Future Sex author Emily Witt on Tinder, pornography, and locker room talk.

Future Sex Author Emily Witt on Tinder, Pornography, and Locker Room Talk

Future Sex Author Emily Witt on Tinder, Pornography, and Locker Room Talk

Interviews with a point.
Oct. 11 2016 5:35 PM

The Future of Sex

Emily Witt on Tinder, pornography, and locker room talk.

Emily Witt.
Emily Witt.

Noah Kalina

Emily Witt, author of Future Sex
Emily Witt, author of Future Sex

Noah Kalina

In her new book, Future Sex, the writer Emily Witt examines the many ways in which 21st-century Americans discover and express their sexual desires. The book combines reported narrative—there are dispatches from Burning Man and a kinky porn shoot—and accounts of her own experience with internet dating and orgasmic meditation. In the course of these excursions, Witt begins to think differently about what kind of romantic and sexual life she might want for herself.

Future Sex is neither gloomy nor unduly sanguine about the way in which our desires can be shaped by an evolving sexual marketplace. During the course of a phone conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the difficulty of writing about sex, why she finds watching pornography less oppressive than looking at a fashion magazine, and what Donald Trump really means by “locker room talk.”

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Isaac Chotiner: What do you mean by the term future sex?

Emily Witt: There are two ways of thinking about it. One was just my own personal future and trying to discern that. The other is trying to articulate a vision of futuristic sex. On the one hand, there’s nothing new that can really be done with sex. On the other hand, there’s a lot of new technology, and new language, and different demographic changes that have happened, with people getting married later in life and increasing moral tolerance for diverse ways of living. The futuristic generally gets interpreted as having something to do with machines, or technology, or robots, and I wanted to point out that futuristic thinking can also be about social arrangements, about new ways of envisioning your family, more analog experiences of life.

You write a bit about porn, and in one passage you say, “Watching porn left me more confident about my body.” That feels very different from what many people feel about porn.

Spending a lot of time at watching people make porn made me realize they were beautiful people, but they weren’t models. They weren’t Cindy Crawford or something. They were normal people with attractive bodies, and their bodies have imperfections and asymmetries, and they were really comfortable being naked, and joking about the noises their bodies made or the weird things that they might do during sex.

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And then, watching porn, when you go on these tube sites, you just realize it’s so much less oppressive than it is to look at a fashion magazine. For me, as a woman, I guess the range of fetishes is vast. The things that I had always thought of as shameful or gross parts of my body are just really celebrated in porn. I don’t know. There’s just a lot of assholes. There’s a lot of hair. There’s a lot of things that, for me, compared to fashion and the world of fashion or reading Vogue where you have this vision of beauty that is unattainable and unrealistic, and makes you feel inferior. Porn didn’t create that feeling in me.

Is that because of the impersonality of porn? The fact that you aren’t paying attention to beauty, but instead just to people having sex.

Porn is meant as sexual stimulation. It’s not about a narrative experience, and I think a lot of people don’t want to accept that. What works is not going to be beautiful, necessarily. I think also there was a way for me in which I watched it and it resonated with my real-world experience where I would always be surprised by what people were actually turned on by in sex. I think a lot of women have this experience where they grow up, where when they’re young they think you need to wear a certain kind of underwear, or be groomed in a certain way, and that that’s what’s going to turn on their partners, and then you have this realization that seriously almost nobody gives a shit about any of that. All this stuff you’ve been taught about what sexiness is: Sure some people are going to be into that, but it’s limited. What is actually sexy to people is something much more ineffable and not commodifiable. Porn confirmed that for me in some way.

Donald Trump embodies a kind of male sexual entitlement that porn is often accused of normalizing. What did the response to the latest tapes say to you about the way Americans perceive sexuality?

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There is something really dark about how power for a man—and Trump said that he could do what he wanted as a powerful man—is something that feels so familiar. The words “locker room banter”: Even though everyone is saying it is ridiculous because no one talks like that in a locker room, there is still the locker room, the strip club, the porn website. There is a place where male sexuality gets to go to express its true savage nature, and it’s exclusionary and women don’t belong there. They don’t have that need. It’s ridiculous and wrong, in addition to all the obvious stuff.

Not to bring up Foucault, but there is this idea that knowledge and access to a space and knowing it in a way that another person can’t know it gives you a kind of power. That’s what is being asserted with the locker room and the idea of pornography; as long as these are thought of as male things, there is an expression of power that is happening.

I think it would shock people to hear Hillary express sexual desires, even ones that weren’t criminal like her rival’s.

There’s this idea that volatile male sexuality is exclusively male and an uncontrollable force in the universe. And the fact that it is resistant to any social norms is related to the fact that it is exclusively male. Hillary’s sexuality—she’s presented, and has to present herself probably, as this completely asexual being. It is taken for granted that she is a celibate grandmother.

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One of your experiences was with internet dating, about which you write, “The technology itself promised nothing. It brought us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them.” Does the technology not promise something—specifically the promise of quick sexual interactions?

It allows you to meet more strangers. It allows you to find people that you might have something in common with and to access more of them, and to have a group of people with a set of declared interests find each other. But what I meant was that there’s nothing on Tinder that says, “This is a casual sex platform.” We’ve imposed that story on Tinder. For many people that use Tinder, it’s not about casual sex at all. It’s about looking for a boyfriend. Technology doesn’t tell us how we’re going to end up at the end of the night.

OK but to what degree does the technology, and the anonymity of it, by its nature make them more likely to become sexual platforms?

I guess I personally never found anything in the technology that promised that. I think it was much more of a widely held belief and desire on the part of many people that the technology would make it easier for us to have those kind of encounters, and the technology can become an alibi or an excuse if you’re not the person that would go home with somebody from the bar at 2 a.m. Now you can go on a Tinder date and tell yourself, “Oh, it was the app. Because I was using the app … ” It can be an excuse for people to engage in behaviors. I still don’t think there’s anything inherent in it.

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How did working on this book affect your feelings about marriage?

One of the things that came out of feminism was the recognition of marriage as a patriarchal institution, and the recognition that a lot of the rituals and rites in marriage were about thinking of a woman as property. Because of feminism, marriage has been refashioned, and I describe going to these weddings where people would write their own vows and do all these things that were specifically done to reject patriarchy. But I did come to wonder if you can really do that. Can you really clean up this institution? Can it really be a place for equality? I don’t know that I can answer that question, but I think that’s a generational question that people are experimenting with in different ways.

Did you find writing about sex difficult?

It was really difficult for me. The book took me four years. At first I didn’t write about myself at all. I didn’t want to. I was encouraged by my editor and publisher to get more personal, and I also came to understand that there was a way in which it was dishonest and skimming the surface of things if I didn’t speak directly about my own feelings, my own experiences. It wasn’t easy for me. I was even embarrassed to interview people in the beginning.

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Did the actual reporting make you more comfortable?

Yeah, all of it. I just got better at talking about it. As I wrote the book, I became more comfortable and aware of my own sexuality, so then that made me much more confident talking about it and thinking about it.

When you confront taboos, sometimes you realize that they don’t exist for any good reason.

Yeah, exactly, or they exist because of some catastrophe you imagine will happen if you speak about them or live them. I learned that I can experiment not only in the world, but I can allow myself some experimental ideation, and that I won’t lose myself. I’m not going to join a cult. There are things that I can try without everything falling apart, hopefully.

Well now you also now if you do join a cult, you can eventually write a book about it.

Yeah, exactly.