Christine Emba’s recent book attempts to diagnose the malaise of contemporary sex culture. But her persistent avoidance of queer experience and theory, as well as an insufficient analysis of capitalism, thwarts her attempt at a new sexual ethic beyond consent.
The time to talk about the queers is never now, always after: after a crisis, after trauma, after they’ve raised a fuss, after all that there is to be said about heterosexuality has been said first. This order of priorities holds in publishing as much as anywhere else. LGBTQ “issues” have their own shelf at the independent bookstore, often set apart from books on feminism, sex, and gender. The footnoting of LGBTQ people in popular writing is understandable, in a way. You write what you know, and when in doubt, you concede your ignorance, leaving the theorizing to those who know better.
Such is the approach taken by Washington Post columnist Christine Emba in her new book Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, which deconstructs modern sexual ethics and proposes an alternative that’s shaped by much more than just the legal baseline of consent. The book is addressed to a popular audience: young, college-educated, and more likely to be heterosexual and cisgender than not. Right up front, Emba concedes the limits of her knowledge of queer experiences and apologizes for not having more to say to this specific audience. Nonetheless she hopes that focusing on the dominant, heterosexual narrative will provide something useful for people who navigate life under it. For their part, the gay men I follow on Twitter seem to be mostly unfazed by their exclusion. When word of the book’s existence got around to them, their reaction was, predictably, are the straights okay?
Emba’s book is premised on the contention that, in fact, they aren’t. She identifies contradiction and confusion as the defining features of contemporary sex and discourses about sex, in both her own life and in the stories of the young people she interviewed for the book. In response to a sexual and dating climate that is at turns dissatisfying and disillusioning, if not outright traumatic, Emba writes with a dual purpose. First, “to reassure you [the reader] that you’re not crazy…That there is something unmistakably off in the way we’ve been going about sex and dating.” (Whether a “provocation” is the most suitable way to offer reassurance is a question probably better left to the marketing department). Second, Emba offers some opinionated but non-combative analysis of the sources of this sexual malaise. Ultimately, she wants to offer readers more than just the requisite talk about harm prevention and consent; she wants to forge new ways of talking about (and having) sex that make room for joy.
Rethinking Sex is in part a conversation with a motley crew of thinkers who have already left their marks on sex discourse. The contemporary writers you would expect to find here, such as Sophie Lewis, Katherine Angel, Amia Srinivasan, are present and accounted for, along with a host of unconventional picks—L.M. Sacasas, Roger Scruton, and the back-in-vogue Andrea Dworkin. Astonishingly, Michel Foucault doesn’t get a single mention (though I did clock a reference to The History of Sexuality). Queer sources, which include the likes of Dan Savage, Audre Lorde, and Judith Butler, do appear, but mostly refer back to a presumed, hegemonic heterosexuality.
In a chapter titled “We’re Liberated, and We’re Miserable,” Emba talks to Nora, a twenty-three-year-old who identifies as bisexual. After graduating from an Ivy League school where her sex life was limited to men, Nora started having sex almost exclusively with women and nonbinary people. Though she admits to “genuinely feel[ing] safer when I’m with people who aren’t men,” Nora worries that she is playing into stereotypes of men-hating lesbians. Here, Emba clarifies Nora’s comment with a gloss on lesbian separtist movements of the late 20th century, including a hasty citation of activist Jackie Anderson, but she leaves the question of alternatives to heterosexuality unexplored. At the very least, she could have acknowledged that it’s good that Nora has found fulfillment and safety in queer relationships. In fact, Emba’s tendency to hastily leap over queer experience, or use it as grist for her broader points, comes to distort the entire book.
Forty years ago in her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” the poet Adrienne Rich did not mince words about feminist books that treat lesbians as afterthoughts: “I have learned more from some of these books than from others, but on this I am clear: each one might have been more accurate, more powerful, more truly a force for change had the author dealt with lesbian existence as a reality and as a source of knowledge and power available to women, or with the institution of heterosexuality itself as a beachhead of male dominance.” The same criticism could apply to Rethinking Sex: while not touting itself as a feminist text per se, it is so heterodox in its intellectual approach that its self-acknowledged deficiency in all matters queer is all the more noticeable.
Emba’s tendency to hastily leap over queer experience, or use it as grist for her broader points, comes to distort the entire book.
