Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, by Christine Emba (Sentinel, 224 pp., $27)
Sex is broken. This might be one of the few unifying battle cries of the contemporary culture wars. Both feminist progressives, emboldened by the success of #MeToo to speak more forcefully about the prevalence of sexual assault, and cultural conservatives, repelled by the ubiquity of Internet-enabled, casual-sex-as-a-service, can agree that something is deeply wrong with modern eros. The root of the problem, however, is up for debate. Is it a system of power relations that all too often relegates women to the status of sexual reward? Is it the sexual revolution, and its decoupling of physical intimacy from the guardrails of marriage and childrearing? Is it sexual repression—shame and guilt warping our healthy desires into perversions?
The answer, journalist Christine Emba suggests in her idealistic book Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, is at once all these things, and none of them. She frames the problem of contemporary sexuality as something more ambitious than a culture-war battleground: our broken approach to sex is emblematic of our broken approach to interpersonal relationships, made worse by society’s embrace of liberal individualism.
Having been raised in an evangelical household before converting to Catholicism, Emba could easily have written a reactionary screed. She’s unsparing in her criticism of the pervasiveness of pornography, the dehumanization of hookup culture, and the commodification of sex. But while she covers troubling topics in the modern sexual landscape—sexual assault, the biological clock, pornography, kink, polyamory—her approach is constructive. What is sex for? Emba is willing to ask, a question that gives rise to another, more fundamental one: What are human beings for?
We have grown accustomed to regarding ourselves as isolated individuals and seeing others as instruments that offer us something—pleasure for an evening, affection for a lifetime. Whether we’re seeking a relationship that will afford us emotional or financial security—as many of Emba’s subjects do, putting up with casual hookups out of fear of appearing prudish or clingy—or ordering up a Tinder date like a pizza, in the manner of a woman Emba profiles, we too often expect our sexual partners to fulfill a personal need. Having sex becomes part of our imagined personal development—independent of the person we have sex with. In cultivating our ideal life, we feel the pressure to have certain kinds of sex (whether kinky, experimental, or simply relationship-driven). “Sex can easily be just physical, and probably should be in order to allow yourself the freedom to experience more, different things,” Emba writes. “It’s a paradox: having sex matters; the sex itself does not. You’re collecting encounters to make yourself ready for some final stage.” Our sexual identities—slut, prude, libertine—have become part of our broader exercise of personal branding, a question that boils down to: Who am I? It’s a perspective, Emba makes clear, that doesn’t leave much space for the other person.
After all, Emba reminds us, sex doesn’t exist apart from the broader culture. From the kinks that titillate us to the rules we chafe against in search of connection, we cannot view sex as independent from our social life, our sense of purpose, our sense of ourselves in the world. Our desires are shaped by our outside experiences—a difficult conviction to square with the current valorization of desire qua desire, which holds that our human longings are essential to who we are. Challenging what we want also means challenging the notion that what we want matters most.
If Emba’s book contains a flaw, it’s that its focus on contemporary sexual mores leaves unaddressed the question of whether sex is more broken today than in past eras, when marriages were primarily economic arrangements and date rape (as we understand it today) was widespread. If Emba were propounding the conservative view of sex, harkening back to a presumed age of heterosexual monogamy, this flaw would be glaring. But she treats the problem of sex as a question about the human condition, rather than about Americans in 2022, and her argument is compelling. No matter how long we’ve been broken, when it comes to sex, we always have the possibility of repair. And the repair that Emba calls for—genuine mutuality, intimacy, a vision of human togetherness that prioritizes a shared life in common over a pursuit of our individual ends—is one that the world needs.