Emily Witt’s Fu­ture Sex and Sheila Row­botham’s Rebel Cross­ings

An­wen Craw­ford on Emily Witt’s Fu­ture Sex and Sheila Row­botham’s Rebel Cross­ings

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - An­wen Craw­ford

In the mid­dle of a one-day work­shop run by OneTaste, a San Fran­cisco com­pany ded­i­cated to the prac­tice and pro­mo­tion of or­gas­mic med­i­ta­tion, par­tic­i­pants are re­quired to face each other and ask a ques­tion: “What do you de­sire?”

It is a ques­tion, writes Amer­i­can es­say­ist Emily Witt in her new book Fu­ture Sex: A New Kind of Free Love (Faber; $29.99), “to which I could only stam­mer mea­ger re­sponses”. She de­scribes her in­abil­ity to an­swer in the terms of an un­ful­filled in­ter­net search:

I was con­scious for the first time of the flat white screen that rolled down when I con­sid­ered such a ques­tion, the opaque shad­ows of move­ment be­hind it. A va­cant search bar waited, cur­sor blink­ing, for ideas that I, who did not con­sider an idea an idea un­til it was ex­pressed in lan­guage, had never ex­pressed in lan­guage. What I said I de­sired was to sur­ren­der to another per­son with­out hav­ing to ex­plain what I wanted.

The fa­tigue that lurks in­side Witt’s metaphor may be fa­mil­iar to any­one who’s ever landed on the Google home page with only a vague no­tion of their want, whether it be for sex, or new shoes, or a hol­i­day. Po­ten­tial sat­is­fac­tions are al­most num­ber­less, but how do you ar­rive at a spe­cific one? Search en­gines are only re­ally use­ful when you can nar­row down the de­scrip­tive terms of the search, and so “What do you de­sire?” turns out to be a ques­tion for which you re­quire some no­tion of an an­swer be­fore you have be­gun to an­swer it.

Fu­ture Sex is Witt’s first book, based in part on pre­vi­ously pub­lished es­says in the Lon­don Re­view of Books and the Amer­i­can lit­er­ary jour­nal n+1. It is, for the most, a first-per­son ex­plo­ration of var­i­ous sex­ual ac­tiv­i­ties avail­able to some­one such as her­self (“sin­gle, straight, and fe­male”, to which one might also add child­less and ex­tremely well ed­u­cated) in our con­tem­po­rary world. Many of the ac­tiv­i­ties that Witt par­tic­i­pates in or some­times only ob­serves – Tin­der dat­ing, live we­b­cams and chat sites, and filmed pornog­ra­phy – are ei­ther fa­cil­i­tated or me­di­ated by the in­ter­net. The prox­im­ity of sex to cur­rent and emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies is her theme, but her or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple is free love, a credo that long pre­dates wire­less broad­band and smart­phones.

At the age of 30, writes Witt in the open­ing para­graph of her book, “I still en­vi­sioned my sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ence even­tu­ally reach­ing a ter­mi­nus”. Her un­ques­tioned des­ti­na­tion was a monog­a­mous, long-term het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tion­ship, but, that des­ti­na­tion hav­ing failed to ma­te­ri­alise, she de­cides in­stead to be­gin ex­am­in­ing her own pre­sump­tions. Like many seek­ers be­fore her, she heads west across the US, to San Fran­cisco. The city’s long his­tory of al­ter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ties and its cur­rent sta­tus as the hub of the

global tech in­dus­tries – Facebook, Google, Ap­ple, In­tel and Hewlett-Packard all have their global head­quar­ters in the Bay Area – make it, writes Witt, the place “where the fu­ture was go­ing to be fig­ured out”, or if not that, then at least “the city Amer­ica had des­ig­nated for peo­ple who still be­lieved in free love”.

