Witt, Emily. (2017) Future Sex: A new kind of free love. Faber & Faber.
While I was stuck on the hospital ward, I at least had time to do some reading. I read a new book by Emily Witt, about sex. Not just any sex, but specifically sex post-2010, in the developed, affluent world, mainly North America (although several Europeans make an appearance). It is a very specific time and place. I’m British and I was young in the 1990s but that was a long time ago. Young people in the 1990s took risky, unmeasured doses of dirtily-manufactured MDMA, danced in raves in warehouses, smoked cigarettes and were substantially unemployed. We weren’t hippies. We didn’t have values, either conformist or anti-conformist. We didn’t think of ourselves as pioneers, no-one was vegan, the internet had barely penetrated people’s homes, cellphones were like house bricks and all you could do with the brick was place calls. It wouldn’t manage your diary, photograph your soy latte or broadcast every passing thought or experience to your social network, which was okay, because you didn’t have a social network. People still wore stonewashed jeans and those who had bricks used them to ring each other up on their ‘land lines’. A land line is like a cellphone that is structurally built into your house. If they didn’t pick up the phone, they were ‘out’ and you couldn’t talk to them.
Sex in the 1990s was okay. It was not bad. Of course there was the spectre of HIV which showed up in the 1980s to put a stop to the parties that our moms and dads were having in the 60s and 70s. You hardly saw any porn because there was hardly any internet. I kind of think that might have been a good thing. People had sex without reference to what it would have looked like on camera. Also, there was time to have sex because people were unemployed. I passed many a happy afternoon, having sex with one (or two or even three) of my friends in a tiny, rented house or untidy bedsit, and as for relationships, if you wanted a boyfriend or girlfriend, you just had sex with one of your friends regularly until you moved in together. We were quite anti-marriage, which we inherited from our rule-defying parents, until, two by two, we got married, with a slight sense of having caved in.
Emily Witt’s book is not about this era. It is about a much later cohort of people who are in their 20s now. I take care to describe the sex and dating culture of the 1990s to you so that you can appreciate how very different things are for the young people she describes today. For a start, they are not unemployed. They work at Google and Facebook. They put in working weeks of 60 and 70 hours and they have those jobs because they put in long hours before that, when they were at school and college. They are clean, healthy and well-groomed. They don’t smoke. Their employers provide clean, well-lit organic juice bars and 20 varieties of water. Lots of people are vegans. They occasionally take drugs but only very clean, carefully-measured drugs on carefully-planned occasions, such as the Burning Man festival, where corporate lawyers go to feel wholesome and holistic. They eat a careful, clean diet. They are obedient rule-followers and very conservative compared to previous generations. They look at the behaviour of those who went before and they see that extreme and risky actions are sometimes liberating but sometimes exact heavy costs. Drug casualties. Unwanted pregnancies. Single parenthood. Abandonment of each other. Poverty. Violence. They regard these costs and they make prudent decisions to have careful fun.
And, of course, they have smartphones and the internet and that has changed everything, including sex and relationships. In this respect, they are pioneers and they are well aware of it. So what are they doing? If they’re not having small, untheatrical and unplanned episodes of sex in the middle of the afternoon in a scruffy bedsit, what are they doing?
- Internet dating. Tinder. OKCupid. We need to be clear about what ‘dating’ means, which is to say, we need to acknowledge its ambiguity and huge scope. You can have sex delivered to your house within the hour, after a short interaction with the apps on your smartphone; it is like a bolt-on for Uber. You could do that every night of the week and have relatively clean, disease-free sex with one earnest, fresh-faced Millennial after another, and that would be ‘dating’. At the other end of the scale, you could be living with someone for years in a monogamous relationship and that would also be ‘dating’. Dating means any kind of sexual or romantic aspect of your life that involves a live human and isn’t marriage. Because ‘dating’ has no precise meaning any more, it’s incredibly difficult to tell whether you are ‘dating’ someone or whether you just haven’t quite finished fucking each other yet. This describes basically every relationship I’ve had since 2010, just because I live in London, a city that plays by the same rules as San Francisco and has a disproportionately young and affluent population.
- Orgasmic meditation. Yeah, this is a thing, we have this in London too. If you are a woman, and that is mainly who it is for, it means earnestly going to an established venue and being gently masturbated for precisely 15 minutes by a man who doesn’t expect you to touch him or suck his cock in return. You might do this in private or in a room full of people who are doing the same thing. You might have an orgasm and you might not. What matters is the meditation aspect. Afterwards, you will feel ‘grounded’. It is a visibly feminist project, but no-one will use the word feminist.
