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The Future of Sex Is Orgy Domes

We spoke to Emily Witt about her brilliant new book 'Future Sex', which takes on cultural myths around sexuality and sexual experimentation with a serious, radical eye.

Hermione Hoby

Hermione Hoby

Photo of Emily Witt by Noah Kalina/courtesy of the author

When I met Emily Witt six years ago, I felt that touch of vertigo that comes when you realize you're in the presence of a highly sophisticated and committed mind. Witt is an alumnus of Brown, the Columbia School of Journalism, and Cambridge. So she did not strike me as the sort of person who would get high and have sex in the "orgy dome" of Burning Man with a person she'd just met. I'd made this assumption because I am, like most people, susceptible to normative narratives of what a hyper-educated, somewhat reserved young woman does and does not do. Nowhere are those narratives more fraught than in the realm of sex and dating.

In Future Sex, published this month by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Witt interrogates both our cultural myths around feminine sexuality and the vanguards of sexual experimentation seeking to dismantle them. Her serious, radical book places her in a lineage that started with writers like the late feminist critic Ellen Willis, and, yes, Joan Didion herself. Didion didn't do acid in Haight-Ashbury, but Witt, who, for example, details attending the live filming of a hardcore pornography series, is participant as well as observer. Her progressiveness is not just of politics, but of practice. The result is this wise, honest, and necessary book. We met for coffee last week in Brooklyn to talk about Future Sex and how to approach writing about female sexuality.

VICE: Writing by women about sex is so often belittled, or at least marketed in a circumscribed way—as purely confessional or funny. Were you aware of that when you began working on the book?
Emily Witt: I felt that there was this register in which a lot of writing about women's sex happens that wasn't satisfying to me. It had this false enthusiasm. For example, the way porn is written about. Either it's like, "No one's ever watched this thing!" or it's, "We all watch porn all the time and nobody's ever anxious about it, we're just so cool and down with it!" I saw Thy Neighbor's Wife by Gay Talese as an example of how to write about sex in a more journalistic, thorough, reported way—as cultural history. So no, I never worried about seeming like I was writing something frivolous, or that I would be treated as frivolous.

But in the chapter on live webcams, you've cut a line from the original essay on Medium in which you mention worrying about the "married, middle-aged male editors who are in charge at most of the magazines I want to write for" and what they might think if you were to perform. You wrote: "Joan Didion would never have sex-cammed; she went to San Francisco in 1968 and didn't even do acid."
Yeah, I think she could have gone there if she wanted to. It would have been transgressive and she wouldn't have been put in jail, and people would have still read her because she's just a better writer than everyone else.

Right. Do you know supposedly she considered "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" a failure? She felt like she hadn't got the story. Maybe she would have felt differently had she done acid!
That's insane—it's not a failure. I think there's an idea of what constitutes an authoritative person or leader, and it's not the voice of a polyamorous-sex-party attendee. But we're questioning that neutral voice at a lot of different levels right now—at the level of race, and at the level of sexuality and gender. Nobody has to give me permission to write about stuff, though, and I get to define what "a serious person" is. I had more trepidation about writing in the first person than I did about writing about sex.

I think there's an idea of what constitutes an authoritative person or leader and it's not the voice of a polyamorous sex party attendee.

The first person is so interesting in this book. When dealing with something like Public Disgrace, an online porn series in which women willingly submit to extreme sex in front of a crowd, how did you negotiate between you as dispassionate observer and you as an emotional, sexual being?
My editor and I talked about that 70s New Journalism, "on-a-mission" voice, which she thought was dated. I don't know if I agree with that, but I know when I tried to write that way it didn't work. When I wrote about people and didn't put myself in there, it was sterile and felt artificial. The other thing was that I was just embarrassed to talk about myself. I thought of myself as a very conventional person with conventional desires about relationships, and so journalism for me was just an alibi, a way I could look at this stuff while telling myself, Oh, I'm not that kind of person. Until suddenly it was clear that I was scared to let go some idea of myself—and scared of judgment. It was really easy for me as a straight white person to not see the mythologies by which I was living and recognize that they weren't rooted in any empirical reality. So a big part of the book was figuring out what those stories were and then what to cling to and what to discard. It took me successive drafts to talk about certain things in my life. I describe watching porn, and that was a very late addition. Once I wrote it, it wasn't hard, but I'd had this idea of someone in a bar quoting a line from the book and everybody laughing.

