asking more pertinent questions in her chapter on reproduction and fertility. Why, she asks, are we ‘reliant on the whims’ of forms of birth control like IUDs, which were invented forty years ago? Why are we still reliant on condoms, which use a material invented in 1920? Why do so many forms of the Pill give us spots, sore breasts, migraines?
Birth control is “the original fusion between the human body and our technology”, yet advancements seem off the table. It’s as though, Witt says, its arrival was in itself such a triumph that we forgot to make demands about its quality.
This is a vital point and it’s disappointing that this chapter is so short. Usually, Witt’s concise prose is welcome, but in this chapter alone it feels hurried. There is a chance here to investigate far further, and it’s a shame she misses it.
So, in the end, where does enforced freedom get you? What of embracing erotic extremities? Well, Witt doesn’t find a permanent home outside the conventional. None of the alternatives offered are really up her street, despite her persistent open-mindedness. But they make other people happy, or allow them ways to live that they want or require, and all of this is okay. It would be a mistake to call Future Sex a tour of subcultures, though, because that’s clearly not Witt’s aim – her aim is to make these other ways of doing sex, or being sexual, as valid as their mainstream counterparts. Yet it’s hard to do this, even when you’re as non-judgmental as she is, because each alternative she explores is as riddled with imperfection and ambiguity as anything else.
Problems of exploitation – gender-based, economic, racial – loom everywhere. The same part of the world where OneTaste and Burning Man and kink.com thrive is also the place that has some of the highest rates of homelessness, mental health problems and inequality in the developed world. What of the fact that while people drink wheatgrass shots and get orgasmic at OneTaste, outside on SF’s Market St, homelessness is a serious problem? What of the fact that the utopian exchange economy of Burning Man only thrives because most of the people buy everything from Walmart on their way in? And whilst Witt does write explicitly about how gender, economics and race tie into reproduction, and wrote Future Sex prior to Trump being elected, it is now an urgent concern that women, especially those with lower incomes, will suffer the consequences if Planned Parenthood loses its funding; that they always pay the lion’s share of the social and economic costs of fertility problems; and that under Trump, their right to choose faces a threat that is, frankly, from the Dark Ages.
Indeed, everything is problematic, but that’s sexuality under patriarchy for you – failing nightmarishly all over the place. But if in the 21st century, and partly thanks to technology, there is also a tendency towards the expansive, the prolific and the diverse, these have to be good developments. We’ve also seen in recent history how a wider acceptance of different sexualities can even nudge into being some deeper structural change. Witt fully endorses a world with a wider range of sexual identities – “I hoped the primacy and legitimacy of a single sexual model would continue to erode as it has, with increasing acceleration, in the past fifty years” – and who wouldn’t agree? In this beautifully observed book, she offers herself as a model for approaching the future of this ideal with an open-minded, thoughtful and self-aware curiosity.
Emily Witt has written for The New Yorker, n+1, The New York Times, and the London Review of Books. She studied at Brown University, Columbia University, and the University of Cambridge and was a Fulbright Scholar in Mozambique. She grew up in Minneapolis and lives in Brooklyn.
Eli Lee (@_els_) is Fiction Editor at minor literature[s].
Future Sex is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Author bio courtesy of the same.