Emily Witt’s Future Sex begins in what is, perhaps, the least romantic settings imaginable: a public health clinic. Witt finds herself there, being tested for chlamydia after sleeping with a friend, a casual encounter that had little to do with commitment or dating or love; a familiar experience in the era of what critics often panickedly refer to as hookup culture. “That night had been finite and uncomplicated,” Witt writes. “It did not merit so much attention.” What should have been a fleeting encounter turns into a more profound realization for Witt, an awareness that her sexual relationships were ones that resisted familiar narratives of love, sex, and gender.
“I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center,” Witt writes. That terminus was, of course, marriage—and yet Witt cannot quite reconcile herself to the idea that true love, that rare thing we’re all conditioned to expect, was a “destiny rather than a choice.” So rather than accept that familiar path, Witt decides to plot a newer path and to name the kind of sexual relationships she was having, instead of the abstract one she was failing to have.
Future Sex is part journalism, part memoir. Witt uses journalism as an alibi of sorts, fixing that critical eye of investigation on the history of casual sex, sexual subcultures, and her own desires and ideas about marriage and commitment. She delves into online dating, deconstructing the stereotypical foundation—that men want sex and women want relationships—on which dating apps are built. She hops on a plane to San Francisco and spends time with OneTaste, a cultish sounding group dedicated to “orgasmic meditation.” In her most thoughtful and compelling chapter, she witnesses as BDSM shoot by Kink.com, part of a series called Public Disgrace, in which a female performer enacts a particular fantasy of degradation under the direction of Princess Donna Dolore, a well-known dominatrix. There are stops in webcam culture, particularly Chaturbate, time spent with a non-monogamous couple, and (inevitably) a trip to Burning Man.
It’s an orgy of exploration, but Witt is no sensationalist. Instead, Future Sex is a thoughtful account of naming desire and the infinite possibilities of doing so. In the process, Witt inevitably grapples with gender. Sex is still attached to value and desire is thus a commodity. But Witt has no interest in the moralizing narrative of victimhood and vulnerability that often shrouds discussions of casual sex or hookup culture. Instead, Witt’s account, oscillating between reportage and memoir, aims at the deconstruction of those very terms. It’s a frank and compelling account of sex and desire—both their endless possibilities and the histories that remain tethered to them.
I spoke with Witt about her book at the Miami Book Fair. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This is the book on gender and sex that I’ve been wanting to read for awhile. Why this topic? Why this book?
Like you just said, I felt like there was a book out there that I was looking for. There’s been this demographic shift of people getting married later or not getting married at all and a technological shift of new ways of meeting people and finding different communities. There had also been a shift of greater moral tolerance for all kinds of sexual identities and orientations. My friends and I had this sense of openness and freedom, but also deep anxiety and isolation. With all of this freedom came rejection.
I always assumed that I would meet someone and get married and it kept not happening. I felt like I was not living my life within its reality. It’s as if there was this “real relationship” and then there were all the relationships that I had but I wasn’t describing them in any language, I didn’t see any real narrative to them. I felt outside of culture. So, I wanted to start looking at the possibilities I hadn’t thought of before because I thought of myself as a certain kind of person.
Even in the beginning of the book, I thought I was going to do a journalistic, third-person account. I was inspired by Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese, which is a cultural history of the sexual revolution, and I felt like I could attempt to do that but map this post-1990 change which affected women a lot more than the Playboy revolution.
That’s where I began but when I started reporting, I realized that I was kind of lying to myself. I was pretending, “Oh, I’m a journalist and that’s why I’m here and not because it’s a personal inquiry,” but as it went on, I realized that I was trying to answer personal questions about how to find happiness in my reality. At the time, that was just dating.
You write about dating using Tinder and other internet apps to meet people. One of the sections of Future Sex explores the idea that dating apps for women have to be built in a certain way, they have to look a certain way, they have to be “clean well-lighted” spaces.
