Jessica Martin was in the mood for adventure. She cranked the Hives on her stereo, rolled a Drum cigarette, and stood in front of her bathroom mirror, the digital camera her parents got her for her birthday resting on the sink. Petite and curvy, with big eyes and a black bob – Betty Boop working the electroclash look – the 26-year-old technical writer pouted. She tweezed her eyebrows. She put a barrette in her hair. Finally, she held the camera at chest level and aimed at her reflection. “It took a long time to upload the photos, because I had no idea what was up with that newfangled gadgetry. I’m just an old-fashioned girl,” says Jessica (or so she wants to be called), though it must be said, she’s nothing if not au courant. With a deep voice and an irrepressible laugh, she’s the girl who hangs out with the guys, an adrenaline junkie from Fort Greene whose fashion philosophy is of the body-as-palette variety. “I was trying to get exactly the right look: I wanted to look sultry and mysterious, a little jaded, like I know too much for my own good, very Catherine Keener or young Faye Dunaway.” Even Dunaway circa Network would have approved of the bitch-goddess number she did on the questionnaire for her online personal ad, which asks things like her “favorite onscreen sex scene” and her “most humbling moment”: “right now, being caused to remember my most humbling moment, I find it humbling (in the face of my supposed infallibility).” Who you’re looking for: “Tall, hilarious, serene, good with technical shit, solvent enough to go out for sushi a couple times a month. NO oversensitive guys: I will eat you for dinner and go out for ribs afterwards.” Anything else you want us to know: “Please bother someone else with your self-indulgent emotionally challenged view on the world. P.S. If this is not you, but your older brother or co-worker, let me know. I’ll pay a referral fee in flautas if I at least get some nookie out of the arrangement.”
Within seconds, her ad was live. “It was weird, seeing it pop up on the screen,” says Jessica. “I read through it, and I was like, well, that’s me, but it’s not me. I guess it’s the me I want to be.” When she woke up the next morning, she had 50 responses from men who called her “intriguing,” “sexy,” “a cool chick I want to hang with.” “Yeah, it was pretty awesome,” says Jessica, rolling another Drum at a bar around the corner from her house. “Look, I would like to make babies, but this is primo genetic material we’re dealing with here – quality control is a big issue. As much as I hope there’s some lurking jewel out there, right now, I’m just lonely, curious, and horny.”
What a difference a year makes. At the turn of 2002, only a few of my more desperate or socially inept friends had their own online personal ads. These days, I’d be hard-pressed to find one who hasn’t at least dabbled in the genre. A recent casual foray into a few dating sites yielded two work colleagues, an editor I briefly dated, three people from a high-school summer acting program (bizarre), and one stand-up comic who dumped me because I “wasn’t funny enough.” Seeing him reduced to online dating, I must admit, gave me great pleasure.
Just as during the sexual revolution, when it was discovered that having sex before marriage didn’t necessarily mean you’d end up emotionally damaged or consigned to eternal damnation, these days hooking up over the Internet is less Oliver Jovanovic and more Paris Hilton. Though a lot of people are certainly searching for soulmates online, it’s also become a way, in Jessica’s words, to “widen your sexual circle.” For some women, it’s now the 2003 version of the zipless fuck, an unapologetically no-strings-attached, purely sexual experience. Women, in other words, get to act like men.
For women, Internet dating is providing the 2003 version of the zipless fuck, unapologetically no-strings-attached, purely sexual experience. Women, in other words, get to act like men.
