Responsible Hedonists

Responsible Hedonists

Emily Witts new book, Future Sex, captures the ways in which free love and countercultural experiments are no longer as liberating as they once seemed.


For nearly half a century, the San Francisco Bay Area has loomed in the American imagination as the destination for social permissiveness. Berkeley is the haven of unwashed, drum-circling hippies and left-wing academics. Oakland incubates radicals who convene vegan potlucks in moldering punk houses and lob Molotov cocktails during protests. And San Francisco is the epicenter of free and queer love, the home of Haight-Ashbury, Harvey Milk’s beloved Castro District, and sex-positive feminist Annie Sprinkle’s Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.

But if sex is still free in the Bay Area, little else is. Rising inequality, particularly in the wake of the second dot-com boom and the 2008 recession, has transformed much of the Bay Area’s counterculture into something more aesthetic than political. The proliferation of independent coffee roasters and sustainable-material sex-toy boutiques might suggest a certain aversion to corporate mores among the area’s denizens, but they primarily serve the affluent. Even living in proximity to these “alternative” purveyors has become prohibitively expensive. This year, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco reached nearly $3,600; last year, the Brookings Institution found that, in 2013, household income hit an average of $423,000 a year for the top 5 percent but only $24,800 for the bottom 20, which led it to name San Francisco as the second-most unequal city in the country.

Bay Area class polarization constitutes the backdrop for journalist Emily Witt’s new book Future Sex, a series of forays into the area’s sex-based subcultures in the years after the financial crash. The book had its origin in a personal moment of truth: After the end of a relationship, Witt found herself contending with a thirtysomething sexual malaise. Waiting in a clinic for a chlamydia test, she realized that she was disenchanted with her new routine of informal sex with “nonboyfriends,” but equally unsettled by the thought of heterosexual monogamy as the natural termination of her dating life. After deciding to use “the West Coast and journalism as alibis” for checking out freer forms of love and sex, she absconded to San Francisco to explore her options. As Witt puts it early in the book: “When your life does not conform to an idea, and this failure makes you feel bad, throwing away the idea can make you feel better.”

In San Francisco, Witt is surprised by what she finds: Love is both freer and more constrained than she had imagined. She attends a live humiliation-porn shoot at the warehouse studio of and tries a high-end sexual therapy called “orgasmic meditation.” She plumbs the depths of the webcam site Chaturbate, on which performers masturbate with toy trains for strangers, among other activities, and samples drugs with tech-industry polyamorists at sex parties and in the orgy dome at Burning Man.

Witt’s journey into the Bay Area’s sexual underground has been described as a memoir, but none of her experiences pave the way to a personal epiphany. Instead, they allow her to act as a kind of ethnographer of the Bay Area affluent. An upwardly mobile urbanite with the time and the means to experiment, Witt’s sojourn in San Francisco finds her visiting the same coffee shops as Google managers and yoga practitioners who discuss “coregasms” It’s a group with a high incidence of overlap with the subcultures she explores. Her role as a participant-observer means that they all serve as opportunities to uncover something about her own desires, but they also allow her to peer into the social lives and sexual practices of the elite at the turn of the millennium. While Future Sex may have been started as an effort to find sexual and romantic authenticity outside of traditional relationships, the resulting document is just as much about how class and money operate as determining (if not always immediately visible) forces even in the most intimate aspects of our lives.

* * *

An early chapter in Future Sex puts Witt in the heart of Silicon Valley sexual self-help via an investigation of orgasmic meditation—“OM,” as its adherents call it. The proprietary practice of a San Francisco–based company called OneTaste, OM is touted as a method of improving the female orgasm by “unlink[ing] sexual experience from love and romance.” Attending an introductory seminar, Witt finds that OM, though purport­edly neither sex nor masturbation, seems like a little of both insofar as it entails 15 minutes of clitoral stimulation by another human. The practitioners themselves are a “healthy-looking, multicultural group” who frequent tea lounges and describe themselves as “tumesced” when they’re (presumably) horny. With its toned instructors and yoga-studio-esque branding, OneTaste comes off as the Lululemon of handjobs.

Still, Witt gamely runs an introductory gantlet of feeling-sharing exercises and then tries the practice herself. In OM, participants pair off and settle into “nests,” where a (generally male) partner proceeds to massage the clitoris of a woman for a designated time. If Witt fails to find the experience revelatory, she does eventually arrive at a guarded respect for it—at least, she concedes, the orgasmic meditators really are trying to release sexual desire from “an anxiety to please.” (Enrolling in OneTaste’s now sold-out Winter Retreat to undergo an “orgasm cleanse” costs $1,595 this December.) Yet she never quite suppresses the irritation she feels for the meditators themselves. “I disliked them,” she admits. “I preferred the company of people who did not insist on sympathetic eye contact, who did not need to talk about all of their feelings at every instance, who drank and smoked cigarettes.”

