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In her new book, Emily Witt outlines the hidden restrictions of modern relationships and attempts to answer a deceptively difficult question: "What do you desire?"
In All the Single Ladies, her recent book about the growing population of single women in America, Rebecca Traister relates her experience of going off to college knowing that, "by most accounts, marriage was coming to swallow [her] up in just a few short years," but simultaneously feeling that nothing was less likely. A gap, resulting from a sizable sociological shift, had yawned between the expectations of her parents' generation and her own. The median age of first marriage—which hovered between 20 and 22 years old during the 20th century—today is approximately 27, and whereas 60 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 were married in 1960, the percentage now falls around 20. Today it is more common to be unmarried than married in your 20s, and Traister concludes from this that young women will "no longer have to wonder," as she did when she graduated high school, "what unmarried adult life for women might look like, surrounded as we are by examples of this kind of existence."
But figuring out "what unmarried adult life for women might look like" still seems to require a good deal of wondering. In Spinster, published last year, Kate Bolick recounts her realization at the age of 23—which stands out for her as the age at which Sylvia Plath married Ted Hughes—that "marriage was the last thing on [her] mind." With a husband far from her vision of her future, Bolick experienced a "failure of imagination." "How do you embark on your adulthood," she asks, "when you don't know where you're headed?" In Labor of Love, another recent book that examines modes of dating as they reflect and are produced by historical economic conditions, Moira Weigel describes being broken up with by a boyfriend and finding herself asking him what she should want.
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"Why was I always asking some man?" she wonders. When she realizes that she "had learned to do it by dating," she sets out to understand why she "was struggling to follow desires that did not seem to be [her] own."
In the introduction to Future Sex, another hyped nonfiction book about modern relationships, out from FSG this week, Emily Witt narrates her own moment of reckoning with a failure of imagination. It arrives after she sleeps with a man who is seeing another woman; she is chastised for "pantomiming thrills" and fears that she may have contracted chlamydia. Researching methods for preventing STDs, Witt finds that the CDC recommends being in "a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected."
From the way she describes her sex life, Witt appears to be an active participant in what has become known as "hookup culture"— she dates around, sleeps with friends and old sexual interests, falls in and out of occasionally defined but more often unnamed romantic arrangements—but throughout it all, she admits to us, she is more or less waiting for the sort of relationship that the CDC recommends. "Even as I settled for freedom as an interim state," she writes, "I planned for my monogamous destiny." In her 30s, though, finding herself single, Witt realizes it is possible that the future she has been waiting for will never arrive, that her current situation may not be a temporary status, but a permanent reality: "Apprehensiveness set in: that this was my future."
"Future Sex." Image courtesy of FSG
Hoping to think more expansively about what this unmarried future might look like, Witt sets off to California, our nation's capital of sexual exploration and progress—home to BDSM communities, app companies, the porn industry, and modern-day hippie enclaves. She heads westward both because she wants to "picture a different future [for herself], one aligned with the freedom of [her] present," and because she wants to explore, journalistically, the "possibility of free love" in the 21st century. Future Sex, a collection of essays, some previously published in the LRB and n+1, documents Witt's travels through California and its rich sexual landscape. In the book, Witt takes on the topics of internet dating, webcams, polyamory, pornography, birth control, orgasmic meditation, and Burning Man, gracefully combining historical background, interviews with immersed participants, and expositions of her personal experience to create a vivid portrait of each phenomenon, all the while remaining rooted within her own perspective as a wary sometime-participant.
In the second chapter, Witt attends an orientation at OneTaste—an organization in San Francisco dedicated to the practice of orgasmic meditation (OM)—led by two expert practitioners, Alisha and Eli, whom Witt describes, with a droll acuity that is characteristic of her writing, as having the "human neutrality of an Apple store or IKEA." Alisha and Eli guide the newcomers through a game called One Mind, in which each participant provides a short response to a single prompting question. The question, "What does your red hot desire look like?" is met with answers ranging from "licking pussies" to a "sylvan vision of a fawn caught in a sunbeam in a tree-filled glen." At the end of the meeting, Eli and Alisha explain the mechanics of orgasmic meditation: a woman, naked from the waist down, reclines on supportive pillows and opens her legs; her partner lubricates their gloved hands, inserts their right thumb into her vagina and uses their left hand to gently massage her clitoris for 15 minutes. Then both partners spend a moment describing their experiences and part ways.
