Among the terrible things 2016 has thrust in our faces—Suicide Squad, overnight oats, Ryan Lochte—is much ado about our nation’s allegedly unforgivable “orgasm gap.” Surely you’ve heard that this is “an inequality that’s as serious as the pay gap”? If you haven’t, consider yourself filled in: Straight women don’t come during partnered sex as often as straight men, and that’s a HUGE FUCKING PROBLEM.
Just kidding. About the last part, I mean. I’m fond of saying that the real orgasm gap is between how much we talk about orgasms and how much they actually matter. Because an orgasm isn’t the ultimate arbiter of how pleasurable, satisfying, or wanted sex is, I think fixating on it is irresponsible and counterproductive and tends to create yet one more box women who are already sexually overburdened have to check off. No going to sleep until you’ve hit your climax, young lady!
But this obsessive focus on pushing women to have more sex, more erotic variety, and more orgasms in the name of equality is typical of media that flattens its consumers into a narrow, privileged demographic. Having consistently good sex is a wonderful luxury, but it’s just that: a luxury. We live in an age where libertinism is openly endorsed and celebrated for some—namely white, financially independent, agnostic or secular-minded adults—but less accessible and sanctioned for others, like trans people, conservative religious folk, and everyone unfortunate enough to live in states with strict anti-abortion laws and dismal health care options. As our economic middle class melts as fast as the ice caps, so too have we become similarly polarized along sexual lines. There is no sexual middle class in America.
There are the sexual haves, who grew up self-possessed, educated, with generous amounts of practical resources and therefore operate pretty high up on Maslow’s hierarchy when it comes to sex and everything else. And then there are the sexual have-nots, who grew up with abstinence-only education and are still confused about the finer points of pleasure and safety, who can’t afford to leave unhealthy intimate relationships, who live in strict communities that discourage or mock sexual experimentation. For many Americans, sex may present problems that need solving. But that doesn’t make sex itself a solution.
For decades, North American feminists from Anne Koedt to Naomi Wolf to Rebecca Traister have suggested that changing our personal sexual landscapes would result in widespread social improvements, but it’s always been a (predominantly white and middle- to upper-class) pipe dream. You can have the hottest sex on earth and still wake up to a job that pays you far less than your partner, whether that’s because of your race or gender or both. And you can vibrate yourself to a 20-minute orgasm every day and still not be able to afford an abortion—or afford to have a child. But living in a culture that emphasizes sex as one of the only, or perhaps the only route, to self-knowledge and interpersonal connection tends to obscure these practicalities. If you’re told sex is your only compass for learning about yourself and your best gateway to human intimacy, that personal struggle can cloud your ability to think critically about the less sexy matters afflicting other women.
Enter Emily Witt’s Future Sex, a new book concerned with the tension between the stories we tell, or once told, about love and sex, and the reality of how we now pursue the same. Thanks in part to its irresistible title but also to Witt’s brainy bonafides—a Fulbright scholar with bylines in The New Yorker and n + 1—it’s already gained a considerable amount of buzz. The New York Times led with Future Sex in a recent article about “Thinking Gals,” and praised the book as “personal” and “revealing.”
It’s far from a memoir, though. Witt turns her attention to Burning Man orgies, amateur camming website Chaturbate, neo-Tantric Orgasmic Meditation® workshops, and a close account of one couple’s experimentation with polyamory, all in service of determining what fills the void when “traditional controls” around sexuality are removed. She is primarily an observer, and her own participation in each of the realms is muted. (And the realms themselves prove depressing. Does the future of sex truly belong only to the mostly white and mostly privileged, New Age-inclined among us?)
Her lack of enthusiasm is probably due to the void—no pun intended, I swear—remaining unfilled. Romantic bonding, not sex or physical pleasure, is Witt’s primary preoccupation. “When I found myself with total sexual freedom,” Witt writes, “I was unhappy.” She’s not against casual sex but would prefer that it happen with people she knows and likes in other contexts, too: friends who may or may not become more. Internet dating makes her uncomfortable and the overtly sexual situations she reports on and from often irritate her, make her wish she were somewhere else or with someone else. She’s disillusioned by a brave new world that can deliver fucking so readily, but not marriage, or at least committed monogamy, or partnership in some other durable form.
Witt doesn’t link new sexual practices to an impending feminist utopia—she isn’t explicitly concerned with feminism at all—but implicit in her exploratory mission is the aforementioned conviction that our most intense relationships, including the ones with ourselves, are determined by sex. Follow sex, she reasons, and you’ll find purpose or maybe peace. That’s why she looks to polyamory and open relationships as a potential new ideal instead of, say, conceptualizing romantic love as something distinct from sex or installing a platonic connection in its place.
It’s no surprise then that in this context, when she manages to point to something good about sex outside the boundary of a serious relationship, it feels reluctant, almost admitted against her better judgment: “Sex [in the right circumstances] really did make me feel better . . .” “Pursuing sex with other people really could help me reconnect with the world after heartbreak.” This is not a woman who just needs a good tantric massage to feel better about her life. Her desires are much more complex.
Meanwhile, “sex can change your life!” feels like the guiding tenet of Sarah Barmak’s Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality, a recent release Bitch magazine called a “revelation.” As the subtitle indicates, Closer is another book that surveys ostensibly new and progressive ideas about the erotic future. Barmak shares a number of Witt’s subjects, including the trademarked orgasm meditation and Burning Man. But where Witt is reserved about and somewhat unconvinced by the sexual experiments she encounters, Barmak is breathless, swept up in a tsunami of sex positivity that insists the right type of sex will make women happier, healthier, more powerful, and more creative. “Is sex just pleasure or is it more?” she asks before answering decisively: “It’s about feeling whole.”
