Virtual Roundtable on “Future Sex”

On Emily Witt’s smart and sometimes menacing study of 21st-century intimacy.

Emily Witt’s book Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love came out in the halcyon days of early fall, when love and sex were in the air, along with other ordinarily extraordinary things like sun and anger and injustice and friends and an idea of the future. The essays below wrestle with Witt’s smart, wry, and sometimes menacing explorations of free love, non-monogamy, and the social and economic forces that shape our intimacies. They revisit the utopian strains in Witt’s book from the other side of a great catastrophe of public life in the US to push even further the forms of radical intimacy that now, once again, feel urgent and necessary. The virtual roundtable also includes a selection of video stills by the artist Ayden LeRoux and concludes with a retrospective essay by the author of Future Sex, Emily Witt.

—Anjuli Raza Kolb, guest editor


• Sarah Brouillette: A Feminist Communist Killjoy Reads Future Sex

• Margaux Cowden: Future Perfect

• Ayden LeRoux: From Every Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (2014–2017)

• Alicia Christoff: Alien Sex

• Amber Jamilla Musser: The Mess We’re In

• Tanya Agathocleous: Back to the Future Sex


• Emily Witt: Some Thoughts about Future Sex by Its Author


Sarah Brouillette


Future Sex concerns people for whom an old narrative about love and desire—the one that culminates in marriage, monogamous commitment, and the nuclear family—is no longer as unavoidable as it once was. People in Emily Witt’s circle of adult acquaintances engage not in “relationships” as she had imagined them as a child, but in short-term “emotional involvements.” Those who do make more lasting commitments tend to arrange them in such a way that each person in the couple is free to be sexually and emotionally involved with other people—so long as it doesn’t threaten their primary partnership. Witt largely presents these new realities of dating and romantic life as a progressive liberation, but she can’t quite enjoy them. Her tone is often one of weary and detached bemusement or boredom; she remarks on her failure to experience either love or truly scintillating adventure; and she finds herself still plagued by a habitual yearning for a singular lifelong commitment and kids.

Reading Future Sex induced some vivid memories of my childhood, as I reflected on the difference between the mores of the people I meet now, who are relatively free to push back against the expectation of monogamous marriage, and the people who lived in the working-class housing complex where I grew up, on the outskirts of Vancouver. There, in house after house, was a heterosexual nuclear family, both parents working, usually with multiple kids, and no one had any time to act on thoughts they might have about squandered romantic opportunities. Most couples saw each other as help to get through the day. Relatively few people had the freedom to seek new encounters and develop multiple intimacies. Even now, of course, many people might think that polyamory sounds great, but who has the time? Who has the time and emotional energy and physical stamina to cultivate even one lasting, gratifying sexual connection? Desire, both in its realization and in its unfulfilled fantasy component, develops in response to what people face each day, and it is inflected by the urgent pressures and predictable drudgeries and disappointments of daily life.

This is true for Witt as well, of course. Witt offers an ambivalent commentary on the affordances of the bright new world of nonexclusive tech-enabled dating practices. She notes that “so many doctrines—marriage, the nuclear family, sexual taboos, diet, gender” had “successfully been exploded,” and remarks on the power that “the traditional story” continues to have over her sense of herself and her romantic “standing.” But how we narrate our lives, what we tell ourselves about how to live, arises from material and historical conditions such as what part of the world and which class we were born into, have moved through, and end up in. They include race, citizenship and immigration status, and sexuality and gender. They include our level of exposure to male dominance and violence, which continues despite our apparent liberation from monogamy. They include the nature of the families we have known. They include what work we do or do not do, and who exploits and benefits from our work. The question that remains for me, then, is how do these conditions structure Witt’s account in Future Sex, even as they are not the focus of her treatment?

One answer is that Future Sex is a usefully symptomatic guide to a psychosexual personality that is deeply compatible with contemporary capitalism. The stories she tells are of people who have money to spend and more free time than most people. Dating is something to do. They are largely young tech workers and creative types. They have good degrees, good contacts, flexible but consistent work. They are in mainly heterosexual couplings, have no kids (or pay people to help them with childcare), no mortgages, nothing anchoring them in one place. An agile, mobile workforce for whom each romance is an exciting, fleeting adventure—for whom a different kind of relationship might feel stultifying, anodyne, like a false or inauthentic life. Forming lasting, unmovable bonds is an impediment to one’s mobility, while bohemian refusal of the same old thing serves as a fount of images to seduce workers into joining the cult of creative innovation and “liberation management”—a managerial form based on the notion that the best way to get people to work infinitely without complaint is to acknowledge that routines and bosses are terrible burdens that everyone in the company should resist through fun, “flexible,” nonmanaged contracts.

Future Sex is a usefully symptomatic guide to a psychosexual personality that is deeply compatible with contemporary capitalism.

Witt describes her research into alternative sex practices like tech industry sex parties, pornography involving a live audience, a cult devoted to female sexual pleasure, and random Burning Man hookups. Those involved seem to buy the idea that these are expansions of the definition of “normal” that are genuinely radical and disruptive. No one seems self-conscious about being a good capitalist subject: white, hetero, cisgender, working, clean, from “good families,” respectful of authority, engaged in moderate drug use (nothing that threatens one’s mental agility), and harboring only the most productive neuroses, nothing too threatening or dissipative. Witt’s book is a nicely illustrative symptom of the tendencies of this whole milieu.

Scholars have argued that the heteronormative, monogamous, nuclear family couple was particularly well suited to capital’s dynamic phase of industrial expansion and profitability.1 In our current situation of economic turmoil and stagnation, the reproduction of productive labor in couple-based households is no longer a necessity everywhere—indeed, in some countries, the difficulty of keeping people working and the unemployed engaged in work-like activities worries governments greatly, hence conversations about the possibility of a universal basic income. At the same time, an expanding service sector handles some of what used to keep people too busy to develop multiple relationships: housekeeping, childrearing, and elder care, for example. Under these circumstances, it is more possible than ever for “alternative” ways of being to come to the fore, with some even achieving mainstream respectability: think gay marriage, affective disinvestment in parenting, non-couple coparenting, moving back in with your parents, and “conscious uncoupling.” Flip the coin, and the dwindling of the blue-collar industrial workforce, the expansion of domestic and affective caring work in the service sector, and the creeping obsolescence of the traditional nuclear family have been crucial drivers of the hyper-conservative men’s rights activist or “alt-right” masculinist backlash against changing norms.

