Thumb War:  Sexual Revolution in the Digital Age

So, is the sexual revolution over?  If so, who won?

To be honest, it is very difficult to get a fix on the state of both social and political dynamics regarding sex and relationships in the millennial generation, especially through the frenetic, hand-held lens of social media. The general consensus appears to be that millennials are all about about hooking up without any interest in even trying to have relationships, but this may not be so true as it is widely reported. At the same time, stories emanating from college campuses would have us believe that the grandsons of the Boomers are generally more prone to abusive behaviors, including rape, than their fathers and grandfathers, which is an extraordinary indictment if this is true. On the other hand, we may be hearing more about various types of dysfunctional or misogynistic male behaviors because millennial women feel more empowered than their mothers and grandmothers to openly confront these issues, and this in itself will change the dynamics of relationships.  Then again, we see some new and classic schisms among feminist voices whereby one woman’s personal empowerment is another’s treasonous surrender to sexism and “rape culture” itself.

Meanwhile, a whole industry has grown up around date-rape prevention, with products like nail polish that can detect narcotics slipped into drinks. And that phenomenon brings us full-circle back to the aforementioned, apparent, trend toward consensual, casual sex because it begs the question as to why there would be an increase in terrible subterfuges like sneaking drugs into cocktails, if all parties are more open than ever before to casual encounters?  Or does the new casualness, which has been both enhanced and defined by smart-phone hook-up apps, actually foster more bad behaviors among men because digital dating has so thoroughly turned sex into a cold, dissociative transaction? These and other questions abound that I could not hope to address in a single essay.

Suffice to say, we read a lot of disparate and often conflicting reports from the battlefield; and according to a recent exposé by Nancy Jo Sales, writing for Vanity Fair, now that the sexual revolution has gone digital, millennials are ushering in what she calls the “dating apocalypse.”  Her article, which is largely based on conversations with 20-something men and women, who are actively hooking up through platforms like Tinder, conveys a broad narrative that sounds about as bleak and dysfunctional as every complaint I’ve ever heard about the pre-digital dating scene. The major difference today, simply sounds more bleak and more depressing at twice the speed thanks to technology.

From Sales’s description, the characterization we get of apps like Tinder, Hinge, and OKCupid is that, although these services are marketed with images of dreamy couples canoodling in romantic settings, they are not being used as dating services akin to or eHarmony, but rather as straight-up transaction brokers — personal pimp-yentas if you will — solely for the purpose of arranging casual sex with complete strangers.  “Dates” might last maybe an hour from door-to-door and back again, depending on traffic conditions. And according to some reports, many of the people on Tinder are either married or in supposedly committed relationships.

Tinder itself balked at Sales’s portrayal in a series of tweets like the one which reads, “It’s disappointing that @VanityFair thought that the tiny number of people you found for your article represent our entire global userbase.”  But whether or not the young singles Sales interviewed in various locations are a fair representation of Tinder’s reported 50-million users worldwide, the company’s reactionary tweets have largely been mocked for their petulant defensiveness.  Because it doesn’t really matter how many of Tinder’s users are similar to the people Sales profiled inasmuch as her research into the state of dating today is no less in-depth than precedent articles of its kind.  And indeed the characters and narratives that emerge are not only familiar, but also sound exactly like the kinds of stories we might expect to come from digitally-enhanced dating techniques.

Not surprisingly, Sales’s article suggests that plenty of young men are as hardwired for relationship-free sex as ever, while young women are still trying to figure out how they feel about these encounters, still grappling with basic inequalities between the sexes with regard to expectations and behavioral norms.  Even some of the women profiled, who say they’re perfectly comfortable with casual sex via these apps, seem to have expectations of basic behaviors from the men — like don’t go right back onto Tinder immediately after having sex with someone — about which the men sound rather typically oblivious.  Several of the women featured indicate that even basic courtesies are the exception rather than the rule, as though the theme has gone from “Will he call?” to “Will he even say goodbye on his way out the door?” So, not so much a new story about dating as the same old story that’s gotten a little bit worse.  And how could it not if hooking up via apps like these only exacerbates certain fundamental flaws in many of us men to begin with?