Speaking of laughing: I read Future Sex described somewhere as "hilarious," and I'm going to sound like I'm insulting you when I say I couldn't disagree with that adjective more. Humane and humorous yes, but no way is this book "hilarious."
[Laughs] A friend once said a foundational part of my writing is I just take everything a little too seriously. So if somebody says "hilarious," I think, Wait, what? My whole problem in life is being way too earnest and serious about things that maybe don't require that level of seriousness. When I read something that is actually hilarious about sex, I'm like, "Oh God, I'm doing this all wrong—I'm trying to be so professorial or philosophical about this thing that actually is just funny and animalistic and whatever."

Having a lot of respect for it, and having learned a lot about [polyamory] does not make it less scary or easier to undertake. You're always navigating between your ideals that you're trying to live by and what life offers up to you.

You've talked about the frustrations of trying to find satisfying representations of female sexuality in fiction. Why were you looking primarily in fiction?
Like you, I'm someone for whom novels are the instruction manual for how to live and process our emotions—it's where we find resonance with something greater than ourselves. I was always looking for that and found it in Doris Lessing, but the canon of women writing openly about sex is small. It just is. I was looking in nonfiction, too—Simone de Beauvoir was so important to me in writing this book. She was interested in trying to live this original life in which she decided the rules she was going to live by based on experience and testing things. But yeah: You write the book that you can't find for yourself.

You're coming to these radical sexual practices and ideologies with hopeful credulousness, while simultaneously interrogating them rigorously. Is that an exhausting mode to commit to?
Everybody has been asking me about the extent to which I've tried to now pursue an original life and be a practitioner of free love. I want to pursue those ideals, but sometimes I'm not sure I have the stamina or self-confidence; I'm scared of everything. The part of me that wants to be obedient is still very active in me. Having a lot of respect for it, and having learned a lot about [polyamory] does not make it less scary or easier to undertake. You're always navigating between your ideals that you're trying to live by and what life offers up to you.

Right, and as you say in the book, declaring yourself something doesn't translate to it becoming real.
Yeah, whether it's wanting to get married or wanting to live in a sex commune. The thing about trying new things and creating new language is that most of it is not going to work out. But some of it is going to work and be repeated and catch on in a wider way. We had this idea about 60s idealism in the 70s and 80s that it had just been a disaster, and we weren't going to mess with the family.

[But where those] things could be attempted is really incredible. When I first started going to [Orgasmic Meditation], I would talk to my friends about it in a certain tone of voice—"Oh, they're so crazy, they're so weird." And then I started to feel kind of disgusted with myself because what they were doing was an earnest experiment about how to live better. I started to see these things as genuine possibilities of how to live your life.

I imagine that in previous decades, pre-1990s say, it was easier to have a sense of where our models of sexuality came from and what they were because life was more institutionalized, less heterodox. So how did you ascertain where our sexual narratives might be coming from?
Well, for me, it was an embarrassing realization that they were probably coming from the New York Times. I mean, I don't watch a lot of TV, but I knew I didn't like Girls for really specific reasons.

What were they?
I just found it really conservative. It didn't feel liberating to me, being told that the only way to feel sexually safe and adjusted or happy is to find the right boyfriend. Or this Amy Schumer–type idea that we have no agency, that any form of sexual expression is an expression of false consciousness and that there's no way for you to be a sexual being because you're just trying to please this sovereign subject. So I really wanted to write my way out of that.

In the book, you describe being on drugs in vivid detail, but you don't describe actually having sex. Why one bodily experience and not the other?
Yeah, there was nothing scary about writing about drugs except for my parents were going to read it. In the Burning Man chapter, I go to the orgy dome, and I did have sex with that man, but we just did the kind of movie cut, to the train arriving in the station, or like, camera pan away to the fireplace. It was just my own embarrassment that was the obstacle.

Do you suspect men will be reluctant to write about the book?
No. [Laughs] Are men reluctant to write about anything, ever? I mean, first of all, I wish that there was a similar book about men. There's much more consensus about what being a sexually accomplished man is, but I feel like most of the men in my life are just as confused as the women.

A 30-year-old friend of mine was talking recently about having sex with guys in their early 20s and how they were all very sexually skilled but simultaneously terrified of intimacy.
The intimacy thing is realmany people have experienced the disappointment of sex without kindness or affection or maybe even just breakfastbut I think it's coming out of a moment of confusion as we're changing from one paradigm to another: The manners and the ethics and the standardized rituals haven't been worked out. You can have a really intimate time with casual sex and actually get to know somebody. When you're 21, you don't know how to act. So your friend's partners were probably acting out a part they thought they needed to be playing. They'll figure it out at some point, because they'll fall in love. There's nothing new, all that changes is the language and the story.

Follow Hermione Hoby on Twitter.

Future Sex by Emily Witt is available in bookstores and online from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.