There are many forms of deviation from the standards of identity and desire that are far less welcome than those represented in Future Sex. We confront the limitation of a focus on the “liberation” of wealthy young heterosexuals in the violence faced by those whose proclivities are threatened and penalized. As Sophie Monk and Joni Pitt (Cohen) have stressed in recent work, homophobia and transphobia are hardly withering away; queerness as “alternative” is mediated through “fundamentally classed, raced and disabled intersections.”2 It is worthwhile, then, “to examine which elements of queer life are tolerable and assimilable in the capitalist world-system, and which are not.” Part of what is not palatable to the mainstream/dominant culture is to stand too firmly in favor of the abolition of existing relations. Yet the old forms of gendered domination—what an editorial in the feminist magazine GUTS calls “hand-me-down fantasies” that “cramp us, squeeze us, and misshape us when we try to live them”—persist far more than Future Sex allows. They ask: “Why is the alternative not an even greater plurality? Again, not only of lovers, but of life-sustaining arrangements of relations that we navigate without containment?” There is an apparent parallel with Witt’s book here in this emphasis on pluralizing desire, except that this call for “the multiple” comes from a different place and has a different implication. The GUTS editors insist that people who suffer in life and have been hurt by “love,” who feel that sustaining their own lives and others’ is sometimes very hard, sometimes full of wrenching risk and despair, might wish to take every opportunity to enter into relationships that may help them survive.

In Witt’s book, nonmonogamy is a possibility to explore in a world of liberated drives. But promoting “the multiple” without addressing the causes of what hurts people in life and love seems insufficient. Some people might prefer the ideal of fidelity to a single sustaining love; some people have been abused by men so often they refuse any contact with them; some people need their capitalist life helper even if he never loads the dishwasher properly; some people are depressive hedonists moving from lover to lover; some people are addicted to flirting online and never meeting in the flesh; some people combine multiple tendencies and change dramatically from year to year. Are any of these practices more “healthy” or “sane”? Is any more politically propitious? I remain agnostically uncertain. But no account of love and sex is complete until its analysis is anchored in an account of the daily hardships, the impositions, the inner turmoil and conscious struggle that push people into and out of one or another form of coupledom or non-coupledom. Yes: let love rule, let desire be multiple and nonexclusive, let people do what they want and need to do to get by and even flourish in struggle. But also: abolish capitalism and the kinds of domination it requires and proliferates, OK?


Jump to: Sarah Brouillette, Margaux Cowden, Ayden LeRoux, Alicia Christoff, Amber Jamilla Musser, Tanya Agathocleous, Emily Witt


Margaux Cowden


Single and finding prospects for long-term monogamy in short supply, Emily Witt perceives herself at a standstill on the path to her future love, and so begins to loiter in the interpersonal ambiguities of the sexual present circa 2011. Finding herself in relationships distinguished by the “salient characteristic … that you had them while remaining alone,” Witt is at a loss for words to describe these flexible attractions: “Our relationships had changed but the language had not.” This frustration resonated powerfully for me. I flashed back to 1995, age 16, pacing my Laura Ashley bedroom while I practiced saying “lesbian” because the word inspired such panic in me. It recalled more recent attempts to square life and language—I do not want to be a “wife” and the transgender man I married is not my “husband,” but “partner” sounds sterile, “spouse” extremely formal, and “beloved” a little intimate for everyday use. I have more willingly identified as a wife for one of my best friends, who exchanged vows with me and her two other closest friends on her 40th birthday. In other words, I recognized Witt’s feelings of alienation because they are commonplace experiences of queerness—Future Sex documents what happens when straight people find themselves in queer territories. Or, as Witt puts it, when “sexual freedom [is] extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did.”

Witt’s desire for the sexual future calls up a long history of bodies and desires disciplined by the institutional arbiters of sexual respectability—from the sterilization of women of color and psychiatric “treatments” of homosexuality to the Moynihan Report’s pathologization of black families and my dear Aunt Mary Ann who, bless her heart, pointedly misgenders my partner at family holidays and prays for my salvation the rest of the time. These and other forms of sexual authority rebuke and obscure sexuality that strays from the marriage plot, with all its socioeconomic, racial, and gender commitments. Hypersexualized and sexually minoritized communities—people of color, LGBTQIA folks, and sex workers, to name a few—have regularly been characterized as backward, underdeveloped, and degenerate. When queerness isn’t represented as lagging, straight culture projects it into futurity as the decline of heterosexual tradition. The crowdsourced glossary of slang Urban Dictionary consistently defines modernity in sexual terms, as for example: “Modern People tend towards being attracted to their own sex, or even both, in which case they are considered to be Thoroughly Modern People.”

Witt’s book recasts queer history as an unnamable heterosexual future. The central revelation of Future Sex is that the future of sex lies not in new ways of doing it, but rather in emergent social architectures that enable “unfamiliar mode[s] of sexual expression” and new stories about what sex means. Future Sex acknowledges some of the many ways that queer counterpublics have long created such spaces and stories, but they appear for the most part as ghostly reminders of extinct movements and endangered sexual species in gentrifying San Francisco. Occasional sightings of “gay construction workers and vibrator stores” remind Witt that “this was the place where Harvey Milk was elected (and assassinated), where the bathhouses had flourished (and closed).” She’s not wrong—it’s a sharply observed description of the rapidly Google-izing Bay Area of the early 2010s—but a quick visit to the East Bay would reveal queer politicians and cruising venues still very much alive.

Future Sex documents what happens when straight people find themselves in queer territories.

Most of Witt’s essays are about quasi-utopian spaces like Burning Man and sex parties organized by elite young professionals. These settings sideline the sexual negotiations of everyday, present-tense life—a lunch-break stop at your favorite glory hole or the 24/7 kink relationship unfolding in an unglamorous Midwest living room. She is skeptical of the sexual utopianism of the gentrified city: the “clean, well-lighted spaces” of woman-centered sex initiatives, Good Vibrations’ dildos, displayed “in denuded simplicity like art objects on pedestals,” porn that “shrouds sexual stimulation in stories of … personal confession, self-help, … and education.” She compares this suppressive safety to the vertiginous sexual possibility signaled by Google’s homepage: “A vacant search bar waited, cursor blinking, for ideas that I … had never expressed in language,” both leading to a kind of utopian paralysis. As Witt puts it: “It was as if, having cleaned out the clutter of masculine pornographic language and imagery, the only inoffensive concept left was a spartan white room dotted with patches of sunlight, starched curtains gently blowing from the open floor-to-ceiling windows.” If the path out of this white room is exposure to a diversity of sexual possibilities, then Chaturbate, with its “cacophony of ingenuity and perversion,” seems to Witt the most pragmatic way for women to undertake this exploration, “with the risk of pregnancy, violence, and sexually transmitted infection minimized through the medium of encounter.”

