Emily Witt (Interview)
Interview by Jessica Joyce Jacolbe.
It was rush hour. Rather than focusing on the invasion of my personal space while riding the crowded subway, I continued reading. Princess Donna had handed Penny Pax a bottle of lubricant shortly after Ramon Nomar had masturbated. All this was taking place in Emily Witt’s first book, Future Sex, which delves into the worlds of pornography, internet dating, polyamory, and sex parties.
Future Sex explores the evolution of sexual diversity and futurism following the sexual revolution of the ’60s. Witt challenges the idea that happiness is found in a committed relationship such as marriage. She once thought a committed, monogamous relationship would be the last stop on her “monorail,” which she describes her personal journey as. “Still, I nurtured my idea of the future which I thought of as the default denouement of my sexuality, and a destiny rather than a choice,” she writes.
Coming from the age of “Deep Throat” and the feminist backlash against the merging of pornography and mainstream culture, Witt notes an important factor in the future of sex: sexual diversity. It would be impossible to evolve when limitations are placed on a human’s ability to consider other possibilities. Witt shows the flexibility of a more nuanced sexual culture by exploring orgasmic meditation workshops, attending live porn video shoots, and diving into the logistics of polyamory.
Considering there will soon be a government with a Republican majority, it’ll more than likely be more difficult to access, or create, the type of freedom described in Future Sex. Last week, I hopped on the phone with Witt to talk about the future of sexual freedom given Donald Trump’s presidency win and how marriage or monogamy may not be the be-all, end-all.
JESSICA JACOLBE: How do you think sexuality will evolve given the current political climate, especially in regards to women’s rights?
EMILY WITT: I’m still untangling my thoughts on that myself. I’d like to think that there’s a limit on how much the government can punish people for being sexually free and living the lives they want to live, but we’ll have to see what happens; there’s no telling.
I think the way we’re going to be controlled is through our access to healthcare and through our right to contraception. Our president-elect, soon to be our president, and the Republican congress, have threatened to de-fund Planned Parenthood and take away health care provided under the Affordable Care Act. As women, our access to contraception and our access to healthcare–when we get an STI, when we get a yeast infection, when we get pregnant and don’t want to have the baby–is now under threat in a serious way that’s really terrifying. On the level of the Supreme Court and what could happen to our right to have legal abortions, it’s never felt more precarious in my memory. I’m now trying to think about how we protect ourselves in a climate that’s so hostile.
There’s then the philosophical repercussions of having a person who brags about sexually assaulting women, who feels entitled to touch their bodies, and has said sexist and misogynistic things, as the maximum expression of power in our country. It’s hard to know what that’s going to mean for us. All I know is that I’m disgusted that so many women still voted for somebody that said hateful and threatening comments to women.
The future of sex, as you talk about, centers on gender dynamics. What makes modern relationships different isn’t solely technology, but gender roles and how women are exercising power and initiative. What did you discover about this shift?
Once there was a gathering consensus that gender equality was what we wanted as a society, it put a lot of our rituals and traditions into question because many of those are linked to a patriarchal society. I think what’s been difficult for many people is the idea of a man paying for dinner and opening a door, and also the idea that if a man wants to respect a woman, you don’t have sex on a first date. All of that is a legacy of an unequal society. There’s a vacuum of rituals, ethics, manners, and rules, and it has a lot of power in our lives because we don’t have anything to replace those values with yet.
When I was writing Future Sex, part of what I wanted to do is to redefine how I felt about casual sex and its values, and question the idea that the guy needs to pay for dinner in order to show me respect. Is that really what respect looks like? I wanted to try to come up with new ideas about what manners could look like and what we value in a casual, sexual encounter that isn’t tied to old rituals.
Do you feel successful and adult if marriage or love doesn’t come in the way you anticipated?
What led you to this journey of exploring futurism and its relationship with sex?