“I always thought that the people on these sites were a whole different segment of society, unemployed psychos out in suburbialand,” says lawyer Chris London, who runs a social-networking group. “I thought it was the people that you don’t see out in the scene. But you know what? It is the people you see out in the scene. Every single Jewish woman I know in New York is on JDate, and then I’ll go over to Lavalife, and there’s a girl from my Hamptons house advertising herself as ‘Pervygoddess.’ An ex called the other day to ask if I’d e-mail her some photos I had from a vacation we took together, and I knew exactly what it was for. She didn’t even try to deny it.” “I’ve gotten kind of out of control with the online stuff,” admits a 24-year-old publicist. “I’ll show up at the office and some of the people I work with will say, ‘You look really cute today!’ I’m like, ‘Really? Do you think I should go on a date?’ Then I’ll hop online and within ten minutes yell out, ‘I have a date!’ ” It’s all making Sex and the City seem a bit musty – not only by creating a new genre of dating but also by democratizing the fabulous foursome’s lives. These days, there’s a dating service for every demographic (some with the emphasis on dating, some on servicing), from racy Nerve to randy CraigsList (once known primarily as the place to find good no-fee apartments) to the personals on this magazine’s Website (and in our back pages). With posters in what seems like every subway car, Lavalife even offers the option of searching by sexual proclivity (conventional sex, domination/submission, or sex without intercourse, which I didn’t know was possible). All of this activity has been rebranded with a new post-moral moniker, “play.” “There is a new, higher-metabolism social animal emerging in the tide pools of online-dating communities, no doubt about it, particularly among those under 26,” agrees Rufus Griscom, co-founder of Nerve and chairman of Spring Street Networks, a feeder for personals on many sites, from Salon’s and The Onion’s to this magazine’s. “Online socializing is a vehicle for turbo-charging the social experience rather than some kind of crutch.” In other words, these aren’t people who necessarily have trouble getting laid – they just want to get laid more. No one is interested in lengthy e-mail courtships: People want to meet right away to see if there’s chemistry, so you’d better be as advertised, and that photo better be from this decade – though “no one ever looks like their photo,” complains Jessica. “This one guy looked like Johnny Depp in his photo, and then he showed up and looked like a chicken – I was afraid he was going to peck my eyeballs out.” Unlike with nineties cybersex, the emphasis here is not on creating a new identity out of whole cloth but on being yourself – at least the you that you want to be. “My whole ad has this faux-dominatrix vibe to it, which is funny, because I guess deep down I know I’m kind of a goofball,” says Jessica, who in fact tells dumb jokes quite a lot and likes to play board games; the one false note in her profile is when she writes,”I will either rub you the wrong way, or rub your, you know … ” She takes a drag of her cigarette. “I guess I just like the idea of being nastily outspoken. That ice-queen thing is me – it’s the part of me I’d like to flaunt more.” Fulfilling your fantasies is what this is about, after all. That’s what led a 32-year-old newspaper editor to post her ad, at the beginning of December. It had funny lines, like the best lie ever told: “Of course I came.” She added, “Vow From This Day Forward: I will never, ever do this again. Lie about it, I mean. I certainly hope to actually do it again!” Then there was Why you should get to know me. “I have declared December 2002 a morals-free zone, where I do what I want, when I want, with whom I want. I want to fuck you. Offer expires 12/31/02.” (She received responses from 70 men and met 10 of them. “Most of them have been quite surprised that I have a personality and a brain – I guess only dull, stupid women are supposed to be sexual? Whatever. I had the best sex of my life with one of them – he discovered my G spot, which I didn’t even know I had, I swear. I was like, ’This is what they’re talking about in Cosmo.’ “) Granted, most women aren’t taking such extreme steps, but meeting men over the Internet does provide an easy answer to a difficult problem. “I don’t want to give men that I might want to date the wrong idea by having sex with them, but I don’t want to live without sex,” says a friend of mine, who’s found tawdry Internet affairs to be a perfect antidote. “Now, isn’t that the most bizarre twenty-first-century quandary?”
Generation Sexless: No sex, please – we’re married! Between the kids and the economy, it’s no surprise that New Yorkers’ libidos are shrinking faster than their 401(k)s. (June 13, 2003)
Naked City: Recent stories by New York Magazine’s sex columnist Amy Sohn.
Where’s Woody?: The Sex and the City revolution has made plenty of men nervous. But when a trusted friend is nowhere to be found at the moment of truth, a young stud wants answers. (July 15, 2002)
StrictlyPersonal.com: Meet New York singles and make a match on New York Metro.