In thinking about sex, risk, and public space, Witt turns to Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, a memoir that considers the social benefits of public sex venues, particularly the way they enable cross-class contact. Delany challenges popular ideas about risk that interpret socioeconomic and sexual diversity as dangerous, mistaking gentrified, sanitized “woman-friendly” or “family-friendly” capitalism for safety. “What waits,” Delany suggests, “is for women to consider [public sex] venues as a locus of possible pleasure.” As he escorts a curious female friend through the porn cinema he frequents, Delaney reflects on the uneventfulness of the visit despite some surprise on both sides, concluding, “I don’t see any reason that a woman (or women) couldn’t take any (or every) role I’ve already described … that includes the guy … coming down the stairs, genitals exposed—though it does unmitigated violence to the West’s traditional concept of ‘women.’ But I believe it is only by inflicting such violences on the concept that we can prevent actual violence against women’s bodies and minds in the political, material world” (emphasis mine).

Witt is intrigued by women’s participation in public sexual cultures, but her imagination of that possibility is much less expansive than Delany’s. She is concerned by the persistence of patriarchy even in democratic, eclectic internet spaces like Chaturbate, where the ads still rely on semen-soaked porn tropes, and visitors were “overwhelmingly more male than female.” Instead, Witt wants a secure, anonymous “site … free of sidebars advertising lonely MILFs where women went for digital manhandling by handsome strangers using advanced teledildonic technology.” Tongue-in-cheek humor about MILFs and digital manhandling aside, Witt’s desire for a smutless, encrypted experience dramatically misses Delany’s point about sex, safety, and democracy. Despite her incisive critique of antiporn arguments that ultimately police women’s desires, Witt still puts stock in Catherine McKinnon’s claim that patriarchal porn fantasies are themselves a form of violence. Consequently, she is unwilling to do violence to heteronormative concepts of woman by participating in the kind of sexual cultures Delany describes. Witt wants “to live in a world with a wider range of sexual identities,” where “the primacy and legitimacy of a single sexual model would continue to erode,” but she has a hard time letting go of the utopian frames that make expanding sexual diversity feel conceptually safe, also thereby slowing the process of erosion.


Pornography Porn

By Heather Love

What kept me reading Future Sex is its unflinching self-awareness, which makes the book compelling despite its presumptive straightness. Witt pointedly mocks her willful lack of insight into the anxieties motivating her project: “I still half-expected that … in the middle of all the uncertainty I would come across an exit ramp that would lead me back to all the comfortable expectations and recognizable names. I was so disingenuous. ‘But what is your personal journey?’ the freethinkers would ask, and I would joke about this later with my friends.” She offers a hilarious commentary on some friends’ attempts to resist institutional conformity by planning “neo-marriages [that] had to be an expression of the purest love and show a deliberate break with history.” My paramour (or whatever) and I had one of those neo-marriages: an overwrought quasi-nuptial event caught between my queer and feminist commitments and nagging desire for the pomp and circumstance of bourgeois marital success. In a fit of anxiety, I insisted our invitation include a footnote detailing my objections to marriage—hetero, homo, or otherwise. If I could have read Future Sex in 2008, I might have struggled less, or at least less self-importantly, with my ideological impurity.

Negotiations with normativity provide the book’s most interesting moments, canny meditations on ideology’s complex appeals. Witt’s searing portrait of her discomfort with her desires gets at the factitiousness of “authentic sexuality,” challenging utopian narratives of individual sexual liberation. She confesses, in a winning aside on her experience at OneTaste, an orgasmic meditation studio: “I would have rather socialized with any group of people other than them. … 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, who drank and smoked cigarettes.” These disclosures save the sexual future from utopian self-importance, allowing it to coexist with the messiness of quotidian failure in the sexual present, which is, by the way, another queer strategy for surviving the normative present and making room for our conflicted feelings about living in (and often enjoying) the bad world.


Jump to: Sarah Brouillette, Margaux Cowden, Ayden LeRoux, Alicia Christoff, Amber Jamilla Musser, Tanya Agathocleous, Emily Witt


Ayden LeRoux


Ayden LeRoux is an artist, writer, and sex educator who divides her time between Brooklyn, New York, and Austin, Texas. Her work examines domestic space, care, maintenance, and hospitality. The series from which these video stills are drawn, Every Bed I’ve Ever Slept In, is a fragmented autobiography told through the lens of a single object. The videos show LeRoux making each of the 181 beds she has spent the night in over the course of her lifetime. Each video is paired with a vignette telling the story of the bed.

Every Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (San Francisco, CA). Video still, 2014

Every Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (Brooklyn, NY). Video still, 2014

Every Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (Newmarket, NH). Video still, 2016

Every Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (Placitas, NM). Video still, 2014

Every Bed I’ve Ever Slept In (Keuka Lake, NY), Video still, 2015

You can see more of her work at


Jump to: Sarah Brouillette, Margaux Cowden, Ayden LeRoux, Alicia Christoff, Amber Jamilla Musser, Tanya Agathocleous, Emily Witt


Alicia Christoff


My favorite future sex: the kind described by Octavia Butler in her astonishing late 1980s science fiction trilogy Lilith’s Brood. The future sex Butler imagines is a three-way involving two humans, one gray-tentacled alien, neural stimulation, and the most intense sexual pleasure a human has ever experienced. The humans in the trilogy are initially repulsed by the strange-looking members of this alien race (the Oankali, who come in three sexes: male, female, and Ooloi). But they need them for two reasons: first, because the humans can only perpetuate their race (which has all but annihilated itself by way of nuclear war) by mating with the Oankali, and second, because the future sex they offer is too pleasurable to resist.

Butler, genius that she was, packs just about everything into this simple scenario: meditations on empire, race, miscegenation, genetic engineering, the fit between pleasure, power, and biological “purpose,” rape, the nature of sexual consent, sex/gender, sexual configurations, and the social forms that follow from them, necessarily or not. The list could go on, and it could certainly include the three things that most interested Emily Witt in the years in which she wrote Future Sex: “sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs, and futurism”—and, we should add, technology, especially as it both mediates and produces social connections (, OkCupid, Tinder), sexual experience (Chaturbate and internet pornography), and contraceptive and reproductive possibility (the IUD, cryogenically frozen eggs, and in vitro fertilization).

