Christine Emba speaks at Georgetown University on March 28, 2022 (CNS photo/Art Pittman, courtesy Georgetown University).

We have seen, as of late, a surfeit of books and articles about the reconfiguration, the reimagining, the regrounding of sex. The philosopher Amia Srinivasan asks whether there is a “right to sex,” and culture blogs conduct interviews with twenty-somethings who breathlessly insist that they have somehow made monogamy radical. Christine Emba has been part of these conversations: the Washington Post columnist has written a number of columns and short essays over the past several years that attempt to sift through both her own thoughts about sex and the experiences of others. The most persistent note in her work has been the profound dissatisfaction that young people, and especially young women, feel about their sex lives and past sexual experiences. She organizes and systematizes these thoughts in her book Rethinking Sex. How, she asks, can we rethink our assumptions about sex in order to make our encounters not merely consensual but good in every dimension?

Emba is a conscientious writer, aware both of the scope of her project and of the limitations of any single author’s perspective. She acknowledges that she will concentrate on the difficulties faced by women who have sex primarily or exclusively with men, both because this is the perspective that she knows best and because of the ways in which the social scripts of heterosexuality inescapably structure the sex lives of everyone else, heterosexual or not. She also argues—and her evidence puts her argument beyond serious doubt—that women are far and away the more aggrieved and more often aggrieved parties in these encounters, which is perhaps the most compelling reason for focusing on them. A great many people are quite unhappy in what we generally agree is an important part of their lives, and the cause of that unhappiness is worth investigating on those grounds alone.

A great many people are quite unhappy in what we generally agree is an important part of their lives, and the cause of that unhappiness is worth investigating on those grounds alone.

Emba lays out the problem thus: the sexual revolution did indeed liberate sexuality in the sense that it removed many of the barriers to saying “yes” to sex that had traditionally constrained people and had disproportionately constrained women. What it did not do is address the many reasons why a person, especially a woman, might still want to say “no.” Women now face much less social opprobrium for having sex, but even with the widespread availability of contraception they still bear far more of the risk of sex than men do, and the cultural imaginary that informs our conception of normal and acceptable sexual activity is shaped by a profit-seeking porn industry that caters primarily to the fantasies of men. Women have far more leeway to have sex with men—and face a great deal of cultural pressure to do so, even if only to lay claim to some worldly seasoning—but they seem to have no more positive reasons for doing so than before. Even the appeal of sex itself is often reduced, because porn has brought previously unusual and extreme sex acts into the mainstream of straight men’s expectations. The result of this is that many straight women have come to dislike dating, and remaining single (and celibate) seems a lot more appealing. Men are affected by this as well: both men and women report feeling that their dates regarded them as disposable, and both report treating other people as disposable too. We need, Emba contends, an erotic ressourcement, a rethinking of sex down to its roots. We need a sexual ethic that is more grounded in the social and bodily particularities of men and women and that rejects a “throwaway culture” that treats people as objects. Only this radical reimagining can give us a culture of sex that respects the personhood of everyone involved.

The project is ambitious, and Emba doesn’t pretend to offer more than a start. To her credit, she does not allow herself the luxury of detachment. It would be easy to let her interview subjects’ experiences to do all of the talking without risking anything herself. Such a position would be safer, but it would also implicate her in a kind of documentary voyeurism. She opts instead to share her own experiences alongside those of her subjects, and her choice pays off admirably: a reader cannot help but agree that something is wrong with the way we think about sex, and that correcting this wrong demands more than a change in terminology or an adjustment to high-school sex-ed curricula.


We need, Emba contends, an erotic ressourcement, a rethinking of sex down to its roots.

But establishing that something is wrong is only the first part of the argument, and Emba’s attempts to begin thinking about a solution often seem more like intellectual gestures than the foundations of an argument. This is most visible in her chapter on men’s and women’s difference, which attempts to grapple simultaneously with biology, socialization, and structural sexism under the umbrella of “difference.” The chapter culminates in a rough recapitulation of the argument first posed by the likes of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon: that the supposedly equal parties consenting to heterosexual sex are in fact not equal at all, and women are always-already coerced before sex is even on the table.

