Emily Witt’s (2016) book Future Sex chronicles her search for intimate self-realization as a New Yorker in her early 30s migrating to tech-centered SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA. The book is situated both in interviews and personal encounters, stringing vignettes jointly into chapters with topics including polyamory, Orgasmic Meditation, Internet porn, and Burning Man. In this particular review, I emphasize her chapter on sex camming.
But first, I am going to start with a wide overview. A significant theme in the reserve is the kind of existential angst that originates from having too many choices. Witt feels daunted by her intimate freedom as a millennial—the endless range of sexual partners and methods—first permitted by the intimate revolution, and then by the web. She (p. 12) explains:
Imagine if love failed us? Intimate freedom acquired now extended to the people who never wanted to get rid of the old institutions, except to the degree of displaying solidarity with friends who do. I had not sought so much choice for myself, and when I came across myself with total sexual freedom, I used to be unhappy.
Witt spent her early adult life wanting to find enduring love—and perhaps even relationship—observing this as an escape from the routine of causal sexual arrangements, sometimes punctuated by intervals of monogamy, that has up until now defined her intimate life. But Witt’s desires conflict with the world she inhabits, as Millennial sexual norms privilege freedom over security in interactions. She (pp.11-2) details why security remains attractive, even as the web opens a lot more possibilities:
The expansion of sexuality outside of marriage got brought new reasons to trust the traditional controls, reasons such as HIV, the time limits of fertility, the delicacy of emotions. Even while I resolved for freedom as an interim condition, I prepared for my monogamous future. My sense of rightness, after the failed tests of previous generations, was like the reconstructions of the baroque nationwide monument that was damaged by a bomb but another kind of freedom had arrived: a blinking cursor in bare space.
In questioning these new romantic configurations where freedom prevails, Witt echos what cultural theorists Anthony Giddens and the late Zygmunt Bauman respectively explain as “pure relationships” and “liquid love.” Both authors suggest that the perfect of unconditional commitment has been supplanted by continuous negotiation and the criterion of mutual advantage. And, even in coupling, personality remains central.
Missing a secure, dedicated relationship in the old mildew, Witt pieces out to explore the possibility of fulfillment (or, at least, self-knowledge) in less regular situations. As turns out, it is within the section on “Live Webcams” that Witt will the most theoretical work to describe why seeking diverse experiences—the project of the reserve—might aid in her quest for sexual self-realization. Specifically, she points to an essay in the book Time Square Red, Times Square Blue by the gay African-American writer Samuel D. Delany about http://blablacams.com/mature enough time he spent having anonymous sex in porno theaters. Witt (p. 126) summarizes the essay:
Delany explaind the benefits of his huge experience in casual sex. The concert halls had offered as laboratories in which he had learned to discern the nuances and spectrum of his sexual desire… His observations about intimate attraction regularly disproved typical 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 estimates Delany who suggests we should “figure out how to find our own way of experiencing sex sexy” and concludes:
I don’t observe how this can be accomplished with out a statistically significant variety of partners… However supportive, the response of a single partner just cannot do this. This is a quintessentially interpersonal process…
Unlike Delany, Witt (p. 204) mainly lands back where she started, finding monogamy rewarding but now embracing an ideal of commitment as temporary:
I am hoping that married collaboration would stop to be observed as a totalizing end point and instead become something more humble, perhaps am institutional basis for shared efforts such as raising children or making artwork.
But this go back to a somewhat standard notion of love demonstrates to be the most interesting aspect of the book. Witt’s thinking about the freedom and diversity of experience available to the present era seems to progress. Rather than seeing the almost infinite range of sexual possibilities as daunting, Witt eventually ends up viewing it as an chance to experiment until one finds confidence and seems affirmed in their own desires. She (p. 204) says:
I found that… mostly I wanted to live in a global with a wider range of intimate identities. I hoped the primacy and legitimacy of an individual sexual model would continue to erode as it has, with increasing acceleration, before fifty years.
Though she does not state it so explicitly, I’d claim that Witt has uncovered an interesting dialectic between freedom and security. Though freedom to explore may help us in finding what we should find sexually attractive, exploration may, paradoxically, lead to security in one’s established sexual desires, when new experience continually prove less satisfying and therefore reaffirm the appropriateness of those desires.
And, while final chapter amazing things off a bit, I think the desirability of embracing this pressure between freedom and security is the clear (if unstated) bottom line of the publication.
Following this theme of intimate exploration as a system of self-realization, I now want to carefully turn to the question of what camming shows Witt about her own sexuality (and what we can learn about camming in the process). Witt (p. 114) describes her encounters with the favorite camsite Chaturbate:
I first saw Chaturbate and the many other live-sex-cam sites available online as porn… as the technical development of peep show booths and telephone sex lines. Like those, that they had a performer and they experienced a voyeur… Then I spent additional time on the site.
As she dives deeper into the site, Witt establishes that the resemblances she observed between cam sites and other types of sex work/performance were only superficial. The diversity and interactivity of cam sites arranged them apart.
