Emily Witt’s book, Future Sex, was described as “Joan Didion meets fetish porn” (A.V. Club) when it was published this summer. A few weeks after the presidential election, Witt sat down with writer Anna Wiener at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, to discuss how the election changed her view of her own book, how writing the book changed her life, and how sexual mores have (or haven’t) changed.
Anna Wiener: Earlier, we were talking about the election. I’m curious whether this past week has cast a pallor over aspects of Future Sex, in particular the people you depict who you describe as having grown up witnesses to catastrophe without having to address it. How might this election shake that group?
Emily Witt: Sure, yeah. I woke up Wednesday with a sense that I had been living a decadent life in some way. I was having a conversation with a friend and we were talking about what our small contributions had been to how we arrived at having Donald Trump as president. I could think of places that I wrote for that were about money or style and fashion that I felt uncomfortable about, and my friend is an advertising director and he was feeling guilty about having directed commercials. I think on the one hand there is a feeling of “Oh my god I’ve been living a decadent life; I need to live a serious life.” On the other hand there was a thought as the week went on—processing what happened, thinking about what was under threat in terms of sexual freedom, which if you’re a woman is very tied to your health care and your ability to access contraception, and the story you’re being told of what’s good and bad—part of me felt more committed to promiscuity than ever before as a political act, and committed to doing things that conservative people would disapprove of. Because that’s what we have to remind ourselves about, who we are and what we care about.
AW: I want to pick up on one of the things that you just said about a decadent life versus a serious life, and the desire to lead a serious life. Where does sexuality fall in that division?
EW: One of the things I learned as I was writing the book is that sexuality is one of the parts of our experience most resistant to commodification. The more I thought about my own sexuality and spent time with a lot of people and watched a lot of porn, I kind of realized that what’s sexy is not necessarily what’s beautiful. I know I’d been told that before but I really learned it in a new way.
AW: I was hoping you could speak to why this became, sort of accidentally, a book about San Francisco. How did that happen?
EW: It was kind of an accident. When I first began working on the book in 2011, I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. I knew there had been a demographic shift, with people getting married much later or not all. There had also been a technological shift where we had all these new ways of meeting people and connecting with different sexual communities. And there had been a moral shift—which, looking back, I may been mistaken about—but at the time I had a sense that the country was open to a much more diverse range of sexual identities and orientations and interests, and there was more capacious language around a multitude of ways of being in the world.
And I read this book called Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese, which is a cultural history of the sexual revolution and which came out in 1981. And I felt like I could attempt a similar cultural history of specifically female sexuality in America post-1990. That’s what I initially set out to do. I came to San Francisco a little bit by accident. My lease had ended, and I wanted to get out of New York, and because San Francisco is a place where you can come and meet people who are just really earnest and who talk about everything in this really open way. And obviously there’s a history of experimentation here. So I landed here with the intention of visiting Kink.com and visiting OneTaste, the orgasmic meditation community, and just seeing what else I could find. Once I got here, in 2012, I guess I just understood that something was happening. There was a new corporate culture that was rising, and it was combined with a new lifestyle that had absorbed some of the elements of the counterculture—the interest in psychedelic drugs and sexual openness—but was being articulated in new ways. It was very conformist. It didn’t resist money. That was all new to me. So here in San Francisco I met the people that I ended up writing about, and I had some of the most intense personal experiences that found their way into the book. In the beginning of writing the book, I had been like, “I’m a journalist, I’m a journalist. I’m hanging out with these people, but they’re not like me.” And I thought I had really conventional expectations for myself, and I just wanted to get married eventually. And then I realized I was using journalism as an excuse to let myself consider my sexual freedom as a real option and actually try it out—not just going on Internet dates and sleeping with people, but trying things that made me uncomfortable.
AW: How did you balance being a journalist while also having—to use a San Francisco term—some sort of personal journey or exploration? Was there ever a moment where you wanted to set one of those identities aside?
EW: Yeah. It was a difficult balance. I didn’t want to write about people in a way that would expose them, because I’d met them as just a person and not as a journalist, so I tried to be pretty up front. In one case, when I went to Kink, it was like, “I’m a journalist.” Or when I met polyamorists—these are different chapters in the book—I introduced myself as a journalist. When I went on Internet dates, I wasn’t like, “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m a journalist,” because I also wanted to meet somebody.
AW: In terms of communities like OneTaste or the polyamorist community or the Kink.com community—insofar as any of these are really communities—what surprised you about the people you met or the structure of the communities that you were entering for the first time?
