if you subscribe to this newsletter, you’re probably more thoughtful about dating than the average person. or maybe you’re just here to look at hot people. pray tell:
for the thoughtful subscribers among us, today i’m bringing you an interview with Christine Emba, a columnist at The Washington Post and author of Rethinking Sex, a book that challenges the modern notion of sex positivity and asks us to reimagine how we define “good” sex, beyond just consent.
christine says that consent should be the floor, not the ceiling when it comes to good sex. our conversation includes a definition of sex positivity, why it’s so hard to communicate about what we want, and what we might learn from BDSM and kink culture. we also talk about how seeking a relationship has an aesthetics problem (except for on hot singles).
we recorded our conversation as a podcast and i’ve excerpted a lightly edited version below. take your pick!
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What are the limitations of sex positivity or what it’s turned into?
We say we're premising our current sexual culture on the tenets of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution. But we have to ask ourselves, what exactly were the feminist movement and the sexual revolution about? Where were they supposed to take us? And where did we actually end up?
The 1980s were what's called the feminist sex wars, where there was this divide between those who were like, we can't interact with men, they are bad. The way to be a feminist is to throw the whole man away. Women will save themselves by becoming principled lesbians, or staying away from men and not having sex. Pornography? Bad. Sex work? Bad. That was one side of the movement. Ellen Willis coined the term “sex positivity,” to say that actually, sex is still good. Women who want to have sex with men should be able to do that we can still celebrate our sexuality and sexual agency and not restrict ourselves in order to punish men, or to enforce morality on men. Whereas today, the idea of sex positivity has sort of ballooned outwards into what I've described as uncritical sex positivity.
When people say you've got to be sex positive, it sort of means you have to be up for it, you should be excited to have sex all the time. You should be experimenting, you should be “good, giving, and game.” I think that idea of sex positivity can actually be really limiting. If in the past it was like, don't have sex, don't talk about it, sort of sex negativity, this uncritical sex positivity is saying you must be having sex, lots of sex, and you must be enjoying it. Otherwise you're a bad feminist or a bad liberal. And that's not what the term originally meant. I think a lot of people feel pressure to be sex positive, and that often goes against what they actually want.
What made people believe these things about sex positivity?
Sex and the City came up in almost every interview. It was seen as like, oh, I watched this and that's how I learned or was taught what being a hip young woman in the city looked like. It meant having sexual partners and having sex and then just having a story to tell at brunch the next day, and the sex might be bad, it might be good, whatever. But like, I'd have a laugh about it and just be collecting experiences. And the idea was to not get tied down and sort of try anything and not have too many feelings about it afterwards. That's what I saw happening that was held up as what was normal and what you should do. And I think, even if not the actual show, that sort of idea of like, this is what modern sex looks like, really trickled down into the culture. I also think that sex was tied to consumerism, and that you could kind of consume sex and almost consume other people the same way as you would like, consume some cool new furnishings for your apartment. That also really changed the culture.
What do you mean by consumerism?
I'm talking about the idea of seeing sex as something that you get from another person. I think that dating apps have really kind of concretized that. I interviewed this woman who was talking about how she had gotten on dating apps and was having a lot of casual sex as a way to reclaim her sexuality after a traumatic experience. She was like, yeah, I got on Tinder and I ordered this guy like pizza. And I told my friends that I'd ordered a guy on Tinder. And she was laughing about this. A few minutes later in the conversation, she was like, I don't know why I said that. I guess dating apps do make you feel like you can just order a person for your needs. And then you don't have to meet them again. You don't owe them anything. I guess the idea of people on demand, and in some cases, sex on demand, makes it really easy to treat people like objects.
Why do you think pleasure isn't enough for a sexual encounter to be considered good?
I do think that there are some people for whom, they feel that casual sex is enough, and that's good for them. What's actually really important to think about is what we mean when we say “good sex.” We usually mean it's pleasurable, right? Like, it was fun enough. But I actually think that most of us also want to be ethically good. We're in a place now where it feels very uncomfortable, and almost kind of weird to try and make moral or ethical arguments or judgments in the public square. But actually, I think it might be a good idea to bring that back. That's sort of one of the provocations of this book, to think not just about what feels good to us personally, but how we can be good to other people, what good actually means and looks like apart from just you experiencing pleasure. It has to be about the other person too. It has to be about how we're treating them. It has to do with what sort of sexual culture and sexual worlds we want to create overall, not just for ourselves and this one-to-one experience, but, what are we teaching ourselves? What are we teaching other people? What are we making the norm for sexual encounters in the broader society? I think pleasure is really important, but it’s not the same thing as what is ethically good. I think we should think a little bit bigger.
How is the mainstreaming of BDSM and kink affecting our conversation about sex?
In those communities often there's a really strong norm of negotiating consent and what the other person wants and open communication. And I think that's really positive. I think one of the things I've seen is how misunderstandings of that scene combined with uncritical sex positivity have led to BDSM behaviors sort of trickling into the mainstream and being normalized, but without the structure and emphasis on consent and mutuality that is often present in the scene.
Why do you think it’s so hard for us to communicate about what we actually want?
People don't want to be the weird, repressed person who doesn't want to do X, Y, and Z because we've identified saying no with a sort of repression. Women are still taught and expected to be compliant and make their partners happy and not kick up a fuss, so of course it feels unnatural for a lot of women to be like, actually, I don't want to do this.
It kind of feels like people are having sex and just doing what they think they should be doing.
As I was talking to people and interviewing people, women feel like they have to sort of go along with a role. And at the same time, men also feel like they have to go along with the role. And maybe neither person is actually enjoying the role, but they're still both performing this thing. And it doesn't end up being good for either of them. People are sort of performing a role or going through certain actions, not realizing that what they're looking for is something else. Even men who are having a lot of sex, I talked to some of them, and what they actually want is not really sex, it's that they are trying to just be close to someone, or actually going to bed and lying down next to another person and having human contact is what they're really after. But they don't really know how to express that. So they just say that they want to hook up with people and have a lot of sex, because that's the expectation. And so learning to think about again, what is sex? What are we actually looking for? If we ask ourselves, what do I want out of this encounter? That might lead to a different answer than what the media or other narrative tells us.
This is something I’ve thought about for Hot Singles–how do you make it cool to seek out a relationship, or even emotional intimacy? I think a lot of the content out there is sort of cringe. People aren't compelled by the aesthetics of seeking a relationship even if they agree with the ideology.
This is a deep question. Okay, “how do we not make things cringe” is not the deep question. But an underlying question is, what do we sort of value or valorize? And what do we code as being lame? And why? And so one of the myths that I try and poke at in Rethinking Sex is this individualistic, frankly, capitalist ideal that we have imbibed, especially in the past couple of decades, where the important thing is to be out for yourself, right? Like, you are sort of the only unit of desire, you should be thinking about yourself first, and that relationships and feelings are things that tie you down. And so if you want to be a successful person in the world, then actually, all of that feeling stuff is a drag on you. So, again, what are we telling ourselves through the aesthetics that we valorize and the words that we use? I think in this post-pandemic moment there has been a real shift towards an understanding that mutuality is important. That relationships with other people are important, and that caring about other people is good, actually. But I think it is also going to be kind of an aesthetic, cultural product to make that ideal more mainstream. To be able to talk about that as valuable and something to reach for, in the same way that we used to just focus on economic success by yourself. Valorizing relational success is a new mode that we're gonna have to shift into.
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