Christine Emba has a radical proposition: What if there’s no such thing as casual sex? She has just published a new book. It’s time to rethink the way we think about sexuality: A provocationEmba argues that sex, in itself, is inherent to sex. Not casual—it’s not just a physical interaction, even if we’ve tried to internalize the modern assumption that sex is like any other social activity. Emba argues sex includes the soul as well as the physical, so the promise of sexual liberation that promises lots of joy, consensual, simple sex was actually a disappointment.
Emba, a Washington columnist Post, believes that thinking about sex and our sexual partners casually—and commoditizing them on dating apps—has created a bleak romantic landscape. Too many people, she writes, are having “too much of the kind of sex that saps the spirit and makes us feel less human, not more—sex that leaves us detached, disillusioned, or just dissatisfied.”
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She argues that even if we think of sex only as casual or casual, nakedness and the act of being entwined are inherently vulnerable. She writes that sex “implicates the human person and thus our inherent human dignity.” And we should treat this act and our partners accordingly.
It may sound a little old-fashioned, but it’s true. These thoughts are reminiscent of the times before the sexpositivity movement attempted to eliminate shame, and before consent became legally required. Emba is asking us to reconsider the belief that consensual sex always is good, even though we have come to an agreement that non-consensual sex always is bad.
To start, some consensual sex, Emba found, isn’t even wanted. A young woman she interviewed describes her inner monologue during a lousy date like this: “‘I don’t want to have sex with you, but I’m doing it because, like, I have to be’—she laughs dryly—’polite.’”
It sounds ridiculous, not to mention very sad, when it is written. And yet, for many women, it’s utterly relatable—and it reflects a widespread sense of sexual malaise. There were similar stories in the avalanche of responses to “Cat Person,” a short work of fiction published by the New Yorker In 2018, a story was published about a short relationship where a woman consents to sex with an unmarried man. These themes were explored by Tracy Clark-Flory, a feminist writer. Want Me: Sex Writer’s Journey Into the Heart of Desire, in which she writes about about a modern sexual culture that asks women to “perform” the part of a sexually liberated woman, the cool girl who thinks about sex like men do but in focusing on being desirable to men, forgoes her own satisfaction. And if so many women are having sex that’s unwanted, depressing, and even traumatic, Emba writes, “something is deeply wrong.”
She’s not the only one questioning how we ended up in a world where, according to a 2020 report from the Pew Research Center, most single Americans looking for sex or relationships say they are dissatisfied with their dating lives. Emba writes that the young men and women she spoke to said they wanted “intimacy, emotion, closeness, being seen”—while adding a disclaimer that, of course, “plenty of people have casual sex without giving it much thought.”
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These are some of the paradoxes that make our age so confusing: Although we may long for more intimacy and commitment in this world, the fact of asking for it makes us less vulnerable than the act itself. It’s better to stay cool. Meanwhile, women can say no to sex but sometimes don’t because they might be penalized under old rules for being a tease—or under new rules for being unliberated.
Many people, even those who support sex-positivity movements are starting to think that consent alone is enough. At last month’s SexPosCon22, a biannual conference of sex researchers, advocates, and experts, a session called Towards a Culture of Consent and Care explored why some ostensibly consensual sexual interactions leave participants with the “moral intuition that something wrong has gone on.”
Emba points to what she describes as the capitalist nature of dating apps as one reason we’re more apt to treat our sexual partners casually and sometimes cruelly. Because the people we meet on apps are not in our social circles, we feel we have the freedom to do what we want without consequence, even if it’s hurtful. We are only investing in one person. Even more damaging, she writes, is the fact that we are commoditizing ourselves along with our dates by “curating, packaging, and assessing our own worth according to the digital marketplace.”
In a chapter called “Some Desires Are Worse Than Others,” Emba writes that broadband porn has normalized anal sex and choking during sex among Gen Z and young millennials. She believes that this trend fuels our humanization and causes women unnecessarily pain and discomfort.
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Emba offers a different perspective about sex. Now in her early 30s, she was raised in the Evangelical church, converted to Catholicism in college, and didn’t start having sex until her late 20s—about a decade later than her Millennial peers. In her view, “total openness wasn’t actually more freeing than the cramped confines of purity culture.” It’s a statement that will raise some hackles, and there are passages in the book where she seems to long for the days of societal constraints on sex. She doesn’t acknowledge that sexual harassment and morality police are often carried out by women of color.
Nonetheless, the idea of seeking—and perhaps even insisting on—sex with more emotional connection will resonate in this post-pandemic moment. So many people are now reassessing what is truly important after being in isolation for two years. Match released a study last autumn that found emotional maturity is the most important quality singles seek now. It surpasses all physical attributes.
Think about Sex You may be tapping into cultural shifts toward meaning and not acquisition. Our goal should not only be to get consent or avoid disappointment, but also, as Emba puts it, “to pursue joy.” She wants us to ask ourselves after sex, “Did I do something good here—not just for myself but for my partner?” That sounds sentimental and maybe impossible. But if, at its core, Emba’s ask is that we see each other as human beings worthy of empathy, then the change she’s advocating might be more progressive than it seems.
Susanna Schrobsdorff writes the It’s Not Just You newsletter on Substack.
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