There’s something about the idea of people in the most titillating city in the world – where walking down the street can be an erotic experience – looking for sex online that seems somehow wrong. You are upstairs on your computer looking for people to meet; downstairs, everywhere you look, there are people to meet. And the whole thing is a little ass-backward: You’re not going to hook up with someone you’re not physically attracted to, and you have a much better chance of meeting someone you’re attracted to in the big wide world than on the computer, no? Still, it has its advantages, mostly on the building-confidence front. I’ll admit to having spent a few nights in the databases after an explosive breakup with my boyfriend. He had left me for someone else, and I was angry, brokenhearted, frantic to find a light at the end of the tunnel. I answered a few ads posted by guys I thought were particularly hot or funny, but lost my nerve when I looked a little more carefully at one of their photos and realized he was a classmate from Dalton. That wasn’t the fantasy I was after.
Plus, the whole enterprise was unsettling, putting me in a constant state of semi-arousal (You mean I could have sex with him? And him? And him?). Men might like that feeling, but it made me nervous. And all that trolling took an immense amount of time, despite the common wisdom that it’s the best shortcut around the messy, excruciating experience of finding a mate. Nor do you know more about suitors when you meet them in person – in fact, you end up talking about all that dumb first-date stuff anyway, because the person sitting across from you is still a stranger, no matter whether you share a favorite onscreen sex scene. In fact, online dating has its own annoying requirements. There’s always something to do, whether it’s tweaking a profile to yield the maximum results from the optimal suitors, or updating it constantly to remain at the top of an ever-lengthening list of personals, to say nothing of sifting through the staggering number of responses (at least if you’re female; men are still the majority of users). Then you’ve got to run around and meet these people, and a lot of them are creeps. “It has completely taken over my life,” admits Jessica. “But in a good way. You get to be in all these Sex and the City plotlines without ever having to put on shoes that hurt.” There are all the stories you’d expect: the stockbroker who takes women to lunch at Jean Georges and afterwards shopping for a dog bowl with his name on it. A friend of a friend, a Philadelphia businessman, keeps a pied-à-terre in the city for weekends to “enjoy the ease and quantity of New York women,” arranging five or six dates through JDate beforehand. A colleague reports: “A couple months ago, this guy I met through Nerve took me to dinner and then we fooled around in the bathroom of a bar and then he exposed himself to me on the subway platform. He thought it was sexy!”
Here I am having these tawdry affairs because I don’t want to give men I might want to date the wrong idea by having sex with them, but I don’t want to live without sex.
In fact, the online personals could serve as a laboratory for studying people’s ideas of what’s sexy. “I have ads on all the sites,” says a divorced stockbroker in his forties. “Usually, I meet women at Pastis, in my kilt. It’s a quick way of separating the wheat from the chaff – it lets you know immediately that I have my own peccadilloes. And it’s oddly masculine in its own way.” He recently took home a 20-year-old he met on CraigsList. “She left pretty quick in the morning – I think she felt buyer’s remorse. Oh, well, it was fun for me.” “The first girl I met was Miss J.Crew, a preppy cutie,” says Adam, 36. “I was like, ‘If this is what online dating is like, bring it on!’ She wanted to get together right away, so we met for dinner that Tuesday on Third Avenue. Although I can be pretty sexually adventurous, it was a school night, so I was thinking dinner and back home. But she attacked me! We went back to her place, some phat townhouse in the Seventies. She’s got a roommate, and I’m thinking the place is too nice for a roommate situation, but whatever, and the roommate’s some old guy, but whatever. He goes upstairs and we have mad sex on the couch. Then I don’t hear from her for a year, until she calls to say she owes me an apology – that ‘roommate’ was her husband. He gets off on her being with other men.” Truth be told, it’s stunning how many married men are dating online (the only more-represented group of men may be those under five nine). Upon soliciting interview subjects for this story, I received a lot of e-mails like this one: “I’m 33, live in midtown, work downtown for a major financial house in risk management, married, no kids. Been cheating almost since I got married. With the various women I’ve been with, it’s ranged from straight vanilla sex to bondage to threesomes to sex toys to making a home movie. So far I’ve slept with two dozen women, all met through the Internet, with three long-term affairs of at least a year, including a current girlfriend who I see twice a week.” “After a