What is sex? It can be running naked through stinging nettles. It can be a bunch of men disguised as randy pandas. It can be a woman in a horse mask ripping apart a teddy bear. It can be a couple arranging Christmas lights on a wall so they spell out the word FUCK. “I know intercourse is definable as a thing but I don’t, like, believe in sex”, says Max, a webcam performer Emily Witt interviews in Future Sex. “I don’t think I could point to it, I couldn’t tell you what it is, because for some people, completely clothed just-pulling-at-your-nostrils-at-a-camera is sex, it’s a massive turn-on.”
Future Sex is a 200-page essay collection on contemporary sexuality, with chapters dedicated to topics such as internet dating, porn, live webcams, orgasmic meditation, polyamory, and birth control. It’s the sort of book where the author herself experiences most of the things she talks about in some form or other, from going to a sex party hosted by a polyamorous couple, to observing the filming of a relatively extreme (but 100% consensual and health-and-safety’d) porn video.
As I hinted in the opening paragraph, one of the book’s key themes is the mind-boggling diversity of choices that Westerners who came of age in the twenty-first century face when looking for erotic titillation and/or relationships. In this, it reminded me of Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Love (and, to a lesser extent, his tv show, Master of None). But whereas Ansari is more pessimistic about the psychological effect of our limitless choices–citing studies where people who can only choose from three varieties of jam are happier with their choice than people who have to choose one out of a dozen, waxing nostalgic about a time where you’d simply marry someone from the same neighbourhood, and cautioning the reader against becoming like the woman who goes on Tinder while on her way to a Tinder date–the vision Witt presents is more thrilling and hopeful. Even in her essay on porn, so often accused of objectifying women, and of presenting a monolithic and unrealistic standard of sexiness, Witt instead experiences porn more as “a tour of human diversity”, “a wilderness beyond the gleaming edge of the corporate Internet and the matchstick bodies and glossy manes of network television”, where muscly bodies are sexy, hairy bodies are sexy, older bodies are sexy, bodies wearing Mexican wrestling masks are sexy, and so on, and so on, and so on. “In looking through all this I found unexpected reassurance that somebody will always want to have sex with me. This was the opposite of the long road toward sexual obsolescence that I had been taught to expect.”
Not that Witt is uncritically enthusiastic about everything and everyone she encounters. In her piece on orgasmic meditation, Witt is attracted by its practitioners’ attempt at bringing about a new paradigm of sexual openness, but put off by their cultishness, their earnestness, their dubious manhandling of the English language (e.g. using “sex” as a verb, and overusing the word “tumesced”). In her piece on polyamory, she provides a detailed history of the relationship between three friends, with plenty of space dedicated to the doubts, anxieties and jealousies that periodically surfaced and caused minor or major crises. And the chapter about internet dating is pretty much a sequence of encounters that are, at best, pleasant but bland, and, at worst, awkward and uncomfortable–and they never lead to sex or even friendship.
Overall, though, Witt’s greatest frustration is directed, not at any particular new technology or fetish, but at the general lack of imagination in mainstream Western culture, specifically when it comes to envisioning new forms of sex, and new forms of relationships. In fact, mainstream Western culture can at best be accused of lack of imagination, and at worst of deliberately suppressing “the sexual vanguard”. This is particularly jarring when compared to the way mainstream Western culture celebrates technological innovation. Why this emphasis on the future of objects, why this neglect on the future of human arrangements? Throughout the book, Witt presents visions of what the future of human arrangements could look like, from one in which sexual connection between friends is common, to one in which birth control is a human right rather than a choice, to one in which “married partnership would cease to be seen as a totalizing end point and instead become something more modest, perhaps an institutional basis for shared endeavors such as raising children or making art.”
When I first picked up this book, I was worried it would be just a jumble of interesting anecdotes with a thin veneer of someone’s very subjective opinion. I’m happy to say that Future Sex is, in fact, a great book, and an important one. There are plenty of interesting anecdotes, but there are also plenty of fascinating, quietly revolutionary ideas, and it’s all presented in an unpretentious but elegant prose style. And it takes seriously a number of subjects which are not talked about nearly as much as they should.
For those who have already read Future Sex, I highly recommend this podcast interview with the author.