Friday 28 April 2017

Exploring brave new world of sex and sexuality

Emily Witt's book 'Future Sex' is a thoughtful and deeply personal exploration of the possibilities of free love in the 21st century. Photo: Noah Kalina
Emily Witt's book 'Future Sex' is a thoughtful and deeply personal exploration of the possibilities of free love in the 21st century. Photo: Noah Kalina
Future Sex by Emily Witt

Anne Marie Scanlon

Around five years ago, a married friend, who lives in a hipster enclave in the United States, told me about her neighbours, married a decade, who were swingers.

Memoir: Future Sex, Emily Witt Faber & Faber, €18.19

This was proof positive to a commitment-phobe like myself that long-term relationships are bound to become sexually boring. Neither of us thought swinging sounded appealing - rather it was a seedy throwback to the 'car keys on the coffee table' 1970s.

Reading Future Sex it turns out that my friend and I, and not the swingers, are the ones that are hopelessly out of date.

When it comes to love, sex and relationships, even the most cynical amongst us believe, to a greater or lesser extent, in 'happily ever after'.

We are brought up in the binary system - where eventually two people - gay or straight - settle down with each other. Or just settle.

The adult world is designed to accommodate couples. (Just ask anyone who has ever had to pay a 'single subsidy').

In her opening chapters Emily Witt acknowledges that she too was certain that this was her fate, but finding herself single in her early 30s she began to question both her own future and that of female sexuality.

"For now I 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. Apprehensiveness set in: that this was my future."

Witt's initial investigations take her from New York where she and most of the adults she knows enjoy 'non-relationships' - ones where people sleep with each other but are not officially a couple, to San Francisco, which has in the past 50 years been associated with ideals of 'free love' and being 'out there'.

Witt is white, went to Brown University followed by Columbia School of Journalism and Cambridge and, although she doesn't really mention it she doesn't appear hard up for cash.

So yes, her "problems" could be easily dismissed as privilege but the themes she explores in this book will resonate to a greater or lesser extent with most Western women.

"I had never sought too much choice for myself, and when I found myself with total sexual freedom, I was unhappy."

Of course the paradox is that women never truly have "total sexual freedom" as we are still judged by the standards of the patriarchy. For example, Witt reveals that she had the notion that the more sex she had the less likely she was going to find love. This idea is deeply embedded in Western culture but Witt reveals just how ludicrous it is.

"The arbitrary nature of these correlations had not occurred to me."

Ideas that are so deeply held for so long are not always easy to abandon and Witt admits: "I still half-expected that destiny would meet me halfway, that in the middle of all the uncertainty I would come across an exit ramp that would lead me back to all the comfortable expectations."

Yet she throws herself into the 'Brave New World' of sex and sexuality - sometimes with abandon, (Burning Man) and sometimes not.

There is more to Future Sex than one woman's journey - Witt is first and foremost a journalist and she takes time to research the background to the various subjects she encounters and manages to relate it back to the reader without obtruding in her own story.

I was fascinated to discover that the first internet dating sites were designed specifically to appeal to women because "recruiting men had never been a problem".

She charts visits to a porn shoot, a video sex chat site Chaturbate (to paraphrase Larry Gogan, the clue is in the name) and documents the polyamorous relationship of Elizabeth, Wes and Chris.

Polyamory is a fairly recent term which used to be called 'open relationships'. Wes, Chris and Elizabeth sometimes worked 60-70 hours a week and, apart from their triangle, had other regular lovers and one-night stands.

To be honest, I was exhausted just reading about it. Besides, for all the sex, there seemed to be a lot of talking involved and not much fun.

Witt writes in that very American formal journalistic way which can be hard going for those used to a more casual style.

However, I'd urge readers to hang in there as she has many valid points and some wonderful insights.

The chapter on 'Birth Control and Reproduction' was, for me, the most interesting. For example, while there have been "breakthroughs in everything from theoretical physics to decoding the human genome" during the past 40 years, there has been no significant change in contraception.

This sad fact, (current contraceptive choices are far from perfect), says far more about women in the present, let alone in the future. Well worth a read.

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