Sex After the Revolution

This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed about a slightly different topic than their typical fare; sex. Columnist Bill McGurn writes;

“For dads with daughters, the question can be particularly disquieting as we contemplate a sexual revolution that has lost sight of any boundaries. In theory it’s all gloriously empowering. But for those who regard human sexuality as a profound gift, and la différence as a key to appreciating this gift, it’s astonishing how judgments that would have been elementary to our great-great-grandmothers today elude the most privileged and well-educated.

…I know any number of accomplished women who are not prudes, who want to be more than someone’s Tinder swipe and who are looking for full and worthy partners. When these women relate the reality of modern courtship—how so many first dates end with the man making clear that not jumping into bed with him means no second date—let’s just say “empowering” is not the first word that comes to mind.”

As McGurn alludes to, those of us who grew up in the post-sexual revolution age, feel most acutely some of its false promises. Dating apps like Tinder allow young single people today more sexual choice than perhaps ever before in history. I can sit in a bar in Manhattan and have a seemingly endless stream of eligible women presented to me via my phone.

Being the kind of person I am, I often wonder when I look at a dating profile about the real person behind the carefully selected images. Everyone who uses any dating app (or social media for that matter) is presenting a caricature of themselves, a “best version”. You have six pictures and some 300 odd characters to convince a potential partner to swipe right. (My old tinder profile pictured below for your entertainment & derision).

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A quality image upfront to differentiate from all the blurry cell phone pictures, an obscure movie reference that plays double duty as being intriguing to a certain kind of person even if they don’t get it, include your job since it sounds important. We’re advertising ourselves- and in case that wasn’t self-evident, there is a cottage industry popping up of people promising to help you design your profile to get more matches. Marketing consultants for dating app profiles, what a world.

But I wonder, sometimes, what’s behind the caricature. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of profiles and forget each of those profiles is a person. I’ve been privileged in my life to have had some very close female friends- and I’ve seen some of the damage wrought, it seems disproportionately on young women, by millennial’s muddled culture of swipes, hookups, and romantic partners we’re “talking to” (not dating).

Famed feminist Camille Paglie writes in Sexual Personae;

At some level, all love is combat, a wrestling with ghosts. We are only for something by being against something else. People who believe they are having pleasant, casual, uncomplex sexual encounters, whether with friend, spouse, or stranger, are blocking from consciousness the tangle of psychodynamics at work, just as they block the hostile clashings of their dream life.” (p. 14)

We refuse to acknowledge the internal emotional combat that underscores romantic and sexual relationships. We mouth lies to ourselves hoping if we repeat “it’s just a casual thing”, “just a fling”, “just having fun”, enough maybe we’ll begin to actually believe it. We don’t want to acknowledge that physical and emotional intimacy cuts to our core. Who you’d like to have sex with, when, under what conditions, is of course up to you. I’m not here to prognosticate on that right now. But the lie that it means nothing more than physical pleasure is silly and self-evidently false.

The lack of clear societal boundaries or standards for romantic relationships has left my generation wandering alone in the dark since adolescence. We were “freed” of “oppressive” and arbitrary standards by the sexual revolution, and simultaneously enslaved. In the cult of casual relationships, women have sex with their partners earlier than they may otherwise choose to because they fear if they don’t they won’t be able to keep them around. Men are similarly hopelessly marooned, unable to navigate the romantic requirements of modern women, and many give up entirely. Paraphrasing McGurn; facts about sex, romance, and appropriate behavior in both those areas that were self-evident to our grandparents allude many young people.

I began to think about this when during college I asked a woman (who I would later date) out to dinner, on a traditional first date (the kind I only knew of through movies). While we were out, we both remarked on how people our age didn’t really “do” dates anymore. Simply not done. The courting process for young people is unimaginably convoluted. It’s something like you “hang out” in group settings, carefully manage social media interactions across multiple platforms, and conversations filled with innuendo. You both play a game for as long as you can possibly bear it of competing as to who can be the most indifferent. You’ll play it off to friends “oh her? We’re just hanging out, we’ll see what happens”, even if you’re completely enamored.

There was some comfort in societal tropes or “rules of thumb”- the “three date rule”, or prohibitions against pre-marital sex, or just the expectation of a “date” at all as a prelude to a relationship. At the very least it gave everyone a common understanding from which to proceed. Now it’s every man and woman for his or herself. Every new partner is a new sub-textual negotiation over expectations from the first interaction. With the rapid expansion of choice in the dating arena, there’s a constant temptation to run at the first sign of friction since, there are thousands of other singles only a swipe or click away.

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