Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"A Critical (But Highly Sympathetic) Reading of New Yorkers' Sexual Habits and Anxieties" by Wesley Yang: A Singletude Response

Have you read New York Magazine's "A Critical (But Highly Sympathetic) Reading of New Yorkers' Sexual Habits and Anxieties" by Wesley Yang? If browsing singles sites or dating blogs is part of your routine, chances are you haven't been able to avoid this article or someone's opinion of it. Like sex itself, it has spawned a wide range of heated responses, from prophecies of impending moral apocalypse to passionate defenses of Gen Y's highly evolved textual shorthand. Because although the title suggests a bland report peppered with decimals and percentages in tables that list "number of times per week" and "number of partners per year," it's actually all about the wireless hook-up network that connects young, urban singles. It's one writer's response to the online New York Magazine column called "The Sex Diaries," in which one lucky male or female gets to play Carrie Bradshaw for a week and record his or her dating woes and sexual exploits. Yang's central question: "Are the digital tools that make it easier to find sex compounding the confusion that accompanies it?"

Yang says yes, and he's not the first to reach that verdict. Since the cell phone became a must-have accessory and the code of texting a lingua franca--since the Internet Age multiplied our social options to the infinite power, really--academics, politicos, pop psychologists, and lifestyle journalists have obsessed over the paradox of perceived choice in sexual or romantic partners. The idea is that as our choices increase, we become paralyzed with indecision and end up making no choice at all. When too much choice intersects with the impersonal void of wireless communication, some experts argue, human beings become disposable objects that exist only for momentary gratification, their existence erased afterwards with the touch of an address book key.

This is the theme of Yang's analysis, too. He reviews the diarists' weekly entries since 2007 and describes a cutthroat world of sex games in which everyone is a player, like it or not, and you can trust no one because your partner is also your opponent. The object of the game is to have as many partner options as possible. To handicap yourself is to reveal emotion your partner/opponent does not feel, and to lose is to have no options at all. The jackpot is "true love," but in this virtual reality, the winner is too disconnected to know when it's real and so forfeits the prize.

The sticking point for most commentators is whether or not the tech revolution is to blame for this state of affairs, but I'll reserve judgment on that because it doesn't really matter. The BlackBerry didn't come with a set of instructions on "Using Speed Dial to Juggle Hook-ups," "Using the Calendar to Create a Safe Emotional Distance," or "Using Autocomplete to Send a Break-up Text." People, singles out there on the dating scene, decided to use those features to that end. The technology facilitated it, but the idea was all human. My interest is not in how young, single Americans got to this place but in how they are functioning in it and whether it needs to be made a different and better place.

What strikes me about the voices Yang quotes is that they're not the voices of empowered, sexually fulfilled, enlightened singles. They're permeated with angst, frustration, disappointment, and bitterness. It's possible that a selection bias is interfering here, but I believe that Yang is sincere in his attempt to represent the zeitgeist as he admits, "Reading the Sex Diaries all in one enormous gulp...caused me to surf on the edge of a terrible vertigo as I thought of the many wounds I had myself endured and inflicted during my brief career as a person with a New York City sex life." When he's moved to tears by an entry with a happy ending, I don't doubt that he's stumbled on a needle in a haystack, a Shangri-la unattainable to the multitudes of earnest diarists.

Is it any wonder that singles are unhappy trying to keep their personal lives impersonal? Yang describes how the "compulsive toggling of options winds up inflicting the very damage it was designed to protect against," noting how hard singles work to disguise "the fond hope, better kept to oneself, that one yearns to leave behind the serial f*** buddies, friends with benefits, and other back-burner relationships." This is not living with singletude, people. Singletude is about being authentic to your own wants and needs, not trying to repress what you feel to best someone else in a game of emotional one-upmanship. It's about promoting healthy attachments to others and concern for the community (as opposed to just one person), not using your singleness as an excuse to role over other people because you think you're a free agent and have no responsibility to anyone but yourself. Of course this lifestyle produces insecurity, loneliness, and disillusionment.

But, like ravers in some kind of dating trance, everyone keeps dancing. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in this nugget of wisdom, as Yang tries to explain why droves of single New Yorkers, some of the most entitled people in the world, would tolerate being manipulated like so many pawns in a casual after-dinner game: "The back burner is a confusing, destabilizing, and exhausting place to be, and yet none of the Diarists...appear to view it as anything but a fact of life. It is clearly less terrifying than the alternative, which is to not be on anyone’s." (italics added)

Ah-ha! There's the crux of it. Desperation. Millions of single daters have sold out on their ideals because they believe the alternative is to be alone, and that prospect is intolerable. They would rather have relationships that are unsatisfying at best and damaging, degrading, or depressing at worst than be single.