Even in a society that respects a woman's right to abortion and birth control, it can feel as though women are not presented with a choice among viable options.
The practice is intended to unburden physical intimacy from the emotional and social complexity that often accompanies it. OneTaste's founder, Nicole Daedone, hoped to relieve women of their tendency, in Witt's words, to "link sexual desire with so many arbitrary expectations and consequences that they cannot focus on the sexual experience itself." Orgasmic meditation would provide the "neutral space in which focus on the body could happen without the interference of romantic stories or behavioral conditioning." Witt sits somewhat uncomfortably to the side of this practice, weary of its practitioners' diffuse spirituality and intent openness (they're the kind of people who nod slowly, eyes closed, when you tell them how you are), and yet also aware that they are engaging with some of the very same questions that she has set out to answer. The practice of OM is motivated by an understanding that, even with greater gender equality, "commonly held ideas about sex were still oriented toward masculine ideas about orgasm and desire," and that, combined with a movement towards greater sexual flexibility, had left women "battling their own feelings," pretending to want things they didn't, and not knowing what they did. Something like this conundrum seems to plague Witt herself, who, when asked at an OM meeting, "What do you desire?" sees only a "flat white screen," a "vacant search bar," the "cursor blinking."
Each chapter of the book has its own point of entry and focus, generally a set of characters that serve to represent the phenomena they practice. The chapter on polyamory, for instance, centers around one non-monogamous couple, Elizabeth and Wes, and their sometimes–third wheel, sometimes–third partner, Chris. Witt narrates in great detail, and encourages our investment in, the course of their uneven tripartite relationship, which progresses episodically through bouts of psychedelic drug use, road trips, and outdoor festivals. At a sex party they host, Witt watches a "pole dancing instructor perform a poignant dance to the song 'Wildest Moments' by Jessie Ware," and, as often throughout her travels, finds herself in a stance both skeptical and sympathetic. While she herself believes in the "mystique of commitment" that characterizes monogamous relationships, she also knows that she must reckon with the increasingly present possibility that she will never enter into a permanent one. "To stop thinking of marriage as the only feasible resolution to the question of what my sexual future might look like," she writes, "I had to at least consider polyamory, open relationships, and the other phenomena."
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When Witt says she "had to at least consider" alternatives to monogamy, it sounds as if she begrudges the task, and this slightly reluctant attitude crops up elsewhere in the book. She writes in her introduction, "If, in my early thirties the future would have simply arrived as I had always imagined"— i.e., in the form of marriage—"I would have abandoned my inquiry," transparently confessing to her readers that there might be a sense in which she would have preferred not to have been compelled to write the book in the first place. Yet, even while the writing of Future Sex is dependent upon Witt's unmarried status, and her consequent need to imagine her future sex life, it also has the greater ambition of providing a sort of roadmap to our contemporary sexual and romantic landscape. This confluence of motivations and perspectives—as a journalist she is trying to get a clear-eyed view on the variety of sexual ways of being that characterize our modern world; as a single woman she is trying on new modes of being sexual and romantic, after the old modes have failed her—is, at times, disorienting.
At Elizabeth and Wes's sex party, Witt writes,
On my first whip-it, the man I had met lightly touched my arm while I lay back, the feeling of his hands producing warmth and electricity while my vision broke into geometric patterns. During his turn, he asked that I kiss him. We made out for a while, doing the occasional whip-it, the cold, cheerfully colored canisters accumulating in the folds of the sheets we lay on.
We don't know anything about this man except that "he was a bit younger," and we don't know whether she actually wanted to heed his request for a kiss. Earlier on, when she and he start in on one of the provided sex party games, a wheel of fortune, she describes herself as having "a slightly exhausted determination to get things on the road." But what things she's talking about are unclear. Is she horny and itching to have sex with someone? Or does she feel that, as a journalist who is going to write about this sex party, she ought to have had a sexual experience at it? When Witt attends Burning Man, which she sees as the epicenter of "sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs, and futurism," she meets a man whom she calls Lunar Fox, and they go together into an orgy dome. After sitting on the couch for a while watching assorted couples have sex, she writes,
It was clear that we either do something or leave.
