When I was asked by the staff of the New York State Writers Insitute to introduce and moderate a discussion with Emily Witt of her book, Future Sex, I hesitated. For about a second. Then I realized I wanted to begin her introduction by saying “the best sex writing is writing that…..” Because whether we like it or not, we have all read stuff about sex.
For me it started in study hall, tucking Peyton Place (whose sex scenes are none to shabby, I might add) into my Cahiers des francais textbook in eighth grade. I progressed to purloined copies of The Godfather and Penthouse letters from a friend’s parent’s house. And in college, at a time when it was politically incorrect to do so, I covetted Emma Chatterley’s erudite-but-rough lover, Oliver Mellors from Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Real-life boyfriends were so boring in comparison.
But initially, I came ruefully to Emily Witt’s Future Sex. When I read the description--“30-something author shares her search for love in a confusing world of dating apps, transient hook-ups, and novel sexual cultures…” I thought, oh boy, well, reading this will be like driving in the car with my two daughters, hearing them talk to each other about sex, completely ignoring any possible insights I might be able to share; after all, hadn’t I only ever had sex only twice in order to procreate their existence into this world?
Well, that description of Emily Witt’s book just goes to show you that book jacket blurbs have about as much relevance to the subject matter within as paint name colors have to do with what is actually on your walls. Because the first two sentences of her book that I underlined were these: “Love determined how humans arrayed themselves in space. Because it affixed people into their long-term arrangements, those around me viewed it as an eschatological event, messianic in its totality” and—“For now I was a person in the world, a person who had sexual relationships that I could not describe in language and that failed my moral ideals.”
I related to those sentences. And not with nostalgia for my single, thirty-something days, but as a woman pushing sixty who has intimated that the messianic desire for fulfilling connection is at once both a longing for and the fulfillment of that longing. Because, after all, sex is complicated. And it has been around a long time. Like, a real long time.
True to its jacket blurb, Emily Witt’s book does explore some of the more au courrant and edgier aspects of how people are expressing sexuality now: a chapter on internet porn, one on live webcams, one on polyamory, one on her experiences at Burning Man. And there is one on orgasmic meditation (which makes for some interesting reading aloud on long road trips). But at the end of her book, Ms Witt invokes the idea of vocation, saying that most religions have allowed for the declaration of a vocation based on sexual practices; i.e. celibacy. But that with the advent contraception, sexual practice, shorn of its procreative outcome, may also be a kind of vocation.
In other words, we are embodied beings, first and last. Our sexuality is never able to be fully separated from the cultural and social mores that seek to regulate it. Because we are still more than that, beyond our cultural and social conditioning, we are always learning, lusting, leaning into newer and even more nuanced ways of abiding in the rough and crooked temples of our bodies.