Monday, October 26, 2009

The New Sex and/or Dating Game

Those of you who do not live in New York may not have read New York Magazine's "Sex Diaries."

This feature allows an everyday twenty-something New Yorker to share his or her week's worth of sexual and/or dating experiences.

The columns have some entertainment value, but since the writers are self-selected, it would be a stretch to draw larger conclusions from their testimonials. Moreover, real people engaging in real conversations rarely offer the level of explicit detail that are a staple of these columns. I suspect that this applies even to twenty-somethings.

Dare I say that today's younger generation has an experience of sex that seems to be wildly at odds with that of those of us who are of a more advanced age. For this reason, the rest of us are intrigued by what is going on among today's youth, almost as though it were something out of science fiction.

Now New York Magazine assigned Wesley Yang to read through all of the columns and to attempt something like a psychosocial analysis. He did a great job. I recommend his cover article to your attention, no matter what your age or proclivities. Link here.

If you are a twenty-something lost in New York's sexual funhouse, you probably have even more of a reason to cast a dispassionate eye on this phenomenon.

As I read it, Yang is painting a portrait of modern anomie. He identifies the anxiety and despair that accompany the effort to live out your sexuality as though it were more virtual than real.

What could possibly be problematical about this free and open expression of human sexuality? For one thing, as Yang puts it, there are too many choices, too many opportunities for too many sexual experiences with a maddeningly large number of possible partners.

Too many choices create a fear of making the wrong choice, accompanied by a fear of not being chosen. When the opportunities are boundless, your duty to fulfill your responsibilities becomes erased by the chance that you might find someone or something better. I am surely not taking any conceptual liberties to say that the situation throws young people into a state of anomie.

From there Yang explains that players in this game have to learn what to do with the emotional component that would accompany normal human interactions. Emotion seems to be an unwanted intruder, one that drags people away from the virtual world back into the real world, generally destroying the fun.

To become an avatar you must sacrifice sincerity, emotion, and vulnerability. Otherwise you will be expelled from the game.

We should not be surprised, as Yang puts it, that this virtual reality has taken over the lives of many participants, to the point that it has produced something like: "an internet-enabled agoraphobia."

How did young people get to this point? Yang credits pornography, or better, the fact that young people today get their sex education from porn. Young people today did not learn about sex in the steamy backseat of someone's car.

Moreover, if porn is the new norm for sex, then it makes sense that young people would consider porn something to live up to, to emulate, to imitate.

And given that porn involves full exposure, that complete immodesty is not only possible, but desirable, young people have come to believe that modesty is bad because it equals repression.

Thus, the sex diarists make it a point to be far more explicit than anyone would be in normal conversation. Yang is most intrigued by the women who write in, openly and honestly, expressing an attitude that suggests that they do not value their intimacy very highly. Where women in the past have found pornography and promiscuity to be inimical to their interests, female sex diarists seem to have no such feelings.

Yang is also correct to see that people are engaging in these sexual experiences for the entertainment value. They make for good stories and almost inaugurate a new literary genre, one that owes its inspiration to the language of texting.

In this hook-up culture sex is virtual and human connection is hanging on for dear life. People who play this new sex and/or dating game do not connect on anything like a human level. This produces what Yang calls "separation anxiety." I like his use of irony and would simply add that your need to connect with other human beings is not negated by your willingness to act as though you had become your own avatar. Technology has not yet caused the repeal of human nature.

Yang's last point is poignant and insightful. The people who are playing these games are in despair of ever being able to love.

Despite it all, the sex diarists seem still to be searching for love and relationships. The problem is that the game has wounded them so often and so deeply that they despair of ever finding it.

Finding love involves healing the wounds of this new game. To do that, they would do well to start getting real.

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