An in­con­gru­ous, of­ten in­co­her­ent blend of ac­quis­i­tive cap­i­tal­ism and anti-ma­te­ri­al­ist utopi­anism is made man­i­fest in con­tem­po­rary San Fran­cisco, and OneTaste is a good ex­am­ple of the re­sult­ing strange­ness. It’s a com­pany that be­haves like an in­ten­tional com­mu­nity, with acolytes of or­gas­mic med­i­ta­tion mak­ing con­verts by way of steeply priced work­shops and coach­ing ses­sions. And what is or­gas­mic med­i­ta­tion, you ask? It doesn’t have much to do with med­i­ta­tion, or even with or­gasm as com­monly un­der­stood; it’s a “part­nered con­scious­ness prac­tice” in which a fully clothed per­son (of­ten male, though not al­ways) stim­u­lates the cli­toris of a par­tially un­clothed per­son, us­ing their hand. Af­ter 15 min­utes a timer sounds (“usu­ally her­alded by the ‘Bell’ set­ting on an iPhone”, ob­serves Witt) and the “OM” ses­sion is over. The two par­tic­i­pants ex­change ver­bal notes, called “frames”, about their phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions dur­ing the ses­sion, and then they part ways.

Cli­max isn’t the point. The prac­tice of or­gas­mic med­i­ta­tion sep­a­rates sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ence “from love and ro­mance”, and even from de­sire. One can make an on­line book­ing to “OM” at the com­pany’s head­quar­ters in the same way that one might sched­ule a bikini wax or a yoga class, and the cross­over cus­tomer base between these ser­vices is, I imag­ine, fairly high. It’s cli­toral stim­u­la­tion as self-im­prove­ment, or, as the com­pany’s web­site puts it both more crudely and more grandiosely, “We’re cre­at­ing change by get­ting our pussies stroked.”

There’s a ker­nel of a good idea here, to do with fa­mil­iaris­ing women with their bod­ies and their sex­ual re­sponses, but it comes swad­dled in a whole lot of solip­sis­tic bull­shit. Witt notes her dis­com­fort with the earnest, quest­ing tone of OneTaste devo­tees, but in the end she judges them favourably, as peo­ple “look­ing for a method to ar­rive at a more au­then­tic and sta­ble ex­pe­ri­ence of sex­ual open­ness”. The prac­tice of or­gas­mic med­i­ta­tion could be one so­lu­tion to the prob­lem of ar­ti­fi­cial scarcity in the sex­ual mar­ket­place, whereby women are coun­selled to with­hold sex in favour of love be­cause love might re­sult in the so­cial and eco­nomic re­ward of mar­riage.

“I be­lieved in the mys­tique of com­mit­ment,” Witt writes of the per­son she was, be­fore she be­gan her de­lib­er­ate ex­cur­sions into sex­ual prac­tices out­side the struc­ture of a re­la­tion­ship. She iden­ti­fies the 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture, which was cen­tred in San Fran­cisco, as “the last mo­ment in liv­ing mem­ory” dur­ing which a crit­i­cal mass of Amer­i­cans tried to live out a “cri­tique of monogamy”. But she also sees the dis­si­pa­tion of that coun­ter­cul­ture as the ori­gin point of her own, rather con­ser­va­tive, be­lief in the su­pe­ri­or­ity of mar­riage over any other so­cial arrangement. “That was what the 1960s had taught us: not to tam­per with the fun­da­men­tal struc­tures of the fam­ily and so­ci­ety.”

“Non­monogamy”, Witt writes, “adopted en masse and rec­og­nized in lan­guage and law, would break with his­tory”, and this is true. Our so­ci­ety is based on the ag­gran­dis­e­ment of monogamy and mar­riage – the grad­ual ex­ten­sion of mar­riage rights to same-sex cou­ples re­in­forces rather than chal­lenges this fact – while house­work and child-rear­ing, per­formed over­whelm­ingly by women, is an un­paid sphere of labour upon which cap­i­tal­ist economies de­pend in or­der to func­tion. But Witt’s book never re­ally touches upon the eco­nomic con­di­tions of women’s op­pres­sion, nor of­fers a cri­tique of them. At times Fu­ture Sex reads like a de­gus­ta­tion menu of sex­ual op­tions – a dash of bondage sprin­kled with voyeurism, or a soupçon of group sex – avail­able to a young, ur­ban and tech-savvy sub­set of the Amer­i­can bour­geoisie, but an abun­dance of con­sumer choice is not the same thing, ma­te­ri­ally or ex­pe­ri­en­tially, as free­dom.

