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Sex and the Commodification of the Single Girl

Emily Witt’s ‘Future Sex’ offers a new, strangely hopeful paradigm for relationships in the modern age

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In his 1991 book Virtual Reality, the tech critic Howard Rheingold predicted how people might have sex in, say, the year 2016. “Picture yourself a couple of decades hence, dressed for a hot night in the virtual village,” he wrote. “Before you climb into a suitably padded chamber and put on your 3D glasses, you slip into a lightweight body-suit, something like a body stocking, but with the intimate snugness of a condom. Embedded in the inner surface of the suit, using a technology that does not yet exist, is an array of intelligent sensor-effectors that can receive and transmit a realistic sense of tactile presence.” Another person — perhaps a long-distance partner, perhaps a complete stranger — is wearing a similarly tricked-out bodysuit in a remote location, and, through this imagined technology, you can simulate “touching” them. “You will run your hands over your lover’s clavicle, and 6000 miles away, an array of effectors are triggered, in just the right sequence, at just the right frequency, to convey the touch exactly the way you wish it to be conveyed.”

I don’t want to make any assumptions about your average Friday night, but I feel pretty safe in saying this is not how our present reality looks. While there actually have been some developments in the (I swear I did not just make this up) field of teledildonics, the whole sensor-studded body stocking thing has not exactly gone mainstream. If anyone in 2016 were to use the phrase “a hot night in the virtual village,” they would be using it ironically, to describe the activity of staring blankly into their phone, swiping through images of strangers’ expertly angled selfies and performatively adventurous vacation photos, and occasionally meeting up with them for a drink or a movie or a one-night stand. For most people, Grindr and Tinder and smartphones have fused with our social lives so completely and seamlessly that the changes they’ve wrought already feel unremarkable. The future, always, is both more banal and more radical than we imagine it will be.

“At the very least,” the critic and essayist Emily Witt writes in her new book, Future Sex, “the Jetsons would be a two-income household.” Future Sex isn’t about the future so much as it is about the present, and whether that present looks like the future we’d imagined in the past. At the beginning of the book, Witt is 30 and newly single. (She is a deliciously unsentimental writer; the sole sentence about her breakup is, “I was very sad but my sadness bored everyone, including me.”) Instead of turning to the more mainstream dating apps, she decides to investigate her generation’s sexual fringes, and see if any of them offer any appealing 21st-century alternatives to the traditional happy ending of marriage. She tries orgasmic meditation. She goes to Burning Man, as you do. She attends several live porn shoots; she signs up for an account on a live-webcam site and thinks about flashing strangers.

Witt writes about technology with a graceful ambivalence; her tone is neither concerned about the decline of civilization nor completely evangelical. Her methods of exploring her — and her generation’s — sexuality might have seemed unfathomable just a couple of decades before, but the insight she gains into human sexuality is strangely evergreen. “Technology itself promised us nothing,” she writes at the end of a chapter about internet dating. “It could bring us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them.”

Witt is now 35, from Brooklyn by way of Minnesota, and if there is a recurring thread running through her work, it is the wryly un-American belief that sex and drug use are not inherently transgressive but rather a component of normal and perhaps even healthy adult lives. Probably the best-known thing she’s written so far was a piece in a November 2015 issue of The New Yorker profiling the creators of Erowid, a website that serves as a kind of user’s guide to psychoactive drugs; a few months later, at a reading in Brooklyn, I saw her give a very entertaining and humorously deadpan PowerPoint presentation about the effects of the various drugs she’d tried in her lifetime, ranging from caffeine to antidepressants to psilocybin mushrooms. There is, of course, a great wealth of countercultural writing about sex and drugs, but the transgressive thing about Witt’s work is that she does not identify or scan as someone on the fringes of society. She seems, for lack of a better word, incredibly normal, and thus adept at documenting a world in which weed is practically legal and anybody can arrange an anonymous hookup with a few swipes of their smartphone. “I had always preferred success through recognized channels,” she writes in Future Sex, “getting good grades, going to the right college.” There is a sense that if the freedoms of the millennial sexual revolution have trickled down to someone like her, then we must consider them quite widespread and accessible. Throughout Future Sex she portrays herself as a kind of wallflower at the orgy, or perhaps more specifically to this book and to our times, the wallflower at the Public Disgrace porn shoot to later be broadcast on Kink.com.

Witt is a good sport about putting herself in situations at the outer limits of her comfort zone in an attempt to interrogate her own preconceived notions about sex and sociability. One of the most fascinating chapters in Future Sex is about OneTaste, an organization whose mission is to spread the gospel of orgasmic meditation, a highly ritualized practice of inducing orgasm in a female partner. (Witt forks over the $97 to become “certified” in OM, a prerequisite for attempting the practice yourself.) OneTaste was founded by Nicole Daedone, who envisioned OM as a practice that “unlinked sexual experience from love and romance in the way that casual sex never had for her.” She developed the method — which involves a very specific kind of clitoral stroking, done for exactly 15 minutes — in an experimental living situation that revolved around OM sessions; during the group’s “research and development” phase, nearly 50 people lived in a warehouse, woke up at 7 a.m., and practiced OM. OneTaste is now a legitimate business with locations in multiple states and a website that boasts ecstatic, eHarmony-esque success stories with titles like “OM GIVES ME ENERGY” and “OM CLEARED MY SHAME.”

