Everyone knows that electronic romance is less real than the kind you forge through personal contact.
Everyone, that is, except Katie Roiphe. Perhaps she was trying to be contrary; perhaps she was trying to reduce an idea to its absurd extreme; perhaps she does not much care about human connections; perhaps she was craving attention.
Whatever the reason, Roiphe’s suggestion that internet romance is more real than the other kind marks her as an unserious thinker.
Here’s her idea, in her words:
Lately there has been a great deal of public handwringing about whether the temptations of Internet communication have corrupted our ability to forge normal or healthy or real relationships (whatever those might mean).
There is an idea floating around that words or photographs don’t “count” in a way that touching counts, or sitting around together having a cup of coffee counts, but this seems naive, or overly simple.
Allow me to refer back to the work that MIT Professor Sherry Turkle has done on his topic, most recently in her book Alone Together. My comments on it and the topic here.
Turkle offered the picture of a group of teenagers sitting around a dinner table, each furiously texting on his or her iPhone, not one of them deigning to converse with another.
They text, Turkle suggested, because they do not know how to converse. Thereby, their relationships are impoverished and they are become desperate for any form of human connection. Some even call it love.
Assuming that Roiphe really means it when she says that online romance is the real thing, we are within or rights to ask what she means by online romance.
Here’s her description of something she believes to be a love connection:
A married man sees a friend for dinner when visiting a city. Afterward, via email, he confesses his feelings for her. (We talk about liquid courage, but what about screen courage? For many people the screen dissolves inhibitions. They are protected by the workable illusion that it is just them and their screen, and that everything under the sun turns on and off with a click.) Anyway, this man very quickly launches into explicit fantasies via email. His friend tries to tell him nicely that she is not interested in an affair. He sends her 10-15 emails a day. Is this real? Or does the theoretical nature, the pure crack-cocaine fantasy of the thing disqualify it from the reciprocal physical entity we would think of as an authentic romantic connection? Is he cheating on his wife? Or just toying with fantasy as one does in dreams?
You do not have to be too wise in the ways of the world to know that this is not real romance: it’s harassment. A dozen emails a day containing sexually explicit fantasies is not a sign of true love. It is not a romantic gesture. At best, it is desperate; at worst, it is threatening.
The man is not “toying with fantasy”—a regrettable and meaningless phrase—he is toying with her. He expresses no interest in her; he does not care what she feels; he is using her for reasons that do not need to be made explicit here.
Take another of Roiphe’s examples, even more pathetic than the first:
In another example drawn from life, a married banker, sort of a modern Updike- character type, restless, with tiny children, at home in the suburbs, sends a Facebook friend request to a writer whose work he likes. She accepts, and he sends her a message saying, “thanks for accepting. It made me nervous to send that request.” She writes back, “Why nervous?” And he writes, “The usual psychosexual married man reasons.” Pretty quickly after that he launches into a graphic fantasy about her. Not the real her, as he had never met her in life, though they have friends in common, and could very easily have met at a party, but his idea of her. This is even less threatening to the family in that house in the suburbs than the previous example. The writer is a total stranger. They will never meet. But it is not quite the same as a dream, which we would all agree is innocent, because there is, however abstractly, another person there.
A man who sends a message to someone he does not know describing a graphic sexual fantasy about her is not in love. He is not interested in making a human connection.
At best, he is inviting her to act a role in his fantasy. At worst, he gets off on threatening women.
Roiphe’s assurance that the two will never meet does not ring very true. What if the man decides to meet up with his fantasy girl, the better to enact his fantasies? What if he does not care whether she likes it or not? Doesn’t his mode of communication suggest that he is completely unconcerned with her feelings?
If that is anyone’s idea of love and romance, I recommend that they get some help.
Here’s another real story, one that I heard several years ago at a social event. It shows the danger that lurks in Roiphe’s bad idea.
A 16-year-old French girl developed an online romance with a 16- year-old boy who lived in Argentina. They exchanged pictures and messages to the point where the girl was convinced that she had found true love. One day she picked up and flew to Argentina, only to discover, upon arriving, that the boy in question was really a 40-year-old woman.
Why are online relationships less real than offline relationships? Let me count the ways.
When you develop a relationship with someone you met online you know nothing more about the person than what he has offered. You do not know whether the words he writes are his or someone else’s. You do not know whether he means it or is just saying it in order to manipulate you. You do not know whether the picture he is posting is really of him.
A real conversation with a flesh-and-blood human being involves multiple levels of communication: words, voices and gestures. Online communication removes all but the words.
If you choose to get involved with a stranger you met online you are flying blind.
Roiphe is right about one thing: “the screen dissolves inhibitions.” Being anonymous and being at a distance allows you to say things you would never say to a living, breathing human being who is sharing dinner or a sofa with you.
I know that the therapy culture tells people that their true feelings are the ones they are hiding, to themselves or others. I suspect that the opposite is true: if you can’t say it to someone’s face then it's not really you.
The fact that an especially salacious fantasy is flitting across your mind does not mean that you own it or that you need to act on it.
Roiphe seems to suggest that true love involves disrespectfully sharing grotesque and gross fantasies? Why would anyone believe such a thing?
For all she knows the men are copying the fantasies from a book. If they did not copy them from a book, perhaps they gleaned them from porn sites.
In today’s modern world men watch internet porn. It gives them ideas. If they watch too much they will become trapped in the virtual world of virtual sex and become desensitized to real stimuli.
They might even arrive at a point where the only way they can get aroused is to think that they are acting out something they saw on YouPorn.
If a man has a shred of dignity left he may well respect his wife too much to share them with her. Were he to do so he would be embarrassing himself and diminishing her. Better to hide behind a mask of anonymity and foist it on a naïve and unsuspecting writer.