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The future of sex is confusing and frustrating


Writing in the fall 2016 issue of Bookforum, Lidija Haas reviews Future Sex, an essay collection by Emily Witt that explores the promise and peril of sex and dating in the age of Tinder and seemingly endless romantic choice. In the course of several hilarious, poignant, and revealing essays, Witt concludes that the traditional norm of married monogamy has definitively loosened its hold, but no new coherent forms of romance have yet to take its place. Here’s an excerpt from Haas’s review:

In Witt’s book, sexual problems often turn out to be narrative ones. Sexual freedom—a little sad, a little empty, a lot of pressure—announces itself in a form not unlike writer’s block, “a blinking cursor in empty space.” Despite her title, Witt’s real subject is not the future of sex. Her concern is an existential one: How should we live, and what stories can we tell ourselves about the lives we choose? Her own automatic faith in the traditional narrative, in which a permanent partnership will eventually appear and impose order on the confusion, strikes her as a bit silly. The idea of the monogamous happy ending is out of sync with her time and her impulses, but she doesn’t yet know what to replace it with: “My sense of its rightness, after the failed experiments of earlier generations, was like the reconstruction of a baroque national monument that has been destroyed by a bomb. I noticed that it was familiar but not that it was ersatz.” As she gradually abandons her marriage plot, she considers replacing it with a form of picaresque: Instead of leading in a straight line toward the love of her life, sex could be a different kind of narrative force, propelling her from one intriguing character or circumstance to the next.

Yet as she trawls the Internet, San Francisco, and other stereotypically futuristic arenas for new possibilities, she uncovers a more fundamental problem, a personal version of Freud’s old question: What does an Emily Witt want? Here, her formidable gaze falters. The reporter seeking out our sexual frontier finds she has difficulty identifying her own desires, and may not even wish to know what they are. Of her initial skittishness about porn she says, “I did not want to be turned on by sex that was not the kind of sex I wanted to have.” And when called on (during an especially embarrassing endurance test with the orgasmic-meditation crew) to respond to the question “What do you desire?” she becomes “conscious for the first time of the flat white screen that rolled down when I considered such a question, the opaque shadows of movement behind it. A vacant search bar waited, cursor blinking, for ideas that I, who did not consider an idea an idea until it was expressed in language, had never expressed in language.” Forcing herself to answer nonetheless, she locates only another double blank: “What I said I desired was to surrender to another person without having to explain what I wanted.”

Image by Elinor Carucci.