‘I was single, straight, and female,’ Emily Witt begins, with all the élan of an alcoholic stating her name and what’s wrong with her. Only there isn’t anything wrong with Emily Witt. (The book jacket tells us she has three degrees and won a Fulbright scholarship to Mozambique.) Unless you count not having a fella in your fourth decade. Which she does. And doesn’t.
Future Sex is a collection of essays about sex and society, originally published in magazines including N+1, GQ and the London Review of Books, packaged into book form. In America, it enjoyed rave reviews. Here, it’s had a sexy reprint by Faber. I got very excited too, for the first two chapters, when Witt seemed to be asking the question no one ever poses: ‘Why, when we enjoy all the freedom women would have killed for throughout three millennia, do we still feel we’ve failed if we’ve not snared a man for better or worse?’
Feminists used to tell us that we’d been liberated: that a woman without a man was like a fish without a bicycle. Now we’re fish out of water, flapping around, wondering what’s wrong with us. Why are we alone — not in a tank somewhere, with a man fish and fingerlings? Or as Witt puts it: ‘I had disliked my freedom because I didn’t want to see myself landing on the outside of normal.’ After a rousing monologue in which she declares her affinity with those ‘who had not found love… who were used to going to weddings by themselves, who knew they embodied some ahistorical demographic whose numbers were now significant’ she had me. I was Team Witt — on a mission to find ‘a new kind of free love’.
Only then she just veered off to find new and utterly foul ways of having sex instead.
That dismal quest begins in San Francisco, where Witt tries ‘orgasmic meditation’ — or (as you and I might call it) ‘public masturbation’. At first, she doesn’t like it: ‘I avoided all eye contact… caught the bus home… and watched the Norman Conquest episode of Simon Schama’s History of Britain.’ Then she has a go. And she doesn’t like that either. But then, because the experience consisted of a man wearing latex gloves flicking at her clitoris as ineffectively as a novice in a game of Subbuteo, who would?
Undeterred, Witt goes on to examine live webcams, polyamory and the Burning Man festival, where scenes get so pretentious they might appear in Pseud’s Corner:
I picked up the phone and spoke to God… ‘This is why people don’t like you anymore!’ I wailed, and hung up the phone.
Witt has a degree in journalism from Columbia. There, they must have taught her to take notes, because she keeps telling us that this is what she is doing — when a tabloid-trained hack like me would ask a bloody question. Her detached style has been much praised and that was fine…. Until she attends the live filming of an internet series called Public Disgrace. Here, Witt blankly records, a pretty girl called Penny has a sign that calls her ‘worthless’ hung round her neck, is stripped, smacked, whipped, prodded, poked, penetrated, ejaculated on, electrocuted, anally fisted and worse, while a baying mob jeers and ‘mascara runs in rivers’ down her face.
To Germaine Greer, this would have been an outrage on womankind — Penny herself a ‘victim of male fetishism and loathing’, who like all the forgotten dead prostitutes of time — strangled, raped with bottles — didn’t cry out to those tormenting her: ‘“Why do you hate us so?” although hate it clearly is.’ But Witt doesn’t imagine herself as Penny for a single second. She thinks the whole scene is cool — ‘taboo-breaking’ — and even tells us that ‘the pornographers at Kink are feminists themselves’. That it took ‘feminism to explain how the gagging, slapping, and sneering of porn might be hateful to women… You couldn’t have Public Disgrace without feminism.’ Which is utter rot. Had she died at the end, Penny’s violation could have been a blow by blow re-enactment of the gang rape of Tralala in Last Exit to Brooklyn — which was published six years before The Female Eunuch.
This scene isn’t just hateful to women, it’s hateful to the human soul. Witt does not even wonder what happened to Penny to make her submit to treatment that would not be allowed if she were a cow. All sympathy is concentrated instead on our authoress, who chooses this point to confess that she’s so miserable without a boyfriend she’s not having sex at all.
Six weeks on, I’m still furious at having to finish this repulsive, meandering, incoherent book. I’d have had more pleasure being groped by Donald Trump. After a lot of panting, Future Sex fails to climax.