How do we build a new understanding of what constitutes “good” sex?
An interview with Christine Emba
Like a lot of us, I often find myself seeking out books that seem like they’ll approximate (and, hopefully, refine and texture) my current world view. Most of the time, I’ll sit there reading, underlining like a first year college student in their first lecture thinking wow, yes, great, because these thinkers’ thinking is broadly in line with my own thinking.
This approach has its merits and its very real drawbacks: there’s value in refining your existing thinking by consulting with other similar thinkers, but there’s also a risk of finding yourself in an echoing canyon of preaching-to-the-choir. If you’ve read this newsletter for any amount of time, you know I don’t have time for trolly arguments or thought experiments about whether or not it’s okay for a person who isn’t Black to say the n-word (no, stop, no) or, like, just Bari Weiss’s entire “no thought police” schtick, but I do have time for what Christine Emba does in Rethinking Sex. It is, as the subtitle puts it, a provocation.
While reading it, I spent a fair amount of time thinking: Do I agree? Do I not agree? If I don’t agree, why? This book has lingered with me, and I think it — and Christine’s answers here — will linger with you, too. There’s a real time and place and value for books that deepen our current thinking, there’s also incredible value in books that challenge and expand that thinking, too.
I’m so grateful for Christine’s thoughtful, compelling answers here — and if you’re in the market for a provocation, I strongly recommend the book, too.
The first chapter of the book spend a lot of time breaking down the complexity of sex — as a physical act, as a form of intimacy, as a means of escape, the list goes on.
But you also admit that the understanding of sex has been polarized and, I’d argue, politicized: consent is essential, but any other limits on it are “conservative,” and while the lack of limits becomes a sort of nebulous sex-positivity.
What’s fundamentally broken about this conception? And how do we build a new understanding of what constitutes “good” sex?
I think you’re hinting at what’s broken even in the framing of the question.
So much of our conversation when it comes to sex revolves around defining the “limits,” or how far something can go before it crosses the line and becomes outrageous or even illegal. But why do we settle for asking what’s legal rather than what’s actively good?
Consent is an essential baseline. But it’s a floor, and never should have been the ceiling. If consent is the only standard by which we judge sex, we’re punting big questions – whether that consent was fairly gotten; whether it’s even good for us to be doing what we’ve gotten consent to do; what, exactly, it takes for an encounter to be moral and ethical.
But framing the asking of these questions as “conservative” and therefore repressive and bad means that we’re consigning ourselves to a very low bar. Plus, saying that to be “sex positive” you need to lack limits stigmatizes expressing (very reasonable!) requests for boundaries
As I write in the book:
“Things don’t have to be criminal to be profoundly bad. And the fact that so many of the people around me relate so deeply to stories of harrowing dates and lackluster encounters shows that a lot of us are having a lot of bad sex. Unwanted, depressing, even traumatic: if this is ordinary, something is deeply wrong.
The goal of this book is to reassure you that you’re not crazy. That thing you sense is wrong is wrong. There’s something unmistakably off in the way we’ve been going about sex and dating.”
So, how do we build a new understanding of what constitutes “good” sex? I think it starts with honesty – being honest about how significant sex really is, what it means to us and what kind of relationships we really want.
We also have to be clear-eyed in interrogating the assumptions that inform our approach to sex – how we think about freedom and privacy for instance, or how much weight we place on fulfilling desire, or how we define what ‘equality’ looks like. Where did these beliefs come from, and are they correct? If they’re faulty, they might actually be adding to the problem.
And finally, we have to be willing to make substantive claims about what “good” really means and what moral and ethical behavior looks like, and make those our standard rather than assuming that consent is enough to legitimate any action.
What’s the bad faith reading of your argument?
Great — and mildly terrifying! — question. I think the bad faith reading is that I’m using the fact that ome people have experienced disappointing sex or feel discontented with the current sexual culture as an excuse to go backwards – to revoke the sexual revolution and disavow the feminist movements, and to advocate for ultraconservative social norms that will punish nonmarital, LGBTQ, or even just kinky sex.
To be clear… I am not trying to do that.
What I am trying to do is set the table for an honest conversation: About where the sexual revolution and feminist movements hoped to take us, and where we have ended up; about whether we’re over-relying on consent as our rubric for understanding what good sex looks like; about whether the sexual culture as it currently stands is serving us well and bringing us closer to the relationships we want.