I realized that, so many times, I would go out with somebody and he would be a great guy, someone who checked all of the boxes in terms of accomplishment. And I would be mad at myself [for not being attracted to him] and asked, “What’s wrong with me? This guy is great.” I somehow never could acknowledge that I just didn’t want to have sex with him. That should have been the first question I asked when I went into internet dating: “Do I want to have sex with this person? When I look at him or encounter him, do I feel something in my body?”
The apps were designed to hide sex because the early inventors of internet dating discovered that women just wouldn’t use a dating app if it had overt references to casual sex. Even an app like Tinder, which we all think of an app that has the possibility of casual sex, there’s nothing in the platform that suggests casual sex. That’s why it’s successful because it managed to hide that.
I started to wonder what I was losing by circling this lie about dating that I wasn’t putting sex first the way that, I think, men are conditioned to do.
You talk about sex as an “intrinsic value” for men where, as for women, sexual attraction is packaged as something that comes after common interests or emotional attraction.
You’re taught that this thing called “true love,” which is very scarce and hard to come by, is valued so much higher casual sex, this thing that’s available to you in abundance. I wanted to try to find the same kind of value in casual sex.
That leads you on a path in San Francisco through sexual subcultures. In one chapter you go to a Kink.com shoot for a series called Public Disgrace.
The fantasy that Public Disgrace is selling is of a woman who enters a public space, in this case, a bar, and the audience is encouraged to insult her and grope her. It’s a performance, the performer has signed a rider outlining what she is willing to accept from the audience and what she’s not. But the things she was willing to accept were pretty intense.
Part of the scene was comical, in some respect. There’s a scene where Ramón Nomar, the male performer, is fucking the actress [Penny Pax] while wearing his combat boots, his pants around his ankles. But the balance to that comedy is that the scene feels very violent, she’s being smacked and called a “worthless cunt,” even though Pax has consented to everything.
With everything I explored in the book, it was easy to see the objections. What I was trying to capture in the book was show all of these new possibilities, including BDSM porn that mimics the fantasy of violence. But it was directed by a woman [Princess Donna Dolore]. Why are they there? And what does it mean for the broader culture?
I was airing towards optimism and positivity because it’s easy to look at things like Public Disgrace and see what’s bad about it. I was looking for what’s good. In that case, the women I interviewed at Kink would say things like, you’re whole life you’re taught to fear exactly this scenario; it’s this nightmare that you have in your mind, being in public and losing control. But here, these women had taken control of this story.
You’re told your whole life that you should be scared and that you should be careful. What if you could create this space where all of these things were taking place, but you could stop it at any time? If there’s a person there all the time taking care of you? I can see how that would be empowering, to create a fantasy of this thing you’re supposed to be afraid of and then experience it in a way that you’re in control. It seems like a powerful thing.
That theme runs through your book, that theme of reclaiming spaces that are male-occupied. You write about watching porn and acknowledged that, yes, there is this element where the fantasy is about degrading women, that knowing the landscape of those kinds of men, strips him of his power. You write, “I don’t know why, but knowing porn as he does diminishes the specter of the leering man.”
Porn, for me, I didn’t watch it very much. And when I read articles either it was the New York Times reporting on something nobody had ever heard of or it’s New York Magazine that has an attitude of “we all watch porn all of the time and we’re all really cool with it.” Neither one of those things was true for me.
When I was in my twenties and I would find evidence of a boyfriend watching porn, I would feel this anxiety about it, but I didn’t want to be lame and express that to him. For me, I was afraid to spend a lot of time watching it and masturbating to it. It was something that I felt wasn’t me, but I had never actually tried it.
Going in there and typing in things that might actually turn me on, naming them—which is another thing I had never actually done—masturbating to them, seeing them work, I realized that this thing called “porn” is not actually that scary. It’s not monolithic, there are so many different kinds of porn, there’s any kind of porn. It’s not this thing that imposes its will on our sexuality, it’s a means of sexual fantasy and everyone can find something if they let themselves.
