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Why Americans aren’t happy with their sex lives

A new book examines the downsides of sex positivity — and explores the alternatives to our unhappy sexual culture.

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Why are so many young Americans so unhappy with their sex lives?

That’s the question that looms over a fascinating new book by Washington Post columnist Christine Emba called Rethinking Sex: A Provocation. A provocation indeed: In the book, Emba digs into why young people are, in her words, “engaging in sexual encounters they don’t really want for reasons they don’t fully agree with.”

She argues that the sexual revolution, or the sex positivity movement, has turned sex into a hollow — and occasionally degrading — transaction. And the price of sexual liberation has been a wide-open dating culture that, ironically enough, has replaced old taboos with new ones and made a lot of us, especially women, miserable.

There are parts of Emba’s argument I agree with and parts of it I don’t, so I reached out to her for a recent episode of Vox Conversations. We discuss how her Catholic faith informs her views on sex, why she thinks consent isn’t enough, and what kind of sexual culture she wants to see in the world.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

Who or what are you hoping to provoke with this book?

Christine Emba

The book’s a push to reconsider some of our notions about sex and sexuality, and what they mean in our lives, especially post-sexual revolution and during the third-wave feminist movements. So it’s a provocation to rethink how we talk about consent, and the role that we’ve asked consent to play as an arbiter of whether sex is good or not. It’s also about rethinking the way that we talk about gender and the concepts of freedom, privacy, and equality, and what those are supposed to look like.

I hope that it’s a provocation to conversation and not just to anger. But I do think that asking to take a second and harder look at the moral valence of sex, the ethical questions involved in sex, whether certain desires are healthy for us to indulge or not, does tend to provoke purveyors of what I call in the book “uncritical sex positivity,” which is the idea that sex is great, that all sex is good —

Sean Illing

What’s wrong with that view?

Christine Emba

Well, there are a few different angles that I get into in the book. The first is this idea that consent can serve a legitimating function for sex. That once you have two consenting adults, two adults who have agreed to do something, then there’s nothing to criticize. There’s nothing to interrogate. I think that consent is a great legal baseline — it’s absolutely necessary. It’s the floor that we have to have below all of our sexual encounters, so that they aren’t actively illegal or actively assaulting someone else.

But we want so much more from sex than simply not being illegal. We want to ask questions about what we owe to each other, about the responsibilities that we have to each other, about whether sex is not just legal but actually good morally and ethically. And so saying, “Anything past consent, we don’t talk about it,” leaves out all of these really important questions, even about whether the consent was fairly gotten, whether we’re actually helping our partner, whether what we’re doing is even good for us.

Sean Illing

When I hear that, I think it means that you think consent isn’t adequate, because we don’t actually know what’s good for us, that we’re confused about our wants and our needs. And therefore, because of that confusion, we consent to things that are bad for us. Is that a misreading of your beliefs?

Christine Emba

I think that’s really true. I think it’s very easy to consent to things that are not going to be helpful to us in the long run, or that won’t get us closer to the sex lives we want, or even the general human flourishing that we deeply want.

On the flip side, I also think that consent can be used as kind of a fig leaf for selfishness in many cases. And we see this in some of the messier #MeToo cases, right? Where someone like Louis C.K., for example, his defense after masturbating in front of his coworkers and leaving them, in some cases, traumatized is, “I asked first and they consented, so it was fine.”

Or I’m reading about the Evan Rachel Wood and Marilyn Manson case right now and she talks about how she was abused by Marilyn Manson, how he enacted all these horrible behaviors on her that she didn’t really want, but she was enthralled to him, and this happened. And his defense is something like, “Well, this was a consensual, intimate relationship. So why are you bothering me about this?”

Consent doesn’t make that okay, and I think it provides a lot of cover for people who would abuse it by getting consent ostensibly for activities they shouldn’t be doing.

Sean Illing

I don’t know much about those cases, but there are people in the book you interview who, for various reasons, aren’t satisfied with consensual encounters, and I suppose I wonder who you think is to blame for that? If we consciously consent to something as an adult and we end up not liking the outcome, isn’t that just what happens in a free society where people are making free choices and therefore mistakes?

