A review of Future Sex (2016) by Emily Witt.
Emily Witt’s (2016) book Future Sex chronicles her search for sexual self-realization as a New Yorker in her early 30s migrating to tech-centered San Francisco. The book is based both in interviews and personal experiences, stringing vignettes together into chapters with topics including polyamory, Orgasmic Meditation, Internet porn, and Burning Man. In this review, I highlight her chapter on sex camming.
But first, I will start with a broad overview. A major theme in the book is the kind of existential angst that comes from having too many choices. Witt feels daunted by her sexual freedom as a millennial—the limitless range of sexual partners and practices—first made possible by the sexual revolution, and then by the Internet. She (p. 12) explains:
What if love failed us? Sexual freedom had now extended to people who never wanted to shake off the old institutions, except to the extent of showing solidarity with friends who did. I had not sought so much choice for myself, and when I found myself with total sexual freedom, I was unhappy.
Witt spent her early adult life wanting to find enduring love—and possibly even marriage—viewing this as an escape from the cycle of causal sexual arrangements, occasionally punctuated by periods of monogamy, that has up until now defined her romantic life. But Witt’s desires conflict with the world she inhabits, as Millennial sexual norms privilege freedom over security in relationships. She (pp.11-2) describes why security remains desirable, even as the Internet opens ever more possibilities:
The expansion of sexuality outside of marriage had brought new reasons to trust the traditional controls, reasons such as HIV, the time limits of fertility, the delicacy of feelings. Even as I settled for freedom as an interim state, I planned for my monogamous destiny. My sense of rightness, after the failed experiments of earlier generations, was like the reconstructions of a baroque national monument that was destroyed by a bomb [but] another kind of freedom had arrived: a blinking cursor in empty space.
In questioning these new romantic configurations where freedom prevails, Witt echos what social theorists Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman respectively describe as “pure relationships” and “liquid love.” Both authors suggest that the ideal of unconditional commitment has been supplanted by constant negotiation and the criterion of mutual benefit. And, even in coupling, individuality remains central.
Lacking a secure, committed relationship in the old mold, Witt sets out to explore the possibility of fulfillment (or, at least, self-knowledge) in less conventional situations. As turns out, it is in the chapter on “Live Webcams” that Witt does the most theoretical work to explain why seeking diverse experiences—the project of the book—might aid in her quest for sexual self-realization. In particular, she points to an essay in the book Time Square Red, Times Square Blue by the gay African-American author Samuel D. Delany about the time he spent having anonymous sex in porno theaters. Witt (p. 126) summarizes the essay:
[Delany] describe[d] the benefits of his vast experience in casual sex. The movie theaters had served as laboratories in which he had learned to discern the nuances and spectrum of his sexual desire… His observations about sexual attraction consistently disproved conventional notions of beauty and ugliness. (He discovered, among other proclivities, that he had a thing for Burly Irish-American men, including two who had hairlips.)
She quotes Delany who suggests we must “learn to find our own way of having sex sexy” and concludes:
I don’t see how this can be accomplished without a statistically significant variety of partners… However supportive, the response of a single partner just cannot do that. This is a quintessentially social process…
Unlike Delany, Witt (p. 204) mostly lands back where she started, finding monogamy rewarding but now embracing an ideal of commitment as temporary:
I hope that married partnership would cease to be seen as a totalizing end point and instead become something more modest, perhaps am institutional basis for shared endeavors such as raising children or making art.
But this return to a somewhat conventional notion of romance proves to be the most interesting aspect of the book. Witt’s thinking about the freedom and diversity of experience available to the present generation seems to evolve. Rather than seeing the nearly infinite range of sexual possibilities as daunting, Witt ends up seeing it as an opportunity to experiment until one finds confidence and feels affirmed in their own desires. She (p. 204) says:
I found that… mostly I wanted to live in a world with a wider range of sexual identities. I hoped the primacy and legitimacy of a single sexual model would continue to erode as it has, with increasing acceleration, in the past fifty years.
Though she does not state it so explicitly, I would argue that Witt has uncovered an interesting dialectic between freedom and security. Though freedom to explore may aid us in discovering what we find sexually desirable, exploration may, paradoxically, lead to security in one’s established sexual desires, when new experience continually prove less satisfying and thus reaffirm the appropriateness of those desires.
And, while final chapter wonders off a bit, I think the desirability of embracing this tension between freedom and security is the clear (if unstated) conclusion of the book.
Following this theme of sexual exploration as a mechanism of self-realization, I now want to turn to the question of what camming teaches Witt about her own sexuality (and what we can learn about camming in the process). Witt (p. 114) describes her experiences with the popular camsite Chaturbate:
I first saw Chaturbate and the many other live-sex-cam sites available online as porn… as the technological evolution of peep show booths and phone sex lines. Like those, they had a performer and they had a voyeur… Then I spent more time on the site.
As she dives deeper into the site, Witt determines that the resemblances she observed between cam sites and other forms of sex work/performance were only superficial. The diversity and interactivity of cam sites set them apart.
