In the first part of this suddenly two-part series, I talked about the “cautionary matrons” who advise their younger counterparts against marriage–and against staying single.
Today’s post has nothing to do with any of that. What it does have to do with is choices. Lots of them. And easy access to them. At all hours. Frequently via text.
New York Magazine‘s current cover story is called “The Sex Diaries,” and was inspired by the magazine’s ongoing (since 2007) online series in which New Yorkers of all walks anonymously chronicle their sexual exploits for a week. In the highly–ahem–detailed piece, you’ll find excerpts from “The Trader Who Will Fly for Sex” (he meets one couple at a T.G.I. Friday’s before having sex with the wife while the husband watches.); “The Transportation Coordinator Serving Three Partners” (one night’s entry includes booty-call-type texts from each of the three women, all of whom he turns down, and a final entry: “8:45pm: Jerk off”); and “The Polyamorous Paralegal” (a sample: “Fall asleep wishing I had my bed to myself. The One Who Cries keeps trying to cuddle. I want to punch him.”).
Well, what can you say? It is what it is. More interesting, though, was the lengthy analysis that anchored the salacious tidbits, written by Wesley Yang. Here’s a little background on his assignment:
The editors of this magazine asked me to read all 800 pages of the Sex Diaries, and, using them as a source text, develop some kind of taxonomy of contemporary sexual anxieties… So, that’s what I’ve done. Herewith: ten things that seem to be making our playful, amorous youth crazy.
And guess what? The top three have to do with choices.
1. The anxiety of too much choice. A fact so readily apparent that it has escaped reflection: The cell phone has changed the nature of seduction. One carries in one’s pocket, wherever one goes, the means of doing something other than what one is presently doing, or being with someone other than the person one is with…. This is a distinct shift in the way we experience the world, introducing the nagging urge to make each thing we do the single most satisfying thing we could possibly be doing at any moment. In the face of this enormous pressure, many of the Diarists stay home and masturbate.
2. The anxiety of making the wrong choice. A Diarist with any game at all has unlimited opportunity… Identify the single best sexual partner available, or at least the person most amenable to their requirements at the moment… An inordinate number of Diarists find themselves at the brink of enjoying one sexual experience, only to receive a phone call or text from another potential suitor. They become a slave to their compulsion and indecision… This compulsive toggling between options winds up inflicting the very damage it was designed to protect against.
3. The anxiety of not being chosen. Among active Diarists, the worry that they will make the wrong choice is surpassed by the fear that they may find themselves without one. To guard against this disaster, everybody is on somebody’s back burner, and everybody has a back burner of their own, which they maintain through open-ended texts, sporadic Facebook messages, G-chats, IM’s, and terse emails.
Remove the sex for a second (or don’t, we are nothing if not a world of multitaskers), and ask yourself: sound familiar?
While Yang makes the case that, at least in the sexual realm, much of the current landscape is colored by our wildly connected lives, what comes across loud and clear is this issue of too much choice. Analysis paralysis (Note how he concludes Finding #1). Opportunity cost (why commit to a night with One Who Cries if there’s a possibility that One Who Makes Me Laugh might text later? and what about One Who I Haven’t Met Yet But Might Like Better Than Either OWC or OWMML?). And the pressure to keep all our options open, the scattering of energy that’s required to keep that back burner lit, just in case.
Consider, as Yang puts it “One carries in one’s pocket, wherever one goes, the means of doing something other than what one is presently doing.” That makes me think. And it makes me think that the question is: in our modern, interconnected, always-on world, is all of this choice, or maybe more importantly, this illusion of limitless, constantly available choice, the modern person’s dilemma? And does it mess with our heads in every realm? Is this why, say, when we’re working one job, we spend our time daydreaming about all the other things we could be doing? Or why women beat ourselves up over not being all things to all people at all times? Or why we sometimes find ourselves wishing for a life with no options at all?
And that last idea, of longing for the good ol’ days, was, unsurprisingly, picked up and riffed on by the New York Times’ David Brooks. Check it out:
Once upon a time–in what we might think of as the “Happy Days” era–courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts–dating, going steady, delaying sex–was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment.
Over the past few decades, these social scripts became obsolete. They didn’t fit the post-feminist era…
[People] are free agents in a competitive arena marked by ambiguous relationships. Social life comes to resemble economics, with people enmeshed in blizzards of supply and demand signals amidst a universe of potential partners… If you have several options perpetually before you, and if technology makes it easier to jump from one option to another, you will naturally adopt the mentality of a comparison shopper.
Okay. And while my stomach kind of turns at his description of ”guiding young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment” (Date around before settling down? Horrors. Read Tracy Clark-Flory’s take on his spin for a good laugh.), I do agree with one thing: that the reality of the modern world, the messaging (both societal and, well, textual), has left us approaching everything from the mentality of a comparison shopper. Listing pros and cons. Building cases for and against. Weighing our options.
It’s exhausting. And has it all done nothing more than leave us as a world of neurotic, over-stimulated commitment-phobes?
I don’t know. But I do know one thing for certain: The Trader Who Will Fly for Sex kinda freaks me out.