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A Critical (But Highly Sympathetic) Reading of New Yorkers’ Sexual Habits and Anxieties

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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. (Let others parse Chaucer, my role was that of exegete of “The Polyamorous Paralegal.”) So that’s what I’ve done. Herewith: ten things that seem to be making our playful, amorous youth crazy.

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. Take this excerpt from a 31-year-old straight male Diarist (“The Transportation Coordinator Seeing Three Partners”) living on the Upper West Side:

12:32 p.m. I get three texts. One from each girl. E wants oral sex and tells me she loves me. A wants to go to a concert in Central Park. Y still wants to cook. This simultaneously excites me—three women want me!—and makes me feel odd.

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. A few find this enjoyable and are up to the task: Identify the single best sexual partner available, or at least the person most amenable to their requirements at the moment. They use their cell phone to disaggregate, slice up, and repackage their emotional and physical needs, servicing each with a different partner, and hoping to come out ahead. This can get complicated quickly, however, and can lead to uneasy situations.

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. Consider these snippets in a week of one Diarist, who is deeply conflicted between her Pseudo and Ex:

2:55 p.m. Pseudo G-chats me. Looks like he might be interested in hanging out tonight after all. 9:30 p.m. Meet up with Ex and friends at bar. Text Pseudo to see if he’s up for doing anything.

2:20 a.m. At a bar with Pseudo and other friends. Ex drunk-texts me: “Wanna fuck?” 3:17 a.m. Half-bottle of wine plus mucho beer plus a few rounds of shots leads to me texting Pseudo, “Let’s get out of here and go back to my place.” 3:18 a.m. Pseudo texts back, “I don’t feel like dealing with you.”

11:45 p.m. At a bar with Pseudo. Ex drunk-texts me.

1:30 p.m. Ex calls and wakes me up. Says he needs to talk in person. 7:49 p.m. Text Pseudo and tell him about convo with Ex. Pseudo replies that he’s sorry, he hopes I end up getting what I want. What the hell does that mean? I have no idea what I want, clearly.

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 might 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 e-mails. The Diarists appear to do this regardless of whether or not they are in a committed, or even a contractually sealed, relationship.

12:22 a.m. Tell him I want him. Clothes off, oral sex given and received.

12:45 a.m. IM sound from my computer. I’m currently busy, but I have a feeling who it is at this hour. Continue deliciously illicit activities which turn into both intercourse and mutual masturbation.

1:50 a.m. After we finish, check IM. I was spot-on; it is Mr. 34. And we all know what 2 a.m. IM’s mean.

Sometimes being relegated to the back burner is a sign of uninterest: the late-night booty call, the option of last resort. As often, it is a place to confine anyone who might become emotionally dangerous. The back burner is a confusing, destabilizing, and exhausting place to be, and yet none of the Diarists—even ones who appear sexually sated—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.


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