Sex and Love

Every leave-taking is a reminder that nothing lasts. A romance like ours, in which absence and presence alternate like night and day, allows little opportunity to forget this fact, and that is the most notable difference between an affair of such starkly defined seasons and conventional arrangements, in which the temperature fluctuates less widely and the cadence is harder to detect. Essentially all love is made on the verge of departure. It always has been. Today, however, many more people than ever find themselves in decidedly unconventional arrangements, living under separate roofs, on opposite coasts, with different lovers at various times, and for us the domestic symbol of modern romance is not the marital bed or the kitchen table or the family room but the doorway. Whatever permanence we may find comes by embracing the transient, a paradox that we somehow must make our own. If there is a tragedy in this it is not that we die unto each other, or that we actually die, but that we act as if this were not the way of the world. Nothing is more contrary to romance than the presumption of constancy. …We draw near. Our lips touch, a first kiss, first among many firsts and deepened immeasurably by all of the farewell kisses that have preceded it and resonate within it. Beat after beat after beat. However our partings may have come about, they have given this affair an unusually robust pulse. They have taught me that passionate love endures only if it continually transforms itself, that transformation is achieved through the rapture of arrival, and that there is no arrival without a departure of one sort or another. More than anything, romance is rhythm. We exhale so as to inhale again. We withdraw so as to approach anew.

–Edwin Dobb, “A kiss is still a kiss (even if the sex is postmodern and the romance problematic)

It’s hard for me to believe this was written in 1996. Given the reality, inevitability and opportunity of long distance, nonconventional romances for so many of my friends–in the NGO sector and not–these words feel fresh, albeit fatalistic. Is it possible for us to ever truly ’embrace the transient’? In a globalized world, where things continue to move faster and faster, is romantic intimacy only destined to be felt with departures?

Dobb’s essay title in itself is amazing. A strange, contemporary koan.


Claire Evans has written an amazing essay that I just discovered. She brilliantly captures how old relationships grip our present thanks to social networking, which forces us to think about how we manage the digital appearance of friendships and romances.

It is a fascinating contradiction how we grapple with severed real life relationships on virtual platforms where accumulating and maintaining connections is the primary goal. Strangely, when we update our digital footprints to reflect realities of ended loves, we wind up simply carving artificial spaces which mask that relationships ever happened. The artificiality of these spaces seems more palpable considering that these histories are preserved beyond us; deleting an old email sent from a Gmail account doesn’t change the fact that Google still has a record of the words you once sent even if you can’t see it anymore.

I’m not convinced that a Luddite approach is really possible for love though, especially for  younger generations who were born embedded in social networks. Social media magnifies and distorts relationships, to which attractions, romances and breakups are not arbitrary but inherent. The ways we manage the visibility of our relationships will evolve, whether we try to be a Luddite or not.

That said. I do often find that the most significant real-life relationships are either omnipresent or mysteriously absent on my and others’ social networks. The connections that truly matter, be they good friends, nascent loves or former exes, seem to teeter either between being broadcast all over Facebook walls and photos and Tweets, or conspicuously invisible to the public eye. The interactions that seem most meaningful, be they from the past or present, rarely hover in the middle.

I tried to quote bits of this essay and then I realized I wanted it all. So here it is:

You’ve just broken up. You’ve had the last argument, or weathered the first and last betrayal. You’ve changed the locks. Now the complicated process of dislodging your heart begins: the long falling-out of love. With the topography of companionship levelled, you find yourself flowing outward to fill the empty spaces. Certain objects are suddenly impossible to abide. Your own possessions, abruptly gathered up, speak to an identity you’d forgotten existed. ‘This,’ you think as you survey the towels and serving-bowls stacked in their boxes, ‘this is my taste?’ The measures of your world — the size of the bed, the portioning of food — must be scaled back. But still the second wave of disentanglement has barely begun.

It’s time to end it online. I’m not just talking about the pedantic tick-box of Facebook ‘relationship status’: there are images to untag, emails to delete, an ‘unfriending’ to coordinate. There is the careful unravelling of the social web.

