Future Sex review: How tech is changing our sex lives
Emily Witt asks probing questions about love and porn, but does not always answer them
US journalist Emily Witt: “‘Future Sex’ feels like the bastard child of Hunter S Thompson and Joan Didion’s best long-form Gonzo essays from the 1970s”
Faber & Faber
In 2011 US journalist Emily Witt was living in Brooklyn. She had just turned 30, had come out of a bad break-up and was feeling bleak about her prospects of finding a life partner. Instead, she found herself meeting strange men in bars on internet dates, desperately searching for love.
Witt sees herself caught in a 21st century, ironic, post-modern conundrum. She is living in a culture saturated with sex like no time in human history. But there is no rule book on how to find love or how to deal with the intricate complications of human intimacy.
Thus, frustrated and disillusioned with her predicament, Witt moves out west to San Francisco and sets out on a five-year odyssey to write a book that asks three fundamental questions: does absolute sexual freedom make an individual happy? Has technology helped or hindered individuals in their quest to explore their sexual tastes and experiences? And why is all sexual content in mainstream western culture tailored towards pleasing men rather than women?
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Traditionally, in the West at least, there were some unspoken rules when it came to sex and dating. People didn’t shout from the rooftops about them but, like most regulatory methods of control in society, they were just subtly understood.
Thanks to technology, however, times have changed. And pretty rapidly too.
Open relationshipsAs Witt writes here, ideas that once seemed sacrosanct – such as courtship, monogamy and conventional, one-on-one, long-term, legally-binding relationships – are now being described as old hat.
Open relationships are in. Marriage is out. Having a single partner is so premillennial. And now, thanks to dating apps, having a list of potential sexual partners from which to choose is as easy as ordering a pizza.
But, Witt asks, can sex, bonding and romance be reduced down to a scientific algorithm.
At times, Future Sex feels like the bastard child of Hunter S Thompson and Joan Didion’s best long-form Gonzo essays from the 1970s, with a little less bite, authority or chaos, and compressed into a reader-friendly narrative, documenting post-Tinder and post-NudeVista society.
Witt’s main focus here is to explore the constant tug-of-war in American public discourse about who gets to determine the limits of sexual expression. Thus, the journalist throws herself into the world of radical sexual counter-culture to see what it is out there.
She visits live dominatrix hardcore pornography shows; tries to understand why PornHub.com had 21.2 billion visitors last year alone; joins an organisation called OneTaste, whose mission statement is to bring the female orgasm to the world; signs up to numerous webcam sites, where people take sexual pleasure in exposing themselves to strangers across the globe for money; goes to sex parties, where gangbangs and orgies are two a penny ; takes a trip to the Burning Man festival where she takes LSD and has sex with a stranger; and hangs out with a bunch of arrogant, rich, Silicon Valley Google employees in their early 20s, who call themselves polyamorists, a term for those who don’t want to commit to one single person in a relationship, but who conduct their sexual escapades with absolute openness.
Compelling honestyAs a 33-year-old, single, male living in a vast metropolis of eight million people, where casual, no-strings-attached sex is pretty easy to come by – if you’re eager and willing – but where intimacy is a little bit rarer and harder to find, I was intrigued and deeply moved by the compelling honesty and personal nature of Witt’s narrative.
The journalist is not afraid to confess to her sexual inhibitions, prudishness or feelings of existential loneliness.
The downside to this confessional, journalese tone, however, is that Witt feels it’s somehow possible to understand the entire panoply of sexual desire, love and intimacy through culture alone. This, in my view, is a huge mistake.
After all, sex, first and foremost, is a purely biological act, where the main aim is to pass on one’s genes in the cycle of life. At a fundamental, primordial and evolutionary level, it’s not a cultural pastime.
That’s not to discredit the spiritual, physical and emotional benefits of sex, which, of course, are more cultural than biological.
But this failure to even so much as glance at, say, any biological or psychological theories about sexual behaviour, ensures that some of Witt’s most interesting questions – such as: why are people prone to jealousy? Why do people feel compelled to watch pornography? And why do people feel lonely when they do not have sex? – are almost impossible to answer with any kind of credible merit.
All that said, Future Sex is still, in parts, an illuminating, intellectually curious and ambitious book which aims to comprehend how technology is rapidly shifting the goalposts of sexual mores in western society like never before.
The problem is that Witt does not come close to answering any of the fascinating questions she poses.