There is another his­tory of free love, a term that is of­ten con­fused, even in Witt’s book, with promis­cu­ity or non-monogamy, though prior to the 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture it was not syn­ony­mous with ei­ther. This cur­rent of fem­i­nist thought and prac­tice, ori­en­tated to­wards the abo­li­tion of mar­riage and the au­ton­omy of women, is de­tailed in a new book by the Bri­tish his­to­rian Sheila Row­botham. Rebel Cross­ings: New Women, Free Lovers, and Rad­i­cals in Bri­tain and the United States (Verso; $50) re­counts the lives of a half dozen or so in­ter­con­nected ac­tivists, both fe­male and male, dur­ing the late 19th cen­tury. None of these ac­tivists were par­tic­u­larly well known even in their own time, “be­ing the kind of fig­ures”, writes Row­botham in her in­tro­duc­tion, “who sur­face as names and then slip tan­ta­lis­ingly back into the shad­ows”. Nev­er­the­less she has tracked them doggedly through the archives, in or­der to cre­ate a vivid pic­ture of 19th-cen­tury transat­lantic rad­i­cal pol­i­tics.

Two of the women most prom­i­nent in Row­botham’s nar­ra­tive are He­lena Born and Miriam Daniell, women from mid­dle-class fam­i­lies who be­came dear friends. Both were heav­ily in­volved in labour or­gan­is­ing in Bris­tol dur­ing the 1880s, doc­u­ment­ing work con­di­tions and rais­ing strike funds on be­half of em­ploy­ees of Fry’s cho­co­late fac­tory.

Row­botham de­tails the com­pli­cated mix­ture of Chris­tian so­cial­ism, tran­scen­den­tal­ism, an­ar­chism and trade union­ism that went into the po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion of these women; at times the prose be­comes a thicket of So­ci­eties and Com­mit­tees, and a glos­sary of or­gan­i­sa­tions would have been wel­come. The var­i­ous group­ings of Bris­tol rad­i­cals were sup­ple­mented by oc­ca­sional vis­its from French an­ar­chists and Rus­sian ni­hilists, and cor­re­spon­dence flowed. An up-to-the-minute, in­ter­na­tion­al­ist po­lit­i­cal out­look turns out to be hardly a mod­ern in­ven­tion.

Daniell, who was mar­ried, would trans­gress pro­pri­ety by tak­ing a lover, the Scot­tish stu­dent Robert Al­lan Ni­col. In 1890 she fell preg­nant by him, and the cou­ple de­cided to move to the US. He­lena Born went with them. Once in Amer­ica, the three lived in Weimar, Cal­i­for­nia, a ru­ral com­mu­nity where “clus­ters of ex­per­i­men­tal lif­ers, seers, heal­ers, mys­tics and bo­hemian mis­fits were to be found”.

Early in their re­la­tion­ship Daniell and Ni­col col­lab­o­rated on a pam­phlet, The New Trade Union­ism, in which they de­tailed their vi­sion of a work­ers’ move­ment based on a free and lov­ing as­so­ci­a­tion of equals. “The great­est Union of all – the union of the Souls of Mankind in a per­fect Love”, they wrote, would arise not out of “re­li­gious trances”, but “in ac­tive, beau­ti­ful and sim­ple ser­vice, sac­ri­fice and life”. All of the ac­tivists that Row­botham doc­u­ments were in­ter­ested in eman­ci­pated sex­ual re­la­tion­ships – Born in par­tic­u­lar was greatly in­flu­enced by the writ­ings of the English so­cial­ist Ed­ward Car­pen­ter, an early de­fender of the rights of ho­mo­sex­ual peo­ple – but their phi­los­o­phy of free love en­com­passed some­thing more than ei­ther sex or ro­mance. The only word for it is com­rade­ship – hu­man re­la­tions freed from the dis­tort­ing pres­sures of eco­nomic com­pe­ti­tion, in which the in­trin­sic worth of each per­son would be recog­nised and dig­ni­fied.