EW: When you enter a new environment as a reporter and you’re asking questions, at first you only see the thing that you expected to see. With the OneTaste people, that was kind of complicated. There was stuff on the Internet by people who had had negative experiences and found OneTaste to be very cultish, because it came out of this human potential movement practice of making people really uncomfortable and treating that as a form of revelation. And their jargon—all that made me super uncomfortable. Not to mention the practice. If you’re not familiar with it, there’s a woman and a partner, and the woman takes off her pants and, for fifteen minutes, is stroked by the partner. The idea is that it’s a sexual practice that’s not sex, that’s not dating, that’s not tied to romance. It has very defined boundaries—it’s not meant to be reciprocated, it’s not meant to be foreplay, it’s just a thing you do for fifteen minutes with somebody you can be in love with or not at all, and then it’s done. It’s supposed to be a way to experience, as a woman, your sexual body without all of these expectations attached to it. And I tried this, and I spent time with this community. At first, I just didn’t want to be there. It was much easier to hang out with the pornographers, because they weren’t making this eye contact and doing all the human-potential, New-Age stuff. But in every one of these experiences, I went in really skeptical and often left really skeptical, and it was only with the passage of a lot of time that I could perceive what I had learned from them, and try to write that out. The other thing with each of these subjects is there is so much on the Internet, in magazines, and on TV about all the downsides of Internet pornography and Internet dating and all our sexual freedom. It’s clear what the risks are, the risk of emotional fallout and the sense of instability. So I tried to carve out a new space, to always err on the side of optimism. I could always see the objections to certain things that I was writing about, but I just wanted to see the possibilities for happiness or connection. I wanted to find that.
AW: What was the experience of translating this work as you were writing? Because this is a book that you worked on for four or five years, right? How did you bring this back to your world of New York in particular?
EW: So, my world in New York was sexually open. I was in this scene of people that all knew each other, and most of them were writers, and we’d all date each other and go to parties together and go home together. It was a pretty normal urban social life, I think. In that world, anything that hinted of new language—a word like “polyamory”—people would just roll their eyes. There was a lot of disdain for anything that was too “self-help-y.” Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test has this part where he’s comparing Leary and Kesey. All the East Coast intellectuals, it’s all in their head, and on the West Coast, it’s all about the party and the costumes and the pranks. And to a certain extent—and this is just an established cycle of cultural influence that goes around—I think now, in the span of time that I was writing this book, if you look on Tinder—well, first of all, Tinder didn’t exist when I started—but if you look on Tinder, there’s a greater number of profiles that have words like “polyamory” or “non-monogamy” or even “pegging.” You see so much more of this new language out on the East Coast that was perhaps established here on the West Coast.
I haven’t been Internet dating lately, but talking to my friends who are, some want to look for polyamorous or kinky people, partly because that’s their thing, but also because they’re looking for people who are sexually conscious. They’ve thought a little harder about why they like what they like and are able to articulate it. Polyamorous and kink communities just foment a lot of discussion and vocabulary, and perhaps that is better than just going for a drink with somebody that just thinks they’re normal.
AW: Did you find that, in your own dating life, you were bringing in new vocabulary and trying to translate one culture into another, or did you keep a pretty clean boundary?
EW: Again, when I started writing the book, I thought of myself as this person with really mainstream expectations, and I still think of myself as not that “out there.” But working on the book really changed me in a way I have trouble explaining, that almost feels contrived to me. I had never made a study of why I thought I liked what I liked and whether those likes and dislikes were valid. I always got good grades, and I was a good person and wanted to go to a fancy college and be really high-achieving and, to me, the metric of success in my personal life would have been marriage and children. That’s where I thought I fit in—as a kind of conformist, rule-abiding person. And then I looked at my actual experiences and the choices I’d made and the stories I was telling myself, and I came out of that reflection not so interested in that metric of success. In my twenties when I found out a boyfriend was watching porn, I felt this kind of existential anxiety, but also really wanted to be cool with everything. But it stressed me out. After spending a lot of time with pornographers and watching a lot of porn, I now see it as a natural, positive part of life. Sexual fantasy is important to have. Before starting on this project I’d never articulated my fantasies or at least I’d never put words into a search bar. If someone asked me what I wanted, I would have just said, “I want it to be spontaneous and fun. I want it to be right without having to say anything.” I realized that I could make a study of this stuff and actually attempt to articulate it, and I might be able to feel more agency in my life, which turned out to be true.
AW: There’s been a lot of writing, especially in the last four years, about women, by women, about alternative life choices, about having children or not having children, for instance, which aggressively goes against certain cultural expectations placed on women. I could be wrong, but I don’t think there’s that much writing about sex and sexuality that centers women that isn’t either academic or conversational in the women’s retreat style, like “Let’s go to Esalen and sit in a circle and express for forty-eight hours.” I’m curious where you place this book, and if you had any lodestars while writing it.