Witt does not have quite so transformative an experience. She agrees with the general thrust of OneTaste’s mission to bring the female orgasm to the masses, and she brings herself to try the practice several times. But what ultimately feels more difficult to her than taking her pants off in front of an OM practitioner is grabbing a beer with any of these people after it’s over. She cannot fake a sense of belonging among a group of people so earnest in their belief that complete sexual openness is the key to unlocking one’s human potential. “I preferred the company of people who did not insist on sympathetic eye contact, who did not need to talk about all of their feelings at every instance,” she writes toward the end of the chapter. “I felt more comfortable in situations where I had the right to remain maladjusted, to leave some feelings undisclosed.”

Although most of the OneTaste practitioners are Witt’s age or a little older, you get the sense elsewhere in the book — particularly in a long, empathic chapter profiling a couple of 20-something polyamorists — that her inhibitions make her feel like the last of a dying breed. “Younger people, I hoped, would not need autonomous zones,” she writes about people not much younger than her. “Their lives would be free of timidity. They would do their new drugs and have their new sex. They wouldn’t think of themselves as women or men. They would meld their bodies seamlessly with their machines, without our embarrassment, without our notions of authenticity.”

Now in her mid-30s, Witt is in the odd generational position of having inherited the language of second-wave feminism but also being distanced enough from it to see its failures and shortcomings. (Same goes for the ’60s counterculture and its male-oriented definition of free love.) In Future Sex she stands at a strange juncture in time, watching some younger members of her generation barreling toward a wide-open horizon while she herself is weighted down by the baggage of her past.

Which is why it’s so surprising that she finds peace in, of all things, the scourge of quite a few second-wave feminists: pornography.

What killed second-wave feminism was, in retrospect, not the conservative backlash of Reagan’s America so much as feminist infighting about sex and porn. Porn is never not a hot topic in our culture, but it was particularly controversial in the late ’70s; to some radicals, feminists like Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin were starting to sound a little too much like the pro-family-values conservatives in their demands to ban material deemed pornographic, First Amendment be damned. The great cultural critic Ellen Willis, who in the heat of these debates coined the term “pro-sex feminism,” was a beacon of sanity in these times. To quote her 1979 essay “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography,” as Witt herself does in Future Sex:

“For obvious political and cultural reasons nearly all porn is sexist in that it is the product of a male imagination and aimed at a male market; women are less likely to be consciously interested in pornography, or to indulge that interest, or to find porn that turns them on. But anyone who thinks women are simply indifferent to pornography has never watched a bunch of adolescent girls pass around a trashy novel. … Fantasy, after all, is more flexible than reality, and women have learned, as a matter of survival, to be adept at shaping male fantasies to their own purposes. If feminists define pornography, per se, as the enemy, the result will be to make a lot of women ashamed of their sexual feelings and afraid to be honest about them. And the last thing women need is more sexual shame, guilt, and hypocrisy — this time served up as feminism.”

Spoiler: Porn won. And to some extent so did Willis. Antiporn activists’ crusades now feel quaint in the digital age, when it often seems like we’re always one slightly mistyped URL away from seeing a high-res butthole. But Witt thinks antiporn feminism did have a powerful effect — on the tortured and guilty psyches of feminists who had no idea how to talk about what turned them on in this beautiful and deeply flawed world without their language, if not their erotic fantasies, being condemned as “problematic.”

“I valued the ideas of feminism that spoke of liberating feminine sexuality from masculine ideas of sexiness,” Witt writes, “but it was as if, having cleaned out the clutter of masculine pornographic language and imagery, the only inoffensive concept left was a spartan white room dotted with patches of sunlight, starched curtains gently blowing from the open floor-to-ceiling windows.” She goes on, with daring honesty and self-reflection: “My aversion to pornography was not because the images didn’t stimulate me, but because I did not want to be turned on by sex that was not the kind of sex I wanted to have.”

Toward the end of the porn chapter, and after all the research that entails, Witt has an epiphany. “Watching porn left me more confident about my body,” she says. “The ‘sexiness’ used to sell clothes or toothpaste was very different from the sexiness that incited actual sex. Porn represented a wilderness beyond the gleaming edge of the corporate internet and the matchstick bodies and glossy manes of network television. Porn had body hair, tattoos, assholes, bodily fluids, genitals, Mexican wrestling masks, birthday cake, ski goggles.” The language used to categorize different genres of porn is often offensive and reductive on purpose (“on the Hot Guys Fuck channel, I watched porn advertising ‘big dumb Chad’”), true, but in scrolling through these endlessly varied keywords of human desire — SEO’s id — Witt finds an odd kind of feminist serenity. “In looking through all this I found unexpected reassurance that somebody will always want to have sex with me. This was the opposite of the long road toward sexual obsolescence that I had been taught to expect.”