If this is true—and I think any serious consideration of the evidence thoroughly vindicates Dworkin and MacKinnon—then the problem is already well beyond the scope of anything that a different sexual ethic can remedy unless we are prepared to follow Dworkin, MacKinnon, Angela Davis, and so many other feminist thinkers into expanding our sexual ethic to include a sweeping commitment to radical political change. A political situation characterized by the presence of oppressed and oppressor classes—for this is precisely what Emba suggests by the constant presence of material and social coercion in women’s sexual lives—will not be ameliorated by more considerate or courteous relations between them. There can be no ethical way for men to relate to women in such circumstances apart from a firm and conscious commitment to ending this inequality. But Emba does not demand such commitment, and what sort of solution she envisions is not clear. It has something to do with willing the good of the other, moral attention, and empathy. All these are good things in themselves, and good to apply to our sex lives; they also do very little to address the real constraints that women face.

It is in Emba’s last chapter, where she begins to outline an answer, that the more serious flaws in her argument show themselves. After discussing several young women’s positive experiences waiting to have sex or deciding not to have sex for a while, she poses two questions: “What if the answer was to have less casual sex? For that matter, what if the answer was to have sex under the standard of love?” Taking the relationship between these questions for granted is a failure of critical attention on Emba’s part. That casual sex—that is, sex outside a lasting relationship commitment—cannot take place under the standard of love—that is, as part of willing the good of the other—is not obvious. In an essay titled “What Is Sex For?”, David M. Halperin has argued that sex may aim inescapably at love even in the anonymous context of gay bathhouses, and indeed that the anonymity and social leveling of such places makes this aim more apparent rather than less. Whatever one thinks of that argument, Halpern’s critique exposes the diversity of meanings that sex can bear even within distinct and bounded communities, and in so doing demands that we all think more deeply and critically about the limitations of our own contexts.

That casual sex—that is, sex outside a lasting relationship commitment—cannot take place under the standard of love—that is, as part of willing the good of the other—is not obvious.

Indeed, it seems to me that a critical attitude toward context must be the basis of any sound sexual ethic, whether Catholic or otherwise. As Gareth Moore, OP, observes in his superb book on sexuality, The Body in Context (2004), our sexual acts are communicative but they are not propositional: they aren’t part of the system of signs called language and so can’t carry the same kind of immediate meaning, but they exist alongside language as gestures that can mean a great deal in particular circumstances. A pair of lovers might have sex after an exhausting fight in order to signal that the fight is over and all is forgiven, while lovers who parted as friends might have sex upon seeing one another again years later in order to show that their delight in one another is undiminished. It seems impossible to contend that the former wills the good of the other while the latter does not, and it would require undignified intellectual contortions to argue that two people who have sex as a fond gesture of remembered affection are treating one another as disposable. Nor is a commitment to permanence a guard against ongoing daily exploitation. That said, there are many good reasons for not having casual sex: we may be aiming at a higher good by following religious prohibitions, or guarding ourselves against sudden emotional attachments, or simply keeping a promise to someone we care about. But to pretend that people cannot make such gestures out of love is both foolish and unproductive. Emba’s discussion identifies real, pressing concerns that demand to be addressed: the fact of casual sex is not one of them.

Far from undermining Emba’s case, I think that Moore’s insistence on the gestural status of sex helps refocus attention on the problem: the context in which many women are having casual sex makes it impossible for them to do so “under the standard of love”—that is, in a way that shows love both for themselves and for their partners. Prolonged abstention may very well be the only loving sexual response to such circumstances, but it is the circumstances that ultimately need to be changed. Halperin’s “What Is Sex For?” illuminates an essential point: other contexts, with other ways for sex to mean something, are possible, and in fact are already here. They may not be what Emba has in mind because they do not allow sex to bear the sort of love that Emba would like it to, but their existence should inoculate us against the kind of pessimism about sex that she describes in her second chapter. Like many gay people, I will happily agree that something about heterosexuality is broken…but it doesn’t need to be. It is possible, and indeed for Christians it is absolutely necessary, to build a political world in which men and women are genuinely equal—in which no unspoken distinction is made between the worth of men’s and women’s wants and needs and through which we can better see the abolition of social distinction to which St. Paul calls us. We are not yet there: there is still “Jew and Greek,” the divide of ethnicity; there is still “bond and free,” the divide of social caste; and there is still “male and female,” the division of gender. In all these we set one kind of person over another. But Christ is among us, and so we know that the abolition of human division is real and working itself out. Christine Emba has written a book that underscores the need for that work to continue.

Rethinking Sex
A Provocation

Christine Emba
$27 | 224 pp.

Daniel Walden is a writer and classicist. He spends his time thinking about Homeric philology, Catholic socialism, musical theater, and the Michigan Wolverines.

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Published in the December 2022 issue: View Contents
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