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.

Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” is distinctly contemporary

A reader suggested that in light of Date-onomics I get a copy of the original Sex and the City book. I see why. Though published in 1996, it feels shockingly contemporary, like something you’d read in New York Magazine, or Slutever, or 1,001 other places. If Sex and the City were a little more explicit (Bushnell prefers “unmentionable” to “penis” or “cock,” for example) and added in references to smartphones, Instagram, texting etiquette, and online dating, it would still have the basic set of issues and problems and challenges and behaviors of 2016. The tone of the stories feels bloggy and podcast-y (which is a descriptive observation, not a slur).

sex_and_the_cityOn the Internet you really can say whatever the fuck you want, including “fuck,” and becoming accustomed to that makes Sex and the City feel a little linguistically reticent. To be sure, it goes a lot of places in terms of description but it doesn’t get to all the explicit places the online-only writers do; Sex and the City generally stops at the bedroom door and resumes at the restaurant recap the next day.

Being originally part of a newspaper also means that the lows aren’t quite as low as the online writers, many of whom don’t have anyone to edit their material or tell them that piece x is filler and ought to be cut. But they also don’t have editors to tell them that piece x is in “bad taste,” which means that bad taste as a concept barely exists (here I am tempted to list some examples, but if you keep your eye around the Internet you’ll find some on your own). I hate the word “heteronormative,” but Sex and the City is more heteronormative than online writers are.

What else? Some modern books about love, sex, and dating often have a harder data edge: that’s the point of Dataclysm and Date-onomics. The big way our knowledge has collectively grown in the last twenty years in this domain comes from the revealed preferences of online dating. That lets us know things less through gossip and more through how people behave, at least in online interactions.

It is common to read claims about how the Internet has changed everything, and while data tells us a lot, the basic challenges that emerge in Sex and the City remain. Still, I prefer a Straussian reading of Sex and the City in which guys read the books in order to discover how they should present themselves, market themselves, and be.

Perhaps the book’s most important theme is the need for novelty and stimulation, maybe because novelty-seekers are drawn to New York, despite the city’s costs and many inconveniences. Boredom is a great sin: “You get tired of being around anyone after a while” (63). Or: “Miranda checked the labels: Savile Row—boring” (90). Or: “While many women would have killed to have a date with Scotty, the TV producer, Camilla told me she had been bored” (105). Or: “I already have too many Chanel bags. They bore me” (109; what do you do for the person who has everything, which is a larger number of people than is commonly assumed?). Or: “Where’s the new place to go? I want to make sure my ward here has a good time this evening. I think she’s bored” (141). Or: “The truth is, he bored me” (198).

Boredom is part of a simple paradox at the heart of many of the stories—a paradox prevents some of the characters from getting off the party carousel: “this was the kind of life she’d grown up believing she could have, simply because she wanted it. But the men you wanted didn’t want it, or you; and the men who did want it were too boring” (85). And there is no way in Bushnell’s world to avoid that paradox. Men might want to think about it too, and how it affects their own choices. The characters in Sex and the City are experiencing the problems and fruits of freedom: “[Edith] Wharton thought no one could have freedom, but [Henry] James knew no one wanted it,” and “Freedom’s unpalatable qualities are hard to accept.” So too is accepting the choices one makes. In first three quarters of the book, Samantha Jones makes occasional appearances to disparage her dates and men in general. By page 181, “Lately, Sam had been complaining about not having a boyfriend.” Er. She spends most of book engaging in boyfriend-incompatible thoughts and behaviors.

The women in Sex and the City are chronically outraged by male behavior while chronically and simultaneously rewarding it with sex. The phrase “revealed preferences” is relevant.

Snobbery is ever-present (“She’s like an auto mechanic from nowhere’sville”), almost a sport, in a way that would be hard to take, at least for me, in real life. The brand-name snobbery is much more irksome than much of the bedroom material.

Used copies on Amazon are cheap and plentiful, for good reason. It’s a fun, historically interesting read, but once is enough. Re-selling it is too time consuming for me, but I’m donating it to a thrift shop which will probably recycle it back onto Amazon.

“From Pickup Artist to Pariah” buries the lead

In “From Pickup Artist to Pariah: Jared Rutledge fancied himself a big man of the ‘manosphere.’ But when his online musings about 46 women were exposed, his whole town turned against him,” oddly, the most interesting and perhaps important parts of the article are buried or de-emphasized:

In 2012, he slept with three women; in 2013, 17; in 2014, 22. In manosphere terms, he was spinning plates — keeping multiple casual relationships going at once.