Through the Kink shoot and your personal narrative about porn, you write “I did not want to be turned on by sex that was not the kind of sex I wanted to have.” I thought that was really poignant but very brutal summation of how we package female desire. That fantasy and porn are for men and the marriage plot is for women.
There’s this book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, and it’s about search data and it argues that men prefer visuals and women prefer stories. I do think that men tend to be more visual but visuals work on women. Visuals work on me, I just didn’t want them to. I experienced getting turned on by something like that with panic and anxiety. When I let myself recognize that it was happening, that it was me by myself, it didn’t mean anything about the world, it didn’t mean that I was objectifying myself. There was no false consciousness, the will of the sovereign subject wasn’t being imposed on me.
It was me and my feeling and a computer, it made me feel more confident.
You have a change of heart about porn. You come into it with trepidation and really questioning this “cool” narrative of porn, which is really a media narrative. You find it liberating...
I’m still not going to watch porn the way that the men I know watch it. For many of them, it’s a maintenance function, it just helps them make masturbation a lot faster. It doesn’t have this power that a lot of cultural narratives have bestowed upon it. I like that I know that space, I can genuinely joke about it and it doesn’t scare me.
Because these spaces are seen as taboo by women, because they’re seen as men-only spaces, men get to use them as a way to use power over women. The whole locker room thing, for example. The idea of the locker room or strip club as a space that only men can understand. To know that space levels it somehow.
The narrative of female sexuality is really tied to something that you brought up, a kind of false consciousness. We’re told our whole lives that our value is still based on sex, no matter how liberated we are from that traditional model of marriage and virginity. You tie the two together quite strongly in your book and really resist this classic marriage plot.
Because it wasn’t happening for me and I just wanted to be happy. I was so tired of reading these articles that encouraged women to settle or lamentations about hookup culture. That made me feel trapped. Throughout the book, I was looking for value, for me, it turned out that doing that kind of study of my own sexuality, that practicing and naming what I wanted, helped me be assertive. That didn’t have to mean Sex & the City or sleeping with a lot of guys, it was looking at the myths and looking to see how I’d be taught to see sex as currency.
In the book, you also write about your friends getting married but trying to divest themselves of the traditional patriarchal signifiers of marriage. This is such an “educated person” trend in marriage, the idea that a couple is going to engage in this really traditional institution in an untraditional way...
It’s a whole generational thing, to not be conformists.
You seem very wary of the claim that you can sever the institution from its history.
A lot of people will probably criticize that, probably. It goes back to something that I read by Simone de Beauvoir in her memoir, The Prime of Life, about why she never moved in with Sartre and why she never had kids. When you put yourself into these institutions, there are so many roles that have historically prescribed for you, that you end of doing them, you end up doing the dishes or whatever, and if you don’t do them, you’re resisting and engaging a constant battle of equality.
I think that a lot of feminism got really bound up with how to be equal in a marriage. I’m not sure that feminism should be about sticking to that institution or to reinvent it. Obviously, for some people marriage represents routine and comfort. But for me, I came out of this book wondering if that was a place I could feel like myself.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t want long relationships that have commitment, I’d just like to express commitment in a different way.
You write about a couple in San Francisco that are polyamorous, yet they still get married. There’s still this summation even though they’ve written their relationship around desire and sexuality in a way that is ostensibly novel, but the conclusion is still the same.
I just hung with them and they’re skeptical of their own marriage. There’s an extent that they feel like they’re checking a box or achieving a metric of success. They were saying that maybe now, they would try to do something where they would define their commitment in five-year increments or, if they had a child, then in one eighteen year increment, but not get married.
I admire their outward-facing look.
Their transparency was really interesting to me. Their willingness to have these conservations about desire and pleasure is not particularly standard in relationships.
I’m in a new relationship and I want to be non-monogamous. I want to make sure that our commitment is because we’re in it together, not just because it’s some rule. Trying to navigate that, maybe it’s going to end in messy failure, but I like that impulse to find commitment in ways that are not just rules.