couple months of seeing this guy, I got this weird feeling that he was married,” says a friend, “so I started bugging him about it over e-mail and finally he sent me a message without any writing in it, just a photo attachment. It was the same shot he used in his personal, and in that one you could tell he had his arm around someone who’d been cropped out, but now it was intact – the other person was his wife.” But a few weeks ago, she went out with a journalist to the Magnolia Bakery for cupcakes. “We went outside right when it started to pour,” she says, “and there we were, cupcakes in our hands, balancing umbrellas, and we just started to kiss, the umbrellas trailing behind us like a sixties movie poster.” The first guy Jessica dated wasn’t married, but he was divorced – they met at MoMA, where he greeted her with a single red rose, but the sex was bad. “Then, the next day, it turned out that the rose was infested with fruit flies. It took me a week to squash them all.” Next up was an Emmy winner – still, “he had confidence issues. Go figure” – and then Anger Management Guy, who drove her back to Fort Greene at the end of the date, but when they got stopped for speeding and he couldn’t talk the officer out of the ticket, he yelled out the window at the policeman’s retreating back, “Thanks for nothing, Officer Dickhead!” More recently, there was a dictionary editor who by the second drink had told her about all his heroin-addicted ex-wife, plus how his mother hated him, plus how he was deathly afraid of women who wear high heels. She rolls her eyes: “I mean, TMI” – too much information. Just when she was feeling cursed, she met a film projectionist on the Upper West Side who looked like Vin Diesel and was “the best, ahem, built I’ve ever had.” For their first date, she brought him hot chocolate at the theater. “It’s so cool in the booth, nothing’s digitized, it’s like you’ve gone back 40 years in time,” she says. “He had this little schedule in his pocket and ran around from theater to theater changing the reels. Did you know that when they transport those big film canisters they put code names on the outside, to deter thieves? Like Black Hawk Down will be White Eagle Up.” After a few months, though, he started to complain that she said whatever popped into her mind without thinking. “When he said it, I said thank you,” says Jessica, “because I thought it was a compliment.” It wasn’t a compliment. This was a discouraging turn of events, but on the train home from work one day, she had an epiphany. Sandwiched between a bunch of people on the downtown A, she started to read a W. H. Auden poem on a “Poetry in Motion” poster:
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well That, for all they care, I can go to hell. But on earth indifference is the least We have to dread from man or beast. How should we like it were stars to burn With a passion for us we could not return? If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me. “I was like, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ ” says Jessica, who Googled the poem when she got home, printed it out, and stuck it on her fridge. “That’s why this online-dating stuff is so great – it’s a way to overcome whatever hurt you have from ex-boyfriends or weird things in your past, a way to refocus on how important it is just to put your love out there. That’s what the whole ice-queen thing was about: pretending that I didn’t care about what I was getting back from people, even though I cared so much. I don’t mean to sound like some lobotomized self-help addict, but for the first time, I no longer feel like I have to pretend.”
There’s nothing wrong with people feeling less lonely, or having a new sense of optimism about the abounding fish in the sea, or acting on a fantasy that would previously have remained just that. But perhaps it’s also made commitment seem a lot less appealing: Never before has the idea of having a girlfriend or boyfriend had less purchase on a generation. Will they commit, ever? “There is probably a downside – a more liquid, fast-moving marketplace may cause some people to feel that they can always trade up, and you can make a case that endless options are the enemy of contentment,” says Griscom. “This is the quote-unquote late-capitalist existential crisis. Well, you can reminisce about the good old days when you lived on the family farm and married your cousin. Sure, life is simpler and more stable when people have very few options. I’ll take the present.” Jessica, in any case, has finally found someone she likes. He’s a law student who likes her confidence but also accepts the goofy, silly part underneath. “Honestly, I never thought it would happen,” says Jessica. “I always thought I was too high-energy or too selfish or too crazy to settle down. But now I think I just never found the right person, because there’s no substitute for someone constant, someone to say ‘Hi, honey, how was your day?’ or ‘I love you’ every night.” A few days ago, she “hid” her online profile, so she’s not receiving any more responses from guys at the moment. “Yeah, I’m off the junk,” she says. “At least for now.”