In a recent New York Times advice column, a reader wrote to inquire whether to renew a lease with a roommate who has exhibited “some troubling behavior.” The roommate shoplifted from a department store and registered on a website for men looking to be “sugar daddies.” The columnist, Philip Galanes, responded by saying, “Shoplifting is wrong, obviously.” But, he added, “personally… I am unwilling to make harsh judgments about his choices around sex and dating without a fuller understanding of the situation or his perspective on it.”
The willingness to make judgments about petty theft but not prostitution is a sign of the times, as Christine Emba writes in her clear-eyed Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. Emba, a 30-something Washington Post columnist who grew up in an evangelical home, has experienced a certain amount of puzzlement at the way her peers and the adults instructing them talk about sex: “Nonconsensual sex is always wrong. But the inverse is tricky. Is consensual sex always right?”
Emba’s countercultural answer is “Not necessarily.” She asks: “Can consensual sex be damaging to an individual, to their partner, to society? Absolutely. It’s hard to look at the woes of our sexual ‘marketplace’ and say that we’ve got it figured out. Consent is a fig leaf, and it’s falling off.” But the young women and men she interviews for this book—and the friends and acquaintances whose experience led her to this topic—cannot seem to grasp what has gone wrong. They have bad, hurtful, damaging, and depressing sexual encounters, but because the parties involved are consenting adults, they find themselves unable to articulate the problem.
In one of the more extreme examples, a young woman confesses to Emba at a party that she is dating a guy who is “funny, smart, handsome, with an impressive job.” The only problem? “He likes choking me during sex?” The question mark is hers—she can’t figure out Whether it’s even a problem. Though she doesn’t enjoy it, she asks Emba: “I mean, what do you think? Is that okay?” It never ceases to amaze what a half-century of female empowerment hath wrought.
But even the women who are not having their oxygen flow restricted during sex are also pretty unhappy. One woman describes a one-night stand she had with a guy before they both left for overseas trips: “I think I was into it in the moment, and, like, you know, sex is great and everything…. But then afterward I was like, ‘It probably would have been a lot, like, easier if I hadn’t.’ You know what I mean? I don’t think that that was necessarily a great move.” She is quick to reassure Emba, “It’s not like I was in love with him. It’s not like I was heartbroken. But it’s a challenge for me sometimes…. I don’t know if it was really best for my emotions.”
The fact that women don’t enjoy casual sex—certainly not nearly as much as men do—seems to come as a surprise to these women, who feel that they should be having sex with men to whom they are not attached so they can be “living in the moment.”
Emba finds that men are not necessarily happy with the current situation either, though they are not as unhappy with it. But they, too, want meaningful relationships, families, and children. And the current environment is not very conducive to those goals.
Emba reports results from a recent Pew Research Center poll: “Nearly half of Americans say that dating has gotten harder for most people over the past ten years—with the actual dating population—the 15 percent or so of adults who are single and looking for a committed relationship or even just casual dating—saying that they are dissatisfied with their dating life.… Fully half of single adults have given up on looking for a relationship or dating at all.”
The sex recession, as it is has come to be called, is in part because of a dating recession. A 2017 poll by the Economist found that more than 1 in 4 men thought that asking a woman to go for a drink would “constitute sexual harassment.” Emba is right to note that because we have removed so many of the boundaries and customs around dating and sex, people are overwhelmed. “We don’t know where things will stop—so we’re afraid to start at all.”
Suggesting that boundaries around sex might be a good thing is a form of transgression for Emba’s Washington Post audience. The book’s jacket cover calls the book “part searing examination, part call to arms,” but the tone is less primal scream than pleading whisper. Emba asks whether we could all just maybe agree that a fetish for, say, cannibalism, even if it doesn’t actually result in hurting people, might actually be a problem. “This is an example of a disordered, objectively vicious desire, and we should say so,” she writes. “Frankly, not every preference needs to be indulged.” I would venture to say that for most of the country, this one need not even be spoken, let alone indulged.
It has become more acceptable for mainstream commentators to question the ubiquity of pornography in the modern world. Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof went on a crusade against online porn, though he focused largely on the nonconsensual videos that pervade the Internet. It is also now okay to question the objectification inherent in such videos. But Emba echoes earlier commentators such as Mark Regnerus, who in his 2011 book written with Jeremy Uecker, Premarital Sex in America, noted that pornography is having real-life effects on what new variations men and women expect from each other during sexual encounters. Choking is among them.
How the progressive audience for Emba’s work will take such judgments remains to be seen. The fact that she fails to go along with the gender-is-a-social-construct line will surely shock them: “As our own experiences make clear, our biologies and our biographies come with us into the bedroom…. Women remain women, with all of the physical characteristics, structural constraints, and social programming that come with our gender. And men remain men.”
Exactly which boundaries we should reinstate, though, Emba is less certain. She assures the readers that having fewer casual sex encounters does not mean that she is advising that people wait until marriage. And though she mentions several times the harms of the “purity culture” in which she was raised, the criticisms are fairly vague and the victims of such culture—if there are any—are nowhere to be found in the book.
But it may make readers feel more as if Emba is staking out a middle ground if she is willing to criticize such conservative evangelical strictures. The other comfort for them will be her criticism of capitalism’s influence on sex and dating. “Today, dating can seem more like a competition than an attempt to build a relationship or form a connection,” she writes. “Which makes sense. The capitalist ideal that has formed our understanding of ‘independence’ tends to preclude connection and solidarity in favor of the possibility of private gain. The fierce privacy and optionality that we idolize can tend toward dehumanization and alienation, and there is no outside mediator to appeal to when things don’t seem quite right.”
It is not clear what system Emba would prefer people live under when they’re dating. In another era, of course, there were others looking out for the interests of the young—families, mostly—and they would help make choices. Those choices prioritized private gain over human connection. But the gain would be for the family or the tribe.
The problem is not that there is a sexual marketplace. There has always been a sexual marketplace. But as researchers such as Regnerus point out, the rules of that marketplace have changed significantly. Women are giving away the milk, so men don’t have to buy the cow. Women are not getting much short-term pleasure out of it. Nor are they achieving their long-term goals of committed relationships with families.
Individual women could—and should—take up Emba’s advice to think about sex beyond the terms of consent. They should think of sex as “meaningful.” They should understand, as Emba has come to understand, that “I don’t owe anyone access to my body. I don’t have anything to prove. If there’s something there in a potential relationship, it will still be there—and may even grow clearer, more defined for waiting.” Our daughters and granddaughters should know this and know that such an approach may well make them happier. At the very least, Emba will help them understand why the current approach is making them unhappy.
But individual women do not exist outside of that larger marketplace. And so short of placing themselves in an environment—a community—that thinks about these matters differently, theirs will be an uphill battle.
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