In recent years, OneTaste has been covered by a number of journalists, some of whom have cited its pricey courses, New Age–inflected rhetoric, and zealous devotees as reasons for suspicion. The company—dubbed “the thrill-clit cult” by Nitasha Tiku on Gawker—also appears to be mostly underwritten by Silicon Valley: Several members of the OneTaste inner circle are venture capitalists, former Apple employees, and other tech-industry heavies, while founder Nicole Daedone has delivered a number of popular TEDx talks on OM and charged up to $400 for entry to her three-day OMXperience in 2013. According to Tiku, it was at a South by Southwest workshop that Daedone declared: “Orgasm can do for physical connection what the internet has done for us in terms of virtual connection.”

* * *

While the precise meaning of Daedone’s analogy is admittedly fuzzy, it serves as yet another reminder of the unnerving way that the tech industry has managed to infiltrate even the most unexpected and seemingly analog situations, such as rubbing a clitoris, in the Bay Area. Witt underscores this omnipresence early on, when she spots someone wearing a Google shirt at the airport and finds the company’s logo recurring on clothes, hats, water bottles, and bags throughout her stay. “Until I left San Francisco,” she says, “it never went away.”

As one might expect, the powers that be in Silicon Valley turn up frequently in Future Sex, including on a trip to Burning Man, for which Witt attempts to rent an RV with six acquaintances—five tech workers and one corporate lawyer—who kept “delay[ing] their planning with the last-minute flexibility of people who don’t worry about money” (and, in the case of at least one of her companions, ended up chartering a Cessna to get to the festival). Witt, for her part, makes it to the desert thanks to frequent-flyer miles and a ride that someone offers her from the airport—but despite her initial economic dislocation, she finds herself well enough assimilated into this world to deliver a satisfying ethnography.

The usual Burning Man miscellany—designer drugs, Mayan pyramids, “post­apocalyptic pirate ship[s],” and neon pyrotechnics—are present in her account, but so is Shervin Pishevar, “the venture capitalist who had once shaved the logo of the startup Uber on the side of his head.” And instead of watching the event’s signature wicker man set ablaze, Witt observes the immolation of a giant Facebook “like” button. “If someone were to draw a portrait of the people who were ‘ruining Burning Man,’” she notes mordantly, “it would have looked like us.”

* * *

Future Sex is framed as a work of self- exploration, and Witt’s overarching mission—to locate her desires on the axis of 21st-century sexual freedom—is meant to unify the book’s chapters, several of which have been previously published as stand-alone magazine pieces. But this presumed motivation fades somewhat in these darkly funny and perceptive field studies. “Voyeur” implies a bit too much sexual intention for Witt’s project; in venturing into these scenes, she isn’t a Peeping Tom so much as a curious shopper. Her deadpan delivery makes Future Sex a work of social observation and, at times, even a kind of nonfiction comedy of manners. Behind her adventures seems to lurk the question: Are the rich simply gentrifying once-countercultural forms of living and partying, or have some modes of experimentation always been compatible with a certain degree of affluence?

Witt notes that Burning Man—which bills itself, among other things, as a “creative autonomous zone”—happens to suit the masters of the universe very well: Out in the desert, one can enter the orgy dome on Saturday and return to one’s job at Facebook on Monday. “The $400 ticket price,” she notes, “was as much about the right to leave what happened at Burning Man behind as it was to enter in the first place.”

But almost in spite of her account, which verges at times on the ruthless, Witt admits that she enjoyed herself. For her, the point isn’t to quash “creative autonomous zones” where sexual experimentation and self-­discovery can unfold without censure. Instead, she thinks we’d be better off rendering them obsolete by massively expanding their reach. Citizens of a utopian future, Witt explains, “would not need autonomous zones. Their lives would be free of timidity. They would do their new drugs and have their new sex. They wouldn’t think of themselves as women or men. They would meld their bodies seamlessly with their machines, without our embarrassment, without our notions of authenticity.”

* * *

One of Witt’s chapters, “Polyamory,” examines how some young people are attempting to achieve this kind of utopian future in their everyday lives. But even with deliberate sexual promiscuity—which should theoretically be free—economic and social capital present certain benefits.

Witt’s polyamorist subjects, Elizabeth and Wes, are a young, hyper-successful tech couple representative of a new crop of Bay Area residents who “had grown up eating sugar-free cereal, swaddled in Polar Fleece jackets made from recycled plastic bottles.” These young adults, having graduated from prestigious colleges and landed high-paying jobs working 70 hours a week, now consume expensive groceries and patronize “coffee shops where the production of espresso was ritualized to resemble a historic reenactment of the hardships of nineteenth-century pioneer life.”