It did not occur to me until reaching the end of this book that most of the people Witt writes about structure the large majorities of their daily routines, disposable incomes, and social lives around sex. There are the users who make a living off Chaturbate, the polyamorous couple who go to sex parties “the way that some couples might spend their energy systematically researching and eating at new restaurants in a city.” The people living in the experimental OneTaste warehouse often “OM-ed” two or three times a day. But although Witt’s book is populated with extremists and pioneers, I wonder if some of their ideas are, in smaller ways, already trickling down to the more mainstream among us. Feminist journalists like Peggy Orenstein (in her recent, refreshingly nonalarmist book, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape) and Rebecca Traister have proposed that modern feminism’s next demand, once we have ceased fighting for the depressingly basic human right of consent, should be focused on pleasure and educating (especially male) partners about female orgasms. Not every sexually active adult needs to be certified in the art of orgasmic meditation, but knowing the basic geography of the clitoris would be a start. In the words of one of the women Traister quoted in her column on this matter, “Seriously, God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual.”

Progress very often has more to do with social developments than it does proverbial robots and flying cars. Which is to say that if The Jetsons were a TV show today, it probably wouldn’t be about the Jetsons at all, but rather an episodic series about a 20-something Judy Jetson’s sordid adventures looking for love in the big city. One inarguable fact of our present: We are living through a statistical rise of and a coinciding media obsession with single people — and sexually active, single women in particular. Female economic independence, easy access to birth control, and the slow but steady erosion of the social stigmas about being childless and unmarried have given single women increased cultural visibility over the last few decades, and most specifically over the last few years. (There’s also the fact of political power; unmarried women are probably going to decide the outcome of this election, the most important of our lifetimes.) And yet, Witt argues, something about the language we use to talk about these present states of being feels old-fashioned and imprecise. “Our relationships had changed but the language had not,” she writes in her introduction, trying on her new identity of “single woman” like a loose, ill-fitting coat. “In speaking as if nothing had changed, the words we used made us feel out of sync.” She gets at a strange paradox of our time: “Single ladies” are a hot cultural commodity right now, but the specific meanings of the words “single,” and even “woman,” have never been more diffuse.

In order to map out this new territory, Witt looks to futurism, whereas some other female writers have recently embraced nostalgia. Last year Kate Bolick, the author of the widely discussed Atlantic article “All the Single Ladies” (not to be confused with Traister’s 2016 book of the same name) released Spinster, a book-length attempt to reclaim that once derogatory term for an unmarried woman. Except, as Briallen Hopper pointed out in a critique of Bolick’s memoir, her definition of “spinster” and even singledom in general was much more fluid than it might have been in the past. “For Bolick, spinsterhood is quite compatible with dating … cohabitating, and even marriage.” Bolick carries on casual relationships throughout the years she chronicles in her book, and in Spinster’s introduction she admits that she now has a long-term partner.

This may have bothered some readers, but these sorts of contradictions don’t even register with Witt. She is less interested in reclaiming words or policing the borders of sexual/relational identities than she is in wandering through a world in which stable labels and hard-and-fast sexual identities might not be of much use to us anymore. This approach — more dialectical than “Here’s how you should live your life, girl” polemical — is rare. When writing a book about the modern single woman these days, panic is a highly sellable tone (see: Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough); so too is you-go-girl empowerment. Witt’s book is something else entirely: subversively serene, resolutely unsentimental, hopeful in the oddest places (like in a chapter about the webcam site Chaturbate’s potential for exploring “mass intimacy”).

The first time I read Witt’s book, I put the dust jacket of another book around it — Mad Magazine–inside-the-textbook style — because the cover is just the words “FUTURE SEX” superimposed over the image of a woman masturbating to her cellphone. I suppose that makes me a little bit like Emily Witt: adventurous enough to want to read a book about webcams and polyamory and orgasmic meditation, but reserved enough that I was not exactly trying to have conversations about these things with strangers on the subway.

By the second time I read it, though, I left the dust jacket at home. This might sound like an uplifting parable of sexual liberation, and maybe it is, although I think I just wanted someone to ask me about this book so I could recommend it to them.

I am a single woman around the age that Witt is at the beginning of the book. And while it has been interesting to live through a time when a lot of the media I consume celebrates a lifestyle that looks pretty close to my own, I have also seen this identity commodified, stereotyped, and diluted into a cliché so defanged and divorced from anyone’s lived experience that it has been used to sell something as inoffensive as probiotic yogurt. “Some 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. She pulls it off.

Singledom, for Witt, is not a demographic or a cultural trend so much as it is a sense of mobility and an ethos of curiosity and discovery. So often the term “single woman” is supercharged with anxiety, time limits, and unsolicited advice, but in Witt’s hands, it expands rather than contracts. In a cultural moment bloated with media that try to tell us (or sell us) something new about the Single, Sexually Active Girl in the New Millennium, Future Sex performs a small miracle. It makes a clichéd trope feel, liberatingly, strange.