Christine Emba

No, I get that. The next thing is to just say, “Okay, we aren’t necessarily sure what we should do or we make bad choices, and that’s free will. That is what being a human being in a free society is.” And one pushback I’ve gotten to this critique of consent is, “Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to make it illegal to have bad sex? Or bring down the law on anybody who has sex with somebody and it’s not good?” No, I don’t want that.

When I’m criticizing consent, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have it or that there should be consent police making sure that every encounter is ideal. But I also think that we can have better norms and a higher standard for what we look for in sex and what we expect of each other, post-consent, to bring us closer toward having more good interactions as opposed to more bad or mediocre ones.

Sean Illing

What kind of standard?

Christine Emba

A higher standard I propose in the book is this idea of willing the good of the other, which basically means caring about the other person’s experience, about the other person, as much as you would care about yourself in any sexual encounter. And ideally trying to figure out what the good would look for them and for you together, and aiming your encounters toward that. And recognizing that if you aren’t able to figure that out, then maybe you might not want to have sex with this person in the moment.

Again, this is not a legal criterion. This doesn’t prevent people from having bad sex. If you’re not doing this, the hand of the law is not going to prevent you from having sex. But even just trying to hold ourselves to a higher standard, just thinking through these questions before we do it, means we’re more likely to end up in a better place than we would if we just said, “Well, as long as we’ve agreed to whatever, it’s fine.”

Sean Illing

History matters a ton here, as you know. In the book, you argue or at least imply that our sexual culture was better in the past when it wasn’t so liberatory. But that situation and the taboos that shaped it were hard on people — like gay Americans, to take one example — who didn’t conform to our conventional mores about sex, and I’m not sure how that fits into your story or how you weigh those benefits against the costs.

Christine Emba

I think that’s a really important critique and it’s one that I try to think through in the book, although there are always areas in which I could have been more explicit about that. You’re right that we’ve made so much progress in the sexual revolution. I think that’s great, especially for the groups you mentioned, especially for women, for queer people, who saw their desires and their personhood validated, who were finally, or were at least meant to be, treated as equal actors in society.

Although I critique consent, the fact that we were able to get to a place where we can acknowledge that it’s important and that we have to have it is good. That was a leap forward that took years, decades really, and that’s incredible. That said, we can appreciate how far we’ve come while also suggesting and realizing that there is still a ways to go. We can still appreciate that some areas haven’t seen so much change and also that new problems have arisen, even out of the midst of new kinds of liberation.

We don’t want to go backward here — I certainly don’t. This is ultimately about moving forward to a place where we have even higher standards of care that serve all of us.

Sean Illing

Do you feel like your views on sex are necessarily anchored to your religious perspective?

Christine Emba

Interesting question. The answer is yes. I converted to Catholicism my senior year of college. And I found that the Catholic Church had a much stronger philosophical and theological backdrop and a grounding in a tradition of thinking practically and spiritually about sex. And not just questions of sex itself, but all kinds of questions around sex and how it relates to the Christian faith.

But I didn’t write this book necessarily for Catholic readers or for my priest to read. I was writing this book in response to the many people I talked to — both religious and nonreligious — who felt that they were existing in a culture of sexual malaise, and weren’t sure what to do about it. And they were trying to figure out how to address some of these questions and come up with a better sexual ethic.

I was looking for an ethic that would make sense to someone who was not religious, who was not me, that would be useful broadly. And so I spent a lot of time actually just asking people what they thought a good sexual culture would look like. What did they want out of a sexual encounter that was different from the sexual encounters that they seemed to keep having?

And so many people said they were looking for “empathy” or “care.” There’s one interview that’s very memorable in the book, and it’s a woman who is extremely nonreligious and she basically says to her partner, “Can we not love each other for a single day?” That is what she wanted an ethic to look like. And I think that is something that’s shared by people, both religious and nonreligious.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.