In a world of too much stuff, too many images, and too many opinions, it’s a compliment to call Future Sex (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), culture reporter Emily Witt’s first book, useful. Because Witt is beautiful and writing about sex in the internet age, she’s gotten media attention. But she’s bristled at calling her work a memoir. Although being single at 30 led her to her topic, Witt travels beyond her own psychic distress and into a journalistic tour of 21st century mating. The result serves as a new economics of sex or, equally, an economics of new sex.
Witt, now 35, is at the tail end of Generation X, which believes its role is to reject what the boomers stood for—including post-pill free love—because that ended in divorce and neglected children. However, instead of the loyalty, procreation, and helicopter parenting she thought would be her demographic destiny, “another kind of freedom had arrived: a blinking cursor in empty space.”
She’s referring, of course, to the screens that mediate our interactions and the freedom our devices give us to load porn in .001 seconds or tell us if someone within 5 miles is available for a one-night stand. We’re assured “of the presence of the like-minded: No one need be alone with her aberrant desires and no desires were aberrant.”
This is new territory. Suspecting that it has to do with her purgatorial state—rejecting and being rejected on aimless dates arranged online, for example—she heads to San Francisco, home to the inventors of the modern internet and social media, to try to give shape to the murky sense that the rules guiding men, women, and society are in flux.
There she navigates the intersection of the tech revolution and experimental California living. She talks to women who’ve learned to like sex in a way they hadn’t expected via apps such as Tinder. She gets to know gender-fluid Googlers in open marriages that are sustained by complex “OK/not OK” agreements and orgies. She accepts an invitation to Thunderwear IV, a nitrous-oxide-powered event that a polyamorous programmer couple throw. At Burning Man—“rich people on vacation breaking rules that everyone else would suffer for if they didn’t obey”—she sleeps with a guy in leather shorts she calls Lunar Fox. She attends seminars at One Touch, a business/cult that teaches orgasmic meditation; investigates alt-porn studio Kink.com, where female directors experiment with harrowing levels of abjection; and meets Max and Harper, webcam stars who stepped off the corporate treadmill to film themselves having sex in 50 states. Their fans bailed them out when they wound up broke in Mexico.
Witt’s survey isn’t systematic or scientific. But read together, the chapters form an interpretive crazy quilt over the bed that floats between the virtual and real worlds. She doesn’t finish her trip cured of a desire for monogamy, but her faith in its assumed superiority is shaken. The next generation, she hopes, will “meld their bodies seamlessly with their machines without our embarrassment, without our notions of authenticity.”
She ends on a smart swerve, lamenting that contraception is stalled miles behind current sexual mores while fertility treatments have progressed miles ahead of civic safety nets: “The futuristic, at this point in history, is thinking about how best to make babies and support children without marriage and the nuclear family.” We await a phone that can also breast-feed.