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Words 03/01/2017

Sex and the new normal

Flickr/Bexx Brown-Spinelli

A review of Emily Witt's Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love

Perhaps the most memorable moment in Owen Smith’s unsuccessful campaign to unseat Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour leadership in September 2016 came when he sought to distinguish himself from his running-mate, Angela Eagle, by declaring: “I am normal — I’ve got a wife and three children.”
That same summer, during the Tory leadership election, Andrea Leadsom suggested she was better qualified than Theresa May because she had children, whereas Mrs May didn’t. Neither pitch went down particularly well: not only did such rhetoric implicitly denigrate LGBT lifestyles, it also betrayed a certain ignorance of contemporary mores among heterosexual people. 
As the Brooklyn-based journalist Emily Witt observes in Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love, there is in the Western world a significant swathe of the adult, sexually active population for whom the old binary of single-versus-monogamous no longer provides an adequate descriptive framework.  Enabled by contraception, sexual freedom and, latterly, digital technology, these are “people who had gone for several years without bringing anybody home for family holidays, who had got used to going to weddings by themselves, who they knew embodied some ahistorical demographic whose numbers were now significant but which was lacking any sense of group consciousness.” They had sexual partners who were not quite boyfriends but not meaningless flings either. The lexicon was not up to speed with the new paradigm:  “Our relationships had changed,” writes Witt, “but the language had not.” 

"A spirit of non-judgemental generosity informs Witt's exploration"

It is in her capacity as a member of this nameless constituency that Witt embarks upon a searching survey of various alternative lifestyles, encompassing everything from orgasmic meditation to pornographic webcams and polyamory sects. Future Sex brings together a number of journalistic pieces written for publications as varied as GQ, n+1 and the London Review of Books between 2012 and 2016. Witt’s writing blends anecdotal candour and disinterested, almost anthropological, reportage. There is plenty of the former in the opening chapter’s overview of dating apps — her remarks about the eery, forced chirpiness of dating profiles will doubtless resonate with anyone who has had the pleasure of navigating the likes of Tinder and OKCupid — and lots of the latter in ensuing chapters on porn and swinging. She approaches these subjects with a commendable open-mindedness tempered by a palpable instinctive wariness; it is this sense of ambivalence that makes her an engaging guide to this eccentric panorama of teledildonics, hexayurts and cuddle puddles, treading the fine line between curiosity and prurience.  
Witt signs up with a company called OneTaste for a course in orgasmic meditation, where she finds their cultish argot a bit much (“They would describe themselves as feeling ‘tumesced’ and use the word penetrate to indicate a personal breakthrough. They like to use sex as a verb instead of a noun…”) and can’t quite get on board with the ritual aspect. Later she decides to acquaint herself with internet pornography on the grounds that, political misgivings aside, it would be wrong to dismiss in its entirety “the most comprehensive visual repository of sexual fantasy in human history.” Witt’s focus moves from the male end-user (“I don’t know why, but knowing porn as a man diminishes the spectre of the leering man. You invade his temple, his redoubt.”) to the question of her own enjoyment, embracing the argument articulated by the late American feminist Ellen Willis, that a stance of outright opposition to pornography and sexual fantasy amounts to a perpetuation of a culture of sexual shame. “I knew I wasn’t trying to inhabit the masculine,” Witt concludes, “If the force that guided my sexual desires fame from a physical feeling in my body.”
A similar spirit of non-judgemental generosity informs her exploration of the webcam site Chaturbate, where women (and men) perform, from the comfort of their homes, in exchange for digital “tips” redeemable in cash. Witt’s initial take is that this is just a technologically updated version of old-fashioned peep-show booths or phone sex. But as she gets to know the camgirls and their personal stories, she discerns something altogether less seedy — a sense of intimacy and community. She engages in correspondence with one performer, who tells her she is actually a virgin and believes herself to be “Internet sexual”. There is, in short, something more nuanced at play here than mere sex work, a dynamic that recalls the earliest phase of the digital revolution — “the Internet of strangers rather than ‘friends’” — when the technology was better known for facilitating novel forms of human contact than real-world networking.  
Things take a turn for the surreal when we are introduced to a gaggle of polyamorists in San Francisco’s tech industry milieu. We meet a couple, Elizabeth and Wes, who, in search of “a more experiential life”, embark on a ménage with Wes’s best friend, Chris. The experiment ends in recriminations as the buddies learn the hard way that, as the indie band Interpol once put it, There’s no I in threesome. This episode prompts Witt to meditate on the difference between the Sixties heydey of “free love” and its 21st-century iteration, and it is here that her analysis is at its most insightful. There is, she notes, a world of difference between the experimental bohemianism of the baby-boomer generation and the “[o]bedient children of the 1980s and 90s [who] saw the failures of the counterculture, took them as implicit lessons from our parents, and held ourselves in thrall to grade point averages, drug laws, health insurance, student loan payments, college admissions…” If this slightly overstates the extent of the rollback — the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies was not discarded wholesale; indeed many of its tenets were subsumed within the mainstream culture in ways we tend to take for granted — the gist is indubitably correct: this generation is more conservative, more risk-averse than its predecessor. And there are very good reasons for it, quite apart from any collective moral recoil. Witt borrows again from Ellen Willis, who noted that the adventurousness of the Sixties was contingent on a historically specific set of circumstances: “We felt secure enough, economically and sexually, to reject security.” Three decades of neoliberalism, aggravated by the privations of economic recession since the crash of 2008, have altered the landscape almost beyond recognition. The boomers had their fun, and when they were done they went back to the well-paid jobs that were waiting for them; today the stakes are higher, and you drop out of “normal” at your peril. 

