The Future: Where Sexual Ambivalence Meets Sexual Gentrification
On Polyamory, Silicon Valley, and the Investigations of Emily Witt
“[I]t is always a question of how complicated we can allow people to be without feeling the need to punish them for it.”
–Adam Phillips, “How Much Does Monogamy Tell Us?” The New York Times, October 2nd, 1998
“But what if you decline the moral obligation of love; what if you want something wilder, darker or less inclined to permanence?”
–Olivia Laing, “Future Sex by Emily Witt: is another era of free love over?” The Guardian, January 6th, 2017
In ‘Expectations,’ the first chapter of her book, Emily Witt recalls herself before she began researching and writing Future Sex:
I was single, straight, and female. When I turned thirty, in 2011, I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center. I would disembark, find myself face-to-face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future.
By Witt’s own account, her vision of a “monogamous destiny” meant that she understood the sexual freedom of her twenties as “as an interim state.” Now, facing her thirties as a single woman again, “apprehensiveness set in: that this was my future.” Witt moved to San Francisco to immerse herself in alternatives to this unrealized terminus. The subsequent book—its own kind of “Epcot Center”—is a collection of personal and journalistic dispatches from her tour through the exotic sexual locales of the Bay Area.
If, at this early point, Witt is reckoning with an anxious failure of the intimate imagination, it is because—in spite of the sexual megamarts that privileged white people like herself can ostensibly go shopping at—it can take a feat of imaginary power to envisage alternatives to the happy ending. “How do you embark on your adulthood,” Witt asks, “when you don’t know where you’re headed?” While many of us may have, to various degrees, questioned the couple imperative, we all understand the social script that mandates it. I can understand how she might have felt: it can be hard to picture one’s sexual future outside of the logic of a sequence that ends ideally in some iteration of love, presaged by an inevitable narrowing of possibilities (though we may envisage all manner of excitements along the way). Although the title Future Sex invokes futurism, it is also an invocation of the way in which we struggle to imagine sexuality without adhering it to narratives with preferred outcomes. Witt’s point of departure is the potential obliteration of her own imagined future and therefore a rather serious consideration of what may instead take its place.
The possibilities begin with a chapter on internet dating that offers an astute reflection upon what the medium delivers (“a clean, well-lighted place”) and a more sophisticated than usual appraisal of what it doesn’t. Witt is finely attuned to the gendered dynamics of dating sites and hookup apps, and how their interfaces and affordances have developed in ways that reflect slavish inequalities around what is safe and or permissive for women. “For some women, even acknowledging that they were on OKCupid with any sort of intention, let alone a sexual one, was undesirable,” she writes, “so it benefited the dating sites to be as anodyne and blandly enthusiastic as possible.” And yet, on the other hand, the platforms had the potential to re-organize sex in ways that were genuinely transformative. One of Witt’s friends reports that even if she never found love, dating and hook up technologies meant she would always be able to find sex, which made her feel “good about herself and her body”; what she had gained was an increased “awareness,” “agency” and “more control than she was used to experiencing in the confines of the traditional view of dating.”
Witt goes to San Francisco not only because it was the birthplace of sexual radicalism and she is curious about that movement’s legacies, but because it’s a hub for a more recent revolution of digital communication. A guiding question for her is whether digital technologies are changing sexual possibilities as drastically as developments in contraceptive technologies arguably did in the 1960s and 70s. Her answers are always nuanced. Rather than the moralizing of “fake-sociology journalism” that blames the internet for an epidemic of lovelessness or accuses it of reducing humans to a “marketplace” of consumer products and overwhelming them with choice (as if other social forces like neoliberalism hadn’t been doing that to humans for decades), Witt considers openly—and often optimistically—how algorithms, geo-locative functions, fast wifi, HD and webcams may not only undermine conventional sexual scripts but create the conditions that make alternative arrangements viable. For example, in her chapter reflecting on new experiments in polyamory among youthful members of the tech set, we come to apprehend very quickly how certain group arrangements might not work as well without the aid of Google docs and calendars.
Witt, herself, doesn’t quite get there with internet dating. For her it still portends the paradigmatic conundrum of the modern sexual supermarket: it delivered the “vast array of possibility” but as for what to do with all of those options, “at no point did it offer guidance.” She concludes somewhat plaintively that digital dating “brought us people… [but] it did not tell us what to do with them.”
If this assessment seems annoyingly ambivalent then Future Sex may not offer the answers you are looking for. Witt is, as Eileen Myles says, a “perfectly ambivalent” guide. But it seems to me that the acknowledgement of a fundamental set of ambivalences in how we negotiate aspects of intimate life is precisely what is missing from many books that attempt to reveal meaningful insights about it.
