Future Sex by Emily Witt (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1980).
My bus broke down on the way home from work one evening in February. A persistent drizzle had transformed unexpectedly into a downpour, reducing Terwilleger Boulevard to a mud slick, and I found myself flicking through a backlog of podcasts on my iPhone. Hoping for a lascivious escape from the humid bus, I settled on an October episode of Longform. Aaron Lammer’s interview with Emily Witt upon the release of Future Sex, a collection of essays examining the present day sexual landscape in America, provided much more than a sensual diversion. Witt’s sharp observations and down-to-earth sensibility prompted me to track down a copy of the book, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux last fall, as soon as I got home.
Witt began writing Future Sex in 2011 at the age of thirty. An important romantic relationship in her life had just ended and, after failed internet dates, brief sexual flings with friends, and an unanticipated trip to a public health clinic in Brooklyn, Witt found herself increasingly despondent. “Like the federal government,” she half-jokes, “I wanted nothing more than a ‘long-term monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.’ I had wanted it for a very long time, and it had not arrived. Who knew if it would one day happen?” Her apprehension grew until, in 2012, Witt found herself unable to reconcile her desire for a traditional, heterosexual relationship with the reality of her situation as a single, romantically and sexually uninhibited young woman. She explains:
I wanted to picture a different future, one aligned with the freedom of my present, and in those years, San Francisco was where the future was going to be figured out, or at least it was the city America had designated for people who still believed in free love. […] I understood that the San Franciscans’ focus on intention marked the difference between my pessimism and their optimism. When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better.
Witt admits that her initial draw to San Francisco was disingenuous. While she was interested in exploring new concepts of “family” and disruptions to the “monogamous heterosexual tradition,” Witt would happily have dropped her research and the book entirely should her imagined future as a wife and mother suddenly and easily have materialized. Perhaps, then, one of the most interesting aspects of Future Sex is observing Witt as she acknowledges and, eventually, embraces changing social mores, in particular women’s many reasons for delaying marriage. As she tells Lammer on Longform, the time women spend out of marriage can be seen “as a place of possibility instead of a cultural problem to lament.”
It seems fitting, then, that Future Sex unfolds slowly. Witt begins her sexual exploration with internet dating and pornography, both relatively tame aspects of the contemporary single’s scene. These early essays spend significant time on the history of internet dating sites and the aesthetic tricks used to entice women to subscribe to such services; this information is perhaps not new to contemporary readers but does provide important insight into women’s continued tendency to frequent sites that “emphasized traditional dating rituals and presented sex as a secondary question.” As Witt points out, internet dating and pornography provided women, in theory, with a possibility of freedom – to behave exactly as we wish.
Without breaking any laws I could dress as a nun and get spanked by a person dressed as the pope. I could watch a porn starlet hula-hoop on my computer while I had sex with a battery-operated prosthetic. I could contact a stranger on the Internet, tell him to meet me at the north entrance of the Woolworth Building, tell him I would make myself known only if he arrived carrying three Mylar balloons referencing distinct Disney animated classics and then, if he fulfilled my wishes, go to his place for sex. I could do all these things without having to wear a scarlet letter, get thrown in jail, or be stoned in public.
Instead, Witt was uncomfortable to do any of these things – and not only because of concerns for sexual safety. Rather, she still found herself viewing her sexuality as “a lever that moderated climatic conditions within the chamber of life, with a negative correlation between the number of people I slept with and the likelihood of encountering love.” Though Witt does not say so explicitly, her explorations of internet dating and pornography imply the age-old worry that women who are too available to sexual experiences essentially revoke their rights to love and more traditional relationships.
“As the book project evolved,” Witt explains during the Longform interview, “I realized that what I was trying to answer was what should I do with my sexual freedom?” Though it’s not made explicit in the text, Witt eventually takes the leap from bystander to active participant in her research. In “Burning Man,” one of the more engaging essays in the collection, Witt describes meeting a man named Lunar Fox while flipping through comic books and, in an uncharacteristic move, joining him only hours later for a sexual encounter at Burning Man’s orgy dome. After being handed “a bag with condoms, lube, wipes, mint Life Savers, and instructions for how to dispose of our materials afterward,” Witt and Lunar Fox are disappointed to discover the semi-air conditioned dome is barely occupied by a handful of heterosexual couples. Their decision to participate is due more to apathy than excitement: “We felt strange. It was clear that we should either do something or leave. ‘Should we have sex?’ I asked. ‘Yes…’ he said. ‘Do you want to?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. The woman who greeted us at the door had advised us to express loud, enthusiastic consent.”
Witt demurely spares the details of the sexual encounter and Lunar Fox is soon lost in the crowd. While I initially felt disappointed that this penultimate essay did not lead to a life-changing epiphany, it seems fitting in retrospect. As Witt demonstrates repeatedly throughout Future Sex, contemporary sexual freedoms are in many ways similar to the “failed experiments of earlier generations” and, specifically, the “free love” movement of the 1960s. Often, our expectations fail us: Witt’s initial expectation that the traditional monogamous, heterosexual relationship model would make her happiest shifted not so much because her experiences exploring polyamory and avant-garde sexual subcultures were unequivocally positive, but rather because she learned to earnestly take them into consideration as serious possibilities. She explains: “At first I may not have wanted to admit that to myself but, as time went on, it became very clear that I knew I didn’t want to be stuck turning forty and feeling super depressed because I wasn’t married and didn’t have a brownstone and children and like a shared Google calendar with my husband. The only way to go was to see what was out there.”