"Should we have sex?" I asked.
"Yes..." he said. "Do you want to?"
"Yes," I said.
"Are you sure?" he said.
"Yes," I said. The woman who greeted us at the door had advised us to express loud, enthusiastic consent.
Does she say, "Yes," because she absolutely wants to have sex, or because the woman at the door advised them to express enthusiastic consent?
Because the book's ambitions are not strictly autobiographical, there is no sense of obligation on Witt's part to entirely expose herself to her readers. She provides ample personal details when they serve her text, but will also do things like casually mention that she has a boyfriend back in New York who doesn't want her to be at Elizabeth and Wes's sex party, without telling us what the relationship is like, or whether he is the same boyfriend that occasionally appears in the other chapters, or what he thinks of her writing a book about her destiny as a single woman in the first place.
When Witt leaves it unclear whether she really wanted to kiss the bit-younger man, or have sex with Lunar Fox, it is possible that she has other feelings about these incidents that she chooses to withhold, or that she herself did not know what she wanted, as she has confessed to us is sometimes the case. It is also, and perhaps more, possible that Witt's writing about her sexual encounters is disorienting because it is hard to write about sex, so long as we wish to avoid the orgasmic meditators' hokey language of "red-hot desire." It is especially difficult for women to write about sex, due to the very tendency I've just demonstrated—we usually doubt whether a woman ever really, really wants to have sex, whereas a man's desire is, even when unspoken, assumed.
Witt portrays modern-day America, or at least modern-day California, as a land of near-total freedom and choice. "The privilege of being middle class in America in the twenty-first century," Witt writes,
meant that most of the pressing questions in life were left to choice. Who should I have sex with when I'm single? What should I eat for dinner? What should I do to earn money? There was limited ancient guidance on such historically preposterous questions.
Witt attributes the new availability of these "historically preposterous questions" to the fact that "many doctrines—marriage, the nuclear family, sexual taboos, diet, gender—had successfully been exploded." It is undoubtedly a gross overestimation to say that all of these doctrines have "successfully been exploded": outside San Francisco and gender studies departments, conventional ideas about marriage, the nuclear family, sexual taboo, and gender still have a firm footing in American traditions and ways of thinking. But something like Witt's diagnosis about the proliferation of choices for middle-class Americans today does seem right, if only more modestly because of developments in capitalism, consumerism, feminism, gay rights, and secularization. It is also true that the doctrines she mentions have come increasingly into question by a small subset of Americans.
In the polyamory chapter, Witt writes with a degree of jadedness that "Elizabeth, Wes, and Chris believed there were still primary choices to make about sexuality," and recounts admiringly that, for Elizabeth, "the monogamous couple, an institution [that Elizabeth] had always thought of as a default outcome, suddenly took on the appearance of a deliberate choice." This sort of deliberate choosing is understood by Elizabeth and Wes and others who carry it out, she suggests, not as a strictly personal preference but as a social and political act—an act of rebellion against the established order. Polyamorists in San Francisco, she writes, "gave their choices names and... conceived of their actions as social movements."
Emily Witt. Photo by Noah Kalina, courtesy of FSG
On the other end of the California spectrum, less San Fran and more Silicon Valley, the digitization of dating has flooded our romantic landscape with a seemingly limitless number of potential sexual partners. "The 'marketplace' of Internet dating," Witt writes, "made consumer products of humans and overwhelmed them with choices." In one hour on Tinder, you can see and match with more people than you might see IRL in an entire week; going on a date with one person means sacrificing time that you might have spent on a date with another; and choosing to be exclusive feels a bit like settling, because someone better might always be just one swipe away.
