It was five years ago, when Emily Witt was 30 years old and single, that she began to feel the nagging pressure to settle into a monogamous relationship that would eventually lead to marriage. But instead of logging more swipes per minute in a quest for the elusive spark of romantic love, Witt, a journalist who has contributed to publications like n+1, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, used the freedom of being untethered to another person and set out on a different kind of quest: to unpack and explore modes of sexuality—and, in particular, female sexuality—in a post-internet world.
"When I first began to explore the possibilities of free love, I still half-expected that destiny would meet me halfway, that in the middle of all the uncertainty I would come across an exit ramp that would lead me back to all the comfortable expectations and recognizable names ... I was so disingenuous," Witt writes in her new book, Future Sex, the four-years-in-the-making result of her journey into erotic subcultures.
Originally conceived as a straightforward, third-person investigative account of sex in the age of the internet, Witt, with some nudging from her editor, began to insert herself into the narrative. A chapter on internet porn, for instance, is largely devoted to her own experience at a porn shoot for Public Disgrace, a BDSM series where onlookers are encouraged to slap and yell at a woman who is bound and naked. In her chapter on orgasmic meditation—a method of inducing orgasm in a female in exactly 15 minutes—Witt allows herself to be brought to climax by a stranger. But in each chapter, on subjects like live webcams (Witt couldn't bring herself to launch her own feed), polyamory, and Burning Man, Witt takes the time to lay out her topic in a historical and sociological context so that her clear-eyed observations make sense as part of a larger whole.
Witt, as she tells it, is a different person today than she was five years ago, and her attitude toward love, sex, and relationships has shifted as a result of the experiences she shares and the people she meets in Future Sex. We spoke to her last week about that shifting outlook, how her perspective on pornography has changed, and why she no longer wants to get married.
The title of your book implies that it will be about the intersection between technology and sex, but it mostly explores a different kind of futuristic sex. Can you talk about that?
First of all, I think there’s a machine bias in what’s considered futuristic. There’s plenty of ideas in the book about how we might recreate the family, have children in different arrangements, how we access our sexual fantasies, how we meet each other. It might not be about virtual reality or teledildonics or machines, but it is about the future of how we arrange ourselves and the stories that we tell ourselves. The title, I guess, I was inspired by an erotic magazine in San Francisco called Future Sex that was around during the early '90s at a time when there was a utopian moment about what the internet was going to bring us and all the changes it would bring, and that was all about machines. Twenty years out, I guess, the machine stuff feels kind of silly. None of their predictions really came to pass about us wearing haptic sex suits, but instead there’s new language, there are new arrangements.
Do you think we’re in the throes of a new sexual revolution?
I do think there’s something new. There’s a break between my life and how my parents lived their lives, even though they both came of age in the late 1960s. The Sexual Revolution—the idea that I was raised with and that when I began the book, I think I had in mind—was that there was this upheaval that happened. A lot of experimentation happened, and many of those experiments were failures. The lessons I felt my parents had learned was that it’s better not to tamper with the fundamental structures of society, mainly the nuclear family. Now we can talk about birth control, we have legal abortion, we have the expectation that a young person in their teens and 20s is going to be sexually active and it’s not immoral. You're not going to be sent to a convent if you get pregnant by accident. I think the idea that there was ongoing revolting happening, for lack of a better word, we still have primary choices to make about how to live. There’s still the possibility of upheaval, and I didn’t think that way until I began working on the book.
How did Future Sex come to be?
I had the book deal before I wrote the articles. At the time I got the book deal, I was in a pretty serious relationship and I thought I was going to set out and write a third-person journalistic account of the cultural history of sexuality post-1990 that looked at the demographic change of people getting married later or not at all, the technological change of the internet and mobile phones, and the moral change of a much wider [range] of sexualities being named and accepted. I thought I was going to do a character-based narrative history, then my relationship ended pretty quickly after I got the book deal, and I started looking into stuff. First of all, I realized that these were really personal questions. As I started writing, everybody encouraged me to write in first-person, but it just wasn’t my plan initially. One thing that’s funny to me now is in the reviews, everyone says I’m not memoirist enough, but it’s because I went backward and I actually wrote a lot in third-person.
How hard was it for you to write about yourself in those terms and, specifically, to write about your own sexuality?
It was really hard for me, and in many ways, I failed. I didn’t go far enough, maybe. It took me successive drafts before an editor basically said, “If you don’t write about yourself watching pornography, this is not going to feel real to anybody.” But I got more comfortable. I was going against two things. One was my own embarrassment, and another was an idea of self-indulgent prose and that if I wrote too much about myself, people would be bored because my experience is not particularly unique.
Did that slow down your process?
I went at my own pace. I did have a deadline, but I missed it by about two years.
Why do you think that is?
It was a few things. One, I had to sustain myself while I was writing it, so I had to write a lot of other stuff at the same time. It took me a long time to come up with something to say about internet porn, and I really had to go and think about all of my assumptions and map them out. That just took a long time. And then there were things like the polyamory chapter and the polyamorists that I followed. It’s better to have a longer period of time to document them, to affirm that this wasn’t a blip or a short-term thing, but to watch them grow up and pass into real adulthood while still pursuing this lifestyle.
Was it challenging to psychoanalyze yourself?
Yes, and the other problem was that while this was going on, I was having a relationship. I was simultaneously, in literature, trying to embark on this lifestyle of exploration, and then in my life dealing with the preferences and feelings of people I was dating and the ethical question of whether it’d be right to write about them. When you’re writing about something, it’s hard to live your life in that space at the same time.
How did your views of pornography change in the course of writing the book?
