As the #MeToo movement unfolded, Washington Post columnist Christine Emba ’10 began taking a close look at our culture’s sexual script. What she found wasn’t pretty: Dating websites like Tinder have prompted people to view their partners as objects, while the “tyranny of chill” stops both women and men from speaking up about wanting real relationships. On the PAWcast, Emba discussed her book, Rethinking Sex, and why she thinks this script can —and should — be flipped.
Liz Daugherty: Washington Post columnist Christine Emba ’10 has been watching the approach that young, single people are taking to sex these days, and it isn’t pretty. What’s more, often it’s bad. It’s bad sex, full of unwanted, unsatisfying encounters, influenced more by porn than pleasure, that women and men are nevertheless consenting to. Why? In her new book titled Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, Emba explains how our sexual culture arrived at this moment and suggests a way forward, a way to bring connection, empathy, and — dare I say love? — back into intimacy, a way to, perhaps, fulfill all of those promises that sex makes, but isn’t delivering.
Christine, thank you for coming on the podcast.
Christine Emba: Thank you so much for having me.
LD: So, usually I start these interviews by asking why you decided to write this book, but in this case, I think we need to start with what is happening out there? So, for those of us who aren’t in the dating world, and maybe for those who are but can’t see the forest for the trees, can you explain?
CE: Sure. I mean, that kind of answer is actually your first question, too, what is happening out there, is the question that I sought to answer, both as a journalist, and as a young single woman trying to date in the current environment. As a journalist, I’ve always been interested in questions of culture and society and ethics, how we treat each other, what we owe to each other. And then, of course, I exist as a woman in the world.
And so, back in 2018, at the height of the #MeToo movement, I was writing a number of columns about that particular conflict, the Harvey Weinsteins, the Matt Lauers. And the #MeToo moment showed that some of the problems that we thought that we had moved past when it came to sex, consent, and liberation, had not gone away, first of all. And some of those cases, the very high-profile ones, had clear answers as to what the problem was. Matt Lauer, you can’t press a button under your desk and, like, lock an underling in your office.
But other ones, the stories that actually went most viral, surfaced tricky issues that weren’t so easily resolved, and that were causing young people, and women especially, a lot of pain and sadness. So, I’m thinking of stories like the New Yorker short story, “Cat Person,” which I think was one of their most read, or maybe the most read, piece of short fiction they’ve ever published. Or the Aziz Ansari debacle, where the comedian invited a woman home from a date and pressured her into sexual activity that she later described as the worst night of her life. These were stories in which consent wouldn’t have solved the problem. They were ostensibly consensual situations, and yet the women in particular — but also both sides of the equation — were leaving these encounters really dissatisfied. And the fact that so many people seem to relate to these stories, that there is so much outcry and discussion of them online, in conversations that I had with friends and strangers, kind of made me think that something was going on.
So, I wanted to dig into those more deeply and take stock of where we were, trying to figure out what was ailing our sexual culture such that these questions were still recurring, and these problems were still unsolved. What assumptions are we holding about sex that aren’t serving us? Where did we think the sexual revolution should have taken us, and where did we actually end up? And then, of course, what sexual ethic do we need if consent isn’t enough?
LD: Now I should probably interject here that the bulk of the conversation you have in the book, and you say this, is about heterosexual cisgender couples, but you talk about how there’s something in the book for everyone, and you’re really only focusing on that because that’s where our cultural scripts run the deepest, which I think is a good way of putting it. So, we should just probably put that in there, that that’s the reason why the conversation that you’re having is about what it is.
And I want to talk about that consent question, partly because we are, of course, here at Princeton. We’re on a college campus. But you write about how consent isn’t enough and yet that’s kind of what’s being — where the conversation is, that there’s just one question that needs to be asked, right? Why is that the dominant conversation, and how is that influencing these interactions?
CE: Yeah, great question. And one of the things that makes this book maybe quite relevant to the PAW podcast is that one of the most important chapters in the book stems from visiting Princeton as a journalist and thinking back to my time there as a student. In particular, there is this orientation week sort of play that students watch. Back when I was a student it was called, “Sex on a Saturday Night.” Now, I think it’s called “The Way You Move.” And I write about it in the book seeing it both back then and then in 2018, when I was back on campus. And student actors act out this story of a Saturday night going to the street, and it culminates in two students getting very drunk, and a sexual assault happens, and then the curtain falls and freshmen are told to go back to their res colls [residential colleges] and talk to their advisers about it and what they’ve learned.