That this is a substantial problem with the work and not just my own petty quibble is evident in the book’s most controversial chapter, “Some Desires Are Worse Than Others.” Emba recounts a story about going to a party and meeting Kirsten, a woman who confesses to Emba that the man she is dating chokes her during sex—something she does not enjoy. To her credit, the point Emba is trying to make is a bit more nuanced than her chapter title suggests. Insofar as “our desire is socially mediated and … has social impacts,” it is open to malign influence and worth interrogating, lest the sex we seek out perpetuate structures of oppression, exploitation, and violence. Emba clearly wants to provide her readers with a kind of moral education, giving them conceptual tools to refine their moral reasoning and better understand how they’ve come to desire what they do. Instead, she ends up moralizing, applying ethical judgments without sufficient empirical and theoretical grounding—to the detriment of both her arguments and her authority.
Debates over the moral harms of BDSM are nothing new, as is well attested in Adrienne Rich’s essay. Indeed, the irony of Rethinking Sex is that it appears to unknowingly retread the same conversations that queer theorists have been having for decades. But where Emba evinces a conservative uneasiness about certain desires and practices, queer theorists have demonstrated how just-so stories about minoritized sexual practices give cover to mechanisms of punishment and control that are responsible for far greater harm. Emba is at least somewhat aware of this: in this same chapter, she writes, “We should be cautious when telling others what they ‘really want’ or what the ideal version of them ‘should’ do—we often don’t know what’s right ourselves; those who convince themselves that they do are often informed less by superior knowledge and more by their own situatedness in traditions of hierarchy and power.” But it’s clear that she isn’t fully aware of how situated she is in these very traditions.
Emba might have avoided the error of moralism if she were more familiar with works like Gayle S. Rubin’s foundational 1984 essay “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” a text so influential in queer theory that 25 years after its initial publication, the University of Pennsylvania honored its impact at a conference titled, coincidentally, Rethinking Sex. The“democratic morality” of sex that Rubin calls for is grounded in a belief in “benign sexual variation,” which is often disregarded because people “mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone.”
In this view, what is at issue in Kirsten’s story is the context for the choking, not that choking during sex is in itself bad at all times and for everyone. Clearly Kirsten doesn’t like it; maybe her sexual partner doesn’t either and is just following received cultural scripts. At any rate, he isn’t abiding by the norms of consent specific to the BDSM community, and is harming his partner. Rubin doesn’t arrive at her position on a lark: she’s writing in large part to correct the history of demonization, criminalization, incarceration, and premature death that have attended people whose sexual practices fall at the bottom of the hierarchies enforced by the partnership of psychiatry, religion, and the state.
The alternatives that Emba proposes are frustrating in their emphasis on personal solutions over structural ones.
Emba’s book is at its best when drawing attention to the unexamined social relations and structures that inform everyday sexual action and constrain our choices. “By pretending there is no system connecting us,” she writes, “we give up the opportunity to correct it.” Throughout the book, Emba frequently names and critiques capitalism as the source of the ills besetting her interviewees. Capitalism is found to be at work thwarting the promises of sexual liberation; molding expectations for dating around the econometric whims of dating apps, and the transactional mindsets they inculcate; and even influencing how the norm of consent is reproduced. Reporting from a conference for Title IX administrators, Emba observes how fear of reprisal in the form of lawsuits and withdrawal of federal funding dictates university sex education priorities. The system deemphasizes all but the legal and punitive sides of sexual culture, leaving no room for conversations about what positive goods sex should entail.
The alternatives that Emba proposes, however, are frustrating in their emphasis on personal solutions over structural ones. She writes that “… the capitalist ideal that has formed our understanding of ‘independence’ tends to preclude connection and solidarity in favor of the possibility of private gain.” Further, “it will take community, not to shame or stigmatize but to engage in a continual reform, rather than relying on reductive rules.” Yet the specific acts of resistance Emba imagines fall to individuals. To form a more supple ethical baseline for sexual encounters, Emba proposes supplementing consent—which she calls “the floor, not the ceiling”—with the philosophical notion of “willing the good of the other.” Drawn from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, Emba believes this principle is “most often realized in restraint,” which is to say that “following this ethic will likely mean having less sex.” This maxim may be a fine starting point for decommodifying sexual partners, and it’s easy enough to apply to oneself, but there remains a much trickier question. As Emba herself worries, “[m]any of us no longer have a standard moral understanding, a shared conception of the common good and how to get there.” Given that books like this don’t usually reach a mass audience, Emba comes up short of a plan for systematically implementing her ethical frame.
