Christine Emba has a radical proposition: What if there’s no such thing as casual sex? In her new book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, Emba posits that sex itself is inherently 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 that sex involves the spirit as well as the body, and that the sexual liberation which promised lots of fun, no-strings, easy-to-access consensual sex has actually left us miserable.
Emba, a columnist for the Washington 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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Even if we want to think of sex as as something that can be casual, the act of being naked and entwined is inherently vulnerable and unique, she argues. She writes that sex “implicates the human person and thus our inherent human dignity.” And we should treat this act and our partners accordingly.
If all of that sounds kind of old-school, it is. These ideas harken back to the days before the sex-positivity movement tried to eradicate shame and before the fight to make consent a requirement became a legal reality. But, now that we finally agree that non-consensual sex is always bad, Emba wants us to reconsider the assumption that consensual sex is always good.
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.'”
That logic sounds absurd (not to mention terribly sad) when you see it written out. 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 about a brief relationship in which a woman has consensual sex with a man she finds somewhat repulsive. And more recently, feminist writer Tracy Clark-Flory explored these themes in her memoir Want Me: A 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 the confounding contradictions of our era: We can ache for more connection and commitment, but to ask for it somehow makes us more vulnerable than the act of sex itself. Better to be chill. 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.
Even proponents of the sex-positivity movement are contemplating the idea that consent is not 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. Our investment is small; each person seems like just one of a million options. 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. Her view is that these trends fuel our dehumanization of each other and can cause women disproportionate discomfort and pain.
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Emba has an unusual perspective on 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 does so without acknowledging that women and people of color usually bear the brunt of sexual shunning and morality policing.
Nonetheless, the idea of seeking—and perhaps even insisting on—sex with more emotional connection will resonate in this post-pandemic moment. After two years of isolation, so many of us are re-evaluating what truly matters. A study released last fall by the dating site Match found that emotional maturity tops the list of what singles are looking for now, eclipsing all other qualities, even physical appearance.
Rethinking Sex may be tapping into a cultural shift toward meaning versus 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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