Future Sex evokes science fiction at many points, citing the writers Samuel Delaney, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ursula K. Le Guin, although not Octavia Butler. Witt uses science fiction not only to help her imagine what “new drugs” and “new sex” might look like in the future, but also to evoke deflated futurist visions from the past. The book’s controlling metaphor is Epcot Center, which opened in 1982 and became a laughably outdated fantasy of the future within years. The book begins: “I was single, straight, and female. When I turned thirty, in 2011, I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center.” She would disembark at a station called “the future” and find her life partner there waiting for her, ready to begin forever together. Like Epcot, such a vision of the future, Witt has realized, is defunct, a sad shiny silver relic of a hopeful but misguided past.


My Neighbor Octavia

By Sheila Liming

Witt’s goal is to get as far away from this sense of a destination as she can, experimenting with—or at least, writing about others who experiment with—“free love”: with polyamory, open relationships, and live webcam sex; with “orgasmic meditation” and orgies at Burning Man. But, reading the book, I had a nagging sense that Witt never really stepped off the train—A Monorail-car Named Monogamous Destiny. She reports on sexual experiments, investigates and researches them, visits websites, interviews their full participants, and tries them in small doses, notebook in hand. But some forms of pressure, it seems, are hard to shake. Witt writes, near the book’s close, by which time she is about thirty-five years old and her study of free love is ending, “I had now absorbed a powerful lesson about resistance to change: that it manifests less by institutional imposition and more by the subtle suggestions of the people who love you”—including, perhaps, your past self, the one who envisioned a nuclear family as something to which your future self was entitled after a brief performance of resistance. Witt doesn’t explore this fully, but it seems to me that one’s own failures and the desire to redeem them—“failed” marriage (divorce), “failed” pregnancy (miscarriage), “rebound” relationships that fail to make good on earlier suffering—exert an equal pressure against “free” love.

San Francisco, the book’s main setting, figures as another Epcot, the “peace signs” still hanging “in the windows of the head shops and thrift stores on Haight Street” now as emptily iconic as the silver dome of Spaceship Earth. Once an epicenter not just of sexual, spiritual, and psychedelic experimentation, but also of dedicated efforts at other modes of family making and community living, the city keeps getting “sleeker, more expensive, more uniform in appearance.” It’s now a place to buy 10-dollar juices and from which to commute to a job at Facebook or Google. Burning Man is an Epcot Center too: once a utopian vision for living off-the-grid and outside social norms, it is now full of “rich people on vacation breaking rules that everyone else would suffer for if they didn’t obey,” a place for wasteful “crap” like LED lights, single-serving packets of lube, “polyester fur leg warmers and plastic water bottles and disposable batteries,” for hired RV drivers and paid clean-up crews.

Future Sex borrows from science fiction an alien view of culture, as when Witt writes about her own social milieu and the year 2012 as if from a distant stardate: “The young people who came to San Francisco were neither dropouts nor misfits nor the victims of prejudice. They were children who had grown up eating sugar-free cereal, swaddled in Polar Fleece jackets made from recycled plastic bottles. They had studied abroad in West Africa and volunteered in high school at local soup kitchens. They knew their favorite kinds of sashimi, and were friends with their parents. They expressed their emotions in the language of talk therapy.” Most of the book is written from just this kind of remove, and we’re never certain just how much Witt is participating in the experiments and subcultures she describes. Perhaps most remarkably, we never get a clear sense of her own sexual pleasure, or a vivid description of her own arousal or disgust (a distinct difference from Butler’s fiction, where these sensations are so powerfully depicted). Even when she’s high, Witt is taking notes for the book.

Witt’s book is a sincere effort to see and think modern sexuality from an alien point of view.

That’s why it’s so surprising when, in the book’s penultimate chapter, “Birth Control and Reproduction,” Witt’s voice and personal desires suddenly reassert themselves in a clear and forceful present tense: “I am approaching the age now where if I don’t have a baby I will have chosen not to have a baby. I think: Did I make a choice?” She concludes that, despite future sex and utopian visions, what we have here is not so much choice as structural impossibility: it is still not economically and socially viable to have and raise children alone, and we have not developed the creative alternatives to long-term domestic partnership that we need. Even apart from the fact that abortion rights and access are increasingly under attack, “choice” is a kind of misnomer, a neoliberal code word that obfuscates social and structural determinants. The very idea of “choice,” with its shades of individual agency, simply means that women, straight, gay, or otherwise, spend inordinate amounts of time weighing reproductive questions in the back or forefront of their minds, where it becomes just another instance of exhausting and invisible labor.

What Witt laments in the book, then, is not only the straight-line track of “single, straight, [white, wealthy] female”-ness, but also her own one-track mind and the neoliberal ideologies that have shaped the physical and virtual spaces around her (cities-cum-strip malls, webcam chat rooms powered by Amazon) and within her (even her quest for sexual liberation bends itself to the ends of self-improvement and professional development). Witt reflects on these processes—on the corporatization of America, on consumer culture’s grip on every aspect of sex and romance—and also on her own privilege, but it’s hard not to wonder if these moments serve more as lip service than genuine self-consciousness. In the end, despite its glaring blind spots, Witt’s book is a sincere effort to see and think modern sexuality from an alien point of view. That it can’t quite achieve that makes the book sound to my ears like an even more poignant cry from the abyss.

Witt writes: “The beauty of science fiction was that its authors never had to work out the logistics of how we would arrive in the future. The future was presented as a fait accompli, and the difficult work by which society accepted new social configurations did not have to be explained.” I invoke Lilith’s Brood because that is, in fact, exactly what this work of science fiction does: it shows us the slow and difficult process, over several generations, by which humans acclimate themselves to new sexual partners and practices, new sensations, new bonds, new ways of making and raising offspring, and new kinship networks, along with all of the attraction and repulsion, the desire and the fear, these new things bring. Future Sex doesn’t give us new social configurations (which is in the end what it’s really after, rather than the “future sex” and “future drugs” it pretends to clamor for). But it does give us a sense of the painful reality from which urgent demand for these new psycho-social-sexual configurations might evolve, and the difficulties we’ll have creating and accepting them. It’s not a vision of the future, as it falsely promises, but it is a sketch of the discontents and alienation of the present. And perhaps that’s just as necessary.


Jump to: Sarah Brouillette, Margaux Cowden, Ayden LeRoux, Alicia Christoff, Amber Jamilla Musser, Tanya Agathocleous, Emily Witt


Amber Jamilla Musser


I came to Emily Witt’s Future Sex with curiosity and trepidation. I spend a lot of time thinking about the entanglements of sexuality and the experience of women of color, so I regarded the book’s premise, apparent in its subtitle, A New Kind of Free Sex, warily. Why must the future coincide with freedom? Thinking about and studying black female sexuality has taught me that freedom is not a universal, that only certain people have access to it. And, so, I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that I could read Future Sex as a meditation on constraint. Even as Witt asks over and over again, what is freedom?, the key concerns of the book are actually bodily vulnerability and interdependence.

