Chattering Class

Emily Witt Takes a Closer (and Personal) Look at Dating in the Modern World

From Tinder to polyamory, the investigative journalist explains what she learned when she decided to explore the modern state of sexual relationships.

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Photo Credit: Noah Kalina

Investigative journalist Emily Witt’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, GQ, and more. But right now she’s making waves with a non-fiction book called “Future Sex.”

When Witt was 30, she found herself single and questioning whether she’d soon find love. So she decided to explore the modern state of sexual relationships. The book details her experiences dating online, on the set of a porn shoot, embedded with a polyamorous couple, and beyond.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: What did you learn about sex that you didn’t know before?

Emily Witt: The one thing I always say: there’s nothing new about sex. What changes is the story we tell about it, the language we use, and how we define our relationships.

For me, it was worth it to look at my own sexuality, examine the mythologies, the words I use to describe it, the roots of my expectations, and understand that if I went and tried some of these new possibilities enabled by the Internet and enabled by a more forgiving culture that’s more aware of sexuality, I wouldn’t lose myself, I wouldn’t become a crazy person. I don’t know what I thought. I guess it’s like, a kind of way of… you actually are judging other people by limiting yourself.

Brendan Francis Newnam: One of the things you explore in detail is online dating, which is something you begin to do when you find yourself single, and this practice has become mainstream to a certain extent, and I found this interesting. One of the reasons is this idea of the “clean, well-lit room”?

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Emily Witt: Yeah, the clean, well-lighted space has been used as a shorthand for a certain way of marketing sexuality to women. It was meant as a contrast to the kind of Times Square porno movie theater, seedy, dark spaces…

And a pattern that had been consistent since the beginning of Internet dating was that the more that you led with sexual imagery and kind of traditional male sexual desire — I don’t know, women in their underwear or something — the less likely women were to sign up for the site.

When Tinder launched, it was successful in part because, despite popular opinion, there’s actually nothing on Tinder that indicates that it’s a hook-up app or anything like that.

And then, just looking at my own way of using these apps, I became curious why it was that, despite these technologies being used to find sexual relationships, why that needed to be hidden for me to be comfortable on there, and for many other women to be comfortable. And why was I trying to discuss my favorite books with a partner and never talking about sex overtly in my profile?

Brendan Francis Newnam: I think, at one point, you describe it as this is like being at a restaurant — or what is it?

Emily Witt: Yeah, a restaurant where nobody is talking about the food. But is talking about the weather, and then somebody would offer me some food, and I would ask him if he had an umbrella. I think I took the metaphor a little too far, but once I sort of shifted my outlook and started privileging sexual attraction as really the main thing I was looking for, it really changed my experience of dating, I have to say.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, once you acknowledged that idea for yourself, how did it change your approach to online dating?

Emily Witt: Well, the main thing that happened is I started meeting people much more easily. Something about being sexually conscious, I didn’t need to go online anymore. Somehow, in my life, having done this process of inquiry for myself just made it so much easier to ask people out and to get asked out. It just happened.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So, in another chapter in this book, you explore the idea of polyamory. First of all, explain what polyamory is, and then tell us the origins of that word.

Emily Witt: Sure. So, polyamory means that you believe and live the possibility of having more than one partner at the same time. I liked the origins of the word because it’s a really good illustration of how an idea goes from, really, the fringes of culture, from people that a lot of people would define as crazy, can go into the mainstream really quickly.

So, this word was coined by Morning Glory Ravenheart-Zell, and she was a Neopagan. She and her husband had an open relationship, which they wrote about in the journal of the Neopagan Church of All Worlds, and Morning Glory used the word “polyamorist.” And now you see it on Tinder all the time.

Brendan Francis Newnam: And you follow a polyamorous couple in the book, and you look at their trials and tribulations. You explore all facets of the modern sex landscape: porn, chatrooms, a lot of risqué stuff. What was the most uncomfortable thing that you covered?

Emily Witt: I mean, the orgasmic meditation.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The orgasmic meditation — so, you have one point in the book, you join this group where you go to study this…

Emily Witt: I go to some classes. I’m trying to figure out this as safe for radio, but it’s basically a modification of a certain tantric sex practice. They do a lot of group work, where you sit there and you have to name your sexual desires, and have somebody describe all the flaws in your physical appearance. All this kind of human-potential movement stuff.

So, that was uncomfortable for me, not merely because it was having to put myself out there sexually, but because I’m not a joiner. I’m extremely skeptical of a lot of self-help movements. That was the part that made me more uncomfortable than the sex part.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The cult vibes more than the sex stuff?

Emily Witt: Yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, at one point, you participate.

Emily Witt: Yeah, I participated. I suspended my judgment of the group thing, proselytizing aspect of it — which is very real — and just let myself listen to some of the things they had to say.

And, honestly, yeah, I came out of it really grateful about the experience that I had because it just taught me a lot about — that I was experiencing sexual desire with panic and anxiety, that all the things I said earlier on Internet dating about how I realized I was sort of hiding myself and meeting the world on slightly false terms.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, although this book is called “Future Sex,” it’s really about a search for human connection and the different ways individuals seek those connections out.

And maybe I’m just a romantic, but love seems relevant to that process, and yet, you don’t discuss it at all. Is that on purpose? Maybe that’s just an old-fashioned notion that I cling to.

Emily Witt: Yeah, it’s kind of… now that the book is out, I realize I kind of hid that part of my own story, and it’s funny because I actually did recently fall in love. And it is changing my perspective on a lot of things.

But also, I’m kind of glad that I wrote a book that, in some ways, the question of the book is how to live a sexual life when you don’t have love. How do you feel connected? How do you have sex? How do you meet people without that as this lightning bolt compass that tells you everything to do?

You know, many of us go through years of our lives in the sort of outside-of-love state, and what I realized from the book — you can still have intimacy with people. You can still feel connected to the world. You can still have sex. And in a way, you can feel less alone, I guess. And that was really important to me to discover.