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Witt’s decision to “go see what was out there” motivated me to delve deeper into the history of sexual freedom in America. As Portland’s winter weather further devolved into snow and ice storms, I settled in with Thy Neighbor’s Wife, which Witt refers to several times in her Longform interview. Witt found inspiration in this controversial book, written by Gay Talese, a literary journalist for The New York Times and Esquire magazine in the 1960s. Published in 1980, Talese explores sexuality in America from the post-World War II era through the 1970s, and provides a cultural history of the sexual revolution and free-love subculture. In fact, Witt initially pitched Future Sex as a reportative, essayistic text that could potentially build on Talese’s work, which, due to the cultural climate at the time, dealt much less with the sexual experiences of women.
Similar to Future Sex, Talese provides thorough and disturbing historical context for America’s sexual values, beginning with anti-obscenity statutes in place in Massachusetts as early as the 1600s. Of particular interest is a chapter devoted to the rise of Anthony Comstock who, in the late 1800s, became the loudest anti-vice advocate in America. Comstock and members of his petitioned the federal government to ban “from the mails ‘every obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy book, pamphlet, picture, paper, letter writing, print or other publication of indecent character’” and, after the bill was signed by President Grant, “terrorized publishers, arrested hundreds of citizens caught with questionable literature, and caused fifteen women accused of immorality to commit suicide rather than face the humiliation of a publicized trial.” The charges ran the gamut from prostitution or obtaining birth control to publishing marriage self-help manuals or Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
It’s unsurprising, given our country’s long history of sexual censorship, that Thy Neighbor’s Wife garnered Talese many of the worst reviews of his career. It appalled critics who found his crude descriptions of his own infidelities and promiscuity insulting to his wife, an important book editor at Random House. Talese has joked that a “Freudian therapist” accused him of publishing the book as a form of “literary suicide.” Talese felt strongly that research into sexuality cannot be conducted in a vacuum. In a 2009 interview with New York Books, he explains: “If you want to write about orgies […] you’re not going to be in the press box with your little press badge keeping your distance. You have to have a kind of affair with your sources. You have to hang out!”
The extent to which Talese “hangs out” isn’t made immediately apparent. In fact, the bulk of this massive text is heavily narrative and reads quite like a novel, so much so that when I first opened the book, I felt momentarily unsure whether I was reading fact or fiction. He writes:
She was completely nude, lying on her stomach in the desert sand, her legs spread wide, her long hair flowing in the wind, her head tilted back with her eyes closed. She seemed lost in private thoughts, remote from the world, reclining on this wind-swept dune in California near the Mexican border, adorned by nothing but her natural beauty. She wore no jewelry, no flowers in her hair; there were no footprints in the sand, nothing dating the day or spoiled the perfection of this photograph except the moist fingers of the seventeen-year-old schoolboy who held it and looked at it with adolescent longing and lust.
This approach is strikingly different from Witt’s, which tends to make more distinct the line between factual reporting and personal reflection. In a brief author’s note, Talese explains that, during the nine years he worked on Thy Neighbor’s Wife, he interviewed hundreds of people, often dozens of time, in order to establish “such trusting relationships with the interviewees that they would allow the use of their names in connection with the intimate stories they told […] about themselves.” From household names like Hugh Hefner to white collar couples transplanted from suburbia to cultish sexual communes, Talese approaches their stories without judgement or commentary. The result is an amazingly personal panoramic of men and women who influenced and were influenced by the evolving definition of morality in America.
Talese is perhaps more traditional in his reportage than Witt, who incorporates reflection into her fieldwork. Talese does not insert himself into the text at all until quite near the end of the book and, when he does, his use of the third person retains a degree of distance. A large chunk of Thy Neighbor’s Wife is devoted in part to the idea of the generation gap and how easily young men in particular could be “lured into a voluptuous experience that would exceed his desires.” For several chapters, we follow John Bullaro, an insurance agent based in Los Angeles, through multiple marital infidelities and corporate successes until he and his wife are fully entangled in a communal quasi-sex cult. When Talese reveals his role as an active participant in his research into Bullaro’s journey, we learn his technique is not too far a leap from Witt’s own experiments with meditative orgasm or orgies in the desert.
Both Future Sex and Thy Neighbor’s Wife are disconcerting as a familiar theme recurs over subsequent decades. The average American, it seems, has long felt uncomfortable with social norms regarding sex and often misinterprets his or her desires as deviant if they do not fall within a “range of acceptability.” This discomfort, Talese seems to argue, may be more acute in Americans in their mid-thirties who, when comparing themselves to undergraduates and the older generations they now are employed with, “felt suddenly uncertain and outmoded in this age of new personalities and vacillating values.” It seems very likely that, based on her personal experience, Witt would agree. The specifics of the issues confronting sexual freedom may have changed in the forty years between publications but, perhaps, the root questions still remains: What are our freedoms? What should we do with them?
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Lisa Grgas is the Assistant Prose Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Fratcal, Web Del Sol, and elsewhere. She also reviews poetry for Tin House Magazine in Portland, Oregon.
This review also references the podcast Longform (“#216: Emily Witt.” October 16, 2016).