"Why was I always asking some man?" she wonders. When she realizes that she "had learned to do it by dating," she sets out to understand why she "was struggling to follow desires that did not seem to be [her] own."In the introduction to Future Sex, another hyped nonfiction book about modern relationships, out from FSG this week, Emily Witt narrates her own moment of reckoning with a failure of imagination. It arrives after she sleeps with a man who is seeing another woman; she is chastised for "pantomiming thrills" and fears that she may have contracted chlamydia. Researching methods for preventing STDs, Witt finds that the CDC recommends being in "a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected."
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The practice is intended to unburden physical intimacy from the emotional and social complexity that often accompanies it. OneTaste's founder, Nicole Daedone, hoped to relieve women of their tendency, in Witt's words, to "link sexual desire with so many arbitrary expectations and consequences that they cannot focus on the sexual experience itself." Orgasmic meditation would provide the "neutral space in which focus on the body could happen without the interference of romantic stories or behavioral conditioning." Witt sits somewhat uncomfortably to the side of this practice, weary of its practitioners' diffuse spirituality and intent openness (they're the kind of people who nod slowly, eyes closed, when you tell them how you are), and yet also aware that they are engaging with some of the very same questions that she has set out to answer. The practice of OM is motivated by an understanding that, even with greater gender equality, "commonly held ideas about sex were still oriented toward masculine ideas about orgasm and desire," and that, combined with a movement towards greater sexual flexibility, had left women "battling their own feelings," pretending to want things they didn't, and not knowing what they did. Something like this conundrum seems to plague Witt herself, who, when asked at an OM meeting, "What do you desire?" sees only a "flat white screen," a "vacant search bar," the "cursor blinking."
Even in a society that respects a woman's right to abortion and birth control, it can feel as though women are not presented with a choice among viable options.
When Witt says she "had to at least consider" alternatives to monogamy, it sounds as if she begrudges the task, and this slightly reluctant attitude crops up elsewhere in the book. She writes in her introduction, "If, in my early thirties the future would have simply arrived as I had always imagined"— i.e., in the form of marriage—"I would have abandoned my inquiry," transparently confessing to her readers that there might be a sense in which she would have preferred not to have been compelled to write the book in the first place. Yet, even while the writing of Future Sex is dependent upon Witt's unmarried status, and her consequent need to imagine her future sex life, it also has the greater ambition of providing a sort of roadmap to our contemporary sexual and romantic landscape. This confluence of motivations and perspectives—as a journalist she is trying to get a clear-eyed view on the variety of sexual ways of being that characterize our modern world; as a single woman she is trying on new modes of being sexual and romantic, after the old modes have failed her—is, at times, disorienting.
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We don't know anything about this man except that "he was a bit younger," and we don't know whether she actually wanted to heed his request for a kiss. Earlier on, when she and he start in on one of the provided sex party games, a wheel of fortune, she describes herself as having "a slightly exhausted determination to get things on the road." But what things she's talking about are unclear. Is she horny and itching to have sex with someone? Or does she feel that, as a journalist who is going to write about this sex party, she ought to have had a sexual experience at it? When Witt attends Burning Man, which she sees as the epicenter of "sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs, and futurism," she meets a man whom she calls Lunar Fox, and they go together into an orgy dome. After sitting on the couch for a while watching assorted couples have sex, she writes,
On my first whip-it, the man I had met lightly touched my arm while I lay back, the feeling of his hands producing warmth and electricity while my vision broke into geometric patterns. During his turn, he asked that I kiss him. We made out for a while, doing the occasional whip-it, the cold, cheerfully colored canisters accumulating in the folds of the sheets we lay on.
It was clear that we either do something or leave.
"Should we have sex?" I asked.
"Yes…" he said. "Do you want to?"
"Yes," I said.
"Are you sure?" he said.
"Yes," I said. The woman who greeted us at the door had advised us to express loud, enthusiastic consent.