In a sense, every relationship now exists on two levels. The moments we spend in one another’s company, the neurochemical buzz of proximity, and the communion of shared silence: these are real. But just as physical places now have their geolocated overlays, every relationship, too, throws a digital shadow – and depending on the individuals involved, it can loom larger than the people who cast it. As we increasingly live our social lives in public, in a medium that retains the traces of our social noodling, the record and the relationship itself can approach a point of indistinguishability.

I prefer email to the phone because it provides me with a record of my conversations, one that I can re-experience at any moment. Typing a name, I can summon a chronology of every word exchanged: a précis of the relationship, its years condensed into one timeless block of data. For those intimacies experienced mostly, or even partially, through the web, this chronological record becomes the relationship, for all intents and purposes. My parents’ generation did this differently: that box of love notes under the bed, its own time-capsule of emotion. But while their love letters might have once served the same purpose as the cumulative ones and zeros of my online correspondences, they existed only in one place. Burn them in a fit of pique and the words remain only in the memories of those they touched: subjective, foggy, destined to vanish.

Today’s relationships are distributed, not just in the minds of people but across the network. A sufficiently talented hacker could gather fragments of data from all over the internet and reconstitute a relationship from its shrapnel. Every click leaves a trace: our online shopping records, our air travel itineraries, the books and articles we read on recommendation, the frequency with which we visit other people’s web spaces, the endless ‘likes’, the comments, emails, retweets, the ideas we absorb from those we love and disseminate outwards. Real love is transformative: it changes our social patterns. We might find ourselves delving into subjects we weren’t previously interested in, acknowledging the view from elsewhere, connecting with a new network of people. These are all quantifiable indices, easy to monitor through the public third space of the web.

Let’s return to that online breakup. In your attempts to clear the debris, you discover that, like an ecosystem, your social network reacts holistically to change. For one, it doesn’t want you to sever ties with anyone: at every turn, it seems to ask you to reconsider. The architecture of the social web, like that of a Las Vegas casino, always leads the user back inside. The engine depends on connections: groups, rather than individuals, are the commodity being sold. The social web quantifies the people who touch us.

We take this for granted, but any individual’s online network is a map of heretofore-invisible threads. Once we’ve integrated, once we’ve painted these cobwebs Facebook blue, it’s difficult to go back. The relationship and its public record share so much real estate they might be mistaken for one another. This has the curious effect of flattening the complexity of emotion: a lost friend, a shattered romance, are not just individuals ‘hidden’ from the timeline. These are cataclysms of the heart.

The information that you were friends, or lovers, lives on. It’s there, an infinitesimal blip in the global mass of data. Severance in the machine of connection must be deliberate. Where opinion and desire flow along paths of least resistance and affirmation or disavowal alike are quantified by views, where protest is as simple as a reblog and complex emotional experiences are summed up using appropriated images, purposeful unlinking is a dissonant gesture. Others look up, temporarily stunned: the click that un-friends is the loudest of all.

And even as its echoes still resonate, aspects of the un-friend will always fall through the virtual cracks. He or she will seep into your curated feed through mutual friends, images, or advertisements tailored to extinguished needs. The vast and broadly disseminated collection of bits that has served for so long as a public (and private) record of your entanglement remains. It might not be immediately accessible to you, but the information that you were friends, or lovers, lives on. It’s there, somewhere, an infinitesimal blip in the global mass of data.

Who stops to consider such things in the throes of new love, or in the honeymoon period of friendship? We’re not wired to worry about stuff like that. Before the social web, surviving a breakup meant tossing out mementos and looking over your shoulder at parties. Now it means perusing invite lists, haunting status updates, watching tiny circles of green turn orange, then red, before fading to offline grey. It is easier than ever to self-punish through voyeurism, of course, but now tactics for avoidance are so similar to strategies for stalking, so equal in the all-seeing indifference of the web, that even average heartbreak can take on sinister dimensions.

There might still be a way that we can invest in the future of our hearts. We don’t need to leave the binary husks of our relationships behind us. But we must be more considered with everything we do online, not just our flirtations. The temptation to tag, cite, post and discover others through their front-facing digital avatars is great, but the rewards of love under the radar are more profound. Love undocumented is love unadvertised and unexploited; it is love that will fade gently, like a photograph, instead of creeping up, algorithmically, like a Google image search result.

