Let’s start with some mansplaining: as a forty something pale/stale/male, it’s possible I’m not the key demographic of Emily Witt’s 2016 book, Future Sex. It’s tagline – A New Kind of Free Love – drew some looks as I read it on trains travelling back and forth across the UK. I don’t mind getting looks, and I could understand that, to some, it probably looked like I was some desperate sort making my way through a manual designed to help me get access to some of that new kind of free love. It’s not a manual, however. We should say that from the start. Future Sex reads more like a series of articles in which Emily Witt explores different facets of modern sexuality, specifically activity taking place largely in and around San Francisco.
This means we get chapters on such things as internet dating (Witt is a bit of a fan of OKCupid), internet porn and birth control, which are slightly more generalised and provide you with a potted history, alongside more straightforward reportage on such things as Orgasmic Meditation (groups of men and women in which women, at least for the first six months, are intimately stroked in the name of spiritual enlightenment), live webcams (we get a whole bunch of fascinating stories about people who earn their living ‘performing’ for willing subscribers) and polyamory lifestyles (in which people tend to foster relationships with a number of others at the same time). Time and again, Witt offers surprising perspectives, not just by sharing stories of what may be unfamiliar lifestyles, but also by weighing in herself. Future Sex is driven, in part, by Witt’s own struggle to come to terms with the fact that she was “a person in the world, a person who had sexual relationships that I could not describe in language and that failed my moral ideals” – and one of the achievements of the book is to establish that those more conventional ideals (marriage, children etc) now sit alongside other choices, and those choices are fine.
“A futuristic sex was not going to be a new kind of historically unrecognizable sex, just a different way of talking about it.”
There are questions raised by the book – such as, does wealth help free you of certain hang-ups? (a lot of the people in the book explore the lifestyles they do because they ‘have it all’ and don’t have to worry so much about paying bills) – that Witt doesn’t consider (and that we think are probably worth considering, but that could be because we are English and we think such things as privilege matter). But it is Witt’s even-handedness that you remember after you finish reading. She is an interesting and intelligent guide, honest and emotional in a way that you can imagine others will connect with. What’s more, Future Sex offers powerful reassurance to those who choose to navigate the choppy waters of the modern world finding solace in hook-ups rather than relationships. The world is changing, Witt shows us, and it’s alright.
Any Cop?: Surprising, humane and always readable, Future Sex is a bold debut. We’d be really interested to see what Witt does next.