Chaturbate was filled with serendipity… the feeling of clicking through the 18+ disclaimer in to the opening matrix was the main one of turning on MTV in the mid-1990s, when music videos played most of your day and kept viewers captive in the anticipation of the favorite performer or a fresh discovery. Or maybe, to reach farther back in its history, it recalled the sooner times of the Internet—the web of strangers rather than “friends.”
Witt’s decision to approach her subject material through the lens of her own desire—as explained in the first section of this review—proves both interesting and problematic in this chapter.
Why is Witt’s strategy interesting is that, in bypassing the favorite rooms that she generally discovers uninteresting, she will take us to the margins of the websites, looking for the unpredicted. This consists of an Icelandic female who strips putting on a rubber horse face mask and fedora. In a passage consultant of her snarky but appreciative style, Witt identifies (pp. 112-3):
maybe it was the home that she was in or her hi-def camera or an over-all feature of the Icelandic people but even faceless she gleamed with the well-being that emanates wherever per-capita usage of fish oils is high and residents benefit from socialized healthcare.
Witt also represents a college-age women who discussed books and made $1,500 doing a 24 hour marathon that featured much talking, some nudity, and no sex. A 3rd woman suspended herself from a hook made of ice. And another woman kept nude sex ed discussions.
Going for a cue from one of her interviewees, Witt describes the designed use of site—a couple of performers broadcasting to many audiences in each room—as “mass intimacy.” But, the most interesting part of the section was Witt’s exploration into a culture that has emerged around using Chaturbate to assist in unpaid, private, 1-on-1 sex.
Assisted by two performers that she interviewed, she “multiperved” or “audio-Skyped with each other while sifting through videos online” (p. 124). Collectively, logged to see the countless webpages of men streaming but being viewed by nobody. She identifies (pp. 124-5):
not the most popular men, instead clicking through to the next and third pages for the real amateurs, the forest of men in desk chair… It proved that they waited there for a reason… in order that they will find someone who will cam-to-cam with them…
Witt (and her guides) stumbled upon a man she finds somewhat attractive, and she chats with him. The man quickly invites her to carefully turn her cam on. She obliges and sets up a password-protected room so only he can easily see her. While Witt does not seem to find the encounter particularly rewarding, she (p. 125) does offer some insight in to the value others find in the knowledge:
here, where expectations resided in the chance of an electric encounter between two people, tokens mattered much less. If, on its landing page, Chaturbate was a large number of men viewing a few women, a few webpages in, the figures changed to one or two different people using Chaturbate to socialize privately with another person.
Witt’s experience highlights a really interesting case of technology being used against the grain. It really is a rougish activity for users to seek non-transactional intimate or intimate encounters on sites whose revenue come from audiences purchasing tokens. While these websites afford such activity , nor prohibit it, they do not intend or explicitly condone it either. It really is, perhaps, for this reason absence control that sites enjoys Chaturbate remind Witt of the sooner Web.
While Witt’s study of the margins of camming sites is exposing, she also, probably, fails to represent most of the proceedings these sites and is even somewhat dismissive of the more popular performers. Because she targets her desires as a thirty-something NYC article writer, Witt sometimes shows a hipster bias, where, if something isn’t weird or edgy, it’s not viewed as deserving attention.
Witt is also not a joiner. Her wish to test as part her own search for intimate self-realization, drives her visit many places; but, for the most part, Witt will identify or feel a sense of owed with the folks she meets. She appears to participate only far away, looking at others as subjects just as much as human relationships. Witt (p. 172) details her own romantic relationship to a sex party she attends, stating “I had been still thinking about myself as simply a visitor, or rather neither here nor there, someone executing an abstract inquiry however, not yet with true purpose.” This distancing is valuable insofar as it brings with it a degree of objectivity (most other things written about Orgasmic Mediation, for example, appear to be marketing duplicate); however, it does mean she’s unable to offer an insider perspective through her personal narratives.
What’s lacking in the section on camming—due to some mixture of her hipster bias and lack of personal experience—can be an examination of the many dimensions of creative labor that switches into producing evening the most normative-appearing shows. Experienced Witt attempted modeling herself, this would be readily obvious. The seeming convenience with which models embody normative wishes is part of the work—part of the performance of authenticity.
A most troubling second is when she uncritically relays one of her interviewee’s characterization of the very best performers as “zombie hot girls” (p. 124). This privileging of the odd in porn feeds a kind of whorearchy, where certain forms of sex work/practice are denigrated as a means of validating others.
Witt certainly is not consciously anti-sex work. In the last chapter, in reality, she offers significant amounts of praise for the artistry women porn directors and companies, and she spends a significant time questioning her own values shaped by mainstream feminism and considering more inclusive feminisms that embrace sex employees and porn as a medium. And, quite insightfully, she argues very much fetish porn is a reaction or response to new taboos set up by anti-porn feminists.
Nevertheless, Witt does not seem to increase the eye and regard she’s for women-directed studio room porn to the women-directed shows of popular cam models. I’m certain they have unique insights and exciting stories to tell.
Irrespective of these few criticisms, Witt gets one key thing right: The future of sex can’t be reduced to a story of technological development but must be grasped in conditions of changing patterns of human being human relationships. She (p. 210) concludes “America got a great deal of respect for future years of items, and less interest in the foreseeable future of human arrangements.” Because of this alone, Future Sex probably deserves more attention.