After finding herself single, and not entirely happy with casual dating and hooking up, Witt heads west to begin her exploration of free sex. In this brave new world, Witt hopes to become more comfortable and less limited in her choices about sex and intimacy. Sometimes the freedom she discovers is material and negative, as in the absence of commitment, unintended pregnancies, or STIs. Sometimes it is positive and ephemeral, as for instance in the case of the sexual and relational experiments that are the main subject of the book.

But in Future Sex, the ostensible road to freedom leads to constraint. The key constraint that Witt grapples with is gender hierarchy, and the unequal burden it places on women via responsibility for birth control, pregnancy, and childcare. Witt suggests that heterosexual monogamy is bad for women, even as she acknowledges her lingering attachment to it: “If in my early thirties the future would have simply arrived as I had always imagined, I would have abandoned my inquiry. I would have embraced the project of wifeliness, monogamy, and child-rearing and posted them as triumphs for collective celebration on digital feeds.”

Although unlimited sexual freedom proves impossible in Future Sex, Witt does provide us with a rough set of propositions about how to enjoy the freedom we have:


1. Technology can set you free. The internet offers the possibility of almost unlimited choice, along with relative anonymity. You can choose who, where, how, and when, all at a remove. Distance does not have to be an obstacle, and the constraints of life in the immediate—sick parents, small towns—can fade away in the bounded glow of laptop screens. Witt describes a plethora of emergent sexualities oriented around performing on and through the internet, where physical encounters are not the point, or at least beside it.


2. Intimacy, genital touching, and sex do not have to align. Though this lesson is not necessarily new, Witt’s experience at OneTaste, whose philosophy of orgasmic meditation is premised on vulva worshipping and whose sessions include 15 minutes of clitoral stimulation, leaves her feeling respected and empowered to break off contact when she chooses. The non-mutuality of sex and emotional intimacy enable her to explore bodily capacities and agency without the encumbrance of reciprocity.


3. Capitalism and sex need not be divorced. Enacting one’s sexual fantasies can be profitable. Witt describes a couple who eke out a living from streaming their sexual encounters on Chaturbate. Eventually, however, the couple tire of living as a spectacle whereby sex transitions from fantasy to primary mode of economic survival. The price of monetizing fantasy, even one’s own, is freedom.


Future Sex begins in a health clinic where Witt is waiting for the results of a chlamydia test after a casual sexual encounter with a friend. Neither of them, it turns out, is infected, but the experience gives Witt pause. After declaring the federal government’s suggestion that the best way to avoid chlamydia was to “abstain from vaginal, anal, and oral sex or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected” a “fantasy,” Witt books a flight to San Francisco to begin her research into free sex. But rather than defying this abstinence-only policy, Witt gravitates toward spaces and practices that minimize corporeal vulnerability.

In looking for “free sex” without intimacy or proximity, Witt emphasizes relations that allow for the exploration of her desires, unshackled by shame and without obligation to a partner or, really, to any other person. By defining freedom as freedom-from (from risk and dependency), Witt embraces an antiseptic individualism. In this vein, we hear about the strict parameters for touching on the set, the latex gloves employed by the OneTaste community, and the strict rules of a polyamorous relationship.

But despite all these precautions, mess creeps in—and that is when things get interesting. The Chaturbate couple finds that money soils the space of fantasy because it turns their sex into work that they must do in order to stay financially solvent. The polyamorous triangle disintegrates when Chris—the long-term third party to Wes and Elizabeth—begins to chafe at barriers to intimacy. Tired of being excluded from the mess of their lives—both in the form of mundane rituals of cohabitation and their future aspirations—Chris breaks things off. He wants not only sex but also intimacy, with all its disorder and dependency.

The key concerns of Witt’s book are actually bodily vulnerability and interdependence.

The closest Witt comes to celebrating mess is in her time at Burning Man. Even as she acknowledges the layers of privilege—financial and otherwise—that it takes to attend, she writes, “If this place felt right, if it had expanded so much over the years because to so many people it felt like ‘home,’ it had something to do with the inadequacy of the old social structures that still governed our lives in our real homes, where we felt lonely, isolated, and unable to form the connections we wanted.” In this transition from freedom-from to freedom-to, Witt shows how messing with social norms can break down the barriers between people. Freedom-to depends on and reifies ideas of an autonomous individual, but it also involves negotiation and interdependency. Though Burning Man represents a temporary form of mess, toward the end of the book, Witt coyly reveals that she has a boyfriend, which suggests the embrace of the more long-term mess of intimacy.

When freedom is a place where mess can happen, we may feel more secure, but this freedom is temporary—eventually everyone has to leave Burning Man. Witt ends the book with a reflection on her journey and the difficulty of locating any lasting form of freedom: “I had spent most of my adult life looking for some scene that did not feel as if its stated ideals were thinly veiled sales pitches but I had found it only a handful of times, in the always-impermanent dynamics of particular groups of friends at particular moments in time, on psychedelics, in the wilderness, occasionally in writing.”

Despite the fleeting nature of freedom and its increasing commodification, Witt doesn’t entirely give up on the future: “To experience sexuality was to have a body that pursued a feeling, a dot in the distance toward which it must move. We wanted to follow the body into a more progressive future, to think there might be some intuition to rely upon, but the number of people any one life contained was finite.” This is not where I wanted the narrative to end, however. What if, instead of a deferred future and foreclosed freedom, Witt concluded the book with a meditation on intimacy, vulnerability, and constraint in the present? The moments of excess Witt experiences—on psychedelics, at parties—suggest that sharing consequences and negotiating pleasures and desires is not the antithesis of freedom. In these cases, freedom means relying on others to care for you. Perhaps this is where to find sexual freedom—not in the future, but in the messy now.


Jump to: Sarah Brouillette, Margaux Cowden, Ayden LeRoux, Alicia Christoff, Amber Jamilla Musser, Tanya Agathocleous, Emily Witt


Tanya Agathocleous


Remember, back in the “future,” when we got to choose between going to a sex party, being stroked to orgasm in a yoga studio, or titillating a stranger online by stripping while wearing a horse mask? These are only a few of the intriguing sexual options available to women today, Future Sex contends, and they allow for narratives that circumvent the narrow road to heterosexual monogamy that women are still expected to happily travel down.