And I was interested and saddened by the fact that, at least when I watched this play in 2006, the takeaway was that sexual assault is bad, don’t drink too much. OK, helpful, but not the entirety of the question. And in 2018, it seems that the lesson still hadn’t really changed, except on campus this time, there was a sort of breakdown after the play in which an administrator came on stage and said, “You know, he didn’t get consent from her. You shouldn’t have sex with a classmate without their consent. This is a dangerous gray area.” And to me, I was sort of like, again, yes, consent is important, but is that the only problem here?
This legalistic issue of, “well, this person didn’t give you consent and you could get in trouble with the administration for that.” It seemed like a much bigger problem was the question of, how do we treat each other? What would a good encounter actually look like? Consent may be the floor here, you have to get consent for an encounter to be, literally, not rape or sexual assault, but don’t we want more than not rape? Shouldn’t we be thinking about not just what makes our encounters legal or licit in the eyes of an administration, but actually good for ourselves and for the other person?
LD: And we should point out, it’s not just Princeton, this really is everywhere, across college campuses and outside of college campuses, too. It reminded me of sex ed in high school in the sense that the conversation was very light on the deeper meanings behind sex. We didn’t get that. There wasn’t a conversation where you’re talking about, what do we owe each other? It was more perfunctory. It was like, “You need to know these medical details,” or like consent, and leaving up to, “Everything else is up to you.” Which is interesting.
You came from an interesting perspective, as well, because you were raised in an evangelical church, which of course, had — famously, these churches have some pretty prescriptive discussions when it comes to sex, so do you want to talk about that at all and how that influenced your thinking on this?
CE: Yeah, sure. This was definitely an interesting part of writing the book. But I think that actually my background, as you said, growing up evangelical, and then actually converting to Catholicism later in life, gave me an interesting perspective on the question. Because of my background, I think I spent a good amount of time outside of the circle of people having sex and being in these relationships and encounters.
And so, I had a lot of time to observe. Most of my friends, I would say, are secular, not religious at all. And so it was interesting hearing the messaging that they got and were sharing about sex, what it should be, and what it should look like, the idea that having as much sex as possible was liberating, that actually, this is what you’re supposed to be doing as a modern young person in the world, that something major was missing from your life if you weren’t having these encounters. Meanwhile, I wasn’t, and my life was perfectly fine, which left me asking some questions.
And then, when I entered our sexual culture and started dating and having encounters for myself, I was able to contrast that messaging that I’d been hearing with what was actually going on. What kind of encounters actually were good? What part of that messaging, that sort of Sex in the City story or narrative that I was supposed to be chasing after, actually served me when I did try it out?
For all the discussions with friends over brunch, or on a night out, about hookups, et cetera, how did they actually feel afterwards? Were they really as satisfied as they thought that they should be? And I found that in many cases, no, for all of our conversation about liberation, especially, as opposed to the supposedly puritanical and frigid space of my religious upbringing, a lot of that liberation seemed to be making people more miserable than one might expect.
LD: You mentioned Sex in the City, and I think that cultural touchstone seems to loom pretty large, or the messaging that we got from it, over this whole conversation. So, if you could back up and tell us, how did we get here? How did this idea that more sex is better and liberating, how did that happen?
CE: It’s a question of how, the idea of what the sexual revolution was supposed to be, and what sex positivity really means, changed over time. So in the book, I talk about the original feminist movement, and the original discussion of sex positivity, which at its very basis, was meant to say that women were equal to men, as fully human as men are, and should be able to explore their sexuality and be excited by it in the same way that men could, and that it would be, in fact, positive for both sexes to be able to pursue that equally. But over time, that sort of shifted.
That kind of feminism was co-opted by an almost performative capitalist idea, what sex and liberation should look like. So, you went from the, “We’re all exploring, we want to be kinder, more gentle people,” in the words of one early feminist, to the sort of Sex in the City ideal that said that, “Actually, to prove that you’re a woman, you should be out there having sex in the way that men do.” And usually, kind of the worst kind of cisgender heterosexual man: You shouldn’t care, actually. To have feelings is to be tied down and that was a bad thing. You can tot up your encounters as if they’re shoes or anecdotes to trade over brunch, something that you don’t really care about, and that’s what sex positivity looks like.