I was interested in exploring something that felt really pressing to the people around me and our current daily lives. Nothing was causing my women friends more anxiety than figuring out how to navigate internet dating, pornography, and all the new aspects of our sexual freedom, and trying to figure out people for whom certain metrics of success are really important. Do you feel successful and adult if marriage or love doesn’t come in the way you anticipated? Initially, I thought I would do a third-person journalistic exploration of changes that have happened in sexuality since 1990, and then I realized I was trying to get answers myself so it became much more personal. In looking into cultures to explore, like orgasmic meditation and pornography, I found my own idea of my sexuality changing in a positive way.
Which experience was the most out of your comfort zone?
Definitely the time I was most out of my comfort zone was with the orgasmic meditation people, not only because of what I was doing. Being physically intimate with a mere stranger is a bizarre arrangement, but because of the jargon and the new age group-thinking that it seemed to represent made me extremely uncomfortable.
Being around people as they filmed porn was surprisingly not uncomfortable. Somehow it felt really natural to be in the same room with people having sex. I realized that all of art in some ways is hiding.
Obviously, the public disgrace was the thing made me most uncomfortable; it was when the men clearly took pride in getting to insult and demean this performer. But on the other hand, part of their glee in doing so is because it’s taboo out in the world. I wondered if we live in a society where a male boss can harass his female secretary all day–that part of the power, that fantasy, is very taboo and it’s no longer acceptable.
What kind of relationship did you see growing up, and what kind of relationship did you see yourself having in the future?
My parents are married and they’ve been married for over 40 years. I would hardly say their marriage was romantic. They fought a lot, but they spent all their time together. I assumed that that was what adult life was like. I thought I would have a few more years of experimentation and dating, and that sleeping around in your 20s or in college and dating different people was all about the accrual of experiences. So when you did get married, you would be wiser, more self-aware, and more likely to have a stable relationship. I assumed that was going to happen, and then it didn’t happen. The fact that it wasn’t happening was causing me a lot of unhappiness. In some ways, the book was me trying to understand how to feel happy, connected, and stable without this magical love story that hasn’t happened for me. If it had happened, it was lopsided one way or another in my past relationships. I certainly hoped that I would fall in love and I could believe in love, but I no longer see love as some redemptive moment of my adult life.
Now, for example, I recently fell in love and I have a boyfriend, but I don’t need to immediately put the relationship into the path that it has to end in marriage or it’s not worthwhile. I’m interested in other ideas about what commitment can look like beyond monogamy. I’m interested in other forms of living arrangements. I’m much more open. My happiness isn’t defined by being chosen by another person, which I think that was what I was hoping for before.
Did writing Future Sex change how you view your relationships?
Yeah, I feel less scared than I used to feel. I used to think of myself as not somebody who was interested in any kind of non-monogamy. I thought it didn’t mesh with my personality type and I wanted a really traditional relationship, but once I thought about it for a long time, it actually isn’t my personality. I’ve always liked to seek out new experiences and try things I know might be difficult for me or emotionally challenging. I wouldn’t call myself a thrill-seeker in any way, but I do like to try new things. Why was I so scared to do that in a relationship? Now, I’m more interested in, and not threatened by, being open to a range of sexual experiences within a relationship.
We owe it to ourselves, in the spirit of defiance, to express pleasure in the way we want to, and not feel like we have to police ourselves in how we love and the way we talk about it.
What are your thoughts on self-love and what’s to come the next few years?
It’s scary to think about what’s going to happen. A part of me wanted to punish myself; I felt like I needed to enter some new phase of austerity because it was some kind of decadence that led to this cultural moment. Then I think the opposite, in that we owe it to ourselves, in the spirit of defiance, to express pleasure in the way we want to, and not to feel like we have to police ourselves in how we love and the way we talk about it. However difficult this government might make it for us to be healthy and be free, we can’t police ourselves. We have to keep our thinking as open as it can be in defiance of whatever limitations they’re going to try to put on us.