Yet this intoxicating world of possibility seems almost quaint now that the actual future has come to mean, among other horrors, a sexual predator President with advisors who believe in “curing” homosexuality and the relentless erosion of Roe v. Wade. The cognitive dissonance produced by comparing the sexual utopia Witt points toward and the Handmaid’s Tale dystopia we find ourselves in is what makes her book both an exhilarating and a frustrating read. Future Sex is not so much about the future as the immediate present of an elite minority, which is why it offers few clues as to how people might more broadly equate sex with freedom as Witt does, especially now that the misogynistic backlash is in full, grotesque ascendance.

Though originally written as a series of essays, Future Sex in toto reads both like an anthropological study—in which the author explores vaguely marginal spaces her audience would rather read about than investigate themselves—and like a sexy spiritual journey. By examining how sex structures other people’s lives, Witt strives to reimagine her own as one in which sex could be “a force that gave life meaning rather than a means to a structural end.” The classic participant-observer, Witt dips in and out of the communities she studies, viewing them with wry detachment. While this approach could lead to voyeuristic condescension, she is in fact unfailingly respectful toward her subjects, gamely participating in their activities and humbly learning from their experiences and her own. She thus manages to see the value and pleasure in all the practices she engages with, even in those cases when she is left relatively uninspired; her distanced perspective, meanwhile, keeps her from succumbing to the insularity of the communities she observes and lends her writing a biting humor. Of a woman named Elisa Death Naked from Iceland (the one who strips while wearing a horse mask), she writes sardonically: “Even faceless she gleamed with the well-being that emanates wherever per-capita consumption of fish oils is high and citizens benefit from socialized health care.”

Future Sex reads like both an anthropological study and a sexy spiritual journey.

Witt is for the most part impressively successful at striking a balance between demystification and celebration. Though she winces at the overly precious language used by the orgasmic meditation set (e.g., “tumesced”), she also notes the idealistic appeal of the enterprise in its pursuit of “a method to arrive at a more authentic and stable experience of sexual openness, one that came from immanent desire instead of an anxiety to please.” In particular, she pays warm tribute to women who have dedicated themselves to creating spaces that challenge, subvert, or provide escape from mainstream views of female sexuality. Sometimes, though, her laudable desire to champion these feminists leads to an overly simplistic storyline. For example, on attending a film shoot at in which a performer is systematically degraded by a crowd of spectators, she overcomes her initial resistance to the idea that such an act could be sexually pleasurable or liberating for the women involved by observing how both the woman directing the scene and the woman being “degraded” are exercising control and choice, defanging misogynistic fantasy by inhabiting it on their own terms. By engaging with pornography as spectators or creators, Witt decides, women are able to undermine “the specter of the leering man. You invade his temple, his redoubt. You have felt what he feels but you have felt it in your own way.” But in making her newfound appreciation for porn the payoff of this episode, Witt neglects to note the way consent might be complicated by the casual misogyny of the workplace, where women’s complaints about harassment and exploitation are ignored as often within the world of porn as outside it. While might be run by feminists, as Witt claims, the company has nonetheless been the subject of several lawsuits that accuse it of a range of workplace violations, including pushing its performers beyond agreed-upon boundaries.

At one point, Witt refers to a conversation in which two of her poly friends discuss the “hyperbolic optimism” of the Bay Area. They note that their lifestyles are “in fact totally ungrounded in any wider reality” and could only “be pondered in the highly specific time and place of San Francisco, in the first half of the second decade of the new millennium, among a group of young educated people with high standards of living.” This perspective is crucial, but one that the book proffers more often via ironic tone than explicit avowal. As Sarah Brouillette points out in her essay for this roundtable, Future Sex lodges itself firmly in the “highly specific” milieu with which Witt’s friends identify, choosing to mostly ignore or bracket the wider realities that determine access to its pleasures and freedoms. This is at least in part due to the book’s individualistic form. While Witt’s project is to provide a new set of sexual possibilities and narratives for women, her use of the first person and emphasis on self-discovery—on what her sociological sojourns into future sex teach her about herself and her desires—prevent her from reimagining sex in terms that might fundamentally restructure its normative social function, rather than simply provide colorful, exclusive, and temporary diversions from it.

This feels like untapped potential, because Future Sex seems as interested in community as it is in sexuality, though less explicitly; Witt appears at least as enamored of the new groupings she encounters and their creative vocabularies as she is of the sexual practices she samples. Of the polyamory circle she says wistfully, “I envied their community of friends, the openness with which they shared their attractions.” Creating new forms of community also appears to be the underlying goal of many of the people Witt befriends, for whom sexual pleasure is perhaps not so much an end unto itself as she had imagined. Instead, it often seems to function as an escape from loneliness and banality through the forms of sociability that aim to circumvent the alienations of neoliberalism. But new forms of community, if they are to be recognized as such, require new narratives and new poetics: ones that reject the individuation that structures our current social order. A book about sex that functions formally as a vision of collectivity is an imaginative challenge given the persistence and limitations of the forms we’ve inherited and that Witt reproduces. Such an imagining, however, seems vital to the envisioning of sex and liberation as meaningfully connected: surely no one is sexually free until everyone is sexually free.


The Fiction of Bohemian NYC

By Sara Marcus

Future Sex is mostly about chronicling the trippy, technology-dependent nature of sex today and challenging the assumption that sex must connect to social and sexual reproduction and hence be future-oriented. But Witt looks toward the actual future as well, imagining that therein might lie a more fully realized version of the mini-utopias she describes. Her least titillating but most grounded chapter, on birth control and cryogenics, argues that “The infinite prolongation of fertility is a false future; a future that truly reconciles family and sexual freedom would be one more supportive of single parents, not just materially but ideologically.” In the ideal future she glimpses on her travels, “Younger people … would not need autonomous zones. They would do their new drugs and have their new sex. They wouldn’t think of themselves as women or men. They would meld their bodies seamlessly with their machines, without our embarrassment, without our notions of authenticity.” This hopeful formulation echoes one half of Donna Haraway’s famous vision of the future in “A Cyborg Manifesto” but ignores the other. Here’s Haraway:

From one perspective a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war … From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point.

Post-election, Haraway’s dialectical analysis reads as a crucial corrective to Witt’s upbeat and insulated one. But now that the apocalyptic perspective Haraway outlines is all too much like our current reality, I’m grateful that Future Sex, however obliquely, gestures toward other possibilities, and that it does so with much candor and little hubris. While the book’s lack of commitment to any of the sexual practices it chronicles and lack of resolution to Witt’s quest to flout conventional narratives of bourgeois success could be seen as weaknesses, its inconclusiveness, I think, is precisely the point. Witt’s story is not a romance novel with a happy ending but a picaresque one with a female protagonist: not revolutionary, perhaps, but refreshing.


