Photo: Marcus Nuccio

It’s a phrase that conjures images of blissed-out, long-haired women dancing in a field, of shirtless men in bell bottoms with fingers spread into peace signs in Haight-Ashbury: free love. Once a marker of rebellion against a society and government policing its citizens’ relationships, “free love”—the freedom to have sex without marriage or bearing children, to have sex with someone of the same gender—has at once become the norm and gone out of style. In her insightful, generation-defining collection of essays, Emily Witt explores what sexual freedom, especially for women, means in contemporary Western society. In San Francisco, that free-love locus of yore, Witt investigates the webcam economy; attends workshops for orgasmic meditation, in which a stranger strokes a woman’s genitals; and expands her mind with (or at least occasionally consumes) drugs. Future Sex is Joan Didion meets fetish porn.

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Witt adopts a similar structure for many of the essays in Future Sex, her first full-length publication, a survey of some of the more extreme sexual options available, and a few traditional ones, too. She begins with her first-hand experience of a subculture or phenomenon then provides its historical context, giving a full, detailed view of each subject. In “Internet Porn,” for example, Witt attends a shoot for Kink.com—in which its female star is spit on, slapped, and fingered by a group of strangers—then discusses feminists’ shifting view of pornography throughout its history, finding the old question of whether one is for or against it unhelpful today. “‘If feminists define pornography, per se, as the enemy,’” she quotes Ellen Willis, “‘the result will be to make a lot of women ashamed of their sexual feelings and afraid to be honest about them.’” Witt herself remains conflicted, saying that “when you set porn free, the simulation of violence and ritual public humiliation of a woman was what you got,” though pockets of the industry are becoming more female-friendly. With Kink.com, she notes, consent is emphasized, and the filmmakers work so that its female stars achieve real orgasms.

Throughout the book, Witt positions herself as the curious outsider looking in, though for all its titillating subject matter, she maintains an intellectual, critical tone. Her humor is wonderfully dry throughout (“‘The thing about polyamorists is that they are all so self-confident,’” a friend tells her), making her more expressive, vulnerable moments all the more powerful. “I worried I might reveal something of myself I didn’t want to reveal to a stranger,” she admits once deciding to partake in orgasmic meditation. “I preferred the company of people who did not insist on sympathetic eye contact, who did not need to talk about all of their feelings at every instance.” This makes for an honest, compelling struggle from someone who intellectually supports much of the sexual freedom she witnesses but who can’t always fully embrace it for herself.

Equally effective in broad strokes as in her on-the-ground journalism, Witt’s prose is most like Didion’s when defining a particular milieu of well-educated, city-dwelling millennials: “They were children who had grown up eating sugar-free cereal, swaddled in Polar Fleece jackets made from recycled plastic bottles… They knew their favorite kinds of sashimi, and were friends with their parents.” And for anyone who’s dated in the last decade, this elegant passage from the collection’s first essay, “Expectations,” will sound painfully familiar:

I stared at rippling ellipses on screens. I forensically analyzed social media photographs. I expressed levity with exclamation points, spelled-out laughs, and emoticons. I artificially delayed my responses. There was a great posturing of busyness, of not having noticed your text until just now.

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For all her exploring, Witt does not arrive at catharsis by book’s end (anyone writing with so complex an understanding of her subject matter isn’t going to find a single answer). She finishes near where she started: Sex does not need to be a means to an end, like a relationship or child, but can be meaningful in and of itself, which is partly what free love has always been about. And while some people find ecstasy in pushing the bounds of sexuality, exploring its endless possibilities, others remain as conflicted as ever.


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