Author Emily Witt On The Future Of Sex

Illustration by Anna Sudit
Webcamming, polyamory, internet dating, porn... American journalist Emily Witt traverses the full spectrum of modern sexual behaviour in her debut book, Future Sex. It’s an inquiry into how and why we conduct our private business so publicly these days, but also a memoir told from the perspective of Witt, who, in her early 30s, is struggling with the idea that the marriage and kids she’d expected are alluding her. And so she relocates from New York to San Francisco, in order to – in her words – “use journalism as an alibi for some sexual experimentation.” Witt’s journalism takes her on visits to sex parties, “orgasmic meditation” classes and open porn sets to report from the front lines of sex culture. In doing so, she cleverly picks up and untangles widespread cultural anxieties impressed onto us; that we’re meant to be looking for “the one”, that we’re somehow less desirable if we’re too free with our bodies, or that men are more sexual beings than women. It’s a beautifully written and encompassing look at where we are headed in terms of sex, relationships and family structures. To find out more about Emily’s experiences writing Future Sex, we met up with her while she was in London. Read on if you want to know what “orgasmic meditation” is...

Hey Emily. So to start with, why did you decide to move from New York to San Francisco to write Future Sex?
My lease was up, I wasn’t happy in New York and there was a sublet in San Francisco. I knew that if you’re looking at avant-garde sexual cultures it’s the place in the U.S. where that happens... Because of the gay history but also because of its earnest, self-help, self-reinvention culture. It’s a place where people discuss things very openly, so I knew I would get people to tell me stories! I’d also heard about and orgasmic meditation based there, so I had that to go on.

Was it a culture shock?
Yes! They’re very different places; New York is a more conservative city, more cynical and sarcastic. None of my friends had ventured very far into that typically Californian culture of self-inquisitive sexual behaviour. As much as we thought of ourselves as sexually free and sophisticated because we’d go home with each other after parties, we’d never use a certain self-reflexive language to talk about it.

Photo: Noah Kalina
You make a lot of discoveries in the book about your own sexual conservatism. But you were raised in quite a liberal household, right? What was your upbringing like in terms of attitudes to sex? I’m from a Midwestern background – my dad is a journalist and mum a book indexer, so we’re a very bookish family. They were born in the '40s as baby boomers, lived through the '60s, married in their 20s, and have been married for more than 40 years. I thought of my upbringing as free because the expectation I was raised with was that it’s fine to have sex as a teenager, I could talk to my mum about birth control and I wasn’t raised with sin looming over me. The difference was that my time of experimentation went on longer than theirs. I thought I would mimic them in terms of marriage, children and living in a house. When I started the book it was frustrating that that was evading me.

Do you think that’s a common feeling?
Yes. At the time I was reading all these articles about single women and there’d been this demographic shift that was real, whereby people now get married much later and not at all. Everything that referred to this seemed to focus more on how women felt about it than men. Like other people, I think I was legitimately trying to make sense of my life, but I would read these articles almost compulsively. Many were lamentations about not being in the kind of relationship I also wanted, or echoed what I believed about monogamy representing the best sex and the most equal relationship a woman could have. In the book you talk about how those articles peddle the “economics of erotics” – this constructed idea that, if you sleep with lots of people, your value somehow goes down. I knew I had a frustration after reading these articles but I still carried that idea of sexual currency, these ideas that sex is cheap or that if you present yourself too sexually you’ll get the “wrong kind of attention”. I tried internet dating but didn’t present myself as a sexual being on it, even though I would have casual sex with my friends or people I meet at parties. Why wouldn’t I seek that out? Why did I need to present myself in a certain way? I guess I thought people who have certain types of relationships are either naïve or destructive.

It sounds to me like the age-old Madonna-Whore thing, or that idea that, if you present yourself as sexually available, you’ll never be seen as more than that.
Totally. I realise that it's nothing new but it shocked me personally I was conservative in this way when I thought of myself as liberal.

Was the book and the move to San Francisco you thinking ‘Well, if I’m not going to get married right now, let’s go the other way?’
Well, when I got the book deal I was in a relationship that was ending and all I thought was, ‘I just want to fall in love and get married’, I actually didn’t want to have to deal with all this stuff. It came from an extremely pessimistic place but yes, it was like: ‘If this is what I have to live with I have to find some meaning in it’. So I came at it with anger but it made me so much happier to realise that we have all these possibilities available now about how to live. I wonder now why I was so scared of them before. I think we create false ideas about who we are and don’t actually test them.

