Walking over to the McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho on a Thursday night, I was already getting nervous. I was assigned by my professor to go to this reading event, Future Sex by Emily Witt, with some of my classmates. He challenged us to try to mingle with the crowd there together, to help each other if any of us got shy. After all, as aspiring writers, it was important for our careers to start interacting with the literary sphere. But as an anxiety-prone girl who was already regretting wearing her high-heeled boots in cobblestoned Soho, who was already aware of strangers who might catch sight of her stumbles, who was already dreading the implications of the word “mingle,” I decided that this was an impossible task.
I hate meeting strangers, I hate walking into rooms of strangers, and I hate it when I’m only equipped with three acquaintances (classmates, practically almost-strangers) to face this danger. You can never tell what strangers are thinking—if they care for a conversation, if they care to hear your opinion, or if they would rather be left alone. Acquaintances are a little better, but they usually only engage in small talk before staring elsewhere or looking at their phones, pretending they have something else to do so they don’t have to invest in a potentially awkward conversation. I hate meeting strangers because I doubt that any of them actually want to meet me. I hate relying on acquaintances, because I doubt that they’re capable of helping me.
By the time I got to the bookstore, half of the basement was packed with people seated in chairs while the other half was crowded with people standing and squeezing between bookcases, peering over the edges to look in the direction of the author, who was sitting in the front. I was lucky enough to grab a chair with one classmate, while the other two were left to stand. I felt like a selfish idiot for not thinking to save seats for them. I tried to talk about this with the classmate sitting next to me but not a lot could be said on this topic. She tried to engage with some smiles and nice comments, but in the end we still ended up on our phones, thumbing through texts we didn’t really have to read. It’s amazing how alone we can all act and feel in a crowded room full of people.
As the reading event started, I realized that this was not so much a reading as much as it was an interview. The interviewer did not ask author Emily Witt to read anything from her book but instead asked her questions based on the assumption the audience already knew what the book was about. I didn’t like that he went off this assumption since, as an irresponsible college student, I had forgotten to reread the summary I found online weeks prior. Within the first twenty minutes, I eventually pieced together that Future Sex was about the millennial approach to sex and how the internet specifically has shaped this approach.
At first I didn’t think I could hear Witt very well, but once I tuned into her quiet voice, I decided that she was sweet and shy. She talked about how in her research for her book she came to develop a positive view for unconventional modes of enjoying sex. For example, she met people who took part in polyamorous relationships, and recorded how they were able to do this in a healthy way. As a feminist who used to condemn porn because of its abusive portrayal of women, she also came to see porn as an educational and even necessary tool since it teaches people about their sexual preferences. She noted that perhaps because we millennials grew up with internet porn as well as concepts of therapy, we have developed a healthy way to engage in various sexual activities that in the past would be perceived as an act of rebellion against society. I thought she was making a fascinating observation and I was offended for Witt as I watched a handful of people slowly trickle out of the reading.
Witt also shared that prior to writing her book, she had been very inexperienced with sex. Future Sex forced her to go places she never thought she would find herself, such as signing up for an orgasmic meditation session. She was so embarrassed to even write the book that she moved out of New York City just so she could get away from her prying family and friends. “I’m still embarrassed, I’m embarrassed right now,” she admitted with a small laugh.
I was curious as to why she would want to write about a subject she was clearly uncomfortable with in the first place. Lucky for me, someone else asked the question so I never had to raise my hand. She answered that she wrote Future Sex for a couple of reasons: 1) she read a book about the sex revolution in America and she felt inspired, 2) she wanted to quit her day job and be a writer, and 3) she thought her discomfort and shyness could be an asset to her book because most readers would be able to relate to her sense of reserve. Her last answer struck me the most, because it reminded me that discomfort really is a universal feeling. Witt was uncomfortable exploring a realm of such extreme social intimacy, something we could all understand. She was also uncomfortable writing this book, publishing it, and even speaking about it during her event. Still, Future Sex led her to new places. It led her away from her old job, her home, and her previous opinions about sex, to experiences that enriched her understanding about the subject. Taking direction of your life means having to face your discomfort. You have to push past it to achieve your goals. It’s a lesson I’ve heard of before but hearing it again expressed by a published author, whose light, nervous laughs were the kind I could sympathize with, gave me hope for my own aspirations as a writer. Maybe attending reading events was one of the first, necessary steps.
When the interview was over, the room was abuzz again with murmuring people. People got up from their chairs. People swarmed one way or another. I got tense because I was amidst people again and awkwardly scrambling to get out of people’s way. “I guess we should mingle now?” I said to my classmates, who shrugged, perhaps feeling just as stifled for words as I did. I looked around the room, seeing people naturally pair up for conversations. I looked over to Witt who was signing books. I considered buying a book. I considered getting it signed. I considered talking to Witt, telling her how I appreciated the interview she gave and that she inspired me as a fellow, shy writer. But my mind made some excuses. I hate spending money. I hate committing to a new book when I already have many others to finish. I hate talking to strangers, especially famous and successful and published and therefore intimidating strangers. And I hate looking like a suck-up. No one likes a suck-up.
While I was having my dilemma, one of my classmates said he had to leave, and another agreed she should go too. So I finally made my decision: “Okay, I’ll leave with you guys.” My classmates asked me if I was sure. I said yes, because I preferred following a group of acquaintances than doing things on my own. I think that most of all, I hate feeling alone. – Eunice