Jump to: Sarah Brouillette, Margaux Cowden, Ayden LeRoux, Alicia Christoff, Amber Jamilla Musser, Tanya Agathocleous, Emily Witt


Emily Witt


It has been almost six months since Future Sex was published and a year since I finished the manuscript. Distance has given me clarity about my writing that I didn’t have in the immediate aftermath of staring at the same text document for several years. I knew, when I turned in the book, of its imperfections. I also knew I had exhausted the limits of my intellect. I saw problems in the text that I did not know how to solve. The day I sent in the manuscript I went to watch The Big Short (the movie didn’t matter; the goal was distraction). I sat in the Williamsburg Cinema by myself, wearing the same snow boots and ugly sweater I had worn for the previous several weeks, wondering if Steve Carrell had gained weight for the role or had just gained weight. I could not concentrate on the film. Sentences from my book played through my mind. I would think of phrases and I would cringe. Finishing a work of writing feels terrible.

But then the writing is done, the work becomes removed from me, and I start to forget it. The more I forget what I have written the less I hate it, and I can think of the writing without disappointment in the book and myself. So it’s nice, a year later, to write an addendum, where I can voice my regrets about Future Sex, describe the shift in my life that has happened since I wrote it, and try to articulate a reason for reading such a book in the unfortunate political present.

When I turned in the manuscript there were two sections that I considered incomplete. The first was the chapter on birth control and reproduction, which had no reported component and was mostly essayistic in form. When I was writing I could not think of a way to report the future of reproduction, especially after learning that there had been very little advancement in birth control technology over the past 50 years and that there was no major advancement on the horizon. Egg freezing was a new technology, but it did not represent a paradigm shift: the women I knew who were freezing their eggs were doing so to prolong their fertility until they found someone to marry. I only realized after the book was done that I should have found some people who were having and raising children outside of nuclear households, people whose pregnancies were “planned” to happen without any romance between the parents. The book I wrote was about how to pursue sexuality while existing in the world as an individual rather than as part of a couple. It should have been obvious that the future of making babies lies with more single people having children and seeking to build alternative families—either by living communally or by establishing co-parenting arrangements that diverge from the traditions of married, divorced, or cohabiting couples. As with the polyamorists, I wanted a story of how such a life could be lived. That it could be lived. This was also a personal inquiry. Could I have a child even if I never met someone who wanted to have a baby with me?

I changed in the five years I was working on Future Sex, catharsis happened.

My second regret was the book’s final chapter. I knew that ending the book with a description of my visit to Facebook made it too much about California and its technologists. In 2012, the corporate culture of post-2001 internet companies in northern California was new and as yet unexplored. By 2016, techno-libertarian hubris had been very well documented. Magazines had already profiled Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel, Soylent and Y Combinator, and the cultural shift in the Bay Area. That employees of the new Bay Area corporations took drugs, went to Burning Man, and practiced polyamory was no longer news; it was satirized on the television show Silicon Valley and veering into cliché. I just could not think of a suitable replacement. An editor suggested, cryptically, that I should write about books. I think he meant that I should offer an account and reassessment of the existing knowledge about the future of sex. I wanted to describe the living world, not the world of ideas. It wasn’t until the book came out, and the reviews came in, that I knew how to end the book. A common complaint was that I left my own chronology hazy. I should have ended the book as I began it, and written about myself.

I had not wanted to write a memoir. I had experienced personal catharsis in writing Future Sex, but to describe it seemed contrived. I disdain epiphanies in other people’s writing. I had never looked across the piazza in the fading light and suddenly achieved a macro-perspective on my life. But I changed in the five years I was working on Future Sex, catharsis happened, and I can map it out by year, for anyone who wants a chronology.

After the negative romantic experiences I describe in the first chapter of the book I was celibate for a lot of 2012. In the seventh month of celibacy I was sent to Michoacán, Mexico, to report a magazine story about a Purépecha community in conflict with organized criminals who were illegally clear-cutting the local forests. I stayed for a month in a pastel house on a high hill overlooking the city of Morelia that had birds of paradise and lizards in its garden. I dreaded the days when I had no reporting to do. I would take taxis to restaurants just to talk to the drivers, who would tell me about working at a door factory outside of Portland, or a Christmas tree farm in Arkansas. I visited the Museo de Arte Colonial, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, the Museo Casa de Morelos, and the Museo Regional Michoacano. I learned that the Mexican liberation hero José María Morelos was of African descent, and wore a bandana on his head not because he had migraines (as was commonly said) but to hide his textured hair. I ate gazpacho, which in this part of Mexico meant chopped-up fruit and jicama with orange juice, chili powder, and lime. I visited the city’s 16th-century cathedral. I was trying to occupy my time the way one does when one is profoundly alone, and then I started to develop an intense physical attraction to a lawyer I interviewed for the article. I would meet with him, ask him legal questions, drink a michelada, and feel dizzy. I never mentioned this to him, it’s just that I was reminded of the feeling of desire, a feeling I thought I had lost.

I got back to New York, got set up on a date, and had sex again, feeling foolish for having ever doubted myself. For the next two years, I remained single and continued dating. I had more short-term relationships and one-off sexual encounters. I avoided dating apps, I just met people. I began to see how the research for the book had changed me. It turned out that researching and writing a book about sex made it easier to meet people. I was more confident, less insecure about my body, and more willing to enjoy sex with people with whom I did not want to be in a longer relationship. I had one difficult rejection, but mostly I felt really good. In late 2013 I met someone at what I’ll call a party. The attraction was strong, but we liked different things. His thing was New Age self-exploration, and for a time I thought I might write a book about him called Self-Help, which would consist of brief descriptions of everything he had tried. I made a long list, which included reiki, colonics, masculinity workshops, sweat lodges, a range of psychoactive plants, sensory deprivation tanks, neurolinguistic programming. He believed in some things I felt were not real, but he cared for me. For the first year he was a steady part-time companion, but not someone to whom I wanted to commit. For the first time I dated more than one person at once. I felt safe and happy in this open part-time relationship, but I was not in love. I was, however, very tired of being alone, and I liked that I could date other people with the confidence of someone who knows she is loved. I’m ashamed of that, because it was out of fear of being alone that in late 2014 our relationship became official, by which I mean monogamous. I continued experimenting, without having sex with people, both for the good of the book and because I had learned to like it, but I kept hurting his feelings, like I did the time I made out with someone at a sex party, and the time I got a tantric sex massage without telling him beforehand. In the end I went to Berlin for the better part of 2015, where I was a celibate, miserable hermit with the idea of a boyfriend back in New York and an overdue manuscript. The relationship ended when the book did. He wanted to move in together and eventually have a family; I did not. It was too late to explain all this in the book and I wasn’t sure (I’m still not sure) if anybody cared.

