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.