Author Barbara Ehrenreich Revisits Her 1987 Look at the Future of SexS

The January 1987 issue of the legendary (and sadly, now defunct) Omni magazine included predictions from 14 "great minds" about what the world might look like in twenty years. By the year 2007, musician David Byrne believed that computers would do little for future musicians outside of their bookkeeping. Noted rich guy Bill Gates wondered how much stimulation (read: overstimulation) people of the future might be able to handle. And feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich predicted that by the 21st century, ideas about sexual dysfunction and what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship will have changed dramatically.

I sent Ehrenreich an email to ask about her predictions. She responded with a note that the short piece attributed to her in Omni looked like something that was taken from an interview, rather than something she wrote. Either way, it's a fascinating (and rather prescient) look at the future of sex and relationships from the perspective of the 1980s.

Here's what she had to say a quarter century ago:

Sex will continue to be on center stage in the next 20 years. There are good reasons for that. It's only recently that large numbers of people have begun to think of sex as a pleasurable part of their lives, quite apart from some function such as reproduction. For many years we've had birth control, but the realization that sex can be something that is not connected to some other purpose in life is just gaining hold. People are understanding their own particular sexual needs for the first time.

A redefinition of heterosexual sex is occurring in which sex will be less bound to genital interaction. It's no longer just foreplay plus intercourse. The women's sexual revolution declared that women were not getting enough pleasure, and what is evolving is a much more varied kind of encounter that does not have to culminate in penetration and ejaculation by the man.

Our present notions of sexual dysfunction will look archaic in 20 years. It will seem incredible that all of our notions of sexual dysfunction came from a narrow notion of sex centered on intercourse.

We will, of course, continue to move away from a medical model of sexuality, which separates sexual activity into normal patterns over here and the dysfunctions or the illnesses over there. As we develop a broader definition of sexuality, it will appear particularly quaint to talk about dys- functions.

We won't rely on doctors or sexologists to define the problems or provide the answers. The biggest change in sex in the last 20 years has been that ordinary lay-people have begun to write about their experiences and have begun to introduce the subjective element.

In 20 years more people are going to have long periods of time when they are not in a marriage or other long-term sexual relationship. They should have options that do not depend on getting emotionally involved. You just might want to rent an exciting videotape instead of having an affair. I also think the sex-products industry will become important to people in monogamous marriage relationships and help keep those relationships together by an active interest in sexual possibilities.

There are issues that barely have been uncovered or discussed during the recent so-called sexual revolution. Why does our culture limit the idea of what is sexually attractive? Why do we limit it to people who are young and pretty in a conventional way? How do we begin to change that so that the possibility of being a sexually assertive person is open to all of us who fall outside the bounds of conventional attractiveness? American culture is already showing that its members are not ready to be asexual when they're fifty.

Twenty years ago I really believed that by this time we would be a much more egalitarian society. I really believed that by 1987 we wouldn't have about 20 percent of our own citizens in a state of poverty. In 20 years we have gone backward.

In response to how accurate she thinks her prediction was, Ehrenreich said, "I think was more or less right. Look at gay marriage!"

And aside from some minor nitpicking about the technology behind the "rent an exciting videotape" part, it does seem like she got a lot right. The most notable absentee is internet porn, and who could've predicted that before the world wide web even existed?