Speaking as a former young man myself, I feel comfortable generalizing that we’re not inherently a bright bunch when it comes to this stuff, and we are somewhat programmed to lack empathy at exactly same time that we become sexual creatures.  As a result, it often to takes young men some measure of getting hurt, and even causing hurt, before we actually start to figure out how to behave at all, let alone how to one day be in a real relationship.  And I suspect basic truths still hold that intimacy is just plain different for women, casual or not, when it comes to behaviors associated with intimacy. And so, in the digital dating scene, more people may be acting cool on the surface than ever before; but people have always acted cool on the surface in pre-digital encounters, and it has almost never been true that sex is so emotionally unencumbered.

Perhaps the most telling details that emerge from Sales’s investigation are those which imply that at lot of the casual sex being had out there isn’t any better today than it was before the invention of the smart-phone wing-man. And it might even be worse.  In fact, according to comments from one group of young women, it sounds as though breaking down barriers to casual encounters through apps yields at least as many, if not more, complaints of erectile dysfunction and consistent failures to produce sexually satisfying experiences (i.e. orgasms) for the women.  Again, if these complaints are representative of the larger experience, this is not at all surprising.  As with empathy and other emotional connections to another human being, there is usually a learning curve when it comes to partners having good sex rather than just some sex. And so it stands to reason that good sex isn’t going to happen very often — and quite possibly never — among people who merely “Hit it and quit it,” as the contemporary saying goes, according to Sales.

Yet another aspect of apps like Tinder is that, as interactive media unto themselves, they are essentially hand-held games, which presumably breed addictive, game-like habits with the added bonus of scoring “points” that feel emotionally empowering.  Swipe images of men or women you find attractive, and it must be kind of a thrill each time there’s a reciprocal match, like playing concentration with little prizes along the way for your ego.  As such, I would not be surprised if the consummation of “winning” this game — at least for many women and possibly for more men than might admit it — is frequently less satisfying than playing the game itself.  If this is true, it really is a shame.  After all, the highs and lows of dating have always been something of a game, but one played through a broad range of human interactions like conversation, body language, humor, flirting, and so on — all stimulating a range of emotional experiences that give our lives color, depth, and meaning.  One can hardly expect to consolidate all that down to a finger swipe across a glass screen and expect richer experiences to manifest as a result.

Admittedly, it is often difficult to compartmentalize the distinct but overlapping subjects of sex, sexism, sexualization, feminism, and even such extreme behaviors as sexual abuse.  One body of thought is that sexualization is borne exclusively of sexism, which can be the foundation for assault, or at least chronic callousness. My view has generally been that sexualization is unavoidable, but that as long as all parties are on equal terms, being open about sexualizing one another (in the right contexts) is probably healthier than sublimating these instincts.  This is because, generally speaking, in cultures where sex is shameful, women wind up as victims of abuse and scorn, sometimes quite horrifically.

And of course America — nation of rock-n-roll puritans that we are —  is unique in its brand of hypocrisies, which manifest in overt sexualization often filtered through the pretensions of religiously-based notions of decency.  Sexual double-standards are part of the American DNA, and these result both in hypocritical behaviors and hypocritical public policies about which we are still fighting nearly fifty years after the Summer of Love.  And so, on one level, one might expect the sexual frankness implicit in hook-up apps to be one means by which the next generation breaks down many of these longstanding hypocrisies, theoretically putting men and women on more equal footing than ever. In this sense, we would expect the millennials to be enjoying the freest “love” since the free-love movement itself.  But according to Nancy Jo Sales’s article, it doesn’t sound as though this is quite the case.  Instead, it sounds like these apps, with their astounding billion-dollar valuations, may be just another Silicon Valley swindle, conning a whole generation into trading meaningful experiences for a gluttony of meaningless ones.

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