Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love by Emily Witt – review

One woman’s quest for personal fulfilment proves a handy guide to sex in the internet age

When Emily Witt turned 30 in 2011, she began to wonder if the future might never arrive. For years, she had assumed that adulthood would bring a sexual terminus. “Like a monorail, gliding to a stop at Epcot Center”, she would disembark and find herself face to face with a loving man. In fact, she had recently been discarded by a boyfriend and for years had alternated brief relationships with periods of reasonably cheerful casual sex, usually with friends.

Witt set out to explore the sexual landscape of the present more fully, wanting to find out how her experiences related to the zeitgeist and how her own sexuality might be enriched by learning about the practices of others. Her quest lasted for five years and took her to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, to orgasmic meditation workshops and extreme porn film shoots in San Francisco and to the darker reaches of her computer. At the end of this, her life had externally changed very little but she had changed internally in learning to see sex – “the pure force of sexual desire” – as disconnected from the stories we tell ourselves about love and marriage.

The book that results is fascinating, both because it’s always interesting to hear about the sex lives of others and because it opens up an historical context that allows us to understand how the free love of the past did and didn’t lead to our internet-driven sexual present. Witt sees herself as learning about “free love”, but also believes that the term itself has been too discredited by the failed experiments of the 1960s and 70s to be used easily now. She quotes the American radical Ellen Willis stating that though freedom was inherently risky, her generation had felt confident enough to reject security but had then found that “sex has never been safe” and that the losses were as real as the risks: “the deaths, breakdowns, burnouts, addictions”.

For Witt, these failures of the counterculture were lessons that led her contemporaries to hold themselves in thrall to “grade point averages, drug laws, student loan payments, condoms, skin protection factors”. And she found that it was these diligent and risk-averse children of the 80s and 90s who were leading the new sexual counterculture. They had renamed free love as polyamory, drawn up shared Google documents with modern regulations and found new ways to free sex from the structures of family life. There’s something a little tiring about this version of promiscuity, which may be simply that it doesn’t sound all that free or all that sexy. Reading about these people’s lives, I shared Witt’s concern that these glossy optimists had never “lived in darkness” by facing either political or existential despair, despite observing global crises and foreign wars, and her sense that she could therefore not quite believe in the strength of their desire.

Witt traces the antecedents of contemporary porn back to the 60s as well. It’s because of earlier feminist thinkers that some intellectual women have embraced porn (extreme porn star Princess Donna was led into her career by the writings of Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler) and that far more of them have distanced themselves from it, either disapproving of its exploitation or simply believing themselves to be erotically unaffected by celluloid images. I was convinced by Witt’s sense of the need to confront internet porn, given its influence and ubiquity. And when she did so, she was surprised to find that watching “bondage slut gets a rough gangbang” was indeed arousing enough to bring her to orgasm a lot more quickly than mere fantasy could.

This is one of the few moments when we witness Witt actually joining in with the sex she describes. She also has sex with a stranger in the orgy tent at Burning Man and has a few unsuccessful goes at orgasmic meditation. Witt is a compelling narrator and an excellent subjective witness but I did find her presence in the book a little coy. There’s no reason why she should feel obliged to try out the sexual practices she’s investigating, but if her journey begins with sexual rejection and uncertainty and ends with sexual freedom and a new kind of enlightened uncertainty, then I think we do need to see the stages in this process.

It matters who she has sex with along the way and how she feels about it, but she doesn’t always reveal this. In the chapter on polyamory, she mentions that she’s inhibited at a sex party because she currently has a (presumably monogamous) boyfriend in New York. The boyfriend seems to have disappeared by the time that she’s at Burning Man, but to have had a relationship in the midst of her investigations must have affected the way she experienced her encounters and I felt that she needed to bring herself into the frame more fully.

If we don’t learn as much as I would have liked to about Witt, though, we do learn a lot about the sex that might be the sex of a future. Certainly, I understood more by the end about the sexual possibilities open to Californians. It’s not a coincidence that the polyamorists Witt came across in America tended to work in Silicon Valley. If the sexual revolution of the 60s was effected by people who could afford to abandon security, then these are the people who have the means to do so now.

California is also the place where new technologies are most swiftly assimilated and therefore where the internet has most easily become part of people’s sex and dating habits. Witt believes that her generation is the last for whom the memory of life before the internet makes virtual reality only partially acceptable and that therefore a new generation will emerge: “Their lives would be free of timidity. They would do their new drugs and have their new sex. They wouldn’t think of themselves as women or men. They would meld their bodies seamlessly with their machines, without our embarrassment, without our notions of authenticity.”

This may be true, but where does it leave those of us who remain alienated by technology? If we accept, as Witt does by the end, that monogamous marriage may not be the answer, and that sex may be too important to be confined to loving and lasting relationships, then what is the alternative? I wasn’t any more persuaded than Witt was by the various options she investigated.

But I am convinced by Witt herself: convinced that it is worth risking contentment for the sake of experience, that it is important to acknowledge honestly both desire and inhibition, and that it is this that will take us hopefully into a future that may turn out simply to be an ongoing present.

Lara Feigel is the author of The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich

• Future Sex is published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy for £10.65 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Lara Feigel

The GuardianTramp

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