Rethinking Sex: A Conversation With Author Christine Emba
A new book challenges modern sexual ethics and asks why we put up with terrible (consensual) sex.
For this special audio edition of It's Not Just You, I had a fantastic conversation with Washington Post columnist Christine Emba about her provocative and thoughtful new book: Rethinking Sex. She argues that the sexual liberation that promised lots of exciting, no-strings, easy-to-access consensual sex has left a generation of single Americans miserable and disconnected. She makes the case that getting consent should be the minimum we expect from our sex lives, not the ceiling. And she believes that the path to more joy is treating our sexual partners with radical empathy (even if it’s just for one night).
Read on below, or click the arrow at the top of this email to listen to our conversation.
Freedom doesn’t protect us from loneliness, from a lack of affection, from the failure to connect to others in our world. Because this connection, rather than economic success, momentary physical pleasure, or even ego gratification, is what we as humans crave most deeply.
Emba and I talked about the confounding contradictions of this era. As I wrote in my review of her book for TIME magazine, we may ache for more connection and commitment, but asking for it somehow makes us more vulnerable than the act of sex itself. All of this reminds me of the great bell hooks who wrote in her series All About Love:
"Ultimately, cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart."
Emba says out loud what many of my friends who are dating will say privately whether they're 26 or 56. They talk about the effort it takes to pretend you don't have emotional expectations, that you're cool about sex, and that the commoditized atmosphere of the dating apps is more fun than exhausting. And yet, it feels radical to read Emba’s assertion that sex is inherently not just a pleasurable physical interaction. She argues that the act of being entwined with another human being is inherently meaningful, that it involves the spirit as well as the body and it "implicates the human person and thus our inherent human dignity."
In a chapter called "Men and Women Are Not the Same," Emba suggests that while the push for female empowerment promoted the right of women to think about sex as men do, this liberated culture might be doing both men and women a disservice. As she says in our audio conversation:
"One of the things that I'd like to raise is that the sexual culture as it is now is sad for many women and hurting women, but it's not great for men either. There are men who are being pressured to perform sexually or lean into this acquisitive view of sex who don't really want to, who also want to have relationships with care."
Emba has an unusual perspective on this topic. She was raised in the Evangelical church and converted to Catholicism in college: "I didn't have sex until like fairly late as an adult, I would say. And so I both experienced the world and our sexual cultures on the outside looking in, like seeing what my friends and my peers were doing, and thinking, 'Would I? Am I interested in this?'"
For the book, Emba interviewed men and women with a range of backgrounds and appetites. Their reflections were familiar yet affecting. There was a lot of aching for something better than anxiety-laden conversations about consent and grey areas.
But one woman's story moved me most—and it felt particularly true to the spirit of this book. Caro is an audio producer in Canada. She and Emba were talking about casual sex, and Caro described a one-night stand during which she posed some bold questions to the man she was with. It’s beautiful thought, even if it feels too idealistic for our world.
"I don't think it is just about lust. Can we not love each other for a single day? Like, can we not treat each other with love and care and take into account your whole human person in this short period of time, which is from tonight until tomorrow morning?'"
The good news is that the pandemic may have opened the door to the rethinking that Emba proposes. As Emba says in our conversation:
“All that time alone gave people time to think. Part of the problem with a sort of hyper capitalized lifestyle pre pandemic was that everybody was running around dating rapidly, like swiping on apps and didn't really stop to think about it, and then you're kind of sat at home for two years and you're like, ‘Oh, actually maybe I want someone to talk to. Like maybe actually having had a real relationship and building that with somebody would've led to a less lonely period.’”
You can listen to the full conversation by clicking on the PLAY button at the top of this email.
Let me know what you think in the comments. Can sex be casual? Has sexual liberation made it harder for people to connect emotionally?
And check out the edition of the Dear Suze advice column about the opposite of dating, i.e. long-term marriages. Send your advice questions for Dear Suze anonymously by submitting one here. Anything goes.
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