On one hand, you could say that critiques of traditional and oppressive establishments increasingly allow us to see what was previously assumed to be inevitable as a choice. On the other, you could say that models of free choice that originate in market-based capitalism have made their way into the culture of dating. These two trends—one radical, the other economic, and both coinciding in the California that Witt visits—converge to encourage us (or rather that fraction of us who have access to dating apps and exist in the relatively small circles in which the nuclear family is a target of critique) to believe that the particulars of our sexual, romantic, and family lives are, by and large, matters of personal choice.
But this proliferation of choices, and the rise of "intentional" communities and discourses, also disguises hard facts about the actual availability, and efficacy, of choices in a woman's life. "I am approaching the age now," Witt 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?" She goes on,
My friends who have frozen their eggs do not feel like they have chosen—they want to have babies. My friends who want to get pregnant but whose bodies will not cooperate do not feel like they have chosen. When we were young and in our twenties and on birth control were we really making a choice not to start a family? It never felt like that. It felt more like a family had not chosen us.
Even in a society that respects a woman's right to abortion and birth control on the basis that she has the right to choose, it can feel as though women are not, in fact, presented with a choice among viable options. A woman who does not participate in a traditional nuclear family arrangement will face potentially insurmountable obstacles whether or not she decides to become pregnant.
"Framing birth control as a choice and not as a human right," Witt writes, "had caused us to settle not only for mediocre technology and poor availability, but it had encouraged us to think of our childless lives as an arrested state." Because birth control is so technologically inadequate and often financially costly, it is not accessible for many women, and because, as Witt says, "our access to birth control is framed as a choice and not as a human right," even those of us who can afford birth control are led to believe that childlessness is not itself a workable decision but rather the temporary absence of a decision. (Regardless of whether you are 16 or 45, if you tell someone you don't want to ever have children, they will always respond, "Are you sure?") The choice to keep a pregnancy, moreover, also does not feel like a realizable possibility for many women. "Our society," Witt writes,
was set up economically and socially in ways that make it difficult to raise a child as a single person. The cost of giving birth in the United States is expensive, on average three times the cost of that in other countries. The infant mortality rate is the highest of the twenty-seven wealthiest countries in the world, and higher for black women. The United States is one of only three countries in the world that does not guarantee paid parental leave.
Without sufficient economic and social resources for single mothers, and without the live possibility of childlessness, women are left feeling that, even if they are granted the political "right to choose," the only option that our current society offers to them is that of having a child within the structure of a nuclear family. And, as Witt writes, "setting up a nuclear family...could not...happen more or less by fiat" or by force.
Witt, therefore, like many women, is caught in something of a bind. When she struggles to answer the question, "What do you desire?" and when Kate Bolick suffers from a "failure of imagination" upon finding herself 40 and single, and when Moira Weigel finds herself always asking a man what she wants, these women are not simply experiencing a lack of self-knowledge. They are coming up against restrictions in our political and economic imagination—restrictions in the sorts of futures that our society enables us to envision for ourselves. Their setbacks are perhaps all the more striking because they—white, college-educated, cisgender—are the very sorts of women who are in the best position to benefit from feminism's victories.
Future Sex shows us a sexual world of nearly limitless possibilities. Dating apps provide countless suitors; porn sites provide a seemingly infinite array of categories to jerk off to, including, as Witt lists, "'big clit,' 'chubby,' 'puffy nipples,' 'farting,' 'hairy pussy,' 'aged,' '9 months pregnant,' 'short hair,' 'small tits,' 'muscled girl,' 'fat mature,' and 'ugly'"; discussions of polyamory and alternative family arrangements throw into question our assumptions about the sorts of people that can be parents, cohabitants, and lovers. But even while Witt's tales of sexual exploration show us a land of plentiful sexual choice, they also remind us of the dangers of assuming that the world is at our (sometimes literal) fingertips. When we do, we risk forgetting how much our ability to choose and imagine futures for ourselves depends upon the social and economic availability of these futures, and we risk forgetting that, even when these futures become technically available to us, they may still be unattainable. When Witt regrets that love had not arrived for her, or that a "family had not chosen" her, these are not corrigible societal problems, but, frankly, human ones, and they will remain with us no matter how much maternal leave we are afforded, and no matter how many times we swipe eagerly right.
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