When Emily Witt turned 30, she faced the realization that marriage and kids might not be in the cards. Instead of falling into a Bridget Jones-inspired single-girl funk, the Brooklyn-based writer headed to San Francisco in search of her own adult sexual identity. On the west coast, Witt explored the worlds of webcamming and orgasmic meditation, partied with polyamorists, attended live sex shows and hooked up with a stranger at Burning Man. The self-proclaimed good girl went wildish.
The result of her adventures culminated in Future Sex (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35), a collection of essays that explore what it means to be a single adult woman today, and more poignantly perhaps, what it could mean years from now. On the heels of her book’s release, Witt talked to FLARE about sex, love, contemporary adulthood—and how it feels to say ‘see ya’ to the rom-com heroine’s tired trajectory.
Future Sex was prompted by that realization that you might never get married and have kids. Fair enough, but what made you think, OK then, I’m going to San Francisco to investigate porn and polyamory and Internet dating and kink…
At first I didn’t really think of it in personal terms. I thought I was just going to write a cultural history of recent sexual subcultures in America from a female perspective. That was kind of what I told myself I was doing when I went to California and started looking up stuff on the Internet. It wasn’t until I saw some of these places and met some of these people that I realized how much this idea I had of my life—that I would meet somebody and get married—was affecting my sense of myself and my sexuality. I realized that maybe, a) that wasn’t going to happen and, b) it might not even be something I want, and so maybe I should start engaging with these possibilities around me. The book kind of blossomed from that.
At the beginning of the book you admit that you still secretly hoped you would get married and have children. Why did you choose to admit that?
It was the truth. Because the myths of love and romance are so powerful culturally. When your life aligns with those myths, you feel this sense of belonging and you don’t need to explain your life to anybody… No one is going to say, ‘Well, you made this lifestyle choice that’s why you’re unhappy.’ It was kind of about just wanting this thing that I wouldn’t have to explain to everybody, that would make my family and everyone else feel like I was on the right track.
I think that happens when you’re in your 30s and single you start to feel marginalized. Suddenly you’re not in the mainstream anymore and you don’t like feeling that way….
Yeah, that’s very much how it was for me. As I write in the book, I was always a really obedient person and got a lot of satisfaction from good grades and from being a good person, or what I thought meant being a good person. When you live in a big city like Toronto or New York you don’t have to think about being single that often, it’s much more apparent when you go to other smaller places or talk to people from a different generation and they say, ‘How come you’re not settled down yet? You’re a good-looking person!’ And you’re like, I don’t know? What did I do wrong? Did I choose this?
Instead of torturing yourself with what you didn’t have, you let go of the idea that “good girls” get the reward of love and marriage and tried out something different. What did that feel like?
First it meant listing some of the stories I was telling myself about sex, and what sex meant, and what I would lose if I acted in a certain way—like, would I sacrifice the possibility of finding love if I pursued casual sex. These stories had informed my sense of who I was and what I wanted. Then it meant going and meeting with people who were actively pursuing different kinds of lives, whether that was polyamory or performing sex in front of an audience.
It’s not like at the end of the journey I became this super-liberated person who goes on Tinder and meets someone new every night. Somehow it was a subtle process by which I came into my sexuality. I am just way more aware and confident and comfortable now, and I’ve let go of a lot of the ideas that equated sex as a form of exchange or currency that needed to be controlled in order to get the outcome I wanted. That just sort of made me happier, and I became better at naming what I wanted and recognizing my own feelings.
When you talk about Internet dating, you say that we have this tool that gives us people, but no clear idea of what to do with them. Is technology confusing us even more?
I think everybody wants the technology to tell them [what to do]—for example, when Tinder started I wrote an article for GQ about it, and everybody I interviewed for the article was asking me if it was a hookup app. They wanted it defined before they went on the date! I found that so funny because it can be whatever you want it to be, but people wanted to know specifically if it was a hookup app, so they could to go into it with that expectation so they didn’t make a faux pas, or weren’t too sexually forward or whatever. That was so interesting to me, the idea that we want these things to be defined for us externally rather than trying to name what we want for fear it might seem freaky…
Two people having the same idea about the meaning of an exchange is basically what you want in a relationship…
It’s also kind of ignoring the fact that you have to meet the person in person first to have a physical response to them. Even if you’re on there to have casual sex there’s no guarantee that you’re going to want to have casual sex when you meet them.
You were inspired by the Free Love movement of the 1960s. And at the end of the book, you declare yourself pro-free love. What does that mean to you?
I think it means an openness, and this is may be kind of a cop-out, but not declaring a priori that I’m a monogamist or a polyamorist, rather that I want to share a relationship with someone with an openness to the experience. [When we spoke, Witt mentioned she had recently met someone “the old-fashioned way”—at a bar.] I no longer enter into any relationship with the basic expectation that what defines it is a certain kind of monogamy; there’s no automatic expectation that the relationship will progress with a series of steps, i.e. we’re going to move in together after a year, and we’ll get married after two years. Now I’m really open to considering maybe I’ll be in a long-term relationship with someone and never move in together; maybe we’ll keep separate houses, or maybe we’ll see other people within a defined set of rules. I no longer have a default assumption.
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