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11 April 2022

“Sex means nothing, and everything”: Christine Emba on consent, incels and modern dating

The Washington Post columnist and author of Rethinking Sex explains why our sexual culture isn’t working – for women or men.

By Louise Perry

“I’m not trying to make people upset or angry,” Christine Emba tells me, and I truly believe her. The Washington Post columnist and author of Rethinking Sex: A Provocation speaks carefully, gently and with a scholarly precision. Her book may be “a provocation”, but it is not a polemic. More of a meditation – even, arguably, a dialogue (which is perhaps appropriate, given Emba’s interest in classical philosophy). Her goal really isn’t to make people upset or angry: it’s to make them think.  

Emba is chewing over the problems presented by a sexual culture that does not seem to be working – for women, particularly, but also for men. ”A lot of us are having a lot of bad sex,” she writes. “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 the thing you sense is wrong is wrong. That there is something unmistakably off in the way we’ve been going about sex and dating.”

Emba describes an odd set of prevailing assumptions about sex in the 21st century. “On the one hand,” she tells me on a Zoom call from her home in Washington, DC, “sex means nothing – but on the other hand, sex means everything.” In popular writing, sex is compared with all sorts of meaningless everyday activities and social interactions: shaking hands, skiing, making a sandwich: the kind of “individual pursuit[s] that you can likely get better at with practice, that can be done safely and without major consequences as long as you follow the rules”. 

[See also: The “Tinder Swindler” understood the power, and flaws, of Disney-style romance]

But, at the same time, sex (and the lack of it) is also regarded as earth-shatteringly important. In one chapter, Emba writes about the experiences of adults who have remained virgins into their twenties and thirties and find themselves stigmatised for it. She writes, too, about the incel movement – that is, the informal community of “involuntarily celibate” men who gather online to complain about their lack of success in attracting girlfriends.

I comment that she writes about incels with an unusual degree of sympathy. Emba demurs slightly. “I’m not sympathetic to the incel understanding of women as objects that men deserve to have, or the idea that it’s a flaw in the world that men can’t have as many hot chicks as they want,” she says. “But there is a sense of pain in the incel movement which I am sympathetic to. People want to connect, they want to be loved, they want to be seen as valuable. And certain men find it very difficult to navigate the sexual and romantic world. There is a lot of sadness in this movement, and sometimes sadness can curdle into an awful radicalism.”

Sadness of various kinds is expressed by many of the people interviewed in Rethinking Sex. There are the women who have become increasingly desperate to find a partner before their fertility wanes, and who find themselves both sad and aggrieved at the years spent with men who wasted their time. Then there are the many interviewees – both male and female – stuck on the “Tinder carousel” and unable to find an alternative route to love and intimacy. “We’re Liberated, and We’re Miserable” is one of Emba’s chapter titles. She is suggesting – mildly, but persuasively – that more and more freedom doesn’t always result in greater happiness. “We’ve gone from being penned in to being free to roam,” she writes. “But in the open field that now rolls out before us, everyone feels a bit… lost.”

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If this is liberation, then it is a strange kind of liberation. In an alarming passage, Emba recounts an anecdote about a woman who cornered her at a party to confess that the guy she “really likes” is choking her during sex and she doesn’t want him to, but she doesn’t know how to say so. “I mean, what do you think? Is that OK?” this woman asks a perfect stranger, apparently unable to defend her own sexual boundaries without permission. It certainly doesn’t seem “OK”, but given what Emba describes as a “taboo on questioning someone else’s sexual preference”, for many of us it might feel difficult to say so. 

And the thing is, this woman is actually consenting, in a legal sense. She has never said “no” to the choking, choosing instead to quietly endure it. Her partner has (just about) successfully cleared the ethical bar set by a sexual culture that regards consent as, in Emba’s words, “the only rule” – which supposedly makes their encounter licit. But something is clearly wrong with this state of affairs, just as it is for the friend of Emba’s who reflects on a string of unpleasant casual sexual encounters: “Do I really want this? Do I really enjoy this? Or is it because I think this is what I should be doing in my twenties, what people expect of me?” 

Some feminist critics suggest that the solution to these unhappy but non-criminal encounters is to put greater emphasis on “enthusiastic consent” – a phrase that has its roots in a 1991 campaign on a liberal-arts college campus (where else?) that transformed the “no means no” injunction into a “yes means yes”. And yet, Emba writes, what this means in practice is just a shifting of the goalposts for those intent on hooking up. It is a higher standard, but hardly a demanding one: “[T]he end goal is still to Get the Sex from someone else without having committed an actual violation.” 

[See also: The fetishisation of “natural” childbirth has killed women and babies]

For some women who have been burned by our dysfunctional sexual culture, the temptation is to settle into what Emba describes as a state of “heteropessimism”: to joke about their travails, and to become despondent about men in general. This might even extend to a kind of performative misandry (I learn from Rethinking Sex that online it is possible to buy, for instance, a cross-stitch reading “BAN MEN”). 

But heteropessimism is an “anaesthetic posture”, Emba tells me. It serves as a way of distracting oneself from the problem. To her mind, any kind of solution has to involve “proposing a better standard for sex, something that’s stronger than just consent”.

To this end, she returns to an old phrase and an old idea: “willing the good of the other”, which “is Aristotle by way of St Thomas Aquinas”. As Emba writes:

“There is a wide area between ‘consensual’ – that is to say, ‘non-criminal’ – sex and the sort of sex we want to have. This is where willing the good of the other might be the better sexual ethic we’ve been looking for. This sort of love entails recognising that other people we encounter are people, like us. It asks us to reject the commodification of each other and our own sexuality, because if people are valuable, if they have intrinsic dignity, then we should not treat them as objects.”

We are five years on from the height of #MeToo and we have, says Emba, reached “a place where we’re acknowledging that something is wrong”. The task now, as she sees it, is to think about what comes next. “I’m perfectly happy to be told that I’m wrong or have mistaken things. I don’t mind being urged to think differently. Because that’s how we move forward – by being honest with each other.” 

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