It’s odd to me that so often, a desire to critique the way we have sex is seen as being anti-sex. Because it’s not — it’s asking questions in pursuit of better sex, a better understanding of what we really want as opposed to what we may think or have been told that we should want. (One of my favorite quotes I use in the book is from Ellen Willis: “Why do we want what we want, and what would we want if we had the choice?”)
Yes, some of the questions I’m asking inevitably raise hackles, because they explicitly challenge understandings we have assumed are settled or because they’ll push readers to reconsider their own actions under a new (and maybe harsher) light. But that’s why Rethinking Sex is subtitled “A Provocation!”
How much of men and women’s broken understanding of sex has to do with the ways in which we internalized postfeminism (and its current manifestations, Lean In Feminism and #GirlBoss feminism)? As you put it, “the sexual revolution was warped by capitalism and hobbled by strictures of misogyny and patriarchy that had remained in place.” What’s the legacy of this loss? How does it show up in dating life now — particularly in women’s experiences on dating apps?
The early feminist movements really did have a revolutionary idea in mind: smashing a patriarchal system that centered male preferences and toxic value systems; replacing it with a new vision in which women and their distinctive concerns were equally valued and respected.
Lean In and #GirlBoss feminisms asked for less, and I try to work through how this shift happened in the book. Rather than dismantling a male-dominated system, they redefined female progress as just gaining power within the existing system, which meant adopting its values. (So a "boss" is still the ideal, and empowerment just looks like… a #girl one. And Playboy was still fine, as long as women could be Playgirls!)
Of course, the men who are most often seen as the ‘winners’ in the existing system are the ones who devote themselves most fully to economic success and don’t allow themselves to be tied down by things like ‘feelings’ or ‘relationships,’ who can have the most sex but also stay liberated because they don't care and don't face the same physical vulnerabilities a woman might. This is a pretty toxic vision of power, actually! And yet the “equality” that postfeminism suggests that women settle for is the equal opportunity to be like this worst kind of man.
So when it comes to dating, this looks like women and men accepting a misogynistic approach to sex as the ideal one, and even trying to adopt it in order to wield what’s seen as power. And so many of the stories that I was told as I researched Rethinking Sex had to do with this.
It's idealizing detachment, and staying “liberated” by not caring and making sure that relationships never come before career goals. Even if you want a relationship, it's the tyranny of chill — deciding it’s somehow uncool to ask for too much or have too many feelings, playing a constant game of "who cares the least." And on dating apps especially, it looks like bringing a capitalist mindset into our interactions, making it normal to use, discard, and objectify other people — like the woman who told me about "ordering a guy off Tinder" to prove that she too had the power to have no-strings-attached sex.
Another woman I talked to described how for her, modern feminism meant internalizing the idea that having tons of casual sex as a woman would somehow subvert the double standard, and that if women just “fucked without feelings, we too could be free." But she later realized that she was actually just imitating a stance that she found degrading and dehumanizing — that her feminism had been coopted by the existing patriarchal norm.
I think that exemplifies the loss. There was an opportunity to create a culture that valued something other than economic success, total work and complete autonomy, one that valorized things like relationship, emotion, and care instead of downgrading them because they were traditionally seen as female concerns. There was a chance to make space for women's concerns and vulnerabilities, to move away from seeing maleness as the standard that women need to emulate and instead suggest that society make space for women.
Instead, it feels like we’ve defined our goals down. Women are encouraged in many ways to become more like the worst kinds of men than the best versions of themselves. And men aren’t asked to be better, more loving, more open people either – they still face the same pressure to lean into their own stereotypical roles, making it harder to ask for and achieve the connection that many of them actually want.
I saw someone on Twitter arguing that the solution to the problem of sex and relationships laid out in the book is…. revisiting the Christian understanding of sex. This strikes me as regressive for various reasons, but I also understand why someone would arrive at that conclusion, too.
When I think about Evangelical churches converting young women today, one of their best arguments is that dating sucks, hook-up culture sucks, don’t you want to be cherished as a woman of God, etc. etc. I know you grew up Evangelical (and later converted to Catholicism), so I’d love to hear your thoughts on why the Christian church’s understanding of sex is not the simple solution it promises.