- Internet porn. Okay, back in the 90s, before the internet was really a thing, if you wanted to look at porn, you had to go to a ‘sex shop’, which was a bricks-and-mortar store, sneak inside, hoping that no-one was looking, and purchase an item from a range of about 10 magazines or possibly VHS video tapes. The female performers were often being coerced in one way or another and the action usually revolved around blow jobs and pretend lesbianism. Not surprisingly, feminists didn’t like it. They saw it as economic and bodily oppression of women, which it was. Now, porn is something different. You obviously don’t go to a shop, you go to a website. You will select a handful of hashtags, from a range of a few hundred, to specify exactly what kind of porn you want to see. If you want to see a woman being gangbanged by a posse of pandas (yes, really), it is there. It will most likely be delivered to you as a short video clip of 2-10 minutes for you to watch on your iPad. If it was professionally shot, it might have been a female director. It is no longer safe to assume that the female performers are being forced to do whatever it is, no matter how violent. If it is professional, the actors probably have clean HIV certificates and contracts of employment. If it is amateur, you’re looking at most porn. Speaking of which …
- Camming. To cam. To affix a high-definition camera to your laptop. To open the laptop and turn on the camera in some convenient location such as your bedroom. To broadcast the view of you in your bedroom into a web-based chat room. To perform the sexual acts of your choice for an audience of up to several thousand people while they use the chat software to type in special requests, which you may or may not grant, and to give you money. Tips. Internet currency, which converts into real money. It’s possible to earn a living this way and for most performers it pays about the same as working in Starbucks, with less effort and fewer hours. I met someone just the other day who does this as his full time job. He is 24 and has a degree in maths. He has been camming full time for three years, ever since leaving university. Where did I meet him, you ask. I met him on OKCupid where we talked about whether we should date, see Dating, above. Camming is his job. I have my job and he has his. I have not viewed the professional performances of this particular boy, out of some misguided, old-person respect for his privacy, but I viewed the performance of another boy, in the name of research. He was about the same age and he took the underwear off his gym-sculpted body very, very slowly for an hour while people threw money at him. He had 32,000 followers just on that one social media platform, which was not his only one. I’m a highly skilled marketing executive and I do not have 32,000 followers across all social media platforms combined.
These are the times we live in and the cities we live in. When I started internet dating it came as a surprise to me that all these 24 and 25 year olds, with muscular, waxed, tanned and polished bodies that 15 years ago could only have been viewed in the pages of men’s fitness magazines, were even interested in me. Why would they be interested in me? I’m middle-aged and yes I am attractive, but still. I’m old. Then gradually I learned what is going down. If you are attractive, they don’t care how old you are. More to the point, my attractiveness is far less important than whether my attention makes them feel attractive. If you eat a vegan, carb-free, organic, locally-sourced diet and you are in the gym 7 days a week, without even once failing to show up to lift weights and fine-tune your abs, you want praise. And praise is something I am happy to deliver, it seems like a good deal.
Because of the ambiguity of ‘dating’, where few people can tell whether or not they are ‘in a relationship’ with each other, I occasionally think that I should attempt to date people my own age. The rules of the game might be a bit clearer. So I keep an account on another dating site that is mainly populated by London’s middle-aged intelligentsia. Left-leaning, opera-liking, middle-aged, middle-class men who are the same age as me. And what I see there is a generation of men that has been left behind. These men, they were not raised to think that they should be in the gym 7 days/week, they think they are doing well if they’ve had a haircut. They are strangers to Botox. Unlike women my age who have kept up with every hot yoga and soy latte health trend, they look exactly as old as they are. Indeed, now that everyone else is carefully and artificially young and beautiful, they look much older than they are. A man of 50 is effectively indistinguishable from a man of 70. They are afraid of ‘dating’ and do not understand it. One of them messaged me today, asking if I would like to go out. His profile lacked a photo, which in 2017 is like failing to exist. I only responded because I sometimes like to poke the crazy.
Him: Oh hello. Would you like to go out? I enjoy pubs and going to concerts, blah blah. Now that I’ve clicked ‘like’ on your profile, you will be able to see my photo. (I looked. He was 49 and looked 70. That’s what you get for going to the pub.)
Me: For what reason is your photo behind a wall?
Him: Well, you could have said hello first. I kept my photo hidden because I am new to this internet dating thing and I am shy about putting it all out there.
And that’s when the small amount of fun to be had from goading him ran out and I went back to sending Whatsapp messages to the 23-year-old, gym-sculpted model that I’ve been vaguely ‘dating’ for the last couple of months.
So that’s Future Sex. If you live in a city and you are having sex or wish you were having sex, you should read it. You are welcome.