"The digital revolution appears to have been something of a false dawn"

In this regard a simple scene-setting remark, at the outset of the polyamory segment, that “everyone [was] punching in excess hours at Google”, takes on added significance. This backdrop — of a long-hours culture in an industry notorious for the demands it makes on its’ employees emotional energies — surely goes some way to explaining the spiritual listlessness that emanates from so many of the characters Witt meets. The irony is, of course, that this is an unusually privileged group of workers, as is made abundantly clear in a chapter on the annual Burning Man gathering. The festival, which is held in Black Rock City, Nevada, once had a certain cachet as a bastion of radical self-expression and anti-corporate communitarianism, but its elaborate infrastructure is sustained by a sizeable workforce of caterers and support staff. It decidedly isn’t Woodstock, but it is in its own way every bit as culturally significant. A bewildered Witt quotes the futurist jargon of the festival guidebook, a veritable buzzword soup bordering on gibberish: "Creative autonomous zones & cities of the future … resiliency, thrivability, open data…. What’s your future look like? Social entrepreneurs and free culture makers, hack the system and mash the sectors." Never mind free love or progressive politics, this rather vague technological utopianism is perhaps the closest thing we have to a contemporary zeitgeist, a state of affairs not lost on the ever on-trend Tony Blair, who, in a recent interview with the New Statesman, waxed enthusiastic about the immediacy of social media before opining that “I find the ideas are much more interesting in the technology sector [than in politics], much more interesting ideas about how you change the world.” 
For Witt, though, the digital revolution appears to have been something of a false dawn: “It brought us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them.” Technology is a recurring and central motif in Future Sex, but many of the changes leading up to this moment predate the Internet altogether — most notably the revolution in birth control, which is covered in the book’s closing chapter. Sceptical about monogamy but having failed, despite her best efforts, to cultivate any great appetite for the alternatives on offer, Witt wonders whether today’s singleton army might constitute the modern equivalents of the ascetics of yesteryear — albeit sustained not by celibacy but by contraceptives — whose eccentricity was accepted on the grounds that contributed, in some broader sense, to the total happiness of the social body. It is a comforting notion, not so much a refutation of the old moral certainties as a subtle tweak to their terms of reference: the new normal is perhaps not so new after all. 
Houman Barekat is a book critic based in London. His reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator, Literary Review, the Irish Times and elsewhere. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online, forthcoming from O/R Books.