In other words… it worked, at least according to this writer. And:

I met four women at a downtown bar. All were on Jared’s List of Lays. Over cocktails and ramen, the women told me about Jared’s sexual habits, his occasional flakiness, his black-and-white worldview. [. . .] They seemed most troubled by just how fine he had been to date. “I really liked him,” said W. “And that’s what makes me feel so gullible.”

In other words… it worked, at least according to the women interviewed as framed by this writer.

How might a Straussian read “From Pickup Artist to Pariah?” Parts of the article, and not those already quoted, could be inserted directly into Onion stories.

The first sentence of Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World is “Dear Bernard-Henri Lévy, We have, as they say, nothing in common—except for one essential trait: we are both rather contemptible individuals.” Is being contemptible sometimes a sign of status? As BHL implies, the greatest hatred is often reserved for that which might be true.*

In other news, the Wall Street Journal reports today that “Global Temperatures Set Record for Second Straight Year: 2015 was the warmest year world-wide since reliable global record-keeping began in 1880.”

In Julie Klausner’s book, I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I’ve Dated, she writes at the very end, “Around this time of graduation or evolution or whatever you call becoming thirty, I started fending off the guys I didn’t like before I slept with them. It was the first change I noticed in my behavior that really marked my twenties being over.” Maybe Rutledge’s mistake is of tone: Comedians are sometimes forgiven and sometimes thrown into the fire. No one is ever forgiven seriousness.


Houellebecq also writes, “there is in those I admire a tendency toward irresponsibility that I find only too easy to understand.” He is not the first person to admire irresponsibility. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!“, Richard Feynman says:

Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann’s advice. It’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was Von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility.

Briefly noted: “Mate” is out and it’s good — Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller

As previously noted, Mate: Become the Man Women Want is out and it’s good.* As the book says in the introduction, “Your culture has failed you and the women you’re trying to meet.” The book is part of the remedy. When I read the draft a couple months ago I told Tucker, “I wish I could teleport a copy of Mate back in time and give it to my 13-year-old self, and then instruct him to read it once a year for the next decade.” That’s still true. If you know any teenage or early 20s guys who are likely straight, give them a copy of this book. It is not going to be useful for everyone and indeed I expect some of you to strongly dislike it. People like how-to in many fields but often not this one.

Mate_CoverThe book emphasizes empathy: “If you always try to understand the woman’s perspective—what they want, why they want it, and how to ethically give it to them—then you will find it much easier to become attractive to them, and you’ll be much more successful with your mating efforts.” There are no shortcuts. For a while I’ve been describing the empathy gap, because I increasingly think that the average man doesn’t much understand or try to understand the average woman—and vice-versa. That’s why books like Mate, or Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man, are valuable: they work to close the empathy gap.

Parts of the book will be obvious to older guys who have their lives together—that showering and grooming are important will not be news, but most of us can also probably remember the shambling smelly kids in school. Other parts counteract some of the more dubious parts of our culture, like the claim that women are attracted most by money and that all women are “gold diggers.” For most women most of the time other things matter most, like how “individual women just your fuckability by your social network. So you had better have proof—social proof—that it exists.” Most people, men and women, who want a relationship reasonably want to know the person they’re having a relationship with, and that means knowing friends and family—and knowing they exist. Many of us have had the experience of sleeping with someone who keeps us totally separate from the rest of their lives. Sometimes that can be good—we don’t “count”—but for actual relationships it’s not.

There are still hilarious metaphors and comparisons, like “[A lot of guys think they need to have a ton of money,] then the women will just magically appear, like monarch butterflies to milkweed, flies to honey, rappers to Scarface posters.” But there are fewer of them: The book is entertaining but it leans informational. I at least felt rueful for my teenage and college self when I read some sections. Perhaps my favorite moment occurs two-thirds through the book, when Max and Miller are noting some of the artistic skills that women like, like music, storytelling, and, saliently for this quote, drawing:

The key thing here is to cultivate actual skill rather than indulge in modernist expressionism or abstract art. The poet John Ciardi pointed out, “Modern art is what happens when painters stop looking at women and persuade themselves they have a better idea.”

I’ve never read as concise and accurate description of why so much modern art is so bogus.

The bibliography is useful.


* As also previously noted, I now know Tucker well enough to not be an unbiased critic.

