Jessica Cutler is author of the novel “The Washingtonienne.”
Let us look into the future, all the way to the year 2012. That’s the year author Emily Witt moved to San Francisco and about the time her memoir, “Future Sex,” begins.
Witt was then a 30-something journalist in a state of romantic limbo, her friends and lovers “piling up against one another like dried leaves, awaiting brass trumpets and wedding bells.”
San Francisco was an especially welcoming place to try new things, and technology — dating and sex sites — presented exciting new possibilities. “I could behave as I wished,” Witt writes. “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.”
In fact, she did none of these things. Though her book has the racy cover and title of an X-rated sex memoir, it is more cerebral than salacious. And though she does experiment in some risque activities — Internet porn and orgasmic meditation — her book doesn’t read like a stunt memoir.
Instead Witt, a Fulbright scholar and cultural critic whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and the London Review of Books, turned her personal malaise into something beyond herself and beyond shtick: a serious exploration of American sexual culture, from birth control and polyamory to Burning Man and Internet porn. Witt bravely plays guinea pig, taking readers inside sexual subcultures without pre-judging or snarking at them.
Though not quite a feminist manifesto, Witt’s search is very much driven by her desire as a 21st-century single American woman to understand love and sexual fulfillment in the Internet age — or, as she puts it, “to pursue emotional experiences that could not be immediately transposed to a party of young people in a cell phone ad, even if it meant delving into ugliness, contracting an STD, or lifting my shirt to entice someone jerking off over the Internet.”
That passage is a tip-off: Witt is both daring and serious. Her writing would not be described as bubbly, sassy or any other patronizing adjective usually associated with books of this kind. Witt treats her subjects (even her bad Internet dates) with respect instead of the judgment or mockery you might expect. It’s like reading something by David McCullough if he wrote about dating apps.
Witt’s stories are not entirely without humor, though, since sex is so often a comedy of errors. She just deals with her disappointments and awkward moments in a different way: She plays them down, looking for answers in books and interviews rather than her own navel — or below.
In one memorable chapter, for example, Witt goes into an “orgy dome” at Burning Man. This sounds like material ripe for comedy. But Witt tells it straight: She and her male companion enter the dome and first watch, disappointedly: “It was all heterosexual couples having sex with each other.” Realizing that they should either “do something” or leave, they decide to “do something”:
“ ‘Should we have sex?’ I asked.
“ ‘Yes . . .’ he said. ‘Do you want to?’
“ ‘Yes,’ I said.
“ ‘Are you sure?’ he said.
“ ‘Yes,’ I said. The woman who greeted us at the door had advised us to express loud, enthusiastic consent.
“When we left the dome, we walked over to a nearby shade structure where sitar music was playing.”
It’s almost a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. To some readers, that may feel prudish or like a cop-out; to others it may seem like superior judgment.
Witt’s spare, level-headed reporting contrasts strikingly with some of the things she does, like trying whip-its for the first time at a sex party or spending time on Chaturbate (a live webcam site). Readers will find this approach either droll or dull.
What “Future Sex” does better than a typical sex memoir is go out of its way to understand things that would make many people blush. Witt explains how entertainments like Chaturbate and Public Disgrace (an online pornography series) have come to be, what purpose they serve.
Her chapter about Internet porn is another highlight. After a graphic recount of a porn shoot, she admits, “I had never tried masturbating to porn on my computer.” What comes next is a brief history of the women’s movement’s challenge to pornography, which Witt identifies as the source of her aversion to it. She comes to realize that feminism cannot decide what kinds of sex its adherents are allowed to enjoy. Witt concludes: “You couldn’t have nun porn without Catholicism. You couldn’t have Public Disgrace without feminism.”
While acknowledging new sexual freedoms, Witt isn’t necessarily celebrating them. For as much as the reader gets to learn about the online dating business, for example, that chapter ends on a despondent note: “It brought us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them.”
Many of the essays in “Future Sex” have been published previously, and they struggle to come together in a seamless narrative arc. Still, Witt should be applauded for avoiding the trap of self-absorption and for expanding our knowledge of sexual culture. She has in her own way reinvented the sex memoir.
By Emily Witt
Farrar Straus & Giroux. 210 pp. $25