In his 2010 jeremiad, You Are Not a Gadget, the American computer scientist Jaron Lanier proposes some basic commandments for digital self-editing. His rules include thinking before tweeting and only writing blog posts that take weeks of reflection. We tend to think of the social web as an amorphous zeitgeist, he argues, a monster of inanity from whose sheer bulk meaningful patterns emerge. An idea has worth only when it manages to propagate as a meme, and digital society places value on these instances of emergence rather than on the force of any individual thought: the fantasy is of a hive-mind.

In its border-obliterating hugeness, its nearly preposterous magnitude, it seems likely that the web will always engender some kind of shared meaning through large-scale trends. But wouldn’t the patterns be sharper, the noise less oppressive, if each individual utterance was a little more thoughtful? If we took it slow? As John Freeman, author of The Tyranny of Email (2009), wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2009:

We will die, that much is certain; and everyone we have ever loved and cared about will die, too, sometimes — heartbreakingly — before us. Busyness — or the simulated busyness of email addiction — numbs the pain of this awareness, but it can never totally submerge it. Given that our days are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do, what we want to say, what and who we care about, and how we want to allocate our time to these things within the limits that do not and cannot change. In short, we need to slow down.

The world has always moved too quickly for some people. Throughout history this paradoxical, essentially philosophical proposal to decelerate in order to appreciate brevity has arisen at cusps of technological change. In its current form, we see the outlines of a ‘Slow Internet’ movement. Thus the American journalist Jennifer Rauch hosts a blog about ‘Slow Media’. Paul Miller, a technology journalist at, has vowed to spend an entire year offline. Six months into his project, he has weathered the US election, his career, the public library crisis, and hurricane Sandy without once dipping into the blogosphere.

The obstacles Miller encounters are specific and hard to anticipate: he is perpetually lost, struggles to pay his bills through automated phone systems, and must receive news from faraway friends via post or not at all. His missives from the slow world are edifying, distantly familiar, and inspiring: his battle to function in a wired society articulates just how seamlessly the web flows through us. Its absence from his life accentuates its muscled presence in ours. I wonder what his love life is like. All of these pundits seem to share a fear of being labelled Neo-Luddites. After all, we’ve seen the web level tyranny, watched it thrust political truths into the light. Among its nodes, young people find identities, artists find audiences, writers find solace. To speak ill of the internet, to wax nostalgic about the smell of old paper or deliberately stake out an offline life, seems reactionary and contrived. Millions of teenagers, faces lit by the glow of smartphones under their bedclothes, roll their eyes — or rather, select an exasperated emoticon. In the introduction to You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier writes: ‘This book is not antitechnology in any sense. It is prohuman.’ Freeman, too: ‘This is not the manifesto of a Luddite. This is a human manifesto.’

The Luddites were skilled laborers, displaced by industrialisation. They sought to destroy the machinery they knew might eventually replace them. Lanier, Freeman, and the Slow Media thinkers of today are hardly advocating this kind of industrial sabotage: like most of us, they accept the encroaching tides of the social web, its inevitability. There is no wrench big enough to throw into these works.

When it comes to love, however, we might all be Luddites. Wouldn’t we smash the machine that told us precisely where and when our former paramours found someone new? Unfortunately, the global index that contains every gossamer byte of our love letters — not the ones under the bed, tied with velvet ribbon, but the ones we are always unwittingly writing as we try to make contact across the ever-swelling planes of liquid crystal — is quite unsmashable. Who can smash a concept, a fibre-optic lattice across the ocean?

Luddism in the name of love is different, almost pointedly opposite to its ideological predecessor. Instead of taking hammer to motherboard, we must tread carefully in the long corridors between rows of servers, dancing in their humming shadows. Instead of rousing the ire of our fellows, we must whisper so as not to disturb the binary chatter shooting all around our heads, while we fall quietly in love in the age of machines.

–Claire L Evans, “Luddite Love

…Rene Almeling, a sociologist at Yale, spent four years interviewing sperm and egg donors and the staff who work with them while researching her book Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. She found that egg donors are often encouraged to think about their involvement as giving a gift to another women, while sperm donation is most often framed as an easy job. Most egg donors she spoke to said they didn’t think of themselves as mothers — but sperm donors did tend to think of themselves as fathers. This may be because we have some experience thinking of fatherhood as a distant, genetically defined role, but are less used to dissociating motherhood and pregnancy. Regardless, it’s an interesting window into the ways we reconcile the fertility industry with our notions of family.