Briefly noted: Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game — Jon Birger

Date-onomics is charming and worth reading for anyone who is single, who is at risk of becoming single, or curious about how markets are created and how people interact with markets in this domain. Apparently there are relatively few members of that last group: “I realize that most people do not want to think about supply and demand when contemplating matters of the heart.” Perhaps is right, but rejecting knowledge seems to me like madness. Birger also notes that there “is an assumption that the perceived shortage of college-educated men [. . .] is actually a mirage.” Except that Birger says it’s not a mirage: there are more single college-educated women than men, especially in particular cities (like New York).

For men the simple takeaway might be: move to New York or an equivalent city with many more women than men in it. For women the simple takeaway might be: Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Denver are waiting for you, since in those areas straight women will have more market power than straight men.

The book, read properly, tells you where you should think about living and/or going to school. Guys working at big tech companies in particular should think carefully about the differences they’re likely to encounter between working the Bay Area versus working in those same companies’s New York City offices. Date-onomics attempts to solve an information asymmetry problem, since very few people actively consider how gender ratios affect their romantic, sexual, and reproductive lives. Search costs are high and underappreciated in dating.

Still, Birger’s framing of the statistical narrative is dubious. For example, he writes, “Why is it that women like Donovan struggle to find marriage-material men even as male counterparts with less going for them seem to have little trouble with the opposite sex?” Has Birger missed the vast literature on pickup artistry that’s emerged in the last two decades? Is he aware of the Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller book Mate? For most men much of mating life seems to be a tremendous struggle, and it’s one Birger (mostly) dismisses. The dating sections of Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Year Disguised as a Man are among the most compelling, because she tries being a man—noting that she expects to get all the advantages and pleasures of the “patriarchy” that she’d been told about for years in women’s studies classes and feminist books.

Instead Vincent finds struggle, rejection, and hardship—and she’s very happy to go back to being a woman. Being a man doesn’t turn out to be the patriarchal cornucopia she imagines, and that Birger implicitly imagines for men.

In Date-onomics, Birger refers repeatedly to “good men” (2), “ambitious men” (7), “eligible men” (13), “good single guys” (14), and meeting “a decent man” (29). There are others. Rarely does he consider what men might be looking for in a woman, or what the kinds of adjectives used in the preceding sentence might conceal. That framing is unfortunate.

It’s especially unfortunate because in the real world people who can assess themselves accurately, improve themselves reasonably, and compromise pragmatically tend to get decent results. Those who can’t, don’t. (From Date-onomics: “Problem is, wealthy women are far less likely than wealthy men to marry down”).

Despite that general fact, Birger argues that many of us don’t have the facts:

The North Carolina high school guidance counselor quoted in the last chapter told me that she has never once had a parent or student ask about the 60:40 ratio at UNC Chapel Hill—despite the fact that this gender ratio is now a dominant feature of UNC social life. “It’s not even on their radar,” the guidance counselor told me.
It should be.

He’s right: It should be. His book, and this blog post, is an attempt to put that issue on the radar. Women may, at the margin, want to go to engineering schools. Men on the margin of going to college or not may want to be aware that college is increasingly where the women are. Knowledge affects behavior, but it isn’t diffused through society uniformly or easily. Despite the many virtues of this book, many of the people who may most need to know what it says are unlikely to pick it up.

Date-onomics is at its best when it’s focusing on facts and anecdotes and at its worst when it’s barely aware of its own framing. That dark matter, though, is obvious to me. I wonder how many will miss it.

EDIT: Hello readers from The Browser! If you like this piece, you’ll probably also like my latest novel, THE HOOK. You should check it out at the link.

Why aren’t there women on Ashley Madison?

A couple people wrote me about this, from the last links post: “Perhaps the least surprising point is that [Ashley Madison] has almost no women on it,” and said that that was surprising, and/or that I’m a jerk for what that implies.

Surprise is to some extent in the eye of the surprised party, so I won’t argue with that, but I will note that “Attractive women who have NSA, one-off sex with a large number of total strangers” is actually a job description (one could even strike the word “attractive”). Which is fine—I’m not against that job and support legalizing it and other freedoms, but whenever possible look at what markets say about what people or groups of people want in the aggregate. Plus, women who want to meet strangers on the Internet for those sorts of things, one-off or ongoing, can do so easily through more conventional methods (OK Cupid, Tinder, whatever—ones that are said to be less gross and more normal). As I understand it, the honestly dishonest ones can disclose their status pretty easily on Tinder and elsewhere, and guys looking for that sort of arrangement appear to be not hard to find, per the first sentence of this paragraph. Generalizations allow of course for exceptions, and at least one or two of the people writing to me sound like they are exceptions, or they are portraying themselves as exceptions.