What struck me was that these hypersexual situations you put yourself in came off as deeply unsexy – orgasmic meditation for example. Firstly, do you want to explain what that is for anyone who doesn’t know? And secondly, I’m curious, how did you find it?
Orgasmic meditation is a practice where a woman takes off her pants and her partner remains fully clothed and strokes her clitoris for 15 minutes. It’s not meant to be foreplay or intercourse. It can happen between friends or near-strangers. It’s supposed to be a space between masturbation and sex where you can ponder the physical feelings in your body in a way that isn’t about romance or sex. The people that run this organisation are called One Taste and they’re rooted in the human potential movement of California – a kind of New Age, ‘You have to find out who you are’ type thing. That aspect made me extremely uncomfortable – every feeling you had was examined and discussed and you went to these workshops where you had to describe the blemishes on each other’s faces. I thought, ‘Why does this have to be a part of it?’ And the actual practice... it’s not like I had a crazy orgasm, which is not the point, but surprisingly I’m glad I tried it out... I was really sceptical but there was something about the experience where I came away understanding that I had been shutting down feelings in my body and experiencing sexual energy with anxiety.
You tried out orgasmic meditation, and webcamming, but not some of the other stuff you investigate. Some of Future Sex is very fly-on-the-wall, some is very involved... I think one of the funny things about this book, that might be disappointing to people, is that I realised that a sexual inquiry into your sexuality doesn’t mean sleeping with people and actually, that’s great and fun to do too, but for me it involved a lot more thinking about the mythologies I had believed. Going and watching the nightmare porn of anti-porn feminists, for example, I was like ‘OK, all of this sexual imagery is available on the internet, so let’s suspend ideas of what is good or bad and just meet the people who are making it. Why are they doing it?

You dedicate the book to your parents! What did they think of it?
They’ve acted weird. My dad says he can’t read it because it’s upsetting to him and my mum I sent the book with the dedication in it, days passed, she called me about something totally unrelated and eventually I asked her if she’d read the book and she said, ‘Sorry I didn’t have a chance yet’. I think they wish they could tell their neighbours and their friends, who are all having grandkids by children who are married, that I’d written a nice book about politics.

Or that you’d given birth to a baby, not a weird sex book?

It struck me in Future Sex that you really took the agency away from men by telling the stories of women – female characters like Nicole from Orgasmic Meditation, or Donna from or Wendy who does camming. Was that deliberate? That was about a thing that had bothered me since I first became sexually active. I was raised in a feminist environment with an expectation of equality and I began dating people and felt like the guy got to choose what type of relationship it would be. And also I had an experience in my early 20s where a guy I was seeing went to see prostitutes and I was shocked. What bothered me was not moral judgement, just a frustration at this experience of male sexual freedom – ‘being a lad’ – and that there was no equivalent in these sexual adventures for me. That became a recurring feeling throughout my life. So I was conscious in the book to avoid gendered assumptions that men are always more sexually out there. I think I wanted it to feel free in terms of gender.

You had conceptions about sex when you started, as we’ve discussed. So what did you unlearn in that regard?

To not be scared to try things that felt uncomfortable. That I should value sexual experimentation as much as experimentation in other realms of my life. And the more experience I have the better it might be, rather than the worse it might be. Which sounds basic but for some reason I didn’t value sexual inquiry the way I do now. I’m not so interested in monogamy anymore, either. It’s not a thing I long for, but rather I’m interested in how to have a committed relationship that isn’t totally defined by monogamy, and where I can maintain the sense of inquiry and adventure that doing the book gave me.

What, overall, did it teach you about ‘the future of sex’ more broadly
? People think about the future of sex as teledildonics, virtual reality, and other technology, but to me it’s like soft sci-fi; the changes that have happened in the past 30 or so years in how people are having sex means that futurism needs to be about how we arrange the family, how we have children, how we organise a society no longer based on monogamous couples, how we find emotional stability there, and take care of each other when we’re old. In the U.S. almost half of adults are unmarried and almost 40% of children are born to unmarried parents. In certain communities that number is higher. So why are we pretending these new configurations are an anomaly or accident rather than starting to actually address that in legal and social ways? That’s the futurism that I’m interested in.

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