–Brooke Jarvis, “Come and get it: how sperm became one of America’s hottest exports

I really like Cindy Gallop and the idea of MLNP. That being said, there are still porn stars shooting for her site and that bothers me for a variety of reasons. I think MLNP is a really cool idea – but at the end of the day, these couples are trying to convince you to pay money for a product, which means they are going to cater to the tastes of their audience instead of themselves. Good sex is rarely had at angles convenient for filming, folks.

Claire Mott, upon being asked about her thoughts on porn and alternatives like

A brilliantly put epistemological critique on the limits of learning about sex by watching filmed encounters. We have to seriously question and consider what other ways we can teach about good sex if the most common medium, video, is flawed from the premise.

…We need to talk about families, but we also need to talk about sex. We need to talk about mothers, but we cannot ignore the existence and the rights of women who are not mothers.The GOP is waging a “War on Women”, and the Democrats are fighting back – but only on behalf of certain kinds of women.Women-with-children-first framing is politically potent: it humanizes women who use birth control, or patronizes Planned Parenthood. It enables the Democrats to speak about family values (political ground that is usually ceded to the Republicans). And it makes the case for reproductive freedom without having to talk about sex – a subject that apparently makes Americans terribly uncomfortable. It’s far less awkward to talk about families and motherhood, and women who get pregnant through terrible acts of sexual violence, rather than through consensual, orgasmic, sweaty hay-rolling.

It boggles the mind that in a year when we all learned the phrase “transvaginal ultrasound”, we are somehow still uncomfortable talking about why women like me and my friends take the pill. We don’t take it so we can be good mothers, we take it so we can have good sex. There’s nothing wrong with that. And as a party that claims to be fighting for women in this political war, the Democrats need to stop implying that there is. The same goes for the pro-choice advocates – myself included – who are speaking out against Republican encroachments on reproductive freedom.

We should keep talking about mothers of three and about pregnant rape survivors, because those people exist and they need birth control. Their stories are also far more likely to sway people who are on the fence about birth control access than my friends’ tales about casual consensual encounters. But the point that pro-choicers ought to be making is that every woman is entitled to reproductive freedom, regardless of marital status. Every woman, regardless of how many kids she has. Every woman, not just the ones who make for good talking points or political props. Every woman, even the ones who dare – unspeakable though it apparently is – to have pleasurable, non-procreative sex.

–Chloe Angyal, “Sex: The missing term from the contraception and abortion debate

Yes. Yes. Just yes.

I should probably write some insightful analysis reflecting on Angyal’s brilliant points. But you know what I got? Just frustration.

A lot of us ladies wanna have sex and that is reason enough to want access to contraception and abortion. Our reproductive and sexual rights are not conditional on our marital status, if we have experienced sexual violence that resulted in pregnancy, or if we already have kids.

Dunno if reproductive & sexual health and rights will come up in the debates tonight (maybe through a question on if contraception will be covered by insurance) but I’d put money that neither Obama or Romney will be saying the word ‘sex’.

In 2004, Elizabeth Armstrong, then a sociologist at Indiana University, and Laura Hamilton, a young graduate student, set out to do a study on sexual abuse in college students’ relationships. They applied for permission to interview women on a single floor of what was known as a “party dorm” at a state university in the Midwest. About two-thirds of the students came from what they called “more privileged” backgrounds, meaning they had financial support from their parents, who were probably college-educated themselves. A third came from less privileged families; they supported themselves and were probably the first in their family to go to college. The researchers found their first day of interviewing so enlightening that they decided to ask the administration if they could stay on campus for four years and track the 53 women’s romantic lives.

Women in the dorm complained to the researchers about the double standard, about being called sluts, about not being treated with respect. But what emerged from four years of research was the sense that hooking up was part of a larger romantic strategy, part of what Armstrong came to think of as a “sexual career.” For an upwardly mobile, ambitious young woman, hookups were a way to dip into relationships without disrupting her self-development or schoolwork. Hookups functioned as a “delay tactic,” Armstrong writes, because the immediate priority, for the privileged women at least, was setting themselves up for a career. “If I want to maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with,” one woman told Armstrong, “I have to work. I just don’t see myself being someone who marries young and lives off of some boy’s money.” Or from another woman: “I want to get secure in a city and in a job … I’m not in any hurry at all. As long as I’m married by 30, I’m good.”