I will not declare with any certainty the sexual system by which I intend to live.

A few weeks after we said goodbye, I fell in love with someone new and, some months after that, moved in with a boyfriend for the first time. Falling in love and domesticating my sex life was a very happy but not easy adjustment. At first I resented the depth of the attachment—I didn’t want to need someone so much. I had Simone de Beauvoir’s refusal to move in with Jean-Paul Sartre on my mind, her contention that moving in with a man confined a woman to cleaning the toilet, no matter how modern the arrangement. Then I decided I was overthinking things. My relationship is declaratively open, in practice not so much. The point is, and I think I made this clear in the book, that there is no final point of arrival, no settling into a single way of being. I will not declare with any certainty the sexual system by which I intend to live. What I want, and what I have always wanted, is honesty and authenticity in my sexual relationships, and to live an experiential life.

The backdrop to falling in love was the 2016 presidential election, a disgusting pageant. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the New York primary. I watched Chelsea Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, where she described her daughter’s fondness for blueberries and how her own mother used to read her Goodnight Moon. My thought was: I don’t want sentimental anecdotes about your rich family. And also: the people are telling you they are experiencing an emergency and you’re giving us this?

Obviously, Donald Trump said and did much worse. I thought of the white women who voted for him and hypothesized why. “Donald Trump: Not a 10” was a sign I would see at the Women’s March on Washington some weeks later. I thought of white women who wanted a bloated monster to rate them as 10, who admired the prom curls of the Trump women, who saw their values embodied in a greedy liar who disdains women, who believe that amassing material wealth is the most important American value. I felt a strong desire to do things that would horrify such women, to present a spectacle of utter female depravity. I kept thinking of the Emily Dickinson poem:


What soft, cherubic creatures

These Gentlewomen are!

One would as soon assault a plush

Or violate a star.


Such dimity convictions,

A horror so refined

Of freckled human nature,

Of Deity ashamed, —


It’s such a common Glory,

A fisherman’s degree!

Redemption, brittle lady,

Be so, ashamed of thee.


Or maybe that was wrong. Maybe what the white ladies who liked Donald Trump liked about him was the unabashed presentation of his sexuality, which they read as part of his “authenticity.” Hillary Clinton’s sexuality was erased. Her campaign presented her as a celibate grandmother who had the strength to withstand marital disgrace. Women politicians don’t discuss their sexuality, which bothers me, since our sexual health is legislated.

In Future Sex I wrote about a pornographic web series called Public Disgrace. Advertised as “women bound, stripped, and punished in public,” the series also depicted women being groped and insulted by lascivious strangers. It was a little weird when the tape of Donald Trump talking about grabbing women came out. I differentiated between a pornographic fantasy enacted by consenting adults and the sexual assault described by Trump, but it seemed that the white ladies who voted for Trump excused his behavior by relegating it to The Locker Room, a mystical place where the untamed stallions of masculinity could gallop freely to the horizon.

I doubt these Trump voters would have shown such lenience toward Public Disgrace. In reporting my book I learned about “the clean, well-lighted space”—marketing jargon for the feeling that many women have to have in order to feel safe engaging with a sex-related consumer experience. Whether it was buying a dildo or going on an internet date, the consumer experience of sex, for straight women, had to hide sex, it had to be a mucous membrane–free zone. If it was a website it had to have white background, in contrast to the black backgrounds of the pornographic internet. If an internet dating app wanted women to sign up, it had to have a lot of reassuring asexual banter; it had to let them pretend they were on there to find “activity partners.” Women are very good at anticipating the terms of how they will be judged; they know it’s safer to talk about their desire for a nice boyfriend than to hint at a quantum of viscera. Now I saw the alternative to the clean, well-lighted space, The Locker Room, zone of dick pics, athlete’s foot, misogyny. I saw Trump’s total sexual freedom and Clinton’s total sexual erasure, and I could imagine how a person could envy the freedom of the one and want to distance herself from the confinement of the other. In this the number of sexually graphic signs at the Women’s March represented our collective exhaustion with propriety. My own sign read “Uterus vs. Them.”

On election night I took off my “The Future is Female” sweatshirt around 10 p.m. The final years of my biological fertility coincide with the four-year term of a person who maligns everything I care about: community, the natural world, multiculturalism, public schools, sexual freedom, the physical safety and freedom of movement of my friends and their families. Having a child seems impossible now, it’s 70 degrees in February and America is ruled by a person who wants to destroy all of its civic institutions. The future is now something like Pottersville in It’s a Wonderful Life, but hot outside, with a Ferris wheel on the lip of the Grand Canyon, Trump-brand oil derricks dotting the melting Alaskan permafrost, and a lot of people brutalized or in jail for unconstitutional reasons.

Future Sex, my book—actually most of the writing I’d ever done—now seemed so pointless. Who cares about lifestyle choices in the face of tyranny? I decided from now on I would try to write about things that either reminded people of a better set of values than those of our current government or presented models of resistance. Then I calmed down a little bit and saw that no, lifestyle choices are important. The Republicans in power want to police sexuality by denying sex-related healthcare to people whose sexuality they find deviant. Limiting healthcare according to the way a person experiences sex means punishing certain forms of sexual expression with sickness, debt, and unwanted pregnancy. They want to deny us our sexual freedom.

I recently read Unlimited Intimacies, Tim Dean’s ethnography about men who have sex with men without using condoms, the practice otherwise known as barebacking. “Perhaps we can see the relation between freedom of thought and a willingness to have one’s consciousness disturbed, even violated,” Dean writes. “Thinking about sex in ethical terms requires some tolerance for boundary insecurity—tolerance, that is, for uncertainty about one’s position relative to disturbing graphic material.” I think this is what I was trying to do in my book: suspend judgment to allow for freedom of thought. This approach upended who I was and what I thought I wanted, from sex and from life. I wish I could better express the worth of that inquiry to others.


Jump to: Sarah Brouillette, Margaux Cowden, Ayden LeRoux, Alicia Christoff, Amber Jamilla Musser, Tanya Agathocleous, Emily Witt icon

  1. See, e.g., Sophie Monk and Joni Pitt (Cohen), “Towards a Queer Crisis: On Capitalism & Compulsory Heterosexuality,” Novara Media, October 23, 2016; Endnotes, “The Logic of Gender: On the Separation of Spheres and the Process of Abjection,” Endnotes 3 (September 2013).
  2. Monk and Pitt (Cohen), “Towards a Queer Crisis.”
Featured image: More than an Electronic X (2012). Photograph by Surian Soosay / Flickr