Since April 2007, New York magazine has posted online sex diaries. People send in personal accounts of their nighttime quests and conquests. Some of the diaries are unusual and sad. There’s a laid-off banker who drinks herself into oblivion and wakes up in the beds of unfamiliar men. There’s an African-American securities trader who flies around the country on weekends to meet with couples seeking interracial sex. (He meets one Midwestern couple at a T.G.I. Friday’s.)
But the most interesting part of the diaries concerns the way cell phones have influenced courtship. On nights when they are out, the diarists are often texting multiple possible partners in search of the best arrangement.
As the journalist Wesley Yang notes in a very intelligent analysis in the magazine, the diarists “use their cell phones to disaggregate, slice up, and repackage their emotional and physical needs, servicing each with a different partner, and hoping to come out ahead.”
Often the diarists will be on the verge of spending the evening with one partner, when a text arrives from another with a potentially better offer. To guard against not being chosen at all, Yang writes, “everyone is on somebody’s back-burner, and everybody has a back-burner of their own, which they maintain with open-ended texts.”
The atmosphere is fluid, like an eBay auction. This leads to a series of marketing strategies. You don’t want to appear too enthusiastic. You want to invent detached nicknames for partners. “Make plans to spend day with the One Who Cries,” a paralegal, 26, from the East Village of New York City writes. You want to appear bulletproof as you move confidently through the transactions. “I have a Stage Five Clinger on my hands,” a TV producer writes. “He asks me to hang out again this coming Sunday. I do not respond.”
People who send in sex diaries to a magazine are not representative of average Americans. But the interplay between technology and hook-ups will be familiar to a wide swath of young Americans. It illustrates an interesting roadblock in the country’s social evolution.
Once upon a time — in what we might think of as the “Happy Days” era — courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts — dating, going steady, delaying sex — was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.
Over the past few decades, these social scripts became obsolete. They didn’t fit the post-feminist era. So the search was on for more enlightened courtship rules. You would expect a dynamic society to come up with appropriate scripts. But technology has made this extremely difficult. Etiquette is all about obstacles and restraint. But technology, especially cell phone and texting technology, dissolves obstacles. Suitors now contact each other in an instantaneous, frictionless sphere separated from larger social institutions and commitments.
People are thus thrown back on themselves. They are free agents in a competitive arena marked by ambiguous relationships. Social life comes to resemble economics, with people enmeshed in blizzards of supply and demand signals amidst a universe of potential partners.
The opportunity to contact many people at once seems to encourage compartmentalization, as people try to establish different kinds of romantic attachments with different people at the same time.
It seems to encourage an attitude of contingency. If you have several options perpetually before you, and if technology makes it easier to jump from one option to another, you will naturally adopt the mentality of a comparison shopper.
It also seems to encourage an atmosphere of general disenchantment. Across the centuries the moral systems from medieval chivalry to Bruce Springsteen love anthems have worked the same basic way. They take immediate selfish interests and enmesh them within transcendent, spiritual meanings. Love becomes a holy cause, an act of self-sacrifice and selfless commitment.
But texting and the utilitarian mind-set are naturally corrosive toward poetry and imagination. A coat of ironic detachment is required for anyone who hopes to withstand the brutal feedback of the marketplace. In today’s world, the choice of a Prius can be a more sanctified act that the choice of an erotic partner.
This does not mean that young people today are worse or shallower than young people in the past. It does mean they get less help. People once lived within a pattern of being, which educated the emotions, guided the temporary toward the permanent and linked everyday urges to higher things. The accumulated wisdom of the community steered couples as they tried to earn each other’s commitment.
Today there are fewer norms that guide in that way. Today’s technology seems to threaten the sort of recurring and stable reciprocity that is the building block of trust.