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

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4. The anxiety of appearing overly enthusiastic.
The back burner is a game, and while the Diarists have various ideas about what constitutes winning, they all agree on how you lose: by betraying a level of emotional enthusiasm unmatched by the other party. Everyone’s afraid disarmament won’t be mutual.

To disarm unilaterally is a strategic error on so many levels—it commits you to a degree of openness you might not be able to maintain, and it exposes vulnerabilities that your counterparty might not be able to resist exploiting. It signals desperation, clinginess, high-maintenance. Most of all, it risks exposing the fond hope, better kept to oneself, that one yearns to leave behind the serial fuck buddies, friends with benefits, and other back-burner relationships to which one had, at some significant expenditure of effort, inured oneself.

The goal of any Diarist playing the game, therefore, is to withhold one’s own expectations until one understands what is expected by the other party. These negotiations require supreme discipline. If you betray the wrong kind of avidity at the wrong moment, your counterparty will not hesitate to pitch you into the shark tank:

3:30 a.m. I text Mike ... that I had a good time and would really like to hang out. Ten minutes later he texts me back saying the he would “be down” for hanging out and that we should do it on a weeknight when things aren’t crazy with the parties. I text him back saying he is confusing. He asks how. I felt daring and told him because I can never tell what he want from me. I haven’t heard from him since.

The Diaries are filled with these kinds of casualties and near misses. (“I love this man,” thinks one Diarist mid-coitus. “Mental anxiety attack when I realize I almost said this out loud.”) The commenters have no sympathy for these emotional miscalculations. This, by contrast, from one of the most well-received Diaries (“The TV Producer Who Knows Everyone”) that ever ran:

3 p.m. Already received two texts and countless Facebook IM’s from the Brit. Am slowly starting to realize I have a Stage Five Clinger on my hands. He asks me to hang out again this coming Sunday. I do not respond.

This Diary contained all of the elements that commenters favored: lots of action, multiple partners, emotional fickleness, bad judgment brashly flaunted, and tasty little morsels of private pain offered up in a drolly ingratiating tone.

5. The anxiety of appearing delusional.
The quality in a Sex Diary most admired by commenters is the kind of confidence (or masochism) that allows for ruthless candor. The commenters, it should be said, are a community unto themselves: part intimate support group, part vengeful gathering of Maoist Red Guards. Friends and underminers both, they make it clear that they are not just looking for masturbation material. They celebrate Diarists who exhibit the virtue of self-knowledge, and descend on those oblivious to their own weakness.

The Diarists seemed to recognize this, and over the years the journals have become increasingly reflective, with observational riffs and little bits of self-analysis. One Diarist calls herself “the most emotionally detached woman in the history of New York.” “I should probably be in therapy,” says another Diarist, “but instead I’m just hedonistic, and don’t let anyone get close. I know it’s all a power play.”

These are statements of psychological awareness, but they are also performances. They mask a deeper fear: that one might not be in complete control of one’s appearance. The Diarists cannot bear being judged without having let us know they have properly anticipated it.

6. The anxiety of appearing overly sincere.
Though the Diarists flaunt their emotional honesty, much of what they confess to concerns their terror of losing control. And there is no more efficient way to relinquish control than a sincere avowal of emotion.

The Diarists with the most active auctions use cutesy neologisms to assign categories to the multitude confronting them. One Diarist has three prospects: “the Ex-Boyfriend’s Friend (XBFF), the Art Director, and potentially the Love of My Life.” She’s hoping of the XBFF that “we can maybe talk about a possible long-distance pseudo-relationship.” (And she has been avoiding calling the potential LOML.) Another sends a cell-phone pic of her cleavage to “Band Dude” on day two of her Diary, but later that week finds herself in bed with the “Pseudo-Ex.”

The funny little names make for easy reading—they protect identities, and help us readers keep up with the narrative convolutions. But they also perform an important conceptual labor, subtly ironizing the ones about whom one might conceivably have feelings and neatly dismissing those labeled as a means to an end. There is a certain pride in understanding the limits of a transaction, and installing oneself in the safe position of narrator. This is particularly true for the female Diarists eager to portray themselves just as capable of using others as any man.


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