Emba’s ethical conclusions logically follow from her Roman Catholicism, which she openly acknowledges without ever slipping into evangelism or apologetics; it would also explain her often confused stances on queer sexuality, forbidden under any circumstances in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But again, Emba’s focus on heterosexual experience comes at the expense of a more informed critique of how capitalism influences sex, and likewise her proposed solutions. Capitalism relies on heteronormativity to reproduce itself, and while queer sexualities can be assimilated into it over time, historically heterosexuality was the standard that determined how sexual behaviors were regulated in capitalist societies. Under this norm, the same racist, misogynistic and patriarchal ideas that shaped pre-capitalist gendered labor are reinscribed into sexual relations between men and women. Any sexual relations or gender expressions falling outside that paradigm are subject to violence and repression at the hands of state bureaucracies and police powers, which arose to enforce adherence to sexual norms in order to keep the labor force productive.
Prescriptive suggestions are only as good as the material analysis that precedes them, and Emba offers a life vest at best, when what is needed is an entire fleet of rescue vehicles. Here, again, Emba would have benefited from interviewing more queer people and from putting her ideas into dialogue with contemporary queer theorists who have responded to the same conditions that vex her. Contemporary advocates of “democratic hedonism,” adapted from Rubin’s democratic morality of sex, may appear to be diametrically opposed to Emba’s proposed new ethic of having less, more deliberative sex. But for theorists like Joseph J. Fischel, democratic hedonism isn’t “a facile celebration of more people getting off more of the time,” but rather a way to address a gap in the “the consent-as-enthusiasm paradigm, which divides sex into the categories awesome and rape and leaves unaccounted and unaddressed all the immiserating sex too many people, typically women, endure.” Not incidentally, for democratic hedonists, something like socialism is a necessary economic corrective to capitalism’s oppressive and punitive sexual regime, allowing society to redistribute resources to fund genuinely liberatory sexual practices.
Emba would have benefited from interviewing more queer people and from putting her ideas into dialogue with contemporary queer theorists who have responded to the same conditions that vex her.
Fischel’s proposal fills the structural gap that is otherwise lacking in Emba’s book, advocating for a politics of publically provisioned sex education that would encompass much more than consent— it would address what makes sex good, safe, and more pleasurable for all parties involved. We can apply some of these principles to Emba’s running concern about pornography’s potential to inflict harm and warp the desires of its users. We might think of porn as a site where capitalism is especially adept at exploiting the sexual traumas it has already inflicted on us elsewhere (misogynist and racist varieties of porn proliferate because of their prevalence elsewhere). While I welcome Emba’s rejection of the dead-end political project of banning pornography (“it’s far too late for that,” she says), we should invest more not only in trauma-informed but also in anticapitalist mental health services and education, increasing their accessibility and affordability, both at the grassroots level and within social institutions. If we must live with porn, we must not only heal the traumas it exploits but also become more porn literate, so that we might resist its undue power over us—and become more attentive to the economic needs of the sex workers who overwhelmingly feature in it.
There is still room for personal judgment and ethics in sex that is both democratic and socialist, but it needs to be grounded appropriately. “Consent,” writes Gabriel Rosenberg, “asks too little of us and, for the purposes of personal ethics and social conventions, we should be willing to call some sex bad that might get a free pass from Rubin because it met the threshold of consent.” Where Emba would differ is in what constitutes bad sex, to which Rosenberg rejoinds, “[i]f you want to make a claim about sex, you need to attend to its actual consequences and not just to your anxieties and fears about it.”
Those who have sex outside the norms of heterosexuality know that “oppression” and “marginalization”—terms that Emba uses to describe a past she adamantly does not want to return anyone to—easily become weasel words that risk substituting vibes for the material reality of how LGBTQ people suffer. While Emba tends to portray sexual oppression as a thing of the past, anti-queer, and particularly anti-trans, bigotry continues to wreak havoc on LGBTQ lives, expressed in a slew of recent legislation that dispossesses them of essential resources like food, shelter, and medical care—ultimately pushing them out of public life altogether. Ongoing attempts to strip LGBTQ people of protection reveal the tenuous relationship between queer liberation and legal precedent. As Supreme Court justices openly muse about overturning Obergefell v. Hodges and Lawrence v. Texas, it’s important to remember that the legal standard of consent—the focus of Emba’s book—doesn’t really exist in the first place for people whose sexual practices are stigmatized and criminalized, regardless of their practices of interpersonal consent.
I admire Emba’s willingness to critically examine the problems that beset contemporary sexual culture, and her attempts to offer a solution. But if she is going to claim interdependence as one of the necessary virtues for forging a path toward a better, more joyful sexual culture, she needs to pay better attention to the people who rely on it most.
Tim Markatos is a designer and critic who lives in Washington D.C.