Google “photos of Times Square from the 1970s” and you will be flooded with images of garish neon light and promises of available women. The peep shows and porn shops that Martin Scorsese made iconic in Taxi Driver were of a distilled prurience that avoided the hippie vibe of free love and did not have the patina of bourgeois hedonism found at Studio 54. Previous generations were scandalized by women wearing dresses that showed a bare ankle, Paris in the 19th century was a hotbed for behind-closed-doors sexual experimentation, and there are probably a few cave drawings that would be called pornography even today. It is to say that sex, in its many and varied forms, has long obsessed us even as we often try to wrap a plain brown bag around it and pretend it does not exist.
Emily Witt is not the first writer, nor will she be the last, to delve into this duality, and the cover of her book Future Sex is its own 21st century Times Square billboard - a woman with a smart phone between her arched legs, a dull glow emanating from it, beckons the reader to open the front cover and peer inside. Witt is a game tour guide through the nether regions of sexuality. She attends sex parties, porn shoots, and Burning Man, engages in “orgasmic meditation,” and dabbles in webcam play. Through much of it, Witt maintains an authorly distance, and avoids judgment of her subjects, be they the couple who make a living having sex on the Internet or another twosome who have a revolving door of lovers in an open relationship.
So long as monogamous relationships are the norm, anything written about anything other than that will stand in contrast and therefore be titillating, an object of curiosity, and “other.” So it is here. Witt has some winning lines like “The panda gang bang took place deep in the basement of the Kink armory …” but as with much in today’s society, there is little new under the sun, it is simply easier for a light to be shined on it. Polyamory, eastern philosophies as a gateway to sexual freedom, and pornography are not new and while the Internet has afforded people new chances to remunerate their sexuality or explore it in novel ways, the underlying experience, be it of BDSM, cosplay, group sex, or any of the other rainbow variety of sex that Witt explores and discusses, was not invented yesterday.
What has changed (and mostly for the better) is society’s attitude toward that otherness. What was once shielded behind a curtain or considered sin has largely been mainstreamed. Witt reaches for broader themes because of this newfound reality. The definition of sex work is much broader than it once was so it is easier to connect, say, economic dislocation and the downturn in the job market to people webcamming their sex acts as a way to make money. Similarly, young, affluent techies in Silicon Valley are searching for a different plane of existence through the use of MDMA while plotting their sexual trysts on Google calendars for their polyamorous partners to study and consider. This may seem novel, but other than the technological wizardry and substitution of MDMA for LSD, such behavior would not have been out of place in the Haight-Ashbury of the late 1960s.
In part, this book is also pitched as Witt’s own exploration of what relationships and sex mean to her, a woman in her early 30s, but she can be an unreliable narrator. The book begins with her taking a months-long hiatus from the single life in Brooklyn by moving to San Francisco, but at some point along the way, she demurs at having sex at an orgy because she has a boyfriend back home, while her trip to Burning Man is occasion to have sex with a casual friend and a man she meets there called Lunar Fox. Because the book’s time line is never explicitly given, the temporal shifts left me confused as to whether Witt was a woman exploring the possibilities of alternative dating options or an anthropologist jotting down field notes. Maybe it was a little of both, but as a meditation on “future sex” I found the book less convincing. Today’s world may be glossier and filled with young people whose pockets are lined with wealth earned in the tech book, but at base, the desires are no different than the seamy Times Square of 40 years ago.
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