Future sex (and the city)

fullsizerenderFor the last 3 or 4 years, I’ve been working on a first novel called ‘Black Car Burning’ (due to be published in the next few years!) set in Sheffield and loosely themed around trust and risk, taking a slant look at policing in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster but also circling around rock climbing and relationships. Several of the characters in the novel are in a polyamorous relationship, but that’s not the real focus of their storyline. Part of my motivation for writing a polyamorous scenario into ‘Black Car Burning’ was a programme on Radio 4 a few years ago called ‘Monogamy and the Rules of Love.’ The show followed 4 people in Sheffield who  were polyamorous and one of the things that most interested me was hearing one of them complaining that the way they chose to live their lives wasn’t well documented in popular culture – instead, love triangles abound in soaps, novels and films. Complaining about how poorly polyamory is understood, one of the people interviewed (Tom) said:

“The number of conversations I’ve had with peers where I’ve started to explain it and they’ve got as far as, ‘so, you all cheat on each other’ and not been able to get past that. I’ve said no, everybody’s cool with it, everybody knows what’s happening, no one’s deceiving each other.”

Polyamory isn’t foregrounded in the novel, it’s just a way some of the characters have chosen to live. And nor is it presented as an inherently ‘better’ model for relationships, just an alternative: ‘Black Car Burning’ tries to allude to problems of communication and trust in both monogamous and polyamorous scenarios. I suppose I wanted my novel to illustrate a point made by couples counsellor Esther Perel in the R4 documentary:

“You can live in a monogamous institution and you can negotiate monotony, or you can live in a non-monogamous choice and negotiate jealousy. Pick your evil.”

There’s no easy answer to the fundamental problem of trusting someone else (whether in rock climbing, community policing or intimate relationships).

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-11-23-10-amLast week, I was fascinated to read Emily Witt’s book ‘Future Sex’ which looks at the sexual landscape of the present, informed by a long period of research in San Francisco. Though Witt is sometimes a slightly shadowy presence in the book, positioned (appropriately perhaps) as a detached observer (for all she tries Orgasmic Meditation, experiments with porn and has sex with a stranger in the orgy tent at Burning Man festival) she gives eloquent context to her journey:

“I was single, straight and female. When in turned thirty….I still envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Centre. 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.”

I’m now 31 and can empathise with what she describes, having often chastised myself as someone who is clearly just ‘bad at relationships’ or someone who just ‘messes things up’. Wanting to see how her own experiences connected to the zeitgeist, Witt spent 5 years investigating ‘future sex’ and trying to contextualise it in relation to the ‘free love’ experiments of the ’60s and their perceived failure. As Olivia Laing put it in her Guardian review:

“…For Witt, these failures of the counterculture were lessons that led her contemporaries to hold themselves in thrall to “grade point averages, drug laws, student loan payments, condoms, skin protection factors”. And she found that it was these diligent and risk-averse children of the 80s and 90s who were leading the new sexual counterculture. They had renamed free love as polyamory, drawn up shared Google documents with modern regulations and found new ways to free sex from the structures of family life….. It’s not a coincidence that the polyamorists Witt came across in America tended to work in Silicon Valley. If the sexual revolution of the 60s was effected by people who could afford to abandon security, then these are the people who have the means to do so now.”

‘Future Sex’ offers a nuanced and subtle analysis of how technology and choice intersect in our sex lives. It’s also really good on jealousy and how people navigate it. The chapter on porn is particularly interesting, challenging what a ‘feminist’ reaction to porn might be. She look at whether it is ‘the ideation and expression of intent’ that differentiates sexualities rather than the actual sex. Witt seems to conclude that sex may be too ‘important’ to be confined to long term monogamous relationships, but that none of the alternatives she’s explored can offer a handy solution. As Laing notes, ‘Future Sex’ argues that, ultimately, “it is worth risking contentment for the sake of experience, that it is important to acknowledge honestly both desire and inhibition..”

I was particularly drawn to Witt’s reflection on her own experiences, how her expectations were partly founded on how others responded to her:

“I had always preferred success through recognised channels: getting good grades, going to the right college. I experienced satisfaction in obeying rules and I had greater affirmation from my family when we acted as if I hadn’t chosen to be alone, when we spoke as if I was simply waiting (maybe for decades) for the right person to come along. It was easier to see my circumstances as the result of unluckiness, rather than deliberate sabotage from a wilful declaration not to pursue life-long partnership.”

I heartily recommend ‘Future Sex’, especially if you read it alongside Maggie Nelson’s ‘Argonauts’ or her incredibly haunting poetry-essay ‘Bluets’. 



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