The women still had to deal with the old-fashioned burden of protecting their personal reputations, but in the long view, what they really wanted to protect was their future professional reputations. “Rather than struggling to get into relationships,” Armstrong reported, women “had to work to avoid them.” (One woman lied to an interested guy, portraying herself as “extremely conservative” to avoid dating him.) Many did not want a relationship to steal time away from their friendships or studying.

Armstrong and Hamilton had come looking for sexual victims. Instead, at this university, and even more so at other, more prestigious universities they studied, they found the opposite: women who were managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters. “The ambitious women calculate that having a relationship would be like a four-credit class, and they don’t always have time for it, so instead they opt for a lighter hookup,” Armstrong told me.

The women described boyfriends as “too greedy” and relation­ships as “too involved.” One woman “with no shortage of admirers” explained, “I know this sounds really pathetic and you probably think I am lying, but there are so many other things going on right now that it’s really not something high up on my list … I know that’s such a lame-ass excuse, but it’s true.” The women wanted to study or hang out with friends or just be “100 percent selfish,” as one said. “I have the rest of my life to devote to a husband or kids or my job.” Some even purposely had what one might think of as fake boyfriends, whom they considered sub–marriage quality, and weren’t genuinely attached to. “He fits my needs now, because I don’t want to get married now,” one said. “I don’t want anyone else to influence what I do after I graduate.”

The most revealing parts of the study emerge from the interviews with the less privileged women. They came to college mostly with boyfriends back home and the expectation of living a life similar to their parents’, piloting toward an early marriage. They were still fairly conservative and found the hookup culture initially alienating (“Those rich bitches are way slutty” is how Armstrong summarizes their attitude). They felt trapped between the choice of marrying the kind of disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal their credit card—or joining a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable. The ones who chose the first option were considered the dorm tragedies, women who had succumbed to some Victorian-style delusion. “She would always talk about how she couldn’t wait to get married and have babies,” one woman said about her working-class friend. “It was just like, Whoa. I’m 18 … Slow down. You know? Then she just crazy dropped out of school and wouldn’t contact any of us … The way I see it is that she’s from a really small town, and that’s what everyone in her town does … [they] get married and have babies.”

Most of the women considered success stories by their dormmates had a revelation and revised their plan, setting themselves on what was universally considered the path to success. “Now I’m like, I don’t even need to be getting married yet [or] have kids,” one of the less privileged women told the researchers in her senior year. “All of [my brother’s] friends, 17-to-20-year-old girls, have their … babies, and I’m like, Oh my God … Now I’ll be able to do something else for a couple years before I settle down … before I worry about kids.” The hookup culture opened her horizons. She could study and work and date, and live on temporary intimacy. She could find her way to professional success, and then get married.

–Hanna Rosin, “Boys on the Side” (bolding mine)

Breaking news: hooking up may in fact be an exhibition of young women’s agency and desire to manage sexual desire against other competing goals like career and friendships. Sorry sexual panickers.

But clearly class matters in distinguishing how women negotiating against these different norms. I LOLed at Susan Walsh‘s line that this was featured in The Atlantic, “the unrivaled go-to source for all stories describing the educated female’s life trajectory and meteoric rise to financial success and emotional independence.” I wouldn’t expect The Atlantic to focus more on how socio-economic status changes these dynamics, so I’ll hold out for Rosin’s book before making Walsh’s critique.

Also sexuality matters. What about the lesbian and bi ladies–does this apply? Or is this just a straight girl strategy? Nobody’s gonna know if we don’t do the research.

Real world sex is more creative, more innovative, more surprising, more amazing, more arousing and more hot than porn will ever be.

Cindy Gallop, describing the draw of her new start-up, which attempts to counter the ubiquity of hard core pornography by creating a space where real people post videos of having real sex

I gotta big crush on Cindy Gallop, who is just all sorts of incredible. It’s great to see the evolution of the project she launched with her TED Talk in 2009–and it will be really great to see how her “incubator/accelerator for ‘radically innovative sex-tech startups'” manifests in a few years time.