In August 1984, the queer culture magazine The Advocate published an interview with the French philosopher Michel Foucault in which he laid out an argument for evolving our concepts of pleasure and sexual freedom. He told the interviewer that he thought S/M was about “the real creation of new possibilities of pleasure, which people had no idea about previously,” adding, “the world regards sexuality as the secret of a creative cultural life; it is, rather, a process of our having to create a new cultural life underneath the ground of our sexual choices.”
Foucault’s interest in conceiving new avenues for pleasure was nourished through his own explorations of San Francisco’s vibrant gay scene but his inquiries were cut short: he died of AIDS-related complications two months prior to the publication of The Advocate interview, and only three of his planned seven volumes of the History of Sexuality — a seminal treatise that argued for the necessity of sexual pleasure — were published. It would be up to others to continue his investigation and proceed conversation.
The first volume of the History of Sexuality will turn forty next month, and it seems fitting that the essence of its inquiry has now been given a fresh and contemporary perspective by journalist and critic Emily Witt. In Future Sex, an audacious collection of essays on female sexual desire, Witt scrutinizes the ever-progressing notions of sexuality since the advent of the internet: “When I turned 30, in 2011,” she writes, “I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center. I would disembark, find myself face-to-face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future.” The myth of the happily-ever-afterism of marriage continues to fade. Nor has sexual freedom led Witt to everlasting happiness but as Foucault did before her, much of the book has Witt slouching toward, where else, San Francisco.
Future Sex is a book about the possibilities of sexual desire as much as it is about its attendant ennui. Its examples of neo-hedonism include public participation at a live S/M performance; the practices of a new age sexual meditation organization, and one woman’s 24-hour striptease confessional via live webcam. Witt remains mostly an observer, witnessing these extremes just outside the splash zone. When she does participate — engaging in an orgasmic meditation session, for example — the act feels yielded, as though she has volunteered to have sex purely to further her study. She writes, in a cafard tone, of being brought to a physical climax as she stares at a coffee cup on a table: “It had not been so different from sex, where some orgasms happened because I concentrated and willed them… A climax could be perfunctory. I could climax even during sex I did not enjoy.” Climaxing, in other words, can be achieved from desire without delight, a feeling that pervades much of the book.
In one essay, for example, she diagrams the head-spinning emotional and logistical complexities of a relationship between an hetero couple and their bi-male friend. Though the arrangement comes to an end, the hetero couple’s sexual promiscuity remains sanctified, even after their marriage. “Marriage,” Witt notes, “was the one word in in our era of sexual freedom that had not lost its specificity…we still knew what marriage meant: a lifelong commitment, both sexual and familial to another person.” Witt presents this not as a defense, but a quandary. As she writes: “I believed in the mystique of commitment…I could conceive of no viable alternative; the options I could name were alien to me: open marriage, swingers, polyamory…but this left a vacuum for any ideas of sustainable sexuality outside of a narrative that culminated in marriage.”
Considering alternatives to marriage is a key element of Witt’s investigation. While not an antithesis to sexual freedom, marriage often defaults as one, and Witt refuses the idea that marriage is any more sacred a sexual choice than independence. Nor does she subscribe that it is intrinsic to raising a child. As Witt rightly points out, motherhood shouldn’t require marriage, and a growing number of women are choosing to raise their kids on their own. “I would have daydreams about a doctor shaking her head and telling me that there was no way I could have children,” she writes, “at which point I would be sad but at least freed from marriage. I could just live my life according to its drift without ever having to make a decision to conform back into the type of family in which I had been raised for the purpose of setting up a stable environment for a child. The idea of meeting a “life partner” mattered less when I gave up on children.” There remain, of course, problems to solve — both societal (the US is one of three countries, along with Papua New Guinea and Lesotho, where providing paid parental leave isn’t mandatory for employers) as well as genetic: “the infinite prolongation of fertility is a false future,” Witt writes, “a future that truly reconciles family and sexual freedom would be one more supportive of single parents, not just materially, but ideologically.”
Witt imagines a situation where a person that she “loves and cares about but does not want to marry, someone who also wants to have a child, [would organize] from birth the custodial arrangements that divorced and never married people have been honing for decades to raise children.” This arrangement, she continues, may or may not involve living as housemates in the child’s first year, but with the agreement that the commitment to raise a child together does not “come with a committed love for each other.” This, as with her book itself, is a noble inquiry that provides a way to untangling sexual pleasure from old institutions that controlled them, and allowing for the pursuit of companionship to be a choice rather than an obligation. Societal norms are, if anything, more like to exacerbate loneliness than cure it.