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Rethinking Sex with Christine Emba
Emba offers permission to be unhappy
This week, I have an interview with Christine Emba, about her new book on the state of our sexual ethics. For Catholic readers, I recently appeared on the “Made for Love” podcast from the USCCB, and I recommend signing FemCatholic’s petition to the USCCB, asking for all diocese to offer paid parental leave.
It was my pleasure to get to have a conversation with Christine Emba of The Washington Post about her new book, Rethinking Sex: A Provocation.
Christine is interested in what’s left out of a consent-focused sexual ethics. Consent is necessary but not sufficient to treat other people (and yourself) with respect and care.
I’ve embedded the video of our conversation below, and I’ve also published a condensed version of part of our conversation at the Institute for Family Studies today, as part of their “Five Questions for…” series. I’ve made a (marginally!) cleaned up transcript available here.
And, below the video, I have an excerpt from the longer transcript about a sex-ed conversation that stuck with me.
There was a This American Life story years ago that really stood out to me. There were a bunch of frat guys who wanted to be good partners to the girls they knew, and were watching porn to do it right. Not just for gratification but as homework.
And I remember one of the boys had been asking the other guys in the frat what to do to be good at sex. Someone told him, “Women like it if you nibble on their ear.” [nb: I looked it up afterwards and it was kissing on the neck] He followed the advice and a girl said she didn't like it. He's like, “I don't understand, I asked what to do!”
There’s that sense of just having generic sex with women, rather than you're having sex with a particular person. You can't be generically good at sex. You can't just ask someone “All right, what are the steps I follow and then sex will have happened successfully?” But I think both men and women have the sense of “I'm not learning this person. I'm learning sex and then I'm just doing sex to this person or with this person.”
One of the stories that really stood from your book was heartbreaking. There was that tipsy girl who comes up to you at a party and says she's got this great boyfriend. He's really sensitive. She likes him, but she doesn't like that he chokes her during sex. She tells you that she doesn't want to be unreasonable.
And she's got the sense that somehow it would be unfair or unreasonable or sex-negative just to say, “I don't like being choked during sex.” She comes up to you, Christine, who in my recollection she does not know, right? And your book is in some ways doing what you're doing for that girl at the party. It's a permission slip of “You're allowed to be unhappy about these things.”
But why was she coming to you at a party? Why do people feel like they don't have any place to go to ask for permission to dislike the sex they're having? Why is permission so hard for them to find?
That's a really good question too. I would agree that was one of the more poignant moments in writing this book because at the time, talking to that woman, it wasn't book research that I was doing on purpose. I was at a party in DC, a Christmas party where everybody was drinking terrible mulled wine and you know you start having weird conversations with people.
And I mentioned I was working on this book. This girl immediately tugged me over. Because she thought something like, “She's writing a book, so I guess she has authority to tell me that I can do this.”
And it was just depressing and sad. At the time I wasn't sure what to say because I don't know you. I don't know this person. It also feels sad that, you’d feel like you have to ask permission to your own feelings about a thing that is sort of obviously bad: that a man would choke you in your most intimate moments. This is a cultural problem. We have this idea that you know sex should be good, that we should be good at sex. That consent legitimates any kind of sex that we have.
And then there’s also this idea that preferences are immutable. Every sexual preference that somebody has needs to be respected and maybe even celebrated. Instead of saying “Some preferences are better or worse than others,” we respond, “Well, Don't yuck their yum.”
And so it begins to feel like to be a good person, you have to just accept things. You can't criticize or critique.
I find it so striking because I don't even assume her boyfriend enjoys choking her. People are so bereft of scripts you can wind up in a situation where both people are performing the sex they think is good sex while neither of them enjoys it.