Emily Witt was a 30-year-old writer, single, straight, female. A relationship had just ended and she was down, but “my sadness bored everyone, including me.” Like many of her friends, she was having sex, “hooking up”, going on internet dates, having relationships and “nonrelationships” – arrangements that had no right words to define them, or that had names that somehow felt out of sync. She viewed the situation as transitory, though: “I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center.”
One day, after a slightly comical visit to a Brooklyn health clinic she decided to turn this phase she viewed as an “interim state” into an intentional one. And she did it the way many before and after knew how to – by heading west to the land where anything can be self-defined as a “lifestyle” without a hint of irony: California. What followed was a five-year investigation on female sexuality in a post-internet world, recounted in her recently-released first book, Future Sex.
Since “wifeliness” hadn’t simply arrived, she went on her own quest to explore it all – sometimes trying, often just watching. Was free love still possible? Is the internet harnessing a new sexual revolution? The places it took her include, but aren’t limited to: an "orgy dome” at Burning Man, an orgasmic-meditation workshop, a BDSM video shoot, or a polyamorous sex party. The results are fascinating. The book couldn’t be more Zeitgeisty, in many ways, and it’s been reviewed everywhere from the LARB to Playboy. While seriously analysing the way we look at ourselves, it also offers a much-needed breath of fresh air, encouraging us all to really explore our own sexual freedom.
As it happens, Witt didn’t actually find “love” or an end point to that metaphorical train ride, but she found something much better: a totally new outlook on sex. We spoke to her to find out about her process and how this book changed her life.
Do you think that the unlimited choice of partners (in big cities) has depersonalised the sensual side of dating?
I think it’s overestimated how much of a change it’s made. From a romantic point of view, there is of course the idea that there’s something fundamentally unromantic about trying to engineer this magical experience of falling in love, but the romance is usually engineered in some way; either your friend introduces you to somebody, or you’re at a bar and looking or something. It’s not like you’re not out there looking.
Could you talk about the differences you found in the dating culture in San Francisco versus New York? Sensually, how are the vibes different?
Obviously every type of sexual community exists in New York, but in general I would describe it as a more conservative place, and certainly my group of friends was conservative – not in the political sense of the word! But there’s just a lot more eye-rolling about certain modes of self-presentation. In San Francisco, in contrast, people are very earnest about talking about their sexuality, and using new vocabulary and thinking of their lives as a kind of journey in which they’re pursuing some kind of enlightenment.
In New York there’s just a lot more cynicism around that. So while my friends were sexually free in the sense that they all slept with each other, they cheated on their girlfriends and boyfriends, they went home with each other casually… they never would have put that lifestyle in purposeful terms. It was not really discussed and it wasn’t thought of as any kind of sexual identity, it was just thought of as being single in New York.
I was intrigued by your own ambivalence, and by how little you’re actually turned on throughout the book. How did the book change your approach to sexuality?
It changed it profoundly. Just in a basic way, I’m much less shy and embarrassed to just discuss sexuality and think of it as a possible course of study, whereas when I started the book I had this idea of sex as something you were born with, and then you met people, and that kind of connection or alchemy happened or it didn’t. But I didn’t think of it as something that I could get better at. Or that what made a person sexually experienced was not just about sleeping with a lot of people, but also thinking about why you are who you are, and what you want, and practising naming it …
I’m much less shy and embarrassed to just discuss sexuality and think of it as a possible course of study
Are you dating now?
It’s funny, I had a boyfriend for the last couple years of writing the book, and we broke up pretty much the minute the book was finished. I guess I wasn’t that into the relationship. But dating while I was trying to write was really hard, because everything became: What can I analyse from this? Like all my empirical experience was being processed through the book and it just made it confusing, it was hard to just live.
Then I met somebody this summer, and I guess we’re just really in love and we’re going move in together … this thing that I was having trouble finding, all of a sudden I found. And then I was like: What should I do with all of these ideas? All of a sudden I don’t want to just funnel that relationship into the thing I thought I wanted before, which was sort of monogamy that leads to marriage that leads to … Even something like moving in together, I have a lot of skepticism about. But the nice thing is I found somebody who is also interested in thinking of life as an ongoing experiment, and for both of us the main thing is honesty and authenticity in our actions with each other, and to try to avoid rules about monogamy in favour of the pursuit of experience. So we’ll see if that works! But i didn’t want to just shut down the opening up that started through writing the book.
Which of all the people you met throughout your experiences had a bigger impact on you?
It’s hard to admit it because it was so weird, but the orgasmic meditation people. I just learned a lot about the way I was hiding from feelings in my body, like the whole way I thought of sex … I thought that there were feelings that you had when you were having sex with somebody, and then there was the rest of your life – sexuality was just confined to sex, basically. What I learned from them is that sexuality is as much about the way that you experience just being in the world, and make decisions on a day-to-day basis, as it is about actual sex that you have in a relationship, or something.
You’ve talked about it as a form of “coming out”.
Yeah, as an example. I knew why coming out is so important, if you’re gay, because it allows you to be honest with the world not just in terms of who you’re dating, but in terms of your entire range of interactions.
What I learned from them [orgasmic meditation people] is that sexuality is as much about the way that you experience just being in the world, and make decisions on a day-to-day basis, as it is about actual sex that you have in a relationship
Let’s talk about your life as a writer. What’s the first thing you do every morning?
Do you have any writing habits, tricks or quirks?
It depends where I’m at in the writing. I’m extremely inefficient and waste a lot of time. I throw away a lot of writing, and circle around it a lot before I figure out what I need to say. I’m definitely not a person who sits down and writes for six hours every day according to any kind of routine. It’s always an agonising, slow process. But somehow, eventually it gets done. There’s a New Yorker writer named Hendrik Kurtzberg, I saw him speak once and he said that he starts writing when the threat of humiliation outweighs the inclination to procrastinate, and that’s kind of where I am. Oh, and I need to be alone, like really alone, because I get really self-conscious otherwise.
What kind of spaces do you like to write in?
I was really broke for most of the time I was writing the book, and I lived in a very small room in a shared apartment; I think I would have written it much faster if I had a good place to write. I got lucky for a while as a friend of a friend was renovating a studio apartment on the Upper West Side, so for months I got to work in this apartment that had nothing but one table and one chair. It didn’t have any internet, it was just like an empty room.
And then I went to Berlin because I could afford a place on my own. There, I had a studio apartment that was, again, really spartan [laughs]. That’s kind of my ideal, a room with a lot of light and not a lot of stuff in it, where I can unplug the internet. Now I live in Bushwick, I have a big studio with windows on two sides,I sit at the dining room table and work here. I really need to feel alone, in some way.
What do you do to relax?
Especially when I’m in this kind of monastic writing mode, I go do yoga or run, because I feel so disgusting just sitting all day, and I also like to go out to drinks and to dinner at the end of the day. Berlin was nice – despite the fact that maybe I was a little too isolated because I didn’t have any friends there, when I went out, I went all out. Writing is hard … It affects your social life and your relationships.