Does monogamy count as free love? Future Sex reviewed

“I was single, straight, and female”, Emily Witt begins. She is setting the scene for her compelling and cerebral pursuit of free love; of what it means to be truly sexually satisfied in today’s — or tomorrow’s — day and age.

In Future Sex, satisfaction is more than just pleasure, it’s synonymous with liberation. It’s being confident in how your identity is shaped by and interacts with your sexuality while exploring what that sexuality means. The idea that society’s default setting to monogamy as criteria for a happily ever after is implicitly rejected as we join Witt on her search for a viable alternative.

From Tinder to polyamory, with a short but powerful nod to the role contraception plays in shaping gender roles via narratives of motherhood, various trappings of modern life are brought beneath the microscope so we can consider the web of ways they enable and restrict sexual exploration and discovery.

Witt is measured in her musings but not afraid to offer her two cents: orgasmic meditation isn’t for her, but she likes the idea that female sexual pleasure can break free from any emotional and semantic baggage it’s mired in. She had a great time at Burning Man but acknowledges the hypocrisy of its corporate clientele who use the festival to cut loose from an economic structure they are very much responsible for maintaining.

At times, however, the journey seems to regress to being pages from the diary of a privileged person peering over possibilities as if they are a range of desserts on display: all are within reach, it’s just up to you which you choose. There is value in this kind of limitless speculation, but there are also, well, limits.

Culturally, things are primarily framed in terms of spheres that could be called elite. We speak of the free-spirited northern California, the bleeding-edge San Francisco, and the listless continuity of small plates shared during Tinder dates. Only the pockets of America we briefly glimpse through webcams, in a chapter that examines websites that offer live-streaming of sexual performances, seem messy and visceral enough.

But Witt makes no pretence about how present her subjectivity is in her travels. To report from any position not her own would be to lose authenticity and effectively compromise the entire book: her subjective lens and experiences are both the narrator and plot.

Her writing is largely journalistic but also both parts sharp and pensive, exploring each topic with a depth that leaves us entertaining a range of questions and hypotheses: can one really use internet porn to uncover the depths of one’s desires? Could there be a space on the internet where sex would be broadcast on live webcams, that would be dedicated to promoting anonymous sexual exploration for women?

Being in the position to explore and express oneself sexually means something different for many women — in the UK it is said that one third of women experience female sexual dysfunction, which is a blanket term used to describe a range of issues related to sex. Many women report having trouble achieving orgasm, while the general lack of education and understanding about sexuality is widely known and acknowledged by medical professionals and academics alike.

This book then cannot be said to be for every woman. It assumes a degree of familiarity and sameness in discussing how gender, patriarchy, sex, and technology intersect to question our ideas of happiness. For women that have a complicated enough relationship with their identity or body, Future Sex might read as a work of fiction.

In her search for free love, Witt describes sex as something that exists in and of itself, rather than being defined by things it is attached to. We have sex to “get to” somewhere else in the social order, she explains, rather than do it to explore our own selves. Society’s accepted range of sexual identities and behaviours are not enough for Witt, who hopes that traditional ideals will continue to erode. I hope so, too.

Future Sex brings possibility and curiosity to subjects too-often swept under the rug. Witt draws out and lingers on things that would be considered deviant behaviour, taking the time to uncover the human elements within them. A chapter on porn is lead by the characters within it, using their own words to colour our perception of what their lives are like. And against such a wide spectrum of ways to express and understand sexuality, love, relationships, and happiness, it’s hard to look back on monogamy as the default setting. Monogamy is a choice that exists within a network of other choices that all need to be made based on what one person thinks will most make them happy.

This is brilliant brain food but Witt concedes that thinking this way will not magically turn the tide on how people behave; identifying as sexually free will not automatically rid you of all your inhibitions. Making this declaration does, however, offer clarity in how we want to think about who we are and what we like, which paves the way for greater confidence and resolve in discovering the potential in who we could be.

Use Future Sex to get inspired. Let it prompt you to do your own research, ask your own questions, and make up your own mind.

Mon

Mon is a firm feminist who believes in the power of language and good media to make change. An avid reader and arts buff, her interests lie in media representation and reportage of gender and sex.