In both the first and last chapters of Rethinking Sex, I talk about how my faith shaped my approach to sex, both in not having it and then… well, having it. Things evolved, and even evolved in the course writing! But I’m also writing consciously for an audience that might not share my priors, because questions about the ‘good’ should be open to everyone, and we can have these conversations together.
One worry I have is that when certain Evangelical churches talk about the ‘Christian understanding of sex’ being a solution, they’re often hinting at a particular modern interpretation which…has its own problems.
Purity culture can be gender-essentializing and shame-based and, frankly, not honest. The idea that sex means EVERYTHING, and a woman's worth is predicated on keeping all the *petals on her rose.* Or that men should be given a pass on bad sexual behavior because ‘that’s just the way men are, they’re easily tempted,’ and it’s women who need to change themselves to keep from becoming stumbling blocks. Or the ‘sexual prosperity gospel’ — this idea that if you do the right thing and stay chaste, you’re guaranteed a perfect marriage and good sex later on, and if you don’t have them it’s because you did something wrong.
This laser focus on sex as a sign of virtue (or not) can have lasting consequences. How do you switch from saying sex is bad and you shouldn’t even be thinking about it, to then being expected to have hot sex all the time to please your holy spouse once the ring is on? That’s a whiplash that many people, especially those raised in Evangelical environments, really struggle with. And where do unmarried people fit in? What about queer people? There’s also a history of religious tradition being used to control, or to demonize those who don’t fall in line.
That said, I draw on a wide range of religious texts in the book — Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity — because I do think that there’s a lot that religious traditions have to offer when it comes to sex. Religion is really a history of the ways in which people have asked big questions, formed understandings of things that are larger than ourselves, and tried to work out the good frameworks for how to exist in the world. And it seems plausible that the deeper Christian understanding of sex contains some truths that we shouldn’t discard just because they’re old, or they’ve come from a religious tradition.
For instance: the understanding that sex is meaningful and has a unique significance and we should treat it as such in order to avoid harming ourselves. (This is something that pretty much everyone I interviewed, religious or not, felt to some degree, but often felt loath to admit or act on because they didn’t want to seem “old-fashioned” or “repressed.”)
Or the idea that every person is valuable by virtue of their human dignity, and one person’s desire doesn’t take precedence over someone else’s good. (This belief is what made the original Christian sect distinctive in ancient Rome — I have a nearly half-page footnote in the book on this history, because I think it’s really fascinating even if later traditions took a more demonizing tone. Sorry to my editor!)
There’s also, more broadly, the idea that there is a positive vision of the good that we can reach for, one that’s higher than just pleasing yourself. And an understanding that there are better and worse ways to go through life, some that will move us towards our ultimate flourishing and some that won’t, and that we should try to practice the good even when it’s hard or we’ve failed before and know that we might fail again.
It’s really valuable to have ethical frameworks and sets of tried and true tools — virtues like temperance, prudence, even chastity — that we can rely on, as opposed to having to make it up ourselves everyday as we go along. And it can also be helpful to have some standard outside of ourselves that we can rely on and appeal to, to help us draw clear lines and remember our boundaries even under pressure.
That said, being Christian or adhering to a Christian worldview doesn’t prevent people from being selfish, from making mistakes, from misunderstanding what even their own church is saying about sex or bending it to bad ends. Even Christian teaching suggests that this fallibility is to be expected, and that just having a Christian worldview or professing faith doesn’t automatically fix things — and if you think so, you’re in for a big disappointment.
The other solution for the problems of contemporary sex: marriage. To me this is laughably wrong, and not because of some cliched understanding of what happens to people’s sex lives when they get married, but because marriage often produces a space for intimate psychological abuse and expanding power differentials — not a healthy space to figure out the parameters of sex. What would you say to someone who argues that marriage fixes the problems laid out in your book?
That came up on Twitter too, actually. A well-known evangelical pastor basically tweeted “lol duh marriage would fix this!” in response to an excerpt of the book in The Washington Post, and was almost instantly ratioed. In the replies, multiple women reminded him in no uncertain terms that nonconsensual sex happens in marriage, too, that many women — especially religious women — may have entered into marriage with the understanding that their body is not their own or that they need to submit to their husbands, making it a space ripe for abuse. They were right! Marriage isn’t a panacea, it has difficulties of its own.