Witt portrays modern-day America, or at least modern-day California, as a land of near-total freedom and choice. "The privilege of being middle class in America in the twenty-first century," Witt writes,
Witt attributes the new availability of these "historically preposterous questions" to the fact that "many doctrines—marriage, the nuclear family, sexual taboos, diet, gender—had successfully been exploded." It is undoubtedly a gross overestimation to say that all of these doctrines have "successfully been exploded": outside San Francisco and gender studies departments, conventional ideas about marriage, the nuclear family, sexual taboo, and gender still have a firm footing in American traditions and ways of thinking. But something like Witt's diagnosis about the proliferation of choices for middle-class Americans today does seem right, if only more modestly because of developments in capitalism, consumerism, feminism, gay rights, and secularization. It is also true that the doctrines she mentions have come increasingly into question by a small subset of Americans.In the polyamory chapter, Witt writes with a degree of jadedness that "Elizabeth, Wes, and Chris believed there were still primary choices to make about sexuality," and recounts admiringly that, for Elizabeth, "the monogamous couple, an institution [that Elizabeth] had always thought of as a default outcome, suddenly took on the appearance of a deliberate choice." This sort of deliberate choosing is understood by Elizabeth and Wes and others who carry it out, she suggests, not as a strictly personal preference but as a social and political act—an act of rebellion against the established order. Polyamorists in San Francisco, she writes, "gave their choices names and… conceived of their actions as social movements."
meant that most of the pressing questions in life were left to choice. Who should I have sex with when I'm single? What should I eat for dinner? What should I do to earn money? There was limited ancient guidance on such historically preposterous questions.
Even in a society that respects a woman's right to abortion and birth control on the basis that she has the right to choose, it can feel as though women are not, in fact, presented with a choice among viable options. A woman who does not participate in a traditional nuclear family arrangement will face potentially insurmountable obstacles whether or not she decides to become pregnant."Framing birth control as a choice and not as a human right," Witt writes, "had caused us to settle not only for mediocre technology and poor availability, but it had encouraged us to think of our childless lives as an arrested state." Because birth control is so technologically inadequate and often financially costly, it is not accessible for many women, and because, as Witt says, "our access to birth control is framed as a choice and not as a human right," even those of us who can afford birth control are led to believe that childlessness is not itself a workable decision but rather the temporary absence of a decision. (Regardless of whether you are 16 or 45, if you tell someone you don't want to ever have children, they will always respond, "Are you sure?") The choice to keep a pregnancy, moreover, also does not feel like a realizable possibility for many women. "Our society," Witt writes,
My friends who have frozen their eggs do not feel like they have chosen—they want to have babies. My friends who want to get pregnant but whose bodies will not cooperate do not feel like they have chosen. When we were young and in our twenties and on birth control were we really making a choice not to start a family? It never felt like that. It felt more like a family had not chosen us.
Without sufficient economic and social resources for single mothers, and without the live possibility of childlessness, women are left feeling that, even if they are granted the political "right to choose," the only option that our current society offers to them is that of having a child within the structure of a nuclear family. And, as Witt writes, "setting up a nuclear family…could not…happen more or less by fiat" or by force.Witt, therefore, like many women, is caught in something of a bind. When she struggles to answer the question, "What do you desire?" and when Kate Bolick suffers from a "failure of imagination" upon finding herself 40 and single, and when Moira Weigel finds herself always asking a man what she wants, these women are not simply experiencing a lack of self-knowledge. They are coming up against restrictions in our political and economic imagination—restrictions in the sorts of futures that our society enables us to envision for ourselves. Their setbacks are perhaps all the more striking because they—white, college-educated, cisgender—are the very sorts of women who are in the best position to benefit from feminism's victories.Future Sex shows us a sexual world of nearly limitless possibilities. Dating apps provide countless suitors; porn sites provide a seemingly infinite array of categories to jerk off to, including, as Witt lists, "'big clit,' 'chubby,' 'puffy nipples,' 'farting,' 'hairy pussy,' 'aged,' '9 months pregnant,' 'short hair,' 'small tits,' 'muscled girl,' 'fat mature,' and 'ugly'"; discussions of polyamory and alternative family arrangements throw into question our assumptions about the sorts of people that can be parents, cohabitants, and lovers. But even while Witt's tales of sexual exploration show us a land of plentiful sexual choice, they also remind us of the dangers of assuming that the world is at our (sometimes literal) fingertips. When we do, we risk forgetting how much our ability to choose and imagine futures for ourselves depends upon the social and economic availability of these futures, and we risk forgetting that, even when these futures become technically available to us, they may still be unattainable. When Witt regrets that love had not arrived for her, or that a "family had not chosen" her, these are not corrigible societal problems, but, frankly, human ones, and they will remain with us no matter how much maternal leave we are afforded, and no matter how many times we swipe eagerly right.
was set up economically and socially in ways that make it difficult to raise a child as a single person. The cost of giving birth in the United States is expensive, on average three times the cost of that in other countries. The infant mortality rate is the highest of the twenty-seven wealthiest countries in the world, and higher for black women. The United States is one of only three countries in the world that does not guarantee paid parental leave.