The Short Version: Having turned 30 without settling into a committed relationship like she thought she would, Emily Witt takes the moment to take stock of our modern relationships – to each other, to sexuality in general, and to the way that technology has changed both.
The Review: I had high hopes for this collection. As the jacket copy promises, we are at an intriguing and complicated moment in the history of sex, sexuality, gender, and love. Never before have so many things been so immediately accessible (thanks, Internet) and so widely acceptable – or, well, at least for now. The lizard alien in a poorly-fitting skin-suit of a Vice President-elect might change that and this reminds me that I ought to dust off my copy of The Handmaid’s Tale but this is neither here nor there.
But seriously, we even talk about these things differently than we did when I was in high school and my friends and I were all figuring our shit out. I could not fathom the disappointment my parents felt when they found out I lost my virginity – but I also, by the time I got to college, couldn’t really understand the wave of widespread casual sex that everyone else seemed to be having. By the time I graduated, I had a better understanding of my relationship to sex and I had come to the conclusion that sex, monogamy, even the basic notion of gender… these things were not what I’d been raised to understand. (And let me say, I was not raised in some kind of hyper-conservative household. I grew up pretty standard suburban Clintonian liberal – and the Clinton of it all sparks a thought but that’s for another time.)
Emily Witt is conscious of these same shifts and, being more Gen X than Millennial, she has a slightly different approach to them just by virtue of having lived longer and done more. Or, at least, I perceive a different tone: one of wariness and subliminal discontent. She seems to be asking why, with all of this revolutionary sexuality available, she isn’t any more or less happy – and her personal journey affects these essays for better or worse. This is not to say that she is writing a memoir – she is most certainly not – but the knowledge that, in the essay called “Polyamory”, she now has a committed boyfriend changes the way we perceive the essay. Her experience at Burning Man is her experience, very forcefully so. Emily Witt’s story is inextricable from the stories of others she is telling.
And I guess I have to question the efficacy of that mode of journalism. On the one hand, how can you write about orgasmic meditation without describing how you experience it (after all, sex is one of the few things that truly does feel different for everyone). On the other, I found myself increasingly irritated by Witt and her presence in the stories. I’m curious to know about these things, to read about the behind the scenes of a bondage porn shoot, to experience Burning Man through the eyes of another, to explore the way that the internet has broadened the menu of sex/sexuality/behavior… I just found that Witt wasn’t the one I wanted to take me through.
The best essay in the collection is likely “Polyamory” – she tracks one couple over the course of several years of developing as a committed duo who both respect and use their open relationship. It’s a fascinating look at something we often joke about and I was so intrigued to see the concept actually working… but then she adds what is effectively an epilogue about a sex party thrown by this couple than she attends. Suddenly, Witt has become more than an observer: she is a character. The essay crashes in those last 4 or 5 pages, no longer revealing universal truth through the lens of someone telling a story about someone else… and instead, it just feels like a bad blog entry.
I’m staring at the jacket of this book, its deliberately racy cover and electric blue back full of quotes about how sexy this book is, how racy, how moving, how smart. And much as I enjoyed the book well enough while reading, some distance from it makes me like it significantly less. The opening chapters, about webcamming and exploring orgasmic meditation in the Bay Area, are still interesting enough, but the book descends throughout and the final slog through an attempt at a John Jeremiah Sullivan-esque trip to Burning Man is, well, a slog. This is not the sexual revolution that I’ve experienced – instead, it is that same revolution, seen by someone who is making it palatable for adults. Witt’s book might be shocking and racy to some – and to those who find it so, it may live up to its title. But for me, it didn’t sound like future sex. It sounded like someone looking a little leery at the-kids-these-days, with their whip-its and their Tindrs and Grindrs and promiscuity. Witt doesn’t fit the mold of someone who’d write like that – indeed, she often mentions that she has been plenty promiscuous and tried plenty of things – but the book absolutely comes off that way. It takes the electricity out of every single sexual thing she writes about.
Perhaps therein lies the lesson.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. The collection starts off strong and there are some interesting essays here… but ultimately, the book gets more disappointing as you go along (and after you’ve finished). What promises to be an exciting, interesting look at our modern sex-scape becomes something that leeches that promising, wide-ranging, radically inclusive space of all its energy. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a more interesting look at what you might consider “future sex” than anything written here (Witt does, to her credit, tip her hat to science fiction’s progressivism in this realm). Instead, she’s trying to explain things about the current sexual climate for those who might have no idea – and, to that reader, this book might titillate and educate. But I’ve never been that sexually adventurous and even I found this book just… boring.