Let's clear up some cultural myths that seem to have resulted in a mass Millennial delusion: One, if you feel like your love life has forced you into a game of relationship poker that you never wanted to play, you should know that you can put the cards down. You can opt out. There will be people who will tell you to resign yourself to the way dating has changed, that this is the way of the world. That is, in effect, what even this New York Magazine article says, right? Well, believe me, you do not have to resign yourself to anything. All you have to do is be honest with yourself about what will bring you long-term happiness and what will derail you from that and then pursue the former single-mindedly. If someone is intimating that you have to let others treat you in a way that makes you feel hurt, anxious, ashamed, angry, depressed, devalued, deceived, manipulated, disrespected, or just plain uncomfortable in order to have a shot at a more meaningful relationship, that is a lie. Anyone who expects you to feel that way as a matter of course doesn't have your interests at heart and never will.

Two, you don't have to be a swinging, cybering, cell-wielding single to find a relationship. This is Peer Pressure 2.0: Adult Version, isn't it? It's the same lie--that if you don't conform, you'll be alone and unwanted. But the truth is that you don't have to cave to be with someone great. If you don't want to play the game, there are other singles out there who don't want to play it, either, and they will admire you all the more because you share their values. It may seem like "everybody's doing it, " but the more you refuse to, the more other singles you come in contact with will feel confident in their own decisions to opt out. That's how change happens.

Third--this is the most important part--even if you don't end up in a relationship, you don't have to be alone. The only reason this disposable dating movement has so much leverage is that it's powered by the sheer terror of being single (or maybe just sexless, in which case see "No Sex for Singles"). If you're so horrified by the prospect of singleness that you'd rather agonize over whether your booty call is ignoring you because you freaked him/her out with a kissy face text, then maybe you should ask yourself why. What's better about feeling like you have to map out elaborate schemes to get someone to see you and not just your cam phone shots? Today there's more literature than ever before to verify that singles can be as happy, healthy, socially active, and professionally productive as couples, if not more so. Anyone who doubts it should spend some time reading through the Singletude archives and visiting the blogs and web sites on Singletude's blogroll. Many of these sites also have information and tips that can help you learn how to resolve common problems and make the most of your life as a single. Above all, you should know that being single doesn't mean being alone! Research shows that singles, especially single women, aren't very likely to be lonely at all.

If New York Magazine's "Sex Diary" series is representative of how single adults in the U.S. date and mate, then it does seem like our shrinking, global society has paradoxically made us both more detached from any individual and more demanding of perfection from everyone. But even if technology has enabled this line of thinking, we can step back and consciously reevaluate how we choose to interact with others. Yang bemoans the transactional nature of wireless dating, naming "a certain callousness toward the merchandise" as "an unavoidable side effect of entering a marketplace as both buyer and seller." But each one of us has the choice to put ourselves up for sale or buy what is offered. Or we can decide that some things are priceless and treat them accordingly.

What are your thoughts on this article? If you're a fan of the New York Magazine "Sex Diaries" column, what are your observations about it? Do you think the tech revolution is responsible for the way sexual behavior has evolved over the past decade? If not, what is? What are some of the positive and negative consequences that have resulted from how dating and mating trends have changed? Can you relate to Yang's characterization of the current dating scene as a fast-paced, competitive world of superficial relationships, or has your experience with dating been different? Do you think the rise of the casual dating culture has generally made singles happier or unhappier? If the latter, why do you think so many singles continue to participate in it?

Fun Link of the Day

Do you have a question for Clever Elsie about some aspect of the single life? Have an unpublished rant or rave about singlehood? Write in, and you just might see your question in a "Singletude Q&A" or your rant or rave in a "Singletude Sound-off"! Singletude makes every effort to republish submissions in their original form but reserves the right to edit your submission for length and clarity.


Special K said...

I don't want to do anything in my life casually. I want to think, relfect and walk head on into my life with the awareness that I am living it. I want to connect. I want to be touched. I am against casual dating, using others like disposable ziploc plastic containers...
That said, I could be more spontanesous...
I TOTALLY want you to come out here and visit me...can yoU?

Clever Elsie said...

Special K: I'm fully confident that you'll find a way to balance reflection and spontaneity in your life. :) It's very sweet of you to invite me for a visit, and I would love to do that when my body is cooperating more with me again.