Friday, November 18, 2016

Responsible Hedonists

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. (...)

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. (...)

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.” (...)

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.” (...)

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.

by J.C. Pan, The Nation |  Read more:
Image: Reno Gazette-Journal / AP