The brain is the most powerful sex organ, the cliché goes. But most popular advice around sex seems to agree on not overthinking it—on getting out of your own head so you can screw your brains out and make him lose his mind. Or, to quote Justin Timberlake’s “Future Sex”: “Your enemy are your thoughts, baby / So just let ’em go.” For that reason, books on sex and dating have always been conceptual oddities, with their hundreds of pages of thinking about how best not to. Must the critical intellect always be at odds with the libido? Is sex, like comedy, neutralized by the kinds of intense cerebration books provide?
Emily Witt’s debut essay collection, Future Sex, unlike Timberlake’s song, offers a resounding hmm, maybe—let’s think about it some more. Amid the ceaseless slew of sex and dating books, it’s probably more efficient to describe what Future Sex is pointedly not. It’s not an advice book (The Ethical Slut, Guide to Getting It On, He’s Just Not That Into You), nor is it pop-sci (Sex at Dawn, Modern Romance, Bonk), though Witt makes it clear she’s done her due diligence in reading most of these. Superficially, Future Sex resembles Robin Rinaldi’s The Wild Oats Project: A woman, uneasy about her age and romantic life, goes on a mission of carnal experimentation in San Francisco.
Witt includes her personal narrative not to curry readerly empathy (Will our intrepid, likable heroine find love and fulfillment?), but to disclose her critical perspective, which is “single, straight, and female”; also, hyper-educated, white, serious, and curious. She finds herself dissatisfied with both the “total sexual freedom” of singledom and the conventional expectations of romance, which, quoting from a CDC chlamydia pamphlet, she defines as “a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.”
Despite its misleading title, Witt’s book is not about the future of sex. In eight mostly stand-alone essays, Witt reports on existing fringe and alternative sexual cultures, in the aftermath of free love and its backlash, STI awareness, and three waves of feminism. The subjects are spelled out in very non-misleading chapter titles, such as “Internet Dating,” “Orgasmic Meditation,” “Internet Porn,” and “Live Webcams.” San Francisco provides the ideal venue; to paraphrase William Gibson, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed, and the Bay Area has always received the greater share. It’s “where the future was going to be figured out,” Witt writes:
or at least it was the city America had designated for people who still believed in free love. They sought to unlink the family from a sexual foundation of two people. They believed in intentional communities that could successfully disrupt the monogamous heterosexual tradition. They gave their choices names and they conceived of their actions as social movements. They saw in new technology an opportunity to refashion society, including ideas about sexuality.
From its 1960s idealism to today’s tech utopianism, the Bay Area’s chill, can-do vibe is an awkward fit for Witt, a self-described “maladjusted,” “skeptical,” “unhappy” New Yorker. But this outlook is a useful prophylactic against the boosterism that surrounds her, as she goes in search of “a model of sexuality better suited to the present, to its freedoms, to its honesty.” Her admirable commitment to firsthand reporting has her undertaking movie-set tours of panda-costumed gangbangs, experimenting with webcam hookups and online dating, and doing whip-its at a Google employee’s sex party. Playing the role of tourist or amateur, she picks up unusual details from the sidelines. The porn studio Kink buys fake eyelashes “several hundred at a time,” she finds, and the sex-party host insures her stripper pole. You could say Witt’s critical kink is voyeurism.
Her critique of intimacy remains intimate, however, owning its own biases while rejecting the dishy humble-brag, the brave over-share, and over-generalized neuroscience. The honest depictions of her sexual experience make few concessions to dramatic tension, or even to sex. The “Internet Dating” chapter is entirely sex-free, chronicling five failed dates and encompassing the history of online dating. Yet Witt manages to wring out plenty of insight from her doldrums:
Internet dating had evolved to present the world around us, the people in our immediate vicinity, and to fulfill the desires of a particular moment. At no point did it offer guidance in what to do with such a vast array of possibility. While the lonely might harbor a secret object, from the desire for a brief sexual encounter to a longing for love, the technology itself promised nothing. It could bring us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them.
