A Manifesto Against Sex Positivity

Almost exactly a year ago, the writer Katherine Dee, who blogs about internet culture and trend forecasting, predicted what she called a “coming wave of sex negativity.” Sex positivity, she suggested, had created new stigmas, including around discussing the harms of sex work and self-commodification. “People do not want to be atomized,” she wrote, adding, “Nobody wants this dystopia.”

Not everything Dee foresaw — like a shift toward earlier childbearing among the upper middle class — has come to pass, at least so far. But she nailed an emerging movement, one that now has a manifesto in “Rethinking Sex: A Provocation” by the Washington Post columnist Christine Emba, which I found bold and compelling even when I disagreed with it. Emba’s argument is that sexual liberation, as currently conceived, has made people, and especially women, miserable. It’s created, ironically, new strictures and secret shames, at least in certain elite milieus, around “catching feelings,” hating casual sex and having vanilla sexual tastes.

One anecdote from the book illustrates the perversity, so to speak, of the current moment. Emba describes meeting a woman at a Washington party who tells her about the man she’s been dating. In most ways, he’s great. “But he chokes me during sex?” the woman confides. She’d consented, but she didn’t like it. She was so unsure about whether her feelings were reasonable that she turned to Emba, a stranger, for advice. “The taboo on questioning someone else’s sexual preference was that strong,” writes Emba. Her book is aimed, in part, at breaking that taboo.

Emba is a heterodox thinker, and it’s hard to situate her book ideologically. As she writes in the introduction, she was raised evangelical, converted to Catholicism in college and spent her early adulthood planning to save sex for marriage before eventually letting go of abstinence. Her worldview, she writes, has “ping-ponged a bit, from purity culture to a rebellion against it to something in between.”

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