Row­botham’s book also fol­lows the Ir­ish-born bas­ket maker Wil­liam Bailie, who first came to rad­i­cal pol­i­tics via the ques­tion of Home Rule in Ire­land, and the Amer­i­can fem­i­nist He­len Tufts, another close friend of He­lena Born. Tufts be­gan her work­ing life as a type­set­ter and would later go on to cam­paign for birth con­trol.

The ef­forts of this small group of peo­ple to live out their ideals in the ab­sence of a wider so­cial rev­o­lu­tion makes, at times, for poignant read­ing: “The rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of love and free­dom is a prob­lem for us to solve,” wrote Born to Bailie, her mar­ried lover, in 1898. Af­ter Born’s death, in 1901, Bailie be­gan a re­la­tion­ship with Tufts. In 1908 Bailie and Tufts would marry, bring­ing their ex­per­i­ment in free love to an end.

The point of Row­botham’s book is not to draw ex­plicit par­al­lels between then and now. As with her pre­vi­ous book, Dream­ers of a New Day: Women Who In­vented the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury (2010), which ex­plored the suf­fragette move­ment, her nar­ra­tive re­mains an­chored in the past. Nev­er­the­less, as a his­to­rian and the­o­rist (her 1973 book Woman’s Con­scious­ness, Man’s World was a land­mark of se­cond-wave fem­i­nist writ­ing), Row­botham is alert to the un­re­solved legacy of these ac­tivists. “I be­lieve the com­bi­na­tion of lib­erty, love and sol­i­dar­ity they stum­bled to­wards is even more need­ful in our twenty-first cen­tury.”

If there is a miss­ing el­e­ment to Emily Witt’s 21stcen­tury ex­plo­ration of free love, it is this no­tion of sol­i­dar­ity, of love it­self as a so­cial force with power be­yond the boundaries of ro­mance. There are hints of it: in a chap­ter on birth con­trol and its so­cial im­pact, free­ing women who can ac­cess it from the dic­tates of bi­ol­ogy, Witt notes the ris­ing num­ber of women who are both sin­gle and child­less, and won­ders if these women could act out a new kind of so­cial vo­ca­tion as com­mu­nity mem­bers sep­a­rate from “the house­holder” and their fa­mil­ial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. And right at the end of her book, she de­clares that one of her mo­ti­va­tions in doc­u­ment­ing a range of sex­ual ac­tiv­ity has been “to re­veal shared ex­pe­ri­ences of the lives we were liv­ing that fell out­side a hap­pi­ness that could be bought or sold”.

That ideal is praise­wor­thy, but in fact the ma­jor­ity of chap­ters in Fu­ture Sex are de­voted to acts that are com­mod­i­fied in one way or another. There is the cus­tomer-ser­vice model of OneTaste, and the live we­b­cam site Chatur­bate, which has its own cur­rency sys­tem, one that al­lows “per­form­ers” to gen­er­ate in­come, al­beit pal­try amounts of it. This is sex work that, in its medi­ocre pay and unpredictable hours, mir­rors the pre­car­i­ous con­di­tions of the con­tem­po­rary job mar­ket as a whole, though Witt doesn’t fully ex­plore the im­pli­ca­tions of this.

For the most part, and as a con­se­quence of its San Fran­cisco set­ting, the shadow story of Fu­ture Sex is one of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. The spa­ces that Witt en­ters for sex­ual en­counter – whether it be a hip­ster bar for the live film­ing of pornog­ra­phy or the Burn­ing Man fes­ti­val with its $400 ticket price – tend to mil­i­tate against the kind of cross-class con­nec­tions, sex­ual or oth­er­wise, that might be­gin to gen­er­ate a sol­i­dar­ity that could lead to so­cial change. The ma­jor­ity of peo­ple that Witt pro­files in her book are highly paid tech work­ers, the kind who can af­ford to pur­chase li­a­bil­ity in­sur­ance for the strip­per poles at their pri­vate sex par­ties. This is sex as re­fined leisure, but its con­nec­tion to a broader project of po­lit­i­cal eman­ci­pa­tion re­mains un­clear.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.