While we’ve grown accustomed to calling a group of people who share certain cultural referents a “generation,” especially if they’re young, Elizabeth and Wes remind us that these “generations” almost always constitute a class as well. And for this class of educated, culturally enlightened, and economically enriched young people, polyamory isn’t motivated by a desire to challenge patriarchy or heteronormativity, as it was for free-love hippies in the 1960s. Rather, the primary concern of these new polyamorists is to have their cake and eat it too. They want mostly straight long-term relationships, and group sex. “Instead of facing the specter of commitment and running away in uncertainty,” Witt writes, “they would try to find a modified commitment that acknowledged their mutual desire for a more experiential life.”

For Elizabeth and Wes, this “modified commitment” includes sex parties, nights spent with other lovers, and eventually inviting their co-worker and friend Chris into the arrangement. And for Witt as an observer, it represents something encouraging, if not downright desirable. “I envied their community of friends,” she confesses, and “the openness with which they shared their attractions.”

Yet this openness can, at times, also seem like strenuous work. It relies upon a highly ordered system of rules, codes, earnestness, shared Google Docs, reading lists, and “the treatment of feelings as individual specimens, wrapped in cotton and carefully labeled.” And the Taylorized way the polyamorists organize their experimentation by night uncannily mirrors their output for their tech employers during the day. As Witt puts it, “It was as if the precocity they showed in their professional lives extended into an extreme pragmatism about sex.”

This, she soon realizes, is one of the signature features of this new phase in Bay Area licentiousness. The ethos of Witt’s polyamorists, if not the practice itself, is endemic to the Silicon Valley set: “When they talked about their coworkers in the Bay Area, Chris and Wes sometimes discussed the culture of ‘hyperbolic optimism,’ which they defined as a genuine commitment to the idea that all things were possible.”

“Responsible hedonism” is another Bayism that circulates “only half-jokingly” among their peers, and is perhaps no better exemplified than when Elizabeth throws a lavish loft sex party—complete with satin sheets and artful photographs of the host penetrating herself with a dildo—but first purchases liability insurance for the stripper pole. It turns out that free love can sometimes cost quite a lot.

* * *

If certain strains of the New Left wanted to unmask private, monogamous sex as a stifling bourgeois convention, Future Sex captures the ways in which, nearly five decades later, plenty of the bourgeoisie have blissfully moved on. This is probably pretty apparent to anyone who has spent time around well-off people with successful careers in the creative fields, or attended a private liberal-arts college.

Yet the idea that unconventional sex is an activity with the potential to transform society persists, even—or perhaps especially—in such spaces. It’s true, as Witt notes in her conclusion, that the “history of the sexual vanguard in America was a long list of people who had been ridiculed, imprisoned, or subjected to violence.” But as her investigations indicate, the rich are often insulated from such consequences.

Although Witt’s polyamorist couple—and Elizabeth in particular—initially worry that their sex lives might affect their professional trajectories, few, if any, consequences of that sort appear to befall them. When they eventually marry at Black Rock City, home of Burning Man, the people who attend their celebration—friends, family, colleagues, and Witt herself—appear well aware of their unorthodox arrangements. They “laugh knowingly,” Witt reports, when Wes’s father alludes to the newlyweds’ polyamory in his toast. The ceremony concludes when the officiant declares, “You can now kiss each other and other people.”

Sexual stigma and sexual liberation may, in the end, be more contingent upon the person performing the act than the act itself. In 2014, researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Merced, conducted a study of college students that examined how class played a role in shaping public perceptions of individual sexual habits. According to Marisa Taylor, writing on Al Jazeera America: “The researchers discovered that definitions of ‘slutty’ behavior and the act of slut-shaming was largely determined along class lines rather than based on actual sexual behavior. They found the more affluent women were able to engage in more sexual experimentation without being slut-shamed, while the less affluent women were ridiculed as sluts for being ‘trashy’ or ‘not classy,’ even though they engaged in less sexual behavior.”

The idea of unlimited sexual experimentation free of consequences for all—a “creative autonomous zone” writ universal—is utopian because this kind of egalitarianism will only be the result, not the cause, of a significant overhaul of our current order. But perhaps it’s precisely because we know we won’t fuck our way to new social relations (and indeed, Future Sex questions whether we can even fuck our way to a new means of understanding ourselves) that Witt’s finely wrought observations of the optimism and absurdities of the San Francisco ruling class are such a pleasure to read.

Witt may have undertaken a mission to discover something transformative about herself, but her quest ultimately finds her exchanging utopianism for ambivalence. It’s in slyly delineating limitations, rather than possibilities, that Future Sex shines, offering not a speculative preview of what’s to come, but an erudite exposition on where we currently are.

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