Witt experiences ambivalence in her immersive encounter with “OneTaste,” a cultish movement organized around the human potential-cum-sexual practice of “Orgasmic Meditation.” The basics of this: a woman undresses from the waist down, lies comfortably on pillows and has her clitoris stroked for fifteen minutes. This may occur with a friend, partner or another orgasmic mediation practitioner, but there is no expectation of reciprocation, sexual or romantic exchange. The overarching concept being that this is a means for women to experience their sexual bodies without the baggage attached to dating and relationships. Orgasmic meditation (“OMing”) seeks to create a “neutral space in which focus on the body could happen without the interference of romantic stories or behavioral conditioning” which, when you think about it, is a pretty radical idea.
But Witt feels, well, ambivalent. “When I first started going to [Orgasmic Meditation],” she told VICE magazine, “I would talk to my friends about it in a certain tone of voice—‘Oh, they’re so crazy, they’re so weird.’” The new age jargon made her uncomfortable, not to mention the practice itself. When asked at an OM meeting to confess to the group her “red hot desire,” Witt sees only a “flat white screen,” and a “vacant search bar” with the “cursor blinking.” It’s an apposite image for sexual uncertainty in the digital age. Are the terms of your red hot desire SEO? Witt’s answer to the question may be the single most resonant line in the entire book: “What I said I desired was to surrender to another person without having to explain what I wanted.” Future Sex reminded me that desire and inhibition frequently co-manifest and one does not cancel the other out. Some time after her experience at OneTaste, Witt says she “started to feel kind of disgusted with [herself] because what they were doing was an earnest experiment about how to live better. I started to see these things as genuine possibilities of how to live your life.”
Another type of sexual ambivalence is the seemingly irreconcilable disjuncture between how you’d like to fuck or what you feel comfortable managing in your intimate life and the way you ideally wish the world would work. This one is keenly felt and much discussed among feminists and sexual progressives. In her historically and politically virtuosic chapter on internet porn, Witt accounts for her initial disinterest in porn in largely political terms: “My aversion to pornography was not because the images didn’t stimulate, but because I did not want to be turned on by sex that was not the kind of sex that I wanted to have.” This feeling shifts for her, however, and she uses ambivalence to make, if not breakthroughs, then some kind of accommodation. The porn chapter, which was previously published in the Spring 2013 edition of N+1 magazine appropriately titled “Double Bind,” is partly a gonzo account of a live recording of the series “Public Disgrace” for Kink.Com. Witt watches while a 23-year-old female performer, Penny Pax, gets stripped, tied up, flogged, prodded, zapped with electrical currents and penetrated to the chorus of cheers, insults and groping of an enthusiastic crowd. It’s the feminist anti-porn nightmare. And yet, with due respect to the radical feminist critique of porn as monolithic objectifier of women’s bodies and glorifier of sexual violence, Witt ultimately finds herself more convinced by a more reparative reading: internet porn is a “tour of human sexual diversity” in all of its “hair, tattoos, assholes, bodily fluids, genitals, Mexican wrestling masks, birthday cake [and] ski goggles.”
Though the sexual avant-garde is sometimes represented as a smorgasbord of titillating possibilities just waiting to be gobbled up by those with the hunger to do so, there are structural inhibitors to simply snatching and devouring what you suspect you might like to taste. This is another sex catch-22 that never seems to go away; and, I think, it’s at the crux of the many moments when Witt feels she might want to participate but finds herself hesitant, reluctant, cynical, anxious, embarrassed or otherwise averse. “I wished I had other chances for this degree of experimentation, and wondered what it would feel like to be not a visitor to this scene, but a part of it,” she broods after attending a sex party with denizens of the Bay Area polyamorous scene. There are cultural—as well as personal—reasons for such feelings and they are not as simple as shyness or a “failure of the imagination.” Rather, they are often to do with capacity and human resources.
This capacity catch-22 becomes most evident in this encounter with poly practices, recounted by Witt in a novelistic chapter that is the heart of the book’s most original socio-cultural insights. By this stage Witt has infiltrated the lives of Elizabeth, Wes, and Chris—three supremely well-adjusted Google employees in a triangle arrangement—who, she writes, “still believed there were still primary choices to make about sexuality.” Before we even meet these people we hear from another friend of Witt’s that the young polyamorists of the Bay Area are almost preternaturally “confident.” This is an important detail. At one point, Elizabeth has two non-boyfriends with expectations of neither exclusivity nor or any defined path into the future. Later, the primary coupling of Elizabeth and Wes is successfully negotiating dynamic stages of commitment that involved sex parties, other romances and partners both in shorter and longer intervals, including the aforementioned Chris. The open relationship as a concept promises many liberties that monogamy proscribes, but to be a sex radical can mean compromising other potential social rewards. The Bay Area set seem virtually impermeable to social shame, but Elizabeth suspects quite pragmatically that “talking at work about her multiple lovers could sabotage her career”:
She was confronting, if not a double standard along gendered lines, at least a foundational hypocrisy: where ambition, curiosity, and a willingness to take risks in one’s professional life was kept separate from the mirage of propriety that governed one’s personal life. Monogamy was assimilated into notions of leadership and competence; other sexual choices came with loss of authority.
