The subtitle of Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex: A Provocation is revealing yet misjudged. The description tells us a lot about Emba’s understanding of her own work but does not accurately describe the book, which frustrates rather than provokes. The issue is not just that its conclusion, that the “best sexual world is perhaps a less free one” is conventional and conservative—rather than, as she seems to imagine, innovative and radical—but that it is an inadequate response to real problems. The subjects Emba discusses, from the complexities of consent to the destructive impact of technology on sex and intimacy, are important and she deserves credit for asking many of the right questions. She deserves less credit, however, for her answers. Rethinking Sex too often attacks straw targets rather than doing the more difficult and necessary analytical work which would in fact allow for a reimagining of sex. Emba is correct in insisting that “we should be taking sex seriously,” and that there is an urgent need for a rigorous, nuanced feminist analysis of the problems she identifies. This is not it.
The first half of Emba’s title is also deceptive. Rethinking Sex suggests a wide-ranging exploration but, as she recognizes in the opening pages, she is only really concerned with “cisgender heterosexuality.” Even within this category, her focus is narrow, concentrating on the kind of “educated, young, forward-thinking” people in her “social milieu.” The book pays little serious attention to non-normative sexuality, something illustrated by its references to kink, which Emba seems to understand through its representation popular culture and pornography; she does not talk to anyone involved, let alone explore their understanding of their preferences and pleasures. Despite recognizing that there is “space for sex that plays with power,” Emba portrays such practices primarily as a damaging influence on conventional heterosexuality and questions their “psychological underpinnings.” Misrepresenting sexual minorities is problematic in itself but it also obscures their insights, achieved partly through their critical distance from the dominant culture. One of the strengths of Rethinking Sex is its insistence on the need for more complex, nuanced, and critical conversations about consent. These discussions have long been a feature of the communities Emba stereotypes. A broader, more generous view of sex would have enabled Rethinking Sex to draw on the ideas they have generated.
Many of the failings of Rethinking Sex stem from its use of reductive and often just inaccurate generalizations. The claims that in “the modern era, we refuse to see sex and relationships as holding that much importance,” that “[e]veryone wants love of some kind, but no one wants to admit it,” and that consent “only asks if we have said yes or not; if yes, it assumes that the sex we then start having is good” enable her to represent her own arguments as radical or even transgressive but none of these statements are actually true. Many people attach considerable importance to sex and relationships, as even a cursory examination of film, television, music, literature, and advertisements demonstrates, lots of people admit they want love—a desire dating services ruthlessly exploit—and few assume all consensual sex is good sex. Rethinking Sex frequently simplifies complex social and political issues, something that inevitably serves to distorts its conclusions. Emba spends a considerable amount of time tilting at windmills, challenging attitudes that few people may hold whilst drawing sweeping conclusions.
Better research might have enabled Emba to avoid these problems. She makes too little use of the enormous and sophisticated critical and theoretical literature on sexuality, depending heavily on anecdotal evidence, on the “unhappy stories my friends tell, the stories the college students and young adults I interview tell.” Her references to key texts and writers in the field can be brief and deceptive. After mentioning Judith Butler’s ideas of performativity, Emba insists that gender “still shapes the way we experience the world,” as if this were something Butler failed to understand or appreciate. Freud is dismissed with the statement that “many of his theories were later discredited to the point of comedy” but the only specific Freudian argument she mentions is that “sexual repression causes a host of mental and emotional problems”; far from being discredited, this remains an important insight, as anyone who had been taught to feel ashamed of their body or desires could have told her. Her representation of Fear of Flying as celebrating the idea of the “zipless fuck” suggests she may not have finished the novel. These limitations and errors are not incidental matters; they weaken her analysis.
Emba argues that contemporary society is characterized by an “uncritical sex positivity” and a desire to “fuck without feelings” that enables and legitimizes damaging casual encounters. This is a perennial conservative anxiety but the available data does not support the idea of a widespread, destructive sexual excess. In fact, as she admits, “people are having sex less frequently than they used to.” Her failure to pay sufficient attention to this issue is one of the major weaknesses of her book. Alienation and exclusion from sex are widespread, significant problems, and a renewed appreciation for “old values—prudence, temperance, even chastity” seem unlikely to resolve them. The weakness is all the more frustrating because Rethinking Sex includes the elements necessary to analyze these trends. Importantly, Emba recognizes that the technological mediation of dating and the widespread availability of pornography have not only distorted emotional and sexual relations but made them more difficult, eroding the empathy and interpersonal skills on which they depend. She also recognizes that these developments are products of capitalism, which “frames our modern lives so completely that we’re liable to forget that it’s even there” and demands an instrumental view of others. Engaging with theories of neoliberalism would have provided Emba with some of the conceptual tools she needed to develop the most promising element of her text, and to better explain why a few people are having bad sex and a lot of people are having little or no sex. In the event, Rethinking Sex is a missed opportunity.
Rethinking Sex: A Provocation
Published March 22, 2022
Ben Clarke is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of "Orwell in Context," co-author of "Understanding Richard Hoggart", and co-editor of "Working-Class Writing." He is currently editing the "Routledge Companion to Working-Class Literature."