Chaturbate was full of serendipity… the feeling of clicking through the 18+ disclaimer into the opening matrix was the one of turning on MTV in the mid-1990s, when music videos played most of the day and kept viewers captive in the anticipation of a favorite performer or a new discovery. Or maybe, to reach farther back in time, it recalled the earlier days of the Internet—the Internet of strangers rather than “friends.”
Witt’s decision to approach her subject matter through the lens of her own desire—as described in the first section of this review—proves both interesting and problematic in this chapter.
What makes Witt’s approach interesting is that, in bypassing the popular rooms that she largely finds uninteresting, she takes us to the margins of the sites, searching for the unexpected. This includes an Icelandic woman who strips wearing a rubber horse mask and fedora. In a passage representative of her snarky but appreciative style, Witt describes (pp. 112-3):
maybe it was the house that she was in or her high definition camera or a general characteristic of the Icelandic people but 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.
Witt also describes a college-age women who talked about literature and made $1,500 doing a 24 hour marathon that featured much talking, some nudity, and no sex. A third woman suspended herself from a hook made of ice. And another woman held nude sex ed discussions.
Taking a cue from one of her interviewees, Witt describes the intended use of site—one or two performers broadcasting to many viewers in each room—as “mass intimacy.” But, the most interesting part of the chapter was Witt’s exploration into a culture that has emerged around using Chaturbate to facilitate unpaid, anonymous, 1-on-1 sex.
Assisted by two performers that she interviewed, she “multiperved” or “audio-Skyped with one another while sifting through videos online” (p. 124). Together, logged on to browse the countless pages of men streaming but being watched by no one. She describes (pp. 124-5):
not even the most popular men, instead clicking through to the second and third pages for the real amateurs, the forest of men in desk chairs… It turned out that they waited there for a reason… so that they will find someone who will cam-to-cam with them…
Witt (and her guides) come across a man she finds somewhat attractive, and she chats with him. The man quickly invites her to turn her cam on. She obliges and sets up a password-protected room so only he can see her. While Witt does not seem to find the encounter particularly rewarding, she (p. 125) does offer some insight into the value others find in the experience:
here, where hopes resided in the chance of an electronic encounter between two people, tokens mattered much less. If, on its landing page, Chaturbate was thousands of men watching a few women, a couple pages in, the numbers changed to one or two people using Chaturbate to interact privately with another person.
Witt’s experience highlights a really interesting case of technology being used against the grain. It is a rougish activity for users to seek non-transactional intimate or sexual encounters on sites whose profits come from viewers purchasing tokens. While these sites afford such activity and do not prohibit it, they do not intend or explicitly condone it either. It is, perhaps, due to this lack control that sites likes Chaturbate remind Witt of the earlier Web.
While Witt’s examination of the margins of camming sites is revealing, she also, arguably, fails to represent most of what is going on these sites and is even somewhat dismissive of the more popular performers. Because she focuses on her desires as a thirty-something NYC writer, Witt sometimes displays a hipster bias, where, if something isn’t weird or edgy, it’s not seen as deserving attention.
Witt is also not a joiner. Her desire to experiment as part her own quest for sexual self-realization, drives her visit many places; but, for the most part, Witt does identify or feel a sense of belonging with the people she meets. She seems to participate only at a distance, viewing others as subjects as much as relationships. Witt (p. 172) describes her own relationship to a sex party she attends, saying “I was still thinking of myself as just a visitor, or rather neither here nor there, someone undertaking an abstract inquiry but not yet with true intention.” This distancing is valuable insofar as it brings with it a degree of objectivity (most other things written about Orgasmic Mediation, for example, sound like marketing copy); however, it also means she’s unable to offer an insider perspective through her personal narratives.
What’s missing in the chapter on camming—due to some combination of her hipster bias and lack of personal experience—is an examination of the many dimensions of creative labor that goes into producing evening the most normative-appearing shows. Had Witt tried modeling herself, this would be readily apparent. The seeming ease with which models embody normative desires is part of the work—part of the performance of authenticity.
A most troubling moment is when she uncritically relays one of her interviewee’s characterization of the top performers as “zombie hot girls” (p. 124). This privileging of the weird in porn feeds a kind of whorearchy, where certain forms of sex work/practice are denigrated as a way of validating others.
Witt certainly is not consciously anti-sex work. In the previous chapter, in fact, she offers a great deal of praise for the artistry women porn directors and producers, and she spends a significant time questioning her own beliefs shaped by mainstream feminism and considering more inclusive feminisms that embrace sex workers and porn as a medium. And, quite insightfully, she argues that much fetish porn is a reaction or response to new taboos set up by anti-porn feminists.
Nevertheless, Witt does not seem to extend the interest and regard she has for women-directed studio porn to the women-directed performances of popular cam models. I’m certain they have unique insights and fascinating stories to tell.
Regardless of these few criticisms, Witt gets one key thing right: The future of sex cannot be reduced to a story of technological development but must be understood in terms of changing patterns of human relationships. She (p. 210) concludes “America had a lot of respect for the future of objects, and less interest in the future of human arrangements.” For that reason alone, Future Sex probably deserves more attention.
PJ Patella-Rey (@pjrey) is a sociologist writing a dissertation on sex camming.