And I interviewed a lot of young women and men for this book and I was shocked by how many times Sex in the City, in particular, came up in conversation. So many of us watched that show and took it as the script for what modern womanhood looked like, for what being a sex positive person living in a city, in the world, looked like, that this was something that we were supposed to emulate. And so, many of us did, but found that it wasn’t making us happy.
LD: When you talked to women — and you talked to quite a few for your book — what do they say about the encounters that they’re having about dating, good, bad, how do they come away, how do they feel about themselves afterwards?
CE: There is a lot of variation, I would say, but I think the one thread that I heard again and again and that I saw throughout the interviews, was that when it comes to sex, something just isn’t quite right.
So, I feel like a typical interview is a conversation that I had with a girl — I used a lot of pseudonyms in the book for obvious reasons — named Rachel, where she talked about how she was opinionated, she felt in control in most areas of her life, but when it came to sex, she wouldn’t say that she had been pushed into anything, necessarily, or even that she had been sexually assaulted in a criminal way, but she was still able to reel off just a list of unhappy encounters with would-be romantic partners, where sex was consented to out of a misguided sense of politeness, or extreme acts were suddenly requested and occasionally allowed, and degrading insults were a regular part of encounters. And she didn’t like how she felt afterwards and couldn’t quite put a finger on what exactly was going on.
And I would also ask, “What do you want from sex, actually? What do you want from romantic encounters? What are you looking for?” And so many people would say that they were looking for, an ideal sexual encounter would involve care, involve intimacy, and yet, for some reason that wasn’t something that they could find and they didn’t know why. And in some cases, they also felt that it was uncool to even ask for that, to say that they wanted something more. And so, this disconnect between what people actually wanted and what really felt good to them, both physically and emotionally, and what they were settling for and allowing — the delta seemed huge.
LD: So you have some ideas for how to maybe fix this or reorient our thinking in a way that would be better. You want to tell us about some of those ideas?
CE: Yeah, definitely. I mean, one of two things about this book was — well, I suppose I should say one of the inspirations for writing this as a book, was that the #MeToo moment and these conversations that we continued to have afterwards, showed that people were aware that something was off in our sexual culture. We were kind of able to note that something felt bad, that our encounters weren’t good. Everybody was sort of in agreement on that. But you can only get so far saying, like, “Yeah, things are bad. It’s bad out there.” You have to figure out where to go next. And I thought that this book, that rethinking sex could try and be a step in that direction, not just bemoaning the state of things, but figuring out what to do.
And so, the first step, I think, is just simply honesty, being more open and honest about what we really do want, what sex really means to us, and the different vulnerabilities that different kinds of people, different genders, different sexualities, can have when it comes to these encounters, and being able to be open about that, and thus, treat people better, knowing that.
But also, when it came to consent, I think a major factor would be — a major factor in improving the sexual culture would be trying to move beyond consent. As I said before, it’s a floor, not a ceiling. And I suggest that we should have a higher ethic, what I describe in the book as “willing the good of the other.”
LD: The person who you’re with isn’t just there for your own pleasure, they’re there as a partner in this, and you should both have some care for the other person. Which doesn’t sound like it should be a remarkable thing. It doesn’t sound like a remarkable thing, and yet, somehow, it’s radical that you’re proposing this.
CE: And yet, yeah, no, exactly. There are a number of reasons for this, right? As a society, we tend to shy away from trying to declare behavior as right or wrong, and we don’t want to police other people’s behavior, or even ask too much of other people, because we might stigmatize them, or they might fail us. But I think that, in sex, and in these sexual encounters, things that touch so deeply to the heart of most people, we need to be able to ask for more.
And so, willing the good of the other is a formulation that I steal from Thomas Aquinas, by way of Augustine. And it was actually his definition of love, of what it really means to care for another person, not necessarily in a romantic way, but just treating them as a fully human being. And so, when it comes to sex, willing the good of the other would mean not just asking for consent and seeing how far you can go, what you can get from the other person, but actually seeking out their good in the encounter and prioritizing that as much as you prioritize your own good, your own pleasure.
And that comes with a few added responsibilities that consent doesn’t necessarily have. One, you actually have to have a conception of what the good is, right? What does a good encounter look like? For us to get there, we need better sex ed, we need a better understanding of what sex means to us and to society at large, we need to have that conversation. But also, what does the good look like for your partner, which in some cases, yeah, it probably means maybe knowing something about them, which could take, in fact, some time. So, there might be fewer hookups and more time spent trying to figure out the other person’s good.
