Yes means yes, but it doesn't mean good sex

An interview with 'Rethinking Sex' author Christine Emba, who argues consent should be an ethical floor — not a ceiling

My friends like to talk to me about sex. And I'm willing to talk about it because — as something of a generational anomaly who met my future husband when I was 18 — this is how I vicariously enjoy the thrills of casual 20s dating.

But lately, my friends want to talk about bad sex. Once-heady texts and calls about sizzling Tinder matches and no-strings-attached hookups have taken on a tinge of disillusionment. It's not that the hookups or the men have changed, exactly. Rather, we're finally starting to have the conversation, made inevitable by the #MeToo Movement, about whether consent alone is enough to determine whether sex is good.

Washington Post columnist Christine Emba, like me, had been hearing this half-ashamed confession from her friends. Sexual encounters "don't have to be criminal to be profoundly bad," she confirms in Rethinking Sex: A Provocation, out Tuesday with Sentinel. "And the fact that so many of the women around me relate so deeply to stories of harrowing dates and lackluster encounters shows that a lot of us are having bad sex. Unwanted, depressing, even traumatic: If this is ordinary, something is deeply wrong."

Reading Emba's book — and catching up with her on Google Hangouts last week — felt like talking to an older sister or trusted confidant. In Rethinking Sex, she gently but firmly pushes back on the "broad agreement that sex is good, and the more of it we have, the better," insisting that making consent our "sole criterion for good sex" isn't sufficient. And while anything short of the full embrace of "uncritical sex-positivity" is likely to ruffle some readers' feathers, Emba told me she's "not trying to sculpt anyone" with her thesis: "I think we're all just trying to figure it out."

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

If you will allow me to begin on what's going to seem like a complete tangent: I've been doing a lot of running lately and as a result, I've been reading a lot about sports nutrition. The thing that really fascinates me about nutrition is how it's a fundamental thing we do to live, but we still know so little about it. You know, one day red wine is good for you, the next day it's not. There's all this contradictory information out there about something that we do literally every day.

Sex, in some ways, is similar in the sense that we're still debating something humankind has been doing all the time, since the beginning of our species. So why haven't we figured this out yet? Why are books like yours necessary?

Not a tangent at all! Sex is something that clearly we have done since the beginning of time and will hopefully continue to do. And yet perhaps because it's so fundamental, it remains kind of shrouded in mystery and ideas and misconceptions. And because it's so personal for many people, it's hard to talk about it. American society is a little bipolar about the question of sex: You see sex ads on TV — sex sells, et cetera — and yet we don't seem to talk very much about the things we really want from sex, what it really means to us, how we actually feel and what we should be doing on a moral or ethical level.

Many of your chapters open by describing the setting of where you're doing the interviews: coffee shops, bar booths, balconies, and the like. The decision made me think about how, while formal discussions of the topics and themes you get into in the book are new to the philosophical debate about sex, these conversations have been happening all the time in informal settings, whispered between friends.

A lot of young people feel pushed to conform to a particular public conversation about sex. It's an uncritical sex-positivity, right? Well of course I love sex. I have lots of sex. Sex is the best! But to actually critique the sex that they're having, or critique the sexual environment, makes many of them feel like they're failing feminism or they're not being progressive enough. So when they have these questions or concerns, they don't want to shout them from the stage, but they're still real and material to our lives. 

I started writing about sexual ethics more broadly because of the very public #MeToo movement, but I kept being pulled into all of these still-whispered conversations about what was happening in regular women's personal lives. Some sort of crazy thing would happen that someone would tell me about but then they would say, "Oh, well, I don't think it's a #MeToo thing, you know, I consented," as if that made it less worthy of being discussed out loud.  

Private conversation and whisper networks have always been places where these concerns are first raised, but to make change, the conversation has to eventually become broader. And by keeping all of our concerns quiet, we haven't really made progress on what's next. If we know what parts of the sexual culture are bad in our personal experience, how do we actually make it better? What is the movement that we need? Where do we want to go? This is where we'll need to start making our concerns public.

What might be the most controversial section of your book is the chapter titled "Some Desires Are Worse Than Others." In it, you argue that, contrary to popular opinion these days, we in fact should be concerned about what goes on between two consenting adults in the bedroom because "our desire is socially mediated and it has social impacts. The desires we encourage can either improve our culture or make it worse, for ourselves and those around us." That same argument, though, was also essentially used for decades to shame, stigmatize, and criminalize sodomy and homosexuality. How you would address critics who might argue that you're doing the same thing in this chapter?

It's definitely the case that the policing of pleasure has historically been used to marginalize people, and we don't want to go back to that. And I'm not actually arguing for that in the book at all. What I'm suggesting is that it's worth talking openly about how and why certain preferences and desires suddenly become normalized especially on a macro level, and what that might indicate and what social outcomes may flow from that and what, if any, meaning we can draw.

Sex is a social act. It draws people together. It's what literally — via reproduction — creates community. And it's hard for me to believe then that our actions don't have any effect on the people around us. We're not separate, atomized individuals. What we do in the bedroom is affected by various social norms and trends, whether it's how we view people of different races, our preferences towards fat people or skinny people, biases that we have — many of those are socially created.

When it comes to extreme sexual practices, for instance, there certainly are safe, private practitioners of extreme sexual acts whose preferences should be respected and whose business is their own. But you also have sex acts normalized by pornography ostensibly watched in the privacy of one's bedroom that are then enacted elsewhere. And a practice can become widespread and perhaps even consented to by some, but then be unfairly — or traumatically — expected of or pushed on others, and that is a social problem. As one person told me in an interview, "I went on a date with this guy and he choked me out of nowhere." But it didn't come out of nowhere, right? It came from somewhere. And so I think asking questions about how our desires are shaped in a societal context is still important.  

