I wasn’t entirely certain what to expect when I bought Future Sex in The Last Bookshop in Bristol (all books being £3, hence the price sticker). ‘A New Kind of Free Love’ suggested it would be a celebration of sex-positive feminism, perhaps intertwined with speculation of how technology will further alter how we define sex and love and relationships. In the end, Future Sex was more of the latter than the former, but still less rooted in the nebulous future and more in the firmness of our present. It’s a collection of excellent essays and in-depth reportage which begins with Emily Witt’s key dilemma, that she wants to escape the rigidity of traditional romantic boundaries and questioned why she spent her life waiting for ‘the one’ to arrive, whom she could fall in love and begin a family with, as society expected of her. If another world is possible, then what could it look like?
From a history of internet dating to companies which promote orgasmic meditation, the people behind live webcams and case studies in polyamory, Witt journeys across the landscape of modern love and sex in search of what could constitute future sex. The title of the book conveys the implicit assumption which charges the writing – that there is a future sex, that sex and love are things which materially fluctuate across time. The fascinating thing about the book is how it is a process of unpicking that assumption.
I felt there to be a fundamental sadness in both Witt’s writing and in the stories of those she meets. Internet dating is “a room full of hungry people who instead discussed the weather,” Witt writes, which is perhaps the aptest analogy I’ve ever heard. Her sentences are short and punctual without an excess of pontification and theorising, underlying which is a sense that attempts to find or construct different modes of sex (using it as an all-inclusive term here) are barking up the wrong trees. The conclusion to the chapter on internet dating reaches the book’s conclusion most fittingly, despite coming towards its beginning.
“While the lonely might harbor a secret object, from the desire for a brief sexual encounter to a longing for love, the technology itself promised nothing. It brought us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them.”
Such sites, including live webcam sites, are filled by the “legion young men who sat in the glow of a thousand desk lamps in search of a woman, any woman, who might miraculously grace them with some individual sexual attention.” Is this future sex? An ocean of lonely people taking whatever steps necessary to find passion? That doesn’t sound very appealing. But this is looking at it from the wrong angle. The legion of young men would still be lonely and searching for sexual attention without live webcams, but the technology merely creates another outlet and the impression of newness, of amplification.
“A futuristic sex was not going to be a new kind of historically unrecognisable sex, just a different way of talking about it.”
As Witt says, “the technology itself promised nothing.” If we’re searching to reconstruct what love and sex mean in the 21st Century then we shouldn’t look to devising new methods or tech but rather human nature. “Just as wanting to fall in love did not manifest love, proclaiming myself ‘sexually free’ would not liberate me from inhibition.” To have future sex, we should look inside ourselves and discover who we are and what we want, not rely on Sillicon Valley tech companies and new-age lifestyle gurus to change things for us.