Barmak devotes the last chapter to defending the book against criticism of superficiality or frivolity by claiming that “sexual equality is integral to the greater discussion taking place about women’s rights [because] it intersects with well-being, self-determination, and consent.” Which is true, yet disingenuous. Sure, “well-being” is desirable, if nebulous to the point of complete ambiguity—and the link between orgasms and “wellness” is more of a cultural phenomenon than an objective truth. Yes, self-determination, which necessarily includes the power to consent, is a basic human right.
But the rarefied environments Barmak finds intriguing—a sex machine on public offer in the desert, operated by the man who made it; female sex workers selling one-on-one sessions to other women with the promise of healing genital trauma or unlocking energy; appropriative niche religions that link sex and spirituality—are far removed from the widespread education, policy changes, or resource distribution universal sexual health would require. (I’m not sure what Barmak wants “sexual equality” to mean here; equal to whom? And how would that be quantified? Are men the baseline, and what makes us so sure that they’re sexually satisfied or perfectly empowered?)
The most pressing sexual issue of our moment, and of the foreseeable future, isn’t actually educated, urban women’s angst and disappointment regarding their romantic situations, libidos, or orgasm duration. It’s limited access to the care and information so many desperately need regardless of their gender. It’s systemic rape of vulnerable populations. It’s an ineffective and deeply racist justice system incapable of understanding consent, let alone ensuring it, and laws that criminalize commercial sex so as to better punish the poor and already stigmatized. No female orgasm on earth is strong enough to right those wrongs. And those issues are crucial in and of themselves, not because they’re necessary stops along the way to a true feminist endgame of a Hitachi in every nightstand and a multi-orgasmic woman in every bed.
I’m not dismissing the pain of Witt or those sharing her predicament, who expected they would mate for life but found themselves persistently mate-less. Nor am I dismissing the shame of being unable to come with a partner when conventional wisdom maintains that orgasm is the most important point of union. It’s frustrating and confusing to navigate this new world of intimate pairings that often don’t seem to last as long as we hoped while we’re simultaneously held to an unattainable standard of sexual eagerness and efficiency. But a narrow, ultimately useless view of sex results from going down the rabbit hole of these instructions, where sex must usher in a new age of broad equality while also instructing us on how to live on the micro level.
Ultimately, sex cannot be the only method for creating and sustaining closeness with another person. Nor does sex function particularly well as a flashpoint around which to organize our politics. “Something always seems to go wrong somewhere between desire and revolution,” wrote queer theorist Guy Hocquengham in 1972. It’s a lesson we apparently have to relearn again and again.
Our discussions about sex tend to be obsessed with the future, with social improvement, while simultaneously suspecting that we’re well on our way to ensuring it. But it’s hard to think critically about what the future may look like when you haven’t really come to terms with the circumstances of the present. Tinder and its ilk are essentially the flying cars of the sexual world of tomorrow, one of many manifestations of the sexual revolution’s promise of copious amounts of easy sex with as many people as are willing. And that’s legitimately exciting.
But we—”we” here meaning not just women but all humans, or at least all Americans—have a tendency to see progress when there's really only change. Sex at Burning Man isn’t necessarily visionary or even original just because Burning Man itself has a patina of the strange and unconventional. (Orgies are probably older than our very species; whatever we pride ourselves on doing with each other’s bodies, other animals have usually already done it, and with less self-congratulation.) Polyamory probably won’t set most of us free from insecurity or immunize us from the grief of break-ups. Barmak’s and Witt’s works strike me as two sides of the same coin, the sex-is-everything coin. Flipping back and forth between the two sides seems like a sure way to remain unsatisfied.
To whatever extent women now may be having more orgasms than women in the past, it’s largely thanks to strides not unique to the sexual sphere and whose benefits extend far beyond it: financial self-sufficiency, freedom from near-compulsory marriage, adequate health care, increased privacy, and improved access to information. At best, orgasms are the symptom, not the cause; a side effect, and not the primary goal. We disproportionately rely on sex to teach us about ourselves, each other, and the social world at large—but we don’t have to. We could finally start to reject the notion that, as feminist Dana Densmore put it, “freedom for women could only mean sexual freedom.”
Densmore’s prescient tour de force, 1973’s “Independence from the Sexual Revolution,” has a lot to offer us when thinking about our present and our future. “The solutions all point to sex one way or another,” she writes, with sadness.
Sex becomes magic, assumes a life of its own, making anything interesting. . . as if even total sexual fulfillment would change [our political circumstances.] Even with perfect sexual fulfillment, mutual guilt-free pleasure, we are still oppressed. If that were the only injustice, or even the major injustice, done us, we would be very well off indeed.
There’s no contradiction in recognizing the desirability of sexual fulfilment while also noting that very desirability is inflated by a society that hugely overvalues sex. It’s fine for women to love riding a random guy’s dildo robot, just like it’s fine for me to make my life’s work the perfect Casual Encounters profile, but that doesn’t mean our actions are furthering a larger progressive cause. Nor should they have to. Our sexual decision-making can—should—be based on our own gratification, safety, and pleasure. But I want a future that offers us a lot more than moments of pleasure. I want a future that isn’t only determined by sex.
Charlotte Shane has written for Matter, Pacific Standard, The Verge, and is the author of Prostitute Laundry.