In Future Sex, Emily Witt makes quick and effective references to the sex she has and the sex she witnesses. She mentions boyfriends, describes a hardcore porn shoot, goes to a sex party with polyamorists, and visits the orgy dome at Burning Man. She treats these events as cornerstones of a particular social and cultural moment that evidences the failures of conventional narratives and expectations for sex and relationships—a moment that might not exist without the Internet.
The book is set in San Francisco, booming with fortunate venture capitalists and young idealists taking paychecks from Google. It is not the San Francisco that Joan Didion wrote about in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The drugs are different; the sex is different. Didion writes about a grungy and gritty Haight-Ashbury where hippies drop acid and listen to the Grateful Dead. In contrast, Witt writes about a Mission District and SOMA replete with polished cocktail bars, MDMA, and Google-branded everything. The people she encounters have gotten over “monogamous destiny”. They are free lovers rolling through the streets of San Francisco refusing to bind the expression of sexuality to a “long-term arrangement…messianic in its totality” (but bondage, she clarifies, is plentiful). Witt argues that the sex of the future is bountiful and endless, gleefully unfettered by identity and commitment, yet conditioned and mediated by LED-screens and data clouds. The Futurists of early twentieth-century Italy could but dream of such proximity between man and machine.
Future Sex is a collection of essays Witt wrote after spending a few months living among the new new-age free loving software developers of San Francisco. Through casting her own experiences against a historical and analytic backdrop, and weaving together personal essay and long-form journalism, Witt focuses on three things: how contemporary technologies facilitate a particular attitude towards sexual liberation, their failures and shortcomings, and the kinds of social communities in San Francisco that have grown up around them. Some of the essays look at particular forms and uses: “Internet Dating,” “Internet Porn,” and “Live Webcams”. The rest focus on the people and places of the tech industry—young polyamorists working at Google, orgasmic meditators, Burning Man.
From her sharp and honest descriptions of first-hand experience she teases out a wider context without missing a beat. She moves from, “We stood in front of each other and repeatedly asked the question ‘What do you desire?’—a question to which I could only stammer meager responses,” to “The privilege of being middle class in America in the twenty-first century meant that most of the pressing questions in life were left to choice.” This balance between styles makes for a both erudite and relatable text.
Witt begins with the essay “Internet Dating,” where she tempers social history with anecdotes and confessions—“I met…a Polish computer programmer with whom I enjoyed a sort of chase fondness…we shared many mutual dislikes” and then follows that moment with an analytic history of online dating where she unpacks the foundational assumption of dating websites and apps that treat “female desire [as] either a concession or a taming influence, whose achievement was not in the act of seduction, but in wresting a man’s interest from the wider field to her alone.” The Internet may make abundant the opportunities for sexual possibility, but its dating sites reinforce the notion that sexual desire does not belong to women.
Online, Witt posits, the potential energy is high; the abundance of choice and possibility has produced an equal bounty of opportunities to explore sexual openness. The trouble, as Witt describes it is how to choose, and with that comes the inescapable limitations to choice. The “blinking cursor in empty space” may open the door to a potential mode where “no one need be alone with her aberrant desires, and no desires were aberrant,” yet the promise of liberation Witt argues is unfulfilled by the technology itself—especially for women, whose sexuality is still framed by the expectations of commitment and monogamy.
The equation grows more complicated when Witt turns to pornography. Witt writes about sex but titillation is not her goal. The writing is not licentious—when she describes orgasmic meditation or porn shoots, she uses concise and forthright language. The essay “Internet Porn” centers on one hardcore porn website, Kink.com. Among numerous thematic series, Kink.com hosts “Public Disgrace…a series that advertised itself as ‘women bound, stripped, and punished in public.’” Witt attends a shoot of one of the episodes as a member of a live studio audience. The true audience is the paying clientele of Kink.com, who may or may not understand that the disgrace they are watching occurs in a contrived public.
Witt describes what she sees during the shoot with clarity and cadence, as a critic might summarize a play or a film. She lays out controversy wound up in porn for its critical female audience—can it be feminist? Can a feminist enjoy porn? Kink.com describes itself as “woman-centric,” focusing on boldface presentation of sexual desire for women that extends far beyond the limitations of sex to monogamous relationships. Witt introduces us to Penny Pax, a porn star, who wants Public Disgrace—it’s her choice. This kind of pornography, while impossible to divorce from the “rage and misogyny of the American male” that drives much of the industry, Witt argues upends the “notion that feminine sex was a delicate, unnamable mystery…it had taken feminism to explain how the gagging, slapping, and sneering of porn might be hateful to women, and feminism to enhance its taboo.” Porn doesn’t interest Witt much in her own life, but as in each of her subjects, she identifies within its bounds critical challenges to normative assumptions about sex and sexuality.
In the second to last essay in the collection, “Birth Control and Reproduction” Witt addresses the limits of all this choice. Despite all these new technologies for facilitating sex, experiencing pleasure, and challenging normative sexual expression, contraception “has seen almost no paradigm-changing innovation in the last forty years.” Witt notes that as sexual behavior has transformed, there is less funding for contraceptive research, additionally institutional reinforcement of morals and values are no longer applicable to the reality of how people—especially women—have sex. Yet, Witt notes that the old social and sexual structures persist and exert exceptional pressure on women, faced at every turn with a clear lack of choice. In this essay, Witt conducts a nuanced and careful analysis of what having a child means, and how it is bound up in convention. She writes, “With my friends…it wasn’t actually about the choice of having a baby but of setting up a nuclear family, which unfortunately could not, unlike making a baby, happen more or less by fiat.” Having—and paying for—a child is structurally eased by the institution of marriage. The support system for single mothers is weak, in fact, it is barely existent. So, Witt writes, women have started freezing their eggs, waiting for the right relationship to come along. This, Witt insists, is not a choice. The woman doesn’t get to choose if she wants the household or not.
“A futuristic sex was not going to be a new kind of historically unrecognizable sex, just a new story,” Witt writes. In Future Sex, she tells pieces of the new story and in doing so offers up the potential for her reader reimagine her own. Witt implies through the collection that the narratives—the stories we tell ourselves—have to change before the institutions and social structures that govern bodies might follow. The machinery she discusses offers certain potential, but the Futurists’ melding of man and machine has yet to materialize. The sexual deconstruction in San Francisco has yet to fully erode “the legitimacy of a single sexual model.” Witt acknowledges that the technologies don’t achieve comprehensive liberty or freedom (she skips over the obvious indicators of inequality on the streets of San Francisco and the privilege embedded in the new free love), but insists on the importance of what they have done and can, and must, continue to do.
While the new narratives are incomplete, Witt embraces that open-endedness and possibility. With a touch of psychoactive-induced sincerity, she describes her vision for the future from the last trip at Burning Man: where young people “would do their new drugs and have their new sex…would meld their bodies seamlessly with their machines, without our embarrassment, without our notions of authenticity.” Though Witt pokes fun at her idealistic desert high, she maintains her conviction that there is something there that Burning Man devotees still evidence—“the inadequacy of the old social structures.” The future is being built, Witt reminds us, but its form remains obscured by heavy fog.