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 Kink.com 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.