Nor have we figured out yet how to talk about sex. Language is a benchmark for political progress, and as Witt observes, “Our relationships had changed but the language had not.” She finds the mainstream narrative riddled with false dichotomies (casual sex vs. committed relationships) and vague euphemisms (“hooking up,” “dating”). But she doesn’t spare the alternative cultures either, cringing at all the woo-woo slang and corny neologisms she comes across, in scare quotes aplenty: Orgasmic Meditation’s use of “sex” as a verb and “tumesced” as an emotion, a shade of blush called “Super Orgasm,” and all manifestations of our millennium’s portmanteau mania—“coregasm,” “fungeon.” Whatever the future of sex may be, let’s hope it isn’t this cute.
You may have surmised that the book’s subjects are, as San Francisco has rapidly become, mostly white and well-off, enough that a more accurate title might be Privileged Sex (or perhaps, following the sex-book naming convention, Sex on the Coasts). This is partly because organized, institutionalized sexual adventures are easier to achieve with money and leisure time, which Witt is characteristically aware of, in her discussion of Bay Area utopianism:
It was not a tenable ideology, was in fact totally ungrounded in any wider reality, but for a number of reasons hyperbolic optimism could actually be pondered in the highly specific time and place of San Francisco ... among a group of young educated people with high standards of living.
The poorer fringes are mostly overlooked in her highly personal account, especially illegal sex work—the sugar babies of Seeking Arrangement, the hustling undergrads of Rentboy, Eros, and Backpage, and homeless survival workers, less visible but no less modern. Perhaps out of a desire to report only on cultures she can directly experience, there’s a dearth of nonheterosexuality that’s glaring in light of her own declaration that she “wanted to live in a world with a wider range of sexual identities.”
This cultural bubble—admittedly hard to avoid in the gentrified foam party of San Francisco—might be what leads Witt to occasionally overstate or over-generalize social progress, as when she claims that “open marriages had already lost stigma,” or that “we had expanded our idea of normal.” That may be true of media representation and marriage equality, but in its dissection of progressive mores, the book largely glosses over the concomitant backlash from the right: the $1.4 billion spent on abstinence-only education in Africa, or the ongoing push to defund Planned Parenthood and repeal Roe v. Wade. And as the chapter on birth control rightly points out, the development of other contraceptive technologies has stalled. As much as the future of sex is defined by changes in attitudes, lifestyle, and language, it’s equally defined by the attempts to repress all this.
But perhaps it’s wrong to fault a book for omitting what it never tried to include. Future Sex isn’t a comprehensive history or political brief, but an intensely rational, personal search for the nuances of sexual desire, a topic often presented too bluntly (Hot or not?). To the extent that Witt is arguing anything, she’s arguing against the foreclosure of meaning and possibility in sex. Sex is not just love or pleasure or power, and marriage isn’t equivalent to adulthood or security.
Mostly she’s asking questions; not why or how, but now what? Are the novel romantic arrangements enabled by technology actually any better? For whom is free love free? (Answer: not women.) Is porn bad? “Watching porn left me more confident about my body,” she writes, not because it modeled healthy relationships or gender roles, but because its variety of imperfect bodies reassured her “that someone will always want to have sex with me.” In this she showcases her talent at debunking conventional wisdom without Gladwellian counter-intuition or cherry-picked science.
So, where does her thinking get her? By the end, Witt acknowledges that after five years of research and writing, “my life saw few structural changes,” though she comes away with some abstract insights. People’s resistance to changes in sexuality “manifests less by institutional imposition and more by the subtle suggestions of the people who love you” and it is “the ideation and expression of intent that differentiated sexualities, not the actual sex.” Still, it’s a relief to get around the transformative false consciousness that so many other sex books peddle like free packets of lube. The pleasures of Witt’s book are like the sex it envisions, unbound from the obligations of solving a problem or achieving a goal. We read because we enjoy it, sure, but more because we keep needing to be satisfied.