I think this is shocking for some people and not at all for others, but I had ignored pornography. I knew my boyfriends watched it and I didn’t care especially, but I just thought it wasn’t for me. It’s kind of a form of repression, I guess. So then I was like, "Why not look at it?" Then I looked at it and cataloged my objections to it and analyzed whether they were real objections or mythologies that I had inherited. I came out on the other side thinking it’s a good thing.
Do you find yourself defending pornography in your everyday conversations with friends?
Yeah, definitely. I wouldn’t say I send links or anything like that. It’s more that now when my friends crack jokes, I’m there with them. In my relationships, it’s a thing we can joke about.
At the beginning of the book, you express the desire to get married. How much of that desire came from seeing your other friends getting married on social media and how much of it was other factors?
I think, especially if you’re a woman, all the Disney movies you watched and all the Jane Austen novels your read, whatever your cultural influence was, it’s just presented to you constantly as the maximum moment of your young adult life, this thing that’s going to happen for you. As I say in the book, I was obedient, I got good grades, and I went to good schools. That was all important to me, and so [marriage] was another metric of success that I saw. Facebook and social media exaggerate it. You’re just looking at pictures of weddings and adorable coupley things. First of all, nobody posts on Facebook when they’re unhappy, they don't post pictures of themselves crying in the shower. I think that’s a problem for everybody, that happiness gap that’s presented on social media and how people are really living their lives.
San Francisco looms large in your book. Is that city more sexually open and adventurous than other cities?
I went there by accident. My lease was up, and I knew that if I stayed here in New York with all my friends, I wouldn’t try many new things. I definitely don’t think people in San Francisco are more adventurous than they are in other major cities in the U.S., but I do think they talk about it more. One theory that was proposed to me was that because the AIDS crisis hit the city so hard, and there was this movement, Silence Is Death, that telling your sexual story was a very important way to live in the world. I would say there’s a higher concentration of people there that just want to tell their stories in this very earnest, upfront way.
When you were exploring these different subcultures, were you trying to remain an objective observer, or were you open to giving in to them fully?
I wish I had been more honest with myself and had just been there to do the thing with my personal intentions stated, but journalism was an alibi for me. The orgasmic meditation groups, I arrived there just constantly announcing that I was a reporter and I had my notebook, pretending to myself that that was the only thing I was there for and I was an outsider. I think the polyamory stuff, that began when I still saw this book as this third-person journalistic thing, and then they invited me to one of their sex parties, but that was much later in the process. Me and the three main people I wrote about agreed that we would not make out with each other and that I wouldn’t identify anybody else at the party. That allowed me to go as a participant without fearing like I would have trouble writing about them.
Do you feel that it would’ve been a different book if you had not been there as a journalist?
I know that in the beginning, I was just embarrassed, and, for me, to get to some of these places, I had to pretend to myself that I wouldn’t have gone there on my own as Emily Witt. I wish I had shared a little more or not been so scared about that because I really was. And now that I’m on the other side of publication, it’s like, "What was I so scared of?"
Of all of the people you encounter in your book, were you able to pinpoint a line that connected them?
Yeah. Many of them were interested in a pursuit of an original life, not just inheriting a model about how to live and then making that model, but looking at what was around them and what possibilities the present afforded them either technologically or morally. They were willing to pursue those possibilities, and see what might come out of them. Even knowing that other people would judge them or that they would “fail” or it might not work, they were interested in the possibility of experimentation in an optimistic way. I think that’s the thing they all share.
What do you think women will take out of this book as opposed to men?
I wonder about that. I’m sure that some of the chapters, like the porn chapter, is for men. The men I know, at least, have this everyday familiarity with porn. It serves this maintenance function, and it's just something you joke about with all your friends. I just think men have a much less complicated relationship with porn than women. It’s really basic [laughs]. Maybe that’s not fair, but that’s sort of my impression from my friends. I feel so much more confident having gone through this process of inquiry. There were just points of misunderstanding that had a lot to do with how men are socialized to name their sexuality, their desires, to have a type, and to call it out when they're turned on by something, and joking about masturbation. It helped me understand that instead of being mad at men for this freedom they seem to have that I’ve never felt, it helped understand some of my insecurities and complications.
Do you see yourself as being different now than you were five years ago because you have written this book?
Yes, I would say there’s a profound difference. It’s hard for me to qualify. One thing is that I no longer see commitment as something you have to define with the people that you’re in relationships with, instead of assuming there’s a model in the culture where if you’re with somebody, this is what commitment looks like. Now when I start a relationship with somebody, that’s a conversation that we have. I am way more open to open relationships. I don’t think I’m personally cut out to be a polyamorist, as in to have more than one boyfriend at a time. I’m just open toward that, you know, if my friends are that way. I have trouble imagining a lifelong monogamous commitment. That’s not really something that interests me anymore.
That is literally the opposite of how you felt five years ago. Are you saying you no longer want to get married?
I don't know, because what does marriage mean? It’s hard to say a priori what I would want to do because who knows what’s going to happen. To me, the idea of having a party that all my friends go to where I say vows and I put on a ring and put on a dress, to me that seems like I couldn’t. I still believe in love, and I'm capable of falling in love—I like being in love. I want long-term commitments, I don't want a life of Tindering, but I’m interested in alternative ways to define that. The baby question, I’ll have to define in a few years, and that is something where I’m definitely open to other arrangements.
Are you open to talking about your sexuality in ways that you weren’t before because of this book?
Yes. I think it’s one of those things that when you talk about it enough, you become less shy. Being around a bunch of naked people having sex, I’ve just gotten more comfortable with my body. I wish everyone could go to a porno shoot and see how normal it is.