Like most of us, Emily Witt grew up with a set of expectations about how her life would proceed. It was pretty much the same sort of life her parents, most of her friends, and most of the characters on TV and in the movies had: after a period of experimentation, she envisioned, as she puts it, “my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center. I would disembark, find myself face to face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station of life: the future.” Or, as my best friend once sang while drunkenly stumbling down a sidewalk late one night in our mid-20s, “Someday my prince will come, someday I’ll ge-et some.”
This did not happen, at least not by the time Witt turned 30. Instead she broke up with a long-term boyfriend and began having sex with some of her friends, one of whom, it turned out, was not completely single and also maybe had chlamydia. “I thought the secondhand sexual freedom passed down by my parents had been sufficient to my needs,” she writes, “until it wasn’t.” Chastened, Witt decided to pursue the future on her own: she went to San Francisco, which, despite its lack of monorail, has Google, Facebook, and Apple—as close to the future as anyplace in America.
There she encountered a wide variety of people experimenting with different forms of sexuality in order to fulfill their own particular desires. She describes their philosophies and practices in her new book Future Sex. There’s the porn actress who desires nothing more than to be anally fisted by a dominatrix named Princess Donna during a film shoot. (“It felt really full,” she confides afterward.) There’s the “internet sexual” 19-year-old college student who becomes a star on the website Chaturbate, a sort of Chatroulette for sexual voyeurs, “by dressing like an American Apparel model, revealing the depth of her existential despair, and making every one of her viewers feel as if he and only he were the person who might understand and rescue her from both her tortured soul and her vow of celibacy.” There are the acolytes of orgasmic meditation, who believe in disconnecting sex from emotional entanglement through a process of controlled clitoral stroking. And there are the two polyamorous Google employees who codify the terms of their relationship in a Google doc, which they end up sharing with their friends.
Witt’s descriptions of all these people are wry and funny, even the ones she dislikes (the orgasmic meditators, who put her off with their earnestness and relentless positivity) and the ones she sees through (the polyamorists who feel secure about embarking on sexual adventures because they can return to the safety of an established relationship; they eventually become engaged at one Burning Man and marry at the next). But even at her most skeptical, she never crosses the line into contempt; at least all these people can articulate their own desires. When the facilitators at a training session in orgasmic meditation ask her about her own, “I was conscious for the first time of the flat white screen that rolled down when I considered such a question, the opaque shadows of movement behind it. A vacant search bar waited, cursor blinking, for ideas that I, who did not consider an idea an idea until it was expressed in language, had never expressed in language.”
he does no better when faced with a search bar on an actual computer screen that promises to guide her to any kind of date or porn video she could imagine, if only she could imagine it. She can’t get over her embarrassment during orgasmic meditation or bring herself to lift up her shirt during a webcam conversation on Chaturbate. She lacks the courage of a friend who seeks out casual encounters on Craigslist with the explicit goals of collecting some entertaining stories and becoming really good at sex. Witt finally finds a sense of freedom at Burning Man and also a deep personal connection and amazing sex—though each, alas, with a different person—but she realizes that the reason Burning Man is so successful is because it exists outside the constraints, and the laws, of the regular world. She ends her odyssey in a very similar place to where she began. “Younger people, I hoped, would not need autonomous zones,” she writes. “Their lives would be free of timidity. They would do their new drugs and have their new sex.”
Witt is aware she writes from a place of privilege. She is white, straight, and fancily educated. She lives in Brooklyn; writes for intellectual journals like n + 1, the London Review of Books, and the New Yorker; and has the freedom to spend a few months in San Francisco pursuing her inquiry into avant-garde sexual behavior and getting high on magical Altoids in the middle of a weekday. Superficially, her project is not much different from the one undertaken by Kate Bolick in Spinster, which also considered sex and the single woman, except instead of looking to the past for answers as Bolick did, Witt explores the future. There are much worse problems in the world right now.
And yet, there are larger implications beyond her own personal happiness. Witt wonders if she, like many women, doesn’t know what she wants because she has spent so much of her life trying to conform to other people’s expectations of her sexual behavior. Her parents are comforted by the idea that sexual experimentation is a prelude to her finding the One and diving into the world of bridal magazines. Her partners expect her to be aroused, multiorgasmic, and emotionally detached, like the actresses in the porn videos they can now access for free from their laptops. The pharmaceutical companies take the money she spends every month on birth control pills without improving their technology so she won’t feel depressed or gain weight or have a six-month-long period.
“Part of the reason I wanted to document what free love might look like was to reveal shared experiences of the lives we were living that fell outside a happiness that could be bought or sold,” Witt writes. “To experience sexuality was to have a body that pursued a feeling.”
Is there any way the future of sexuality can liberate women—and men—from all these expectations (including being forced to distinguish between women and men) so they can understand what feelings their bodies are after and feel free to pursue them? For Witt, it’s an open question that she leaves the rest of us to answer. v