As Witt reiterated in the VICE interview: “I think there’s an idea of what constitutes an authoritative person or leader and it’s not the voice of a polyamorous-sex-party attendee.”
What the polyamory chapter indicates is the work involved in certain alternatives to monogamy. You may need to read The Ethical Slut or work through the exercises in The Jealousy Workbook and generally devote time and energy to managing your intimate affairs. You may, like Witt, need to confront the cringe-inducing jargon of something like “OneTaste” because non-institutional sex cultures are testing out new languages that haven’t benefited from the aesthetic polish that romantic norms have had across centuries of cultural production. You may need to allocate quite some time to patiently cultivating the dispositions and orientations required to manage a life arrangement that isn’t everywhere catered for and enabled by the market, recognized by institutions, and rewarded by workplaces. You may feel it is utterly worthwhile and that enough good resources exist to support you, but it may still require stamina and self-confidence. You can’t get that stuff delivered by Uber Eats (yet), but Google docs may help.
It becomes very clear in this chapter that certain forms of sexual unorthodoxy are the provenance of elites and those able to deploy technology in inventive ways. It’s no coincidence that many of the cast of Witt’s essay collection are the privileged burghers of the tech boom in California: young, attractive, successful Americans, an idiosyncratically privileged class living under very particular cultural, economic and somatechnological conditions. (“Somatechnics” are the reciprocal bond between the sôma and the techné of the body—that is, the way in which bodies are formed and transformed in response to the world around us, including the smart phones we wield in our hands). Anwen Crawford in the Monthly correctly points out that “the shadow story of Future Sex is one of gentrification”:
The majority of people that Witt profiles in her book are highly-paid tech workers, the kind who can afford to purchase liability insurance for the stripper poles at their private sex parties. This is sex as refined leisure, but its connection to a broader project of political emancipation remains unclear.
The tech class in Southern California may be an incubator for old/new expressions of sexuality because of their highly unusual and privileged access to sexual, cultural and technological capital, their mobility, education, their political and social dispositions. Money—to an extent—can insulate sexual deviants from the effects of social opprobrium.
For occasional participants, nonconformity in intimate life is a less effort-ridden commitment. Witt’s skewering, wonderful account of her visit to Burning Man observes the hypocrisy of revelers who indulge in sex and drug license for only one week of the year. The people who don’t advocate for the legalization of the drugs they have been taking when they return to their regular lives, or mention that they cheered at the burning of a Facebook “like” effigy when they return to work at Facebook on Monday. On the other hand, a bacchanal like Burning Man, no matter how commercially compromised it has become, is indicative of these people’s desires to live otherwise. As anyone who has been to almost any music festival anywhere will tell you, the carnivalesque behavior at somewhere like Burning Man suggests that there are many more people out there beyond the “authentic” practitioners of alternative lifestyles who have the desire to upturn the everyday, even if most only do it once or twice a year.
Witt’s final, short, powerful, polemic chapter on birth control and reproduction reveals what we have expected all along: that while Witt is an avowedly feminist and queer thinker, she is more ambivalent than anything else about discourses of “choice.” “I am approaching the age now,” she writes, “where if I don’t have a baby I will have chosen not to have a baby. I think: Did I make a choice?” The rhetoric of choice disguises harsh realities about the actual availability of certain “freedoms” and “options” in a woman’s life.
Women, queers and gender noncomformists have changed our understanding of sexuality and gender, but heterosexual women—especially single women who are frank about and act upon their desires—remain, as they have long been, a particular kind of sexual vanguard. Single women who want to encounter different models for sex and life remain a potent source of anxiety because of their tendentious relationship to the systems of labor and kinship that reproduce capitalism. Insofar as the naturalization of dyadic family structures is deeply entrenched in antifeminist sexual politics, we should be willing to construe forms of experimentation with the structure and organization of intimate life as a form of feminist and queer praxis. Practicing sexual non-orthodoxies may everywhere seem to face limitations, not everyone is cracked up to blaze trails, and “alternatives” to monogamous couplehood are not a priori radical. Nonetheless, we know from both feminist and queer feminist critiques that monogamy tends to be compulsory and that, historically and now, its costs and benefits are utterly asymmetrical for men and women. Undoings in the conventions of intimate life, however small, are not to be sniffed at.