In Rethinking Sex I argue that a new ethic of “willing the good of the other” could be a better and higher standard than consent, and that to will the good of the other necessitates knowing what the good is, and what the good is for your partner, which might mean you need to know them. Generally, people who are married know their spouses pretty well and also care for them, hopefully lending a marriage at least that empathetic baseline. But marriage doesn’t necessarily get rid of misogynistic attitudes or patriarchal norms or problematic power differentials or any of the societal pressures that often contribute to the sorts of bad sex I describe in the book.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Angela Chen about her excellent book Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, and I think it would pair very well with Rethinking Sex. As she put in our Q&A,
…certain strains of feminism have presented the idea that all women are naturally horny and if they’re not, it’s always because they need to work on themselves to break the chains of patriarchy and overcome shame, or else they’re broken or not truly liberated. And on and on.
The conversation around this has been changing recently, as shown by the trend pieces on Gen Z thinking sex positivity is overrated—and these are similar to critiques that aces have been making for a long time. It was never “leftist sexual pressure is only bad for aces.” It’s “leftist sexual pressure is bad for everyone, and often especially so for aces.” It’s also not “let’s go back to purity culture,” but “true sexual liberation means no sexual pressure in any direction.”
Your book focuses specifically on cis-gender heterosexual sex, but I do think that the current reconsideration of sex is part of a larger impulse to challenge so many accumulated norms and ideologies around sex, and consent, and relationships.
I think some people see this — to harken back to some of the bad faith arguments and solutions I mention above — as a sort of new conservatism, but it also strikes me as potentially liberating: to hold norms up to the light, to see them as arbitrary and strange, to interrogate what we want and why we want it.
How do you think of your work in conversation with other contemporary thinkers and activists approaching sex from different vantages than your own? (I’m thinking sexual identity here, but also men, people with different religious backgrounds, etc)
That’s such a great quote — it really gets at something important. I really do think many people feel that they’re sort of weird for not enjoying an ‘anything goes’ culture, or for not always wanting to be up for sex. And some end up resenting the pressure to have sex, be chill, do whatever, even as they acquiesce to it. The project of sex positivity was originally meant to increase our sense of independence and empowerment, but being pressured into a single understanding of what you must do to be a ‘good, modern feminist’ is the literal opposite of personal freedom
As to other thinkers – In Rethinking Sex, I’m in dialogue with anyone from theorists like Jessica Valenti to Dan Savage to… Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas (Michelle Goldberg at the New York Times called the book “heterodox” and “hard to situate ideologically” for that reason, which I actually found… flattering?)
I situate a lot of my questions in the heterosexual experience. But I also think that queer communities have a really distinctive and expansive viewpoint on questions of sex, gender, and power, and also have a different understanding of what it can look like to use social norms and stigmas to approve or disapprove of certain behaviors, and how that has been really harmful in the past. Talking to queer theorists has been helpful in thinking through how to create norms that are corrigible and inclusive.
And though I share a lot of women’s stories (a lot! I feel like this book is actually very driven by storytelling!) I spoke to many men, too. The impulse is often to problematize men, but men are being hurt by a bad sexual culture as well, in ways that aren’t always obvious. Understanding what men hope for and need is also important; it’s also key to understand what influences men and contributes to the roles they play in this culture – whether it’s toxic masculinity standards or pornography or even just biology.
Overall, I think that questions of power and the good and what norms underlie our practices are applicable to everyone. And much of what we want — care, empathy, love — is shared by all.
On that note: whose work on sex, sexuality, sex culture, consent, feminism, relationships is challenging and texturing your own work today?
As I was writing Rethinking Sex, I went back a bit, as well as forward – I was reading a lot of Margaret Farley and Andrea Dworkin and Ellen Willis. Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs is still fascinating and relevant. And Martha Nussbaum’s classic essay on objectification was an eye-opener. And it’s been wonderful to see bell hooks back in the heart of conversation.
I’ve been really interested in the work of Robin West, a feminist legal scholar at Georgetown. There’s also Amia Srinivasan (of course!), Alexandra Brodsky, and Leah Libresco Sargeant. I think they all have an ideal of progress that isn’t premised on making women more like the median man in order to achieve equality, but instead on making the world more hospitable to everyone.
As a side note: I’m looking for a very part-time assistant to help run Culture Study. You can find the job ad here — and please pass along to anyone who might be perfect for this (very part-time) role!