Social regulation is part of any society — but it poses less of a risk of oppression if it is guided by an ethic of truly caring about other people. We have to be careful to respect the human dignity of other people even as we're asking questions — remain corrigible when we make assumptions or suggest norms — but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be allowed to interrogate desire.

You have a quote in your book I really loved from Lori Gottlieb, about how the community "used to be the Greek chorus. 'You don't do this. This is what we do. These are our ethical rules.' If you have a bunch of mutual friends, you know you're going to be really careful about how you act because there are certain standards in the community around us." Like friends saying to each other, oh, that's the creepy guy who does bad stuff in the bedroom, don't sleep with that guy. Being in those communities is a good thing; it mediates our behavior.

I think we found, especially over the past couple of years, that loneliness is bad, that we want to be embedded in communities. We want to be responsible for people and have people who are responsible for us and care about us. And that can take extreme forms where you get to kind of public shaming, you know, pushing marginalized groups out of society. But in the best sense, you get communities of care where norms are openly stated, which is really helpful when you're trying to figure out how to organize your life. And I feel like that is the space that we should want our sexual culture to be in.

Many of the women interviewed in this book seemed to be going along with toxic cultural ideas of what is expected during sex, which often leads to semi-coerced or unpleasant encounters (which I think you very correctly point out is often a defense mechanism). One of the conclusions you come to is that we should have more intentional sex; what other ways you see that women can safely reassert their agency in intimate experiences?

So while I think that individually women should be more agential in their lives, that's not a complete solution, because this is a broad — as you say, cultural — problem that needs collective solutions.

One of the solutions, as we talked about before, is a stronger understanding of social norms and expectations of what it means when we have sex. That would make it easier for women to say, No, this isn't what we do, this thing you're asking me is not in fact acceptable, because they would have recourse to broadly understood norms. We need that for both women and men, frankly.

We also need to be a bit more honest with ourselves about what we actually think sex is, what we hope to get from it, what we really want, and what the power dynamics are. Because I think there's often a sort of self-deception involved where it's like, No, I definitely want this because having sex like this means I'm free and liberated. I'm getting this great experience — but is being free and liberated, having that great experience, actually what you want? Maybe you do want commitment. Maybe you do want to care. In which case, being honest about that with yourself and your partner could it help you make better choices and avoid those situations.

An overarching theme of the book is the problem that arises when a kind of consent-based standard is our only ethical standard for sex. So one broader solution would be for us as a society — not just women — to recognize that while consent is a great ethical floor, it was never meant to be the ceiling, and we need a higher standard for our encounters than just Did she consent, did I get the right kind of permission from her?

Because consent is just a legal question; it's not an ethical one, and it often comes down to who is best at fielding permissions. And it puts a real burden on women to say, well, the real problem here is that you just have to be a better agent, you have to be a better gatekeeper, you have to be the one who knows what your desires are moment-to-moment and in any circumstance, even maybe a confusing and intimate one. You have to be ready at any moment to stand up and say "yes" or "no." That is a high burden for women or anyone, really; as humans, our desires, emotions, are often not even clear to us in the moment. An ethic of shared responsibility, willing the good of the other and not just consent, would make that burden more evenly distributed.

There's a bit of a binary set up by your argument where "bad" sex — both in the sense of being not pleasurable and dissatisfying, but also morally wrong — stems from these preexisting assumptions, while great sex comes from genuine connection and shared presence and love.

But where do you think unimpressive or un-thrilling sex between two loving partners falls into this equation? Should we expect, you know, ahhhhh, heavenly-choir-sex from every sexual encounter?

There's sort of a cultural mismatch here where sex is supposed to be "amazing!" "the best thing ever!" "If you don't have it, you're missing out!" But then there are many individual instances of sex that are all different, and you have sex for a number of different reasons.

Even, I think, in less impressive, specific encounters, when those encounters are structured by a certain level of care, of empathy — that non-romantic definition of love that I talk about, "willing the good at the other" — there is far more likely to still be something good there.

Sex is not necessarily always about just the physical sensation, the five minutes of actual movement between two people. It's about something much larger, and our individual encounters and our overall approach to it add up to something bigger than each moment. So there's room for the lame sex that you have, or the maintenance sex. There's also room for encounters that are physically disappointing. But there's a very distinct difference between "This encounter wasn't physically perfect, but I still felt seen and cared for by this person," and, "This encounter was physically bad and also the person didn't care about me and this whole thing sucked and I regret it."

Is there anything else you would like people to know about Rethinking Sex?

The book is subtitled "A Provocation," and I should clarify that I did not mean it as a provocation in the sense that I'm trying to make people upset or mad. I am, perhaps, criticizing some choices, because I think that it's actually important as a society for us to be able to talk about ethics, about what's good and what's bad and where do you want to go, and the common good.

I wanted this to be a provocation to further conversation. The point is that we want to open the door. These conversations about what sex is about, what sex means to us, about how should treat each other — rather than just, you know, living at the retreat line that we're at now, where it's like, well, as long as you consented ...

To create a good society and a good sexual culture, I think it is time to really begin to take stock of what we wanted from the feminist movement, and then the sexual revolution; where we want it to go; and where we've ended up. To think about the assumptions and norms that we've accepted that may or may not be true, and may not be serving us well. And talk about them and have a conversation so we can get to a better place overall.

And this is the "Rethinking Sex." This is the provocation that I'm really hoping for.

You can order Rethinking Sex: A Provocation here.

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