‘future sex,’ the pioneering new book about finding love in the time of tinder
Emily Witt provides a refreshingly real first-person account of what it means to be single and sexually curious in 2016 — with forays into internet dating, pagan polyamory, and orgasmic meditation.
There are many people who would have been better suited to writing a book about sexual exploration than Emily Witt. Or so she says. When she signed a book deal (her first) with FSG in 2012, she was in a relationship and strongly ambivalent about inserting herself into any kind of investigation of avant-garde sexual practices. The finished book, Future Sex, includes chapters on live webcams, BDSM pornography, and the sexual smorgasbord that is Burning Man.
"Initially, I wanted to write a cultural history of recent sexuality, kind of post 1990, that took into account technological changes, demographic changes, and moral changes," Emily explains over coffee in Brooklyn, where she now lives. "I thought I would do this third-person, journalistic cultural history." She was conscious of both her innate shyness and the snobbery that often colors critical responses to first-person journalism. "I felt most of my experience was really banal, that people would be annoyed if I had the nerve to write about it."
Her editor encouraged her, though, and she found herself becoming personally affected by her research. After ending her relationship and moving to San Francisco, she attended an orgasmic meditation workshop and semi-reluctantly enjoyed the movement's sexual openness. But Future Sex is not a diary. "I knew people would either read the book as a shopping tour of sexual experimentation or as a memoir, and I wanted it to have some substance," she says, "Some facts."
So the book relates how a computer scientist named Gary Kremen laid the groundwork for the first internet dating site in 1992, as well as Emily's own uncomfortable trials with OkCupid. A chapter on internet porn begins by discussing the first legally published images of penetration (in the magazine Private, in 1965) before launching into a detailed account of Emily's own experience at a taping for an online pornography series called "Public Disgrace."
The book is both personal and a totally modern portrait of our rapidly changing approaches to finding love and having sex in 2016.
My mom loves directing me to articles about why women of my generation are getting married later or not at all. Were you conscious of avoiding generalizations and assumptions about "women of our generation"?
I was reading all of those articles too, and I found them so frustrating. They always promoted this idea that the only kind of respectful, equal, safe, dignified sexuality is in a stable monogamous relationship. And even when they weren't saying that explicitly, that was always the point at which they were beginning. That always made me feel very trapped, because if you don't have that, then what? Your life is just a sham? You're doomed to emotional trauma? I felt that there was this binary.
How did you decide what alternative approaches you wanted to include in the book? And when you were reporting it, how upfront were you about being a journalist?
I used journalism as an alibi to explore many of these things, I realized later. I definitely presented myself as a journalist. At OM [the orgasmic meditation workshop], for example, I met the public relations person, and she suggested that I try the practice and go to the workshops. I always wanted it to be really clear that I was a reporter. But then some time passed and I realized some of their ideas had affected me more deeply than I'd anticipated or wanted to admit to myself at the beginning. The part that I was skeptical about [with OM] is that there's this culture of new-age self-help movements, which can be a little phony or manipulative. I was always really wary of that. But they can be helpful, even if they're sinister. And like many of the chapters in the book, I could have done an investigative journalism piece, where I looked at sex trafficking or whether the orgasmic meditators were a cult. But I just decided somebody else could do that; these were opportunities that I wanted to be optimistic about.
Were there practices you investigated that didn't make it into the book?
Yes, I spent time with some direct marketing sex toy people — they have those sort of home parties, like Avon, [where they sell sex toys]. That was interesting because in smaller towns and in middle America they have a consciousness raising function. They teach a lot about sexuality and how to know your body. But the book was clearly about people of my demographic, so why pretend that it wasn't? I also reported on some celibate people, who were deeply religious orthodox Christians.
I wonder if it would have been as interesting to write about not having sex as it was to write about having it?
Well, it was a queer couple. One person identified as genderqueer, one person identified as a woman. They were in a very committed long-term relationship, and because they were Christian, that was a celibate relationship. Because "that's who God had ordained them to be." What was interesting to me was that they were able to be open about their sexual identification — that's what was contemporary about it — but they were still living according to a very old belief system. They were using religion as a guide for how to manage their behavior.
How have your friends and family reacted to the book? Once you publish details about your personal life, do people expect you to be more open in conversation, and are they more open with you?
They definitely expect that. And I am more open and comfortable. Friends of mine that have kinks talk to me about them now. Friends feel comfortable telling me about their internet dating stories — the sordid ones. My parents are not so happy about it. Or, I don't think they've read it. Even though it's dedicated to them! It's not that they're ashamed or judgmental, it's just that there's stuff about my life that maybe they don't want to know, or maybe is painful because it indicates that I'm sad. The thing that's surprised me most about the reaction — or maybe that thing that I regret — is that I wish I had put a bit more of myself in. I wish I'd added, at the end of the book, a chronology of what I did when. There were times when I was dating, when I was in a relationship but sleeping with other people, when I was just in a monogamous relationship. I should have established that chronology I think.
Do you feel more or less optimistic about finding love, or a connection, or what you were looking for, after finishing the book?
I mean, so much more optimistic, that even if I didn't find love I wouldn't be alone the way I had anticipated. The book made me more confident, and that made it seem a lot easier to meet people and to have intimacy even in relationships that I knew weren't going to be long relationships. It totally changed my world view. I just feel better adjusted! I was reminded there are a lot of other people in the same situation. Just understanding that the old idea of the spinster is not the case. People are just single for longer times in their life now. We're in in all together, so we have to figure out how to find happiness together and feel connected. And then also you fall in love sometimes, and that's nice too!
Were there other writers that you felt were exploring these ideas in ways you related to?
There wasn't really anybody. The Argonauts [by Maggie Nelson] came out when I was writing the book, and definitely the sentiment of that book — of optimism and possibility — was really important. The book that was probably the most important was The Prime of Life by Simone de Beauvoir, her memoir. That was more open and in some ways experimental and optimistic than anything I was reading by people in our generation which was either in alarmist mode or "I'm a sexual adventurer" mode.
What, do you think, are the most common misconceptions about how people in our generation date and have sex?
I guess I feel that a lot of people, instead of examining what they themselves want to do, spend a lot of energy and time trying to figure out what they're supposed to be doing. I remember when I wrote about Tinder for the first time, it was 2013, and it was new and everybody asked me what the app was for because they wanted to know what expectation they were supposed to be going into a date with. It's always surprising to me that people are looking for how they're supposed to be acting rather than pursuing a process of personal inquiry.
Everyone just wants an answer.
Yes. The other thing I noticed when I was looking at, say, polyamory is that that's just never going to be a universal practice. Some people might want to do that, and that might make more people open about it than before, but it's not like there's one way to live that we all have to agree upon right now. But yes, people just want to be told what to do!
Now that you've finished the book, are you still experimenting?
I had a boyfriend and we broke up pretty much right after I turned in the book. Then I was like, "Now I can really go for it, I don't have to write about it." But I sort of fell in love with somebody! Now, figuring out what that commitment is going to look like is interesting. Because it's not going to be monogamous. But I also don't think I can handle polyamory. I can't have two partners at once, it's too much for me. But it's nice to be able to go into something knowing you're open to trying things. So that's going to be my M.O.: trying things, talking about things, communicating.
"Future Sex" by Emily Witt is out now through Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Image courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux