Single female, 30, seeks pornography, hook-ups and sex online a curious participant-observer finds a new age of sexual liberation under threat
For the last few years, Emily Witt has been dispatching gripping, keenly strange field reports from the frontiers of contemporary desire. A curious, if cautious participant-observer, she has attended orgies, inhaled nitrous oxide with polyamorists and watched college students in the midwest broadcast their fantasies via webcams, painstakingly assembling a luminous, flickering portrait of human (hetero)sexuality in the age of the internet.
Witts desire to chart new species of sexual behaviour followed hard on the heels of a breakup, an alarming rupture in what shed previously conceived to be a natural, seamless progression from monogamous dating to the permanent station of marriage. Abruptly and unhappily single at the age of 30, she was forced to confront the troubling possibility that love is not something you can ordain or engineer; worse, that it might not be attainable at all.
What if the interim behaviours in which she and her peers had been engaging the hook-ups with friends, the undating, the casual, carefully meaningless encounters were not the aperitif, but the main event? We were souls, she says, flitting through limbo, piling up against one another like dried leaves, awaiting the brass trumpets and wedding bells of the eschaton. Perhaps the future wasnt coming; perhaps coming in the present could be its own reward.
There are many reasons why a straight woman approaching middle age might shy from promiscuous sexual experiment, not least the chlamydia clinic in which Witt finds herself after a nocturnal dalliance produces unwanted consequences. The zipless fuck, as Erica Jong dubbed it in her 1973 novel Fear of Flying, was made plausible by the invention of the contraceptive pill, yet remains perennially hampered by fears of pregnancy, violence and disease, as well as more subtle cultural inhibitors.
Witt is beset by a kind of magical thinking that finds an inverse relationship between number of partners and likelihood of finding love, a nagging puritanism that supposes pleasure will be punished, abstinence rewarded. Elizabeth, her polyamorous interlocutor, had to consciously resist the inhibition of knowing her sex life affected the way she was viewed in her professional life. Monogamy was assimilated into notions of leadership and competence; other sexual choices came with loss of authority, writes Witt.
Little wonder weve become so dependent on computers for organising and enabling our erotic lives, with their promise of anonymity, their marvellous ability to mediate between bodies, displaying, connecting and transmitting at will. The internet is a frictionless utopia for the polymorphously perverse, routing desires of every possible heft and size.
Witt became single in 2011, a few months before she purchased her first smartphone and a year before Tinder was invented. There was no better place that year for assessing how technology was facilitating new models of sexual behaviour than San Francisco, where the healthy, wealthy young employees of Google and Facebook were daily sculpting the future into being. The city just happened to be a synecdoche, Witt observes of her temporary home, where the post-1960s combination of computers and sexual diversity were especially concentrated.
The problem with internet dating, as she swiftly clocks, is that even the most sophisticated algorithms are hopeless at assessing physical attraction. Women are supposed to be put off by frankly sexual content, preferring instead the clean well-lighted room approach purveyed by the marriage markets of Match.com and OKCupid. But what if you decline the moral obligation of love; what if you want something wilder, darker or less inclined to permanence? Among the alternatives that Witt explores is the website Chaturbate, where anyone with access to a computer can play both exhibitionist and voyeur, like the pallid Edith, who strips while reading RD Laing and claims to be internet sexual, and wholly celibate in her non-cyber life.
A stronger stomach might be required when Witt attends the filming of an orgy for the BDSM website Public Disgrace, during which a young performer named Penny Pax is stripped and whipped before having rough sex in front of an audience of rowdy extras. Were there any moments of genuine pleasure, an incredulous Witt asks Pax as they huddle in a stairwell. She looked at me like I was crazy. Yeah. Like the whole thing! The whole thing.
There are feminists, from Andrea Dworkin on, who would allege this to be false consciousness, a Stockholm syndrome assimilation of a violently misogynist culture. On the other hand, there are feminists (Annie Sprinkle, say) who would applaud its honest acceptance of sexual diversity, the grand mystery of specific human arousal. Or, pleasingly, is Witts byword. She perpetually interrogates her received ideas, more interested in auditing than legislating possibilities.
Meanwhile in the Google canteen, a new breed of free love advocates were diligently hashing out the rules of their polyamorous adventures. Witt is an unusually immersive journalist, and her account of the shifting fortunes of a three-way relationship is beautifully alert to irony and tenderness. Whatever you might think of polyamory, its hard not to admire the sheer labour the shared Google docs, book groups and endless, wrangling conversations that sexual liberation entails.
This is, of course, free love 2.0. The original free love movement, which reached its zenith in the 1960s, fed by thinkers such as Wilhelm Reich, believed that in going beyond religious strictures a new kind of humanity would emerge: more peaceful, healthy and content thanks to their potent orgasms. Perhaps sexual experiment also birthed a new documentary form. The New Journalism, a movement to which Witt owes a significant stylistic debt, emerged at around the same time, energised by and quick to skewer the eccentricities, hypocrisies and bleak fallout of the free love era.
The New Journalists, a loose cohort that included Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Gay Talese, brought the exuberant techniques of the novel to bear on the non-fiction world. Like the affectless Didion in particular, Witt possesses an extraordinary knack for capturing the aesthetics of the moment: leathery-tan nudists twinkling at passers-by in the Castro, stone fruit season at Bi-Rite. Somewhere down in Palo Alto, Steve Jobs was on his deathbed, the white aura of battery light pulsing ever more faint. San Francisco, 2011: the Summer of Emotional Involvement.
The problem with the future is that it turns so quickly into the past. Its beginning to seem as if the sexually liberal era here envisaged as permanently secured might already be under siege; that sex in the Obama era could prove as vulnerable to the rise of the ultra-conservative right as Obamacare. In Britain, certainly, the curious reader will soon no longer be able to summon up the whipping posts of Public Disgrace and its ilk.
The digital economy bill, currently passing through the House of Lords, will ban non-conventional sexual acts from the internet, applying the same regulations as are currently applicable to DVDs. Never mind whether they involve mutually consenting adults: fisting, female ejaculation and menstrual blood must be banished, our communal erotic repository censored, just as the old fleshpots of New Yorks Soho and Times Square were cleaned up and colonised by well-lit Starbucks cafes.
But it isnt only governments that threaten the freedom of the imagination, the liberty of the sexual body. There was no industry of dresses and gift registries for the sexuality that interested me in those years, Witt writes towards the end of her adventures, and some part of the reason I wanted to document what free love might look like was to reveal shared experiences of the lives we were living that fell outside a happiness that could be bought or sold.
Sex, and especially sex that doesnt take culturally sanctioned forms, is here conceived as a way to escape the consumerist imperatives of late capitalism, to experience a kind of wildness and emotional connection that cant immediately be repurposed by ads, even if its grubby or depressing or actively risky. I know exactly what she means, and I want it, too. Amazing the price you have to pay for free love.
Olivia Laings latest book, The Lonely City, is published by Canongate.