Didion didn’t even do acid…
You are heading into the future on a voyage of sexual discovery, and here is what it’s like. Drinking beers with a man you’ve just met online, you think of five or ten other men you already know and would prefer to drink with, were it not for the grim necessity of finding a boyfriend. At Burning Man, you accompany a relatively attractive guy into the so-called orgy dome, but find only other heterosexuals having sex in neat pairs. At a shoot for a website called Public Disgrace, you join an enthusiastic crowd to watch a cheerful twenty-three-year-old being bound, gagged, and penetrated with a beer bottle; the bystanders are encouraged to shout “worthless cunt!” at her, but one man can’t help adding: “You are beautiful and I’d take you to meet my mother!” You consider sex-camming with a random stranger, but decide it’s not worth the risk that a critical mass of the magazine editors you write for—married, middle-aged, male—could lose respect for you. (What would Joan Didion do? It’s safe to say she wouldn’t cam: “She went to San Francisco in 1968 and didn’t even do acid.”) In a nondescript, carpeted room at the headquarters of a group dedicated to the practice of “orgasmic meditation,” a male acquaintance brings you to orgasm with his hand while you stare blankly at a coffee urn on a table.
This is sex in America, as filtered through the sensibility of Emily Witt, who has now transmuted several of her sharp, wry personal essays into a book enticingly called Future Sex. Witt is a participant-observer, usually revealing rather more of herself than you’d expect from a reporter, rather less than you’d want from a memoirist. What is most distinctive in her writing is its tone, a sweetly ironic, melancholy deadpan that makes you feel she’s looking straight at the things she describes, not quite wide-eyed and not quite world-weary. She’s like a twenty-first-century gonzo journalist, only instead of using her zany adventures to show how insane her environs really are, she displays a mixture of hope and detachment that exposes almost everything as slightly disappointing, that supposedly fun thing you’ll never do again. When a good time creeps up on Witt, it tends to feel like an accident. Sex, which has defeated many a novelist, being so vastly different to experience than it is to observe, may be the ideal subject for this treatment—zoom out just far enough from the action, and it’s easy to think: Why would anyone want to do that?
One of Witt’s great strengths as a reporter is the steadiness of her gaze: She looks long enough to notice both what is valuable in the seemingly comical or bizarre and what’s ludicrous in the ostensibly normal. As she explains, mainstream dating sites evolved into what marketing execs call a “clean, well-lighted place” because women didn’t want to use services that addressed sex too overtly, and Witt herself is among the many who automatically disqualify any man who makes an explicitly sexual approach online. It makes sense, and yet, Witt points out, it also makes looking for a date on the Internet absurd, “like standing in a room full of people recommending restaurants to one another without describing the food. No, it was worse than that. It was a room full of hungry people who instead discussed the weather. If a person offered me a watermelon, I would reject him for not having an umbrella.” Equally incongruous, when you come to think of it, is the hope Witt discovers within herself “that if I enjoyed going to a museum with a man the sexual attraction would just follow, without anybody having to talk about it.”