Future Sex — Emily Witt

If there’s a word to characterize Witt’s overall tone or psychology, it’s “ambivalent.” She seems ambivalent about everything, except perhaps finding a life, which she wants, but she doesn’t know what she wants it to contain. On the first page she writes that “I had not chosen to be single but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated.” I’m not sure the first clause is true and am fairly sure the second isn’t: To some extent people choose love, at least once they leave adolescence where angst, drama, and pop music convince one that love is something that as an adult starts to seem ridiculous. She may experience a Marxism problem, like many women and not a few men. For her or her generation or her friends, “We were here by accident, not intention.” She goes to a bar where she “waited to be approached” (so much for 50 years of feminism?). Or:

To declare that I would organize my sexuality around the principle of free love seemed at times a pointless statement. I was unsure a declaration of pursuit had any effect on lived experience.

future_sex_wittMaking a “declaration” might not have any effect, but choosing to live one’s life the way one wants should presumably have an effect—or it would in a person of greater determination. In the blockquote above the word “organize” is also interesting. Is sexuality like a sock drawer, to-do list, or essay? Part of me hopes not but part of me wonders whether it might be.

Throughout Future Sex one wants more agency: things don’t just happen. You make them happen (or don’t). There is too much stumbling helplessly around. This will sound odd at first, but one could compare Future Sex to the Elon Musk biography, since Musk and Witt have opposite views about agency (and their ages are not so far apart). Musk views the future as something that individual humans make happen in the way those humans want to make happen. Witt views the future as something that’s imposed and that “just happens.” By using this framing device, one can probably intuit the side I prefer.

To be sure, it is fair that a person may not know exactly what they want, but if the moment of clarity hits then it’s time to make the future happen. Witt has something like that moment but appears to do nothing with it. Perhaps if she had, she’d have written a different book, about chasing down and spearing Mr. Right.

There are some paragraphs that feel oddly obvious, or maybe overly gender specific:

For a significant number of men, sex had its own intrinsic value and quantitative metrics, independent of the qualifications that determined whether you wanted to live with someone and adopt babies wit him. [. . . ] Someone like me, in contrast, believed that if I enjoyed going to a museum with a man the sexual attraction would just follow, without anybody having to talk about it.

I’d argue that that first clause applies to a significant number of women too. Or maybe Witt and I know different women.

Some sections are just outright hilarious. In maybe the best one, on Internet porn, Witt rivals David Foster Wallace’s “Big Red Son” for being a stranger in a strange land. Which is often funny:

I gathered that for performers, making more extreme pornography was like being a writer’s writer, where the value of the work was most apparent to other people immersed in the same field, and the respect one earned was of a different, more meaningful order than mainstream acclaim.

A perfect sentence perfectly expressed.

One chapter describes polyamory, or having sustained relationships with more than one person at a time, which sounds exhausting, leaving aside whatever merits the arrangement may have. Who has the energy? You may recall that Neil Strauss tried something along those lines in The Truth, although without thinking much about what he was doing or the personalities of those involved. Witt’s friends avoid some of that problem but not all of it; they still seem oddly flat.

Let me speak more of oddities: Oddly for a book about sex mores, wit an overlay of technology, there is no mention of the HPV vaccine, or the promising herpes vaccine, or the ongoing work on HIV vaccines. There is research into a chlamydia vaccine, based on work initially done for the koala vaccine. None are guaranteed but it is axiomatic that if you reduce the cost of a good or service you will increase the amount of it consumed. Reducing the “cost” of sex changes consumption: “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation” describes how and why mores changed in response to the development of antibiotics that turned many STIs from fatal or debilitating into minor ailments, along with increasing access to reliable condoms. All of these technologies change the way people behave by changing the associated risk curves. The polyamorous San Franciscans of today, who Witt writes about, would not be doing what they do without the life-saving antibiotics of yesterday. The vaccines of tomorrow will likely further shape behavior and preferences.

Maybe it is churlish to blame an already-complex book for what it chooses not to emphasize, but technology is more than smartphones and apps and Internet dating and porn videos. Technology is those things, yes, yet it’s much more than them.

Here’s an interview with Witt. And here’s the New Yorker, with an article that’s more summary than review. Witt is also on the Longform podcast, where she sounds different than I imagined but still tentative (like I imagined). There is an odd kinship between Future Sex and Michel Houellebecq’s novels, in that both discuss a present that once was a utopian future but has turned out to be less utopian than forecasters imagined.

The book. It’s okay. Which is kinda ambivalent. I liked it and am glad I read it. If you leave a copy sitting around your place you can expect the cover to start conversations with guests.

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