The “look first to markets for data” point is useful in all sorts of contexts. The other day I was chatting with a friend who said there are already “Too many people” in New York City; I observed that, if that were true, we’d see housing prices falling, and we in fact see the opposite—implying that most people think there are too few people in New York, and are willing to pay for all the people here. One does not have this issue in, say, Detroit, or Cincinnati. My point did not go over well, but perhaps that’s why people who use markets to extract and act on data make a lot of money doing so.

Edit: “Almost None of the Women in the Ashley Madison Database Ever Used the Site” provides more detail, especially how virtually none of the “millions” of supposed accounts created by women had ever checked their internal mail or chat.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things is not an Apple product but a mid-sized beautiful book that you should read. I say this even as someone with reservations about some of the content; as with many books that deal with love advice I wish more had been known and said about evolutionary biology. Yet it may be that we’ve evolved to not want to confront truths we perceive as ugly: better to turn away and signal our own goodness than to say we’re often incentivized to do things that current social conditions tell us are wrong.

TinybeautifulthingsThe end of the preceding paragraph if intentionally vague, but let me say that the book is beautifully written, bizarrely so given that it’s an advice column collection; perhaps any form, attended to with enough care, can become beautiful.

It’s hard to quote a section from Tiny Beautiful Things, even a long section, that conveys its tone. Most possible quotes sound treacly out of context (“You are loved”) or don’t appropriately convey Strayed’s mix of stories (she worked with high-risk middle-school girls and used that experience as a parable) and abstract points (see the previous mention: “You are loved”). Then again too, many people are not loved in the ways they want to be loved or by the people they want to love them. Strayed’s first answer to the first question in the book is, “The last word my mother ever said to me was ‘love.'” She starts with stories—parables, really—and in doing so she follows a millennia-old strategy; people remember the stories from the Christian Bible and the Torah but forget the tedious sections that recount lineages or offer specific rules about worship or other practices. Stories and math are eternal. A lot of specific instruction remains bound by time.

In the same opening question, she says too:

There’s a saying about drug addicts that they stop maturing emotionally at the age they started using, and I’ve known enough addicts to believe this to be true enough. I think the same thing can happen in longtime monogamy. Perhaps some of your limited interpretations about what it means to say the word “love” are left over from what you thought it meant all those years ago, when you first committed yourself to your ex-wife. That was the past, as you say, but I suspect that a piece of yourself is still frozen there.

One could alternately say, “We are all growing or dying.” The amazing thing is the number of people who choose the latter, intellectually and psychologically.

Some sections feel stoic, in the best way, as when Strayed says, “Suffering is what happens when truly horrible things happen to us.” I’d add, too, that sometimes suffering means nothing except itself. Much suffering teachings nothing and ennobles nothing. It just is, though we live in a culture in which everything must mean something. It often doesn’t.

Then there are the sections where Strayed could go deeper than she does. In one, a woman writes that the man who knocked her up isn’t terribly interested in being involved with her or the baby. They have a tenuous relationship and he leaves—probably seeking another nulliparous woman. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart applies here, but it isn’t story-driven or personal enough to merit inclusion. The fundamental forces are there but ignored.

I write this often, but I wish Strayed had read more evolutionary biology; seemingly inexplicable and cruel romantic acts and betrayals become explicable. Since I began—first I think with Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind and then with others, like David Buss’s TheEvolution of Desire.

But Darwin has still not propagated outwards towards pop culture. Maybe we’ve evolved to rejection the insights evolutionary biology offers. We’re storytelling animals, and we want to reject stories that make us question our own consciousness and decision-making process. (Blindsight, though brilliant, may be unpalatable in this respect.) Railing is more fun, though, than looking for fundamentals. Words like “feel” and “feelings” are everywhere. Words like “incentives” are nowhere.

Yet the beauty reminds. So does rock-like reality: “We get work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.” A lot of us want the adoration and the success and the whatever without getting our asses on the floor.


I wrote more about Strayed in “Standard At-Risk Youth or Ex-Offender Empowerment Program: Improve Lives Through ‘X!’“, though that post may be more specialized than you’re seeking.

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