Future Sex: A New Kind Of Free Love

By Emily Witt

Faber & Faber, £12.99

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Review by Dani Garavelli

FUTURE Sex, Emily Witt's exploration of love and lust in 21st-century America, is a millennial riff on Gay Talese's controversial classic Thy Neighbor's Wife. Like Talese, Witt embarks on an odyssey of sexual experimentation in an attempt to challenge preconceptions about our physical and emotional needs. But where Talese sees himself as a pioneer staking a claim on a new carnal landscape, Witt's adventures in eroticism are a fall-back position from the marriage she'd once assumed was a given. Those adventures would be jettisoned like a tattered copy of Cosmopolitan were Cupid's arrow to hit mid-orgy. As a consequence, her interest in pornography, live webcams and polyamory (consensual multi-partnering) comes across as more of a defence mechanism than an epiphany.

In the opening chapter, Witt portrays the singles scene in New York as rootless and transient with “souls flitting through limbo, piling up against one another like dried leaves, awaiting the brass trumpets and wedding bells of the eschaton”. Sitting in a sexual health clinic in Brooklyn, awaiting a test for chlamydia, she ponders the official guidance on avoiding sexually transmitted diseases: abstinence or fidelity. “Like the Federal Government, I wanted nothing more than a 'long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested',” she writes. Yet her decision to move to San Francisco and investigate new routes to physical gratification does little to alleviate her spiritual dislocation.

Future Sex is set in a technological wonderworld reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, where interaction has never been easier, but lasting intimacy is in short supply. San Francisco, once known for its acid-dropping, free-loving Haight Ashbury hippies, is now the headquarters of social media giants Google and Facebook, and populated by privileged young people who private-message colleagues sitting feet from their desks.

Their innovations appear to open up new sexual frontiers, but deliver little. Grindr and Tinder “brought us people, but did not tell us what to do with them”, Witt writes. Live webcams offer “mass intimacy”and, for some, the freedom to engage in extreme acts of sexual exhibitionism, but also represent a retreat from the risks of pregnancy, violence and sexually transmitted disease associated with real-life encounters.

Though the role of a journalist is innately voyeuristic, it comes as a surprise when Witt reveals that, during much of her excursion into other people’s bedrooms, she was celibate. For someone who has chosen sexual hedonism as her specialist subject she seems ambivalent and inhibited. When she first attends OneTaste, a New Age clinic which specialises in “orgasmic meditation”, a ritual which involves being erotically stimulated by a stranger, she is anxious. Massaging the shoulders of an older man repulses her. “There are reasons for boundaries, I told myself, not at all certain if it was true,” she says, before heading off for the more prosaic comforts of a Vietnamese carry-out.

Even when Witt does join in, she doesn’t derive much satisfaction from it; her description of her third attempt at orgasmic meditation – “I climaxed ... as I stared at a coffee urn on a table” – is so bleak it makes you yearn for the rambunctious bondage scenes in 50 Shades Of Grey. The only time Witt articulates anything approaching joy is when she hooks up with a former lover at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, and says: “I wish I could have sex with this person for ever and ever.” No sooner has this thought occurred, however, than she's off to the orgy dome with a guy she met in the library, and moaning that, far from a Heronymus Bosch-style entanglement of flesh, it’s just lots of straight couples having sex with each other.

Witt is open-minded. She can also be funny, but, even when the people she interviews are enthusiastic about their choices, the book exudes emptiness. A performer filmed for Public Disgrace, an online show featuring women "bound, stripped and punished", has flown in from Los Angeles just to take part, but it is disconcerting to read how the rope tied round her cuts the circulation to her breasts, leaving them swollen. Some of those watching are conflicted too. When egged on to verbally humiliate the woman, the live audience complies. But in a break in shooting, it becomes "sheepish". A man who has been particularly shouty, says: "You are beautiful and I'd like to take you home to my mother." Earlier he had yelled: "Choke that bitch", then added: "Sorry."

The least depressing chapter of Future Sex involves a group of polyamorists who hope to redefine marriage, erase sexual jealousy and hold sex parties, but this is so close to what the Sandstone community at the heart of Thy Neighbor's Wife was doing in the 1970s, it is scarcely cutting-edge.

What saves the book is Witt's wry, phlegmatic writing style and keen eye for the quirks of her generation. The influence of American author and journalist Joan Didion, whom she admires, can be felt throughout, but particularly in those passages where she describes the enclosed, privileged and sanitised culture in which the Bay Area techies have been brought to maturity.

"They were adults, but they could seem like children, because they were so positive, because they liked to play, because they were marketed to with bright colours, clean, day-lit spaces and nutritious snacks, and because their success was in part attributed to the fact that they had arrived in early adulthood and apparently had never broken any rules," she writes.

These millennials' quest for sexual adventure has much in common with the lunch of "stuffed squash, quinoa, green juice and papaya agua fresca" Witt eventually eats at Facebook's HQ: exotic, but unsatisfying; an advertiser's vision of the kind of life people should aspire to as opposed to what they actually crave. She leaves the building with a button pinned to her tote bag that asks: "Is connectivity a human right?"

What Future Sex establishes is that, despite Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's efforts to bring people together, being able to access sex at the swipe of an app is no guarantee of fulfilment.