EW: That was definitely the gap I was trying to fill. There had been a demographic shift, and we were all feeling it. It was often interpreted as personal failure if you weren’t married when you were in your thirties. But maybe things had just changed, the world had changed. Everything I read would just talk about relationships and yet never acknowledge the fact that decisions were being made about who you were having sex with. It was really important to me to focus on sex because it didn’t feel like it was out there—in the way that I wanted it to be at least. So much of sexuality in women’s magazines is presented in the guise of self-help—either self-help or education, like, “How to have anal sex.” Education and self-help are these kinds of alibis or, again, euphemisms, through which we avoid talking about desire. An adamant focus on actual sex, and not on relationships, was important to me.
AW: A lot of changes/progress in how we talk about sexuality, a lot of the openness comes out of queer culture. How did your position as a straight cisgendered woman affect how you approached your project? How did you try to take your identity into account?
EW: I think this is related to the question: throughout the writing of the book, I was really aware that I’m a straight white cisgendered woman. I think I hopefully cite the people I drew from in the book, and make it really clear that queer narratives of sexuality that fell outside of marriage and monogamy were really helpful to me. But I also felt strongly that women like me—my demographic—we think we don’t have to make that process of inquiry. The gender theorist Susan Striker, who is transgender, gave a speech where she said something along the lines of: “I invite all of you to make the inquiry that I was forced to make”—about who she was, why she liked the people she liked, why she expressed her gender the way that she did. Beforehand, I thought I didn’t have to make that inquiry. I just came out into the world as a person that was comfortable in it. Now I think that this kind of inquiry benefits everybody. I’m going to say something that might be unfair, but when I look at how white women voted, I wish that they had thought more about why they voted the way they voted. I think when you question your gender, your sexuality, why you like what you like, even just at an intellectual level, it allows you to get to a more authentic self.
AW: On Election Day a friend and I were campaigning in Reno for Hillary Clinton. We were going door to door canvassing, and she was wearing a T-shirt that had a picture of an angry cat that said, “This pussy grabs back.” There was a point where I wondered, “Is this sort of edgy political expression and comfort with the word ‘pussy,’—is this actually what women are going to vote against?” I wonder if you see a way for the openness and inquiry that you’re talking about to be accessible to people who might perhaps recoil at a slightly edgy meme?
EW: Hopefully the fact that my discomfort is apparent in the book will make it more accessible to somebody who wouldn’t come to it easily. Everything I wrote about, whether it’s Internet porn or Internet dating—every time a marketer wanted to code some aspect of these cultures as women-friendly, they would use the phrase “a clean, well-lighted space,” which, as people in San Francisco I’m sure know, was the motto of Good Vibrations [a San Francisco-based sex toy business] when it opened. They took vibrators out of these pornographic packages they came in and ended up with, like, non-heteronormative dolphin sex toys. All of which was really important. But in this phase of history, it started to bother me: Why is it all of a sudden that if it’s feminist porn the couches have to be white, and the man has to look a certain way? Is that because that’s friendly because it’s, like, more equal, or is that because women have been conditioned to experience sex with panic and anxiety? When I went through the process of writing the book, it was easier for me to think that feminist eroticism was this kind of clean—you know, not a lot genitals, things had nice design. And I realized no, that’s not what’s sexually stimulating. I forced myself to sit down and watch porn and think about how I was describing myself on Internet dating, going on dates with great people that were super accomplished, and being like, “Why don’t I like this person?” No, I don’t want to have sex with this person. It was that simple process of trying to focus on sex; suspending aesthetics and story and letting myself just focus on sex was really nice for me. And I do think the reason that “pussy grabs back” is scary to some people is because they want to think that their sexuality isn’t about sex. It’s comfortable for them to think that it’s about marriage and their nice house and their moral family. And there’s just something in me now that always wants to destroy that.
AW: It’s funny about the aesthetic that you’re describing, too—I’ve not been to OneTaste, but reading your description of it, it seems really clinical. In my head, that space is white.
EW: Well, except that they’re stroking pussies in public. Once you’re there, it’s all the most uncomfortable things. The best thing that they offer, or at least that I learned, was, okay, I do experience this sexuality, the panic and anxiety, a lot of the time. I was just not naming my feelings and sort of running away from them. I learned something from them.
Emily Witt has written for The New Yorker, n+1, The New York Times, and the London Review of Books. She studied at Brown University, Columbia University, and the University of Cambridge, and was a Fulbright Scholar in Mozambique. She grew up in Minneapolis and lives in Brooklyn.
Anna Wiener is a writer based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in the New Republic, the Atlantic, and the New Yorker online.
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