But I think that even in this attempt, even if we try to do this and fail or don’t get it perfectly right, just attempting to think about the other person, to put empathy in practice, takes us many steps further to a better a sexual world and better sexual encounters than where we are now.
LD: I like the idea, too, of being more honest because it does seem like these women, in particular — but probably, again, also the men — want something. They want a relationship, or they want love, or they want care, or they want this to go somewhere, but they’re not admitting it. And if you don’t say it, if you don’t believe it, and you don’t tell other people that, it’s not going to happen.
CE: In the book, I talk about what I call the tyranny of chill. And it’s this idea that the best way to approach anything romantic, or relationships with another person, is to be chill, to not ask for too much, to play this game of who cares the least. And this isn’t just a problem that affects women, I think. This isn’t something that just women are acting out. In many cases, men have just as much pressure to perform a certain kind of masculinity that involves not caring. This is also something that you see in queer relationships, too, so it’s not just women. But this performance of chill basically pushes people to hide what they want, to their own detriment. And it’s unfortunate because sometimes you see this happening on both sides.
In an interview that I did that didn’t make it into the book, I talked to a college couple, or rather, a college guy who was telling me about this relationship, situationship that he’d had where he met a classmate. He really liked her and wanted something serious, or more serious from her, but didn’t want to freak her out. So, they hooked up and it was kind of weird and they didn’t talk again, and their friendship floundered. And he found out later that, actually, this woman had wanted something more from their relationship, but also didn’t say it. And then, they had this encounter and both of them had wanted the same thing, but there was this fear of actually being honest about their emotions, about what hooking up and having sex would mean for them, and it destroyed the relationship on both sides when something actually beautiful could have happened.
And you see in situations like that, that it’s not just one person being harmed, and it’s often not intentional. And I think we want to make that just less common.
LD: That’s so sad, that we’re supposed to be so free and yet, that sounds like they’re so restricted.
CE: Right, exactly. There’s this idea, of course, that our sexual culture is more free than ever before, if in the past there is pressure to not have sex, to not talk about it, to stay chaste, I would say. It sometimes felt, and a lot of young people told me this, that in this moment, there’s pressure to do more, to always appear to be up for it, to not get your feelings hurt, to be sort of down for anything and everything. And to many of them, that didn’t feel like freedom. That felt like pressure just from a different and new angle.
LD: Do you think we can get there? Do you think that these cultural scripts can be changed?
CE: It’s hard to say. It’s hard to predict the future, but I’m hopeful, actually, because I think that we are sort of getting to a point where this discussion can be had in the open. I mean, I think just the reception to Rethinking Sex, and the number of other conversations I’ve seen people having about sex and our sexual culture, the recognition that something is off and something needs to change, is actually percolating on the surface more.
One of the things that actually I have noticed this year is a change in attitude towards dating apps, which I talk about in the book as one of the many factors that has pushed people towards a more consumerist and more detached sexual culture and style of encounters. This year is the 10th anniversary of the launching of Tinder, which was supposed to revolutionize dating and instead, seems to have made it much more horrible. And I’m pleasantly surprised to see more people admitting that, out loud, that being able to swipe through people and see them as objects, actually, hasn’t been great for them and they would like to do something different, now, that that culture hasn’t been beneficial to them, and so they’re backing out of it. They’re stopping their use of apps. They’re trying to meet people and not hook up. They may even be going back to dating traditionally.
And so, I’m interested in seeing where that movement goes. Once people are actually willing to talk openly about their unhappiness and be honest about what they really want from sex, that’s when things actually begin to change.
You know, I’m class of 2010. I graduated from college a while ago. And I’ve noticed that Rethinking Sex has gotten a quite positive reception among college students, actually. And I think that one of the reasons for that is that, as we said in the beginning, we don’t have great sex ed in high school, at least in the majority of places. And even when it comes to college, there is not that much discussion going on there, except, “Don’t assault someone. Use protection.” But if we actually want to begin to change the culture, and if we also want people — want to set up young people for fulfilling sexual encounters that lead to the relationships that they want earlier in life, we have to start having these discussions early, not waiting for everybody to make as many mistakes and have as many sad encounters as possible and then figure it out 10 years later. And so, I hope this begins to open up that conversation much earlier for people, rather than learning by sad experience, although of course, we all do. There’s a chance to start out on better footing.
LD: That sounds like a great idea. That’s a really good note to end on, as well. So, Christine, thank you so much for coming on the PAWcast. This has been so interesting.
CE: Of course. Thank you so much for having me.
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