Emily Witt on the Sexual Future We're Already Living
Text and Twine by Marianne Abbott
Art by Codi Fant
Emily Witt is the reluctant author and subject of Future Sex—an in-depth exploration of sexual lifestyles in the 21st Century. Witt did not set out to become a sex writer, but as she neared thirty she started to see her status as single, straight and female in a different light. Once a privilege, her conventional sexuality started feeling like a burden that had been left unexamined for too long. To arrive at a future of sexual liberation and fulfillment, Witt fights the paralysis caused by seemingly infinite avenues to express her sexuality in the modern world. Starting with OkCupid dates, and ultimately leading to an orgasmic meditation community, kink porn shoots, and the orgy dome at Burning Man, Witt explores some sexual lifestyles herself but just as often writes in third person about the lives of others. Witt’s modesty in undertaking the subject matter is what allows for her readers to reflect and insert their own lives into the narrative. Witt shares possibilities and leaves room for her readers to wonder if they too can arrive at a future sex they had never considered.
Before leaving for Rome to kick off her Italian book tour, Witt and I met over Skype to discuss sex and politics and the future.
When did you start writing about sex?
Really when I started writing the book. Before that I just didn’t think it was something I wanted to look into. In 2008 I read this book “Thy Neighbor’s Wife” by Gay Talese, which is a cultural history of the sexual revolution that came out in 1981. And after that I decided that I could do a similar book.
I used the idea of third-person journalism to get me started. I wanted to be seen as a serious journalist and writer and I worried that the subject matter would put me in another category. I don’t think I would have been bold enough to just say, “Oh, I’m gonna be a sex writer now.”
You begin “Future Sex” by identifying as single, straight and female. And you also call attention to your age – the proverbial 30. How do you feel that the subject was shaped by those identifying factors?
Going into it, I knew that there was no “normal” when it came to sexuality. I knew that abstractly and as a liberal person and an open-minded person, and yet, I thought of myself as just lucky because my sexuality happened to fit into a pretty conventional mode of sexuality. It was only when I started writing that I realized nobody’s sexuality is natural. It’s all informed by mythology. There’s nothing completely innate about it. And if there is, you discover it through processes of critical inquiry - not by just assuming you are how you are and that you know your own reality.
Why was it important to frame the context of the book as “of the future” or “searching for a future”?
When you look at depictions of sexuality in science-fiction from 40 or 50 years ago – we’re living in that future to a certain extent. We have contraception. Our idea of gender is much more fluid. There are new kinds of open relationship arrangements. New family arrangements. And so that soft science-fiction idea of the future was something I wanted to write about. I think the culture is moving more in that direction than it is moving back toward a model where everybody gets married.
I think it’s interesting you mentioned fluidity. I felt like “Future Sex” operates on the male-female heterosexual binary and I’m wondering why you didn’t choose to write about or include queerness and fluidity within the conversation about future sexualities.
First of all that really wasn’t my story to tell. There are books like “The Argonauts” by Maggie Nelson, which tells that story really beautifully.
While I was writing I was always trying to avoid the gender binary and avoid it especially with something like porn where it really comes up. More men watch porn, more men are open about masturbating to it. A lot of pornography is designed for the male gaze in one way or another. Even though everything I read in magazines that were like “men do this and women do that” I would always be really annoyed by it and feel trapped by it. I wanted to find an optimism about contemporary sexuality that addressed the specific feminine experience.
The other thing I realized when I was writing was that I wasn’t the only straight woman who had this idea of myself as just kind of lucky to have ended up “normal.” There’s this quote by Susan Stricker, the gender theorist, that I’ve been saying a lot. She’s trans and she basically says, “I invite everybody to make the inquiry that was imposed on me.” She had to discover her gender identity and her sexual identity. Everybody has to make that inquiry. Nobody’s just born into who they are.
What else do you want to write about that isn’t sex?
Lately I’ve been drawn to wanting to write about environmental activism and climate change, but I haven’t gotten down to specifically what I want to write. I think the bigger project of my work is looking at subcultures as the sites where society resolves its hypocrisies. If I were to do an environmental story, I’m interested in looking at pretty hardcore activists – not Eco-Terrorists – but people that are willing to commit acts of civil disobedience in the name of environmental activism. So, there’s a bigger project that’s just like how things on the fringe or things that don’t show up on TV that the culture considers weird end up being the place where the future is worked out through experimentation.
You talk about the subject of environmental activism under the context of Trump’s election, and I’m curious: why have you veered away from something like feminist activism and women’s rights?
I wrote my feminist book and I have been writing a lot of little opinion pieces here and there about what the current political climate means for women and our sexuality in particular. The way to police people’s behavior right now seems to be to deny them access to healthcare and in my opinion many of the politicians who claim to speak for women – including Hillary Clinton – are still using a kind of Republican moral frame in their politicking and you don’t see them talking about their experiences with birth control, their personal experiences – even getting a pap-smear. I don’t see a lot of pride in sexual freedom. Instead, it’s always “family-planning” or it’s always in these very vague terms that don’t address the specificity of having sex and I just wish that it could be put out there a little more openly. This isn’t about “family planning,” this is about your right to a happy sexual existence that’s safe and healthy. I don’t think that assertion is made enough even by the politicians I consider on my side.
Do you feel like you have a responsibility to continue covering those topics?
Having come from a place where I was embarrassed by talking about sex and I’m not anymore, I really see the harm that that kind of shyness or propriety can do. I feel strongly right now about just claiming a right to sexuality. If you’re somebody that goes to a sex party, or you're into spanking, or you have a kinky fetish or something, that’s not some dark secret. That should be stuff that we all just acknowledge as other people’s legitimate, adult choices.
Somewhere along “Future Sex” I stopped understading sex as a tool for socialization and more like a tool for self-examination. Some may find sexual fulfilment with a romantic partner, but most of us will experiment on our own. The path to sexual discovery may be dark and lonely but somehow - with “Future Sex” - Witt has made us feel less alone.