- In Rethinking Sex, Christine Emba wants to reclaim the moral and meaningful dimensions of sexuality. Tweet This
- Emba highlights important differences between men and women’s approach to sex; divergent risks and desires that, socially constructed or not, are important to acknowledge if we hope to build an ethical sexual code. Tweet This
- Our desires, Emba argues, are not truly our own. And it is this gulf between what we think we want and what we actually want that leaves us feeling unfulfilled even after we get it. Tweet This
Ask around and many will tell you, there is something amiss about our contemporary dating and sexual culture, even if they can’t quite articulate what it is. Though we’re more sexually liberated, less constrained by biology or taboo than ever before—free to pursue our desires no matter how devious or unnatural they might have once appeared—very few of us seem to be getting what we want. But that’s because, according to Christine Emba, we don’t actually want what we think we want when it comes to sex.
In Rethinking Sex, Emba sets her sights on our modern sexual culture and the discourse around consent, the dominant frame for making judgements about sex. While consent, she argues, is a necessary baseline to determine the legality of any given sex act, it is a deficient moral standard. While consent can tell you whether a sex act was legal or illegal, it can’t say much about whether it was right (good for us, and good for society) or wrong (bad for us, and bad for society). Overreliance on the legal framework of consent, in her view, actually obscures the more important questions we should be asking about sex, and the multitude of ways consensual sex can also be harmful. Emba, in other words, wants to reclaim the moral and meaningful dimensions of sexuality.
Emba’s writing brilliantly captures the many paradoxes of sexuality. Sex is the wellspring of our deepest desires—physical pleasure and emotional connection—but at the same time it is also our deepest fears—of death and dependency. It is among the most embodied of human acts, but also the closest many may come to something akin to an out of body experience. It is simultaneously, in Emba’s words, relentlessly minimized (sex is just a physical act) and among our most profound obsessions. Sex, as much as we might like to think, is not that simple.
Throughout the book, the author makes several compelling observations and arguments: when it comes to sex, boundaries might actually be a good thing; as one of her interviewees, an ethicist, claims, “we want the unexpected…but we also need forms of safety that can structure the encounter." Emba also highlights important differences between men and women’s approach to sex; divergent risks and desires that, socially constructed or not, are important to acknowledge if we hope to build an ethical sexual code. Moreover, she argues eloquently against the prevailing popular notions that sex is fundamentally a private, physical act, writing:
We may think that our actions are self-contained, independent, and a function only of our personal desires… Far from being in a self-contained bubble, we are enacting communal dynamics and relationships when we have sex; our individual desires are often channeled through and into an existing set of cultural molds. And though we would like to think that our individual actions affect only us, we are in fact building and reinforcing narratives that we go on to spread. We define what sex means for those around us too.
Her most important argument has to do with the forces she claims are actually shaping our desires. She describes how we come to internalize the transactional logics of dating apps, and how the proliferation of hardcore pornography corresponded with increases in the kinds of sex it portrays as routine and banal. Emba writes:
But even the preference for complete independence is not necessarily one we’ve arrived at on our own. This vision of the human person makes possible a perfectly flexible, endlessly interchangeable set of workers and consumers. But this vision of the human person is a windfall to the economy and the companies that make it up, which can count on us to buy their products and commit our lives to the work of making and selling them.
Our desires, she argues, are not truly our own. And it is this gulf between what we think we want and what we actually want that leaves us feeling unfulfilled even after we get it. “The capitalist ideal that has formed our understanding of ‘independence’ tends to preclude connection and solidarity in favor of the possibility of private gain,” she writes. “The fierce privacy and optionality that we idolize can tend toward dehumanization and alienation…”
But all is not lost. Emba argues that our socially constructed desires can be deconstructed, and that it’s possible to reimagine a new sexual code that emphasizes the kinds of connection and solidaristic ties that seem, for so many, out of reach. She writes that “creating a better sexual culture and a healthier sexuality”:
will take telling the truth about sex: its emotionality, its biology, the societal factors that influence us. It will also mean balancing our desires with our responsibility to others, and recognizing that consent is not enough. And it will take community, not to shame or stigmatize but to engage in a continual reform, rather than relying on reductive rules.
As much as I applaud the book, it is not perfect. Emba makes generalizations about cultural attitudes (ie: sex is a private, purely physical act) despite these attitudes not being as universal as she implies. And the most glaring flaw, in an otherwise brilliant book, is that men’s voices and perspectives come across as muted. While her female interlocutors routinely offer extended narratives that connect to her larger arguments, the few quotes from men (except for one discussing online dating) feel more like one-offs. Ultimately, however, these are small deficiencies in an otherwise important and timely intervention.
Rethinking Sex describes the multitude of ways that sex acts can be harmful even when they’re consensual. It demonstrates how our discourse around consent actually comes to obscure the questions we should be asking; not simply if the sex was mutually agreed upon, but whether or not a particular type of sex is ethical, whether there exist imbalances in power or commitment or otherwise that shape our willingness to consent. Most importantly, Emba describes how the ways we have sex and how we think about it bleeds into other facets of our lives, and how those behaviors and attitudes are shaped by forces far beyond our control. As the argument goes, if we treat people like a commodity during sex, it seems likely we will treat them as such in less intimate circumstances.
But knowing all of this, what do we do? Continue swiping left and right with resigned acquiescence to a status quo that feels so deeply broken? I’m with Emba, let’s rethink sex.
Michael Krieger is a PhD Student in the department of sociology at the University of Virginia.