‘A climax could be perfunctory’

Emily Witt, Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love

Faber, 224pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780571331987

reviewed by Rebecca Watson

There is very little that the mind feels which the body does not reflect – in heat up the stomach, chill across the skin, weight in your chest. It is no wonder that we are so obsessed with sex, when it allows the connection between the body and the mind to be felt in unified action, when it is a moment where we can lose inhibitions, time, our very selves – plunging into, as Eimear McBride described it recently, the ‘God-knows-where’. It’s impossible to fully narrate the experience – high on the ineffable – and this seems to be not just the case for the experience, but for sex in its broader, theoretical sense.

In Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love, Emily Witt takes this incomprehensible obsession, and searches to understand and report on predominantly heterosexual sex in all its new, modern forms. Future Sex is a collection of essays, that map Witt’s experience of being 30, single and sexually inquisitive. Across the different essays, Witt examines internet dating from its birth to present; Orgasmic Meditation – the practice of someone stroking another’s clitoris for 15 minutes without climax; online pornography; live webcams; polyamory – profiling a polyamorous couple and their explorations alongside their sustaining love; birth control – in its inadequacy, as underdeveloped as our discourse about sex itself; reproduction; and the Burning Man festival. She constructs a recent cultural history of sex across San Francisco, whilst remaining throughout the narrative as a sexual wonderer and wanderer – quietly finding her place in this new kind of free love.

Early on, Witt highlights our problem when it comes to discussing sex: we lack the language. We have progressed beyond relationships that follow a set formula, that shift politely from courtship to marriage to sex to children to death (strictly in that order). But though our bodies and consciences have moved on, our understanding and our language has not. As sex progressively moves away from signalling a monogamous commitment, how do we adventurers discern and describe how we act? Thankfully, she does not attempt to solve the problem by introducing neologisms and scientific terms. Instead she observes, drawing together anecdotes from across a vast collection of sexual appetites, organisations and voyeurs to piece together how we, as a society, attempt to identify ourselves within the contemporary sexual climate.

Witt is shrewd, but she is also just as puzzled and curious as the rest of us. Future Sex is a mission to understand; and it is the mission rather than the answer that she presents. The questions linger – will this search ever be over? Will we ever pen every option, every identity and idea that we may be turned-on by, let alone what these impulses deduce about our character?

This is not a dry cultural history, and Witt’s presence within the book significantly adds to its success. When the Orgasmic Meditation Leader describes how the pressure on the clitoris should be no more than ‘rubbing a finger across an eyelid’, Witt observes that around the room ‘men and women touched the pads of their fingertips to their eyelids.’ (Just as I reached this line I felt caught out – my finger already on my eyelid.) Her experience steers her learnings, and aids in artful digressions that help add depth to her research. When describing accidentally climaxing during a meditation, she muses: ‘A climax could be perfunctory. It could just be another form of service to another person, to give him satisfaction. I could climax even during sex I did not enjoy.’ Her presence reminds the reader that she is not uncovering the whole span of contemporary sex, but rather unveiling the habits of certain groups.

When Witt turns to discussing pornography, her analysis is refreshingly thorough. She acknowledges the inherited lens through which she first judged porn – beginning with the common argument that porn is a ‘theory that has negative effects on the practice of sexuality.’ But she maps how her thought process changes as she embarks on an adventure within her own laptop. She learns that though porn can be problematic in the behaviour it can encourage, and the forms of derogatory and non-consensual and glorified violence it can provoke, not all porn is harmful – and she admits her surprise at the joy, not disapproval, that she is left with – at how all types of appearance can be sexy.

Witt’s underlying aversion to porn, she learns, was that she ‘did not want to be turned on by sex that was not the kind of sex [she] wanted to have.’ This is a thread that runs through Future Sex: a fear that the body will somehow betray the mind. Beyond liberation and experimentation, jealousy, confusion and shame shudder through the pages. Against all barriers and rules, whatever we wish to experiment with, whatever we shake our heads at and say no, not that, definitely not that, our bodies remain fickle. Sex, all sex, can be a stimulus. Our body reacts, even when our mind does not. And sometimes that reaction is not coherent to our true desires and drives. Witt describes watching porn as ‘similar to wanting to watch videos of cats climbing into boxes in the middle of doing one’s taxes,’ or ‘going to a café alone and eating a piece of cake in the middle of the afternoon.’ It is a temporary fulfilment – a mechanic reaction.

Future Sex illustrates how unanimously we are driven and obsessed by sex, and Witt implicitly encourages us to dissect this obsession. We have a responsibility to question what is being produced on the internet and promoted as sex, in order not to manipulate or dissuade our natural sexual impulses, especially when they are first developing. I am thinking of course of how aggression can be appropriated, and how porn can teach us to view women in a derogatory light. But even this is nuanced and tied up in consent and choice. Witt threads together accounts including Linda Lovelace’s, who starred in an iconic pornographic film only to later allege that she participated under threats of abuse. But Witt is comprehensive. She meets the porn director of Public Disgrace, an online video series which films ‘women bound, stripped, and punished in public.’ On attending a filming for one of these videos, she notes the respect that the performers have for each other, creating a violent and derogatory scenario in a safe and entirely consensual way. A girl is spanked, electric-shocked and penetrated anally with a (carefully sanitised) beer bottle as well as a whole fist, all whilst surrounded by a crowd who are commanded to grope and hit her and keep up a loud commentary on how she is a ‘worthless cunt’. But she enters aware and with safe words and gestures, and leaves giddy – professing to be ‘dick-drunk’, her contentment and understanding of her own desire evident. Rather than following the trope of abused and manipulated girls that are misled into situations they cannot escape from, Witt introduces participants who seem far more aware of what drives their body. They are sure, admirably so.

Future Sex is about observation, about revealing areas of sex and experimentation that are current and prevalent. Witt returns several times to the idea of a ‘clean, well-lighted place’, taken from the mantra of a pioneering feminist sex-toy shop she had stumbled across. Seemingly she is referring to what we try and achieve in our new modern forms of sex – in internet dating and webcams; to find order and control in an ‘unpredictably violent world’, to carve a space for sex where we can be safe and comfortable. In discussing sex openly and expansively, Witt begins to build this space.

She asserts that ‘a futuristic sex was not going to be a new kind of historically unrecognisable sex, just a different way of talking about it.’ Witt is right, but it is not just a different way of talking, but a willingness to talk at all. When sex is something so extraordinary, that so drives our mind and body, it is remarkable how much of our discourse around it is tied up in silence.
Rebecca Watson is a freelance arts writer and works as an editorial assistant at the Financial Times.