Arguably, we currently live in a time of so-called "sex-positivity", a kind of everything goes, everything is acceptable era when it comes to sex and sexuality. This feminist movement originated nearly forty years ago, largely in response to the early wave of "radical feminists"--writers and thinkers such as Andrea Dworkin who believed that pornography promoted violence against women, and was a key tool in perpetuating and normalizing the patriachy. Porn was the pattern, from which all inequality flowed, and served as the raison d´etre for many within the radical feminist movement. As Dworkin stated in her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981), "pornography is the blueprint of male supremacy; it shows how male supremacy is built."
But a number of women and queer folks believe that such a worldview is too reductive; what´s more, it seems to eliminate women (and all people) from having agency to explore their own pleasures, desires, sexualities. Activist Nina Hartley contradicts Dworkin, instead asserting that pornography is "a vehicle for exploring female pleasure", a means to learn, have fun, and try new things within safe parameters. Like others, Hartley believes that the root causes of male dominance in society are far bigger than the set of a porn film; but within those parameters, Erika Lust and other filmmakers are transforming how pornography is created, written, filmed, and distributed. Lust´s artistic vision reflects her ideological worldview: her short narrative films feature women with their own sexual agency, she said during a recent interview, and the performers she casts celebrate "different sexualities, skin colors and body shapes".
But in her recently released book Rethinking Sex : A Provocation, writer and Washington Post columnist Christine Emba challenges the notion that sex during the time of sex-positivity is all that great. People are having less sex than before, and couples are entering into marriage and motherhood later, if at all. Yes, consent has become the key in our culture, but what about care? As one of Emba´s interview subjects proclaims in one of the later chapters, what about "loving someone for just one night"?
For Emba, the emphasis on consent has meant that other aspects of being intimate with one another have faded from the conversation. She and her interview subjects feel that everyone is expected to be willing to experiment and try anything, and that everything (to paraphrase Dostoevski) has suddenly become permissible. At one point in her book, Emba uses the recent story of actor Armie Hammer and his "cannibalism fetish" as an example, as some commentators sought to deflect criticism about the actor´s kink, urging the rest of us to not be so judgmental. As the title of Rethinking Sex points to, Emba believes that these are precisely the sorts of questions we should be asking, and more. Should we interrogate our fantasies? Is it wiser or healthier for us to do so?
According to the book, the average American millennial has their sexual debut at age 17. Further, dating apps are an extension of capitalism--treating one´s sexual partners (and oneself) as a "product" on the "market". These and other ideas are intriguing, and ones I wanted to hear much more about. For most of the book, however, data points like these are mentioned in passing, with chapters offering far greater weight given to anecdotal stories from the (straight) people Emba interviewed with, as well as her own personal perspective and beliefs. Particularly given that her own sexuality is a bit outside the norm--ie growing up as a Born Again Christian, taking chastity pledges, not having sex until after college--having a wider range of voices and a more diverse range of viewpoints contributing to her discussion would have made the book stronger, in my opinion.
I agree with a number of points that Emba posits in this slim volume, which reads like an extended Op-Ed piece. Yes, we as a culture (particularly in America) should have a conversation surrounding sex, desire, intimacy, and pleasure that goes beyond just consent--there is more to being intimate just our bodies being naked together. Should these originate from education, and if so, when? Are these kinds of conversations already happening as part of our public discourse, from books and podcasts to the activities of various communities (queer, BDSM, and polyamory individuals come to mind, where such conversations do seem to be happening)? According to Emba, and the people she interviewed for this book--mostly women, and predominantly heterosexual woman--it would seem that the answer is no. For them, everyone is lost, dejected, feeling empty in the world of dating apps.
Also, speaking of straight people: at the outset of her book, Emba admits that "I am writing and thinking with mainly heterosexual relationships in mind." She goes on to say that
...cisgender heterosexuality is where our cultural scripts run deepest, and it is often in
heterosexual relationships where they have the most gravitational force....
A rising share of the population identifies as gay, queer, or nonbinary....but even these
relationships are often navigated within--or at least influenced by--the dominant sexual
narrative and the ethics it implies (xiv).
Really? I´m not sure if I agree. One could argue the opposite--that queer communities have influenced cisgender heterosexual relationships, from challenging the "need" for marriage and monogamy, to educating cisgender people about safer sex (which proved quite helpful during both the AIDS crisis as well as covid-19, when straight people wanted to know how to have conversations about sex during a life-threatening pandemic). I would have been interested if Emba had posed her questions to other groups besides heterosexual women and a few straight guys, and see what responses she would have heard. Especially given the recent new legislation against women´s reproductive rights in Texas and Oklahoma, the so-called "Don´t Say Gay" bill in Florida, and the wave of bills targeting primarily Trans people this year, I´m intrigued that she there is a rising number of people wanting to come out. Isn´t the author?