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Rise of the Soft Man

Used to be men had only one thing on their minds. But these days, complains the author, they all seem to have a headache.

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Recently, I went and had a beer or five with an attractive young man who'd been e-mailing me since we met at a party in late spring. After six hours of chatting and a half-hour of stumbling through the sticky summer night, he was still talking -- lingering, I would argue -- in front of my door at two in the morning. I was tired. He was cute. I leaned in for the good-night kiss. A look of wild horror swept his face, and he screamed, "Whoa! Hey!" as if I had grabbed his crotch. Or his wallet. I shrugged and went inside my apartment.

Whoa. Hey. I flatter myself to think that my lips headed toward someone else's might elicit a response like Score! Or perhaps Okay. But apparently I overestimate my powers.

It took a few days for me to stop cringing at the memory, but really I was fine. That's the way it goes.

My friend Emma had just returned a few days earlier from a booty call to Los Angeles that went belly-up. She'd met a film producer at a wedding a few months back, and they'd been, natch, e-mailing ever since. Sometimes, the messages would even end with "What are you wearing?" So she was flummoxed to find herself sitting on his bed untouched while he fussed around his room looking for CDs and reasons not to come near her. Eventually he asked, "Are you comfortable? You don't seem comfortable."

Emma's not much for pitter-patter. "It's just that I kind of thought when I was out here we'd be having sex," she told him.

"But we will have sex," he said. "Tonight I just have to go to a birthday party."

He never called her again. (To add insult to injury, he was signed by Mike Ovitz a few days later.)

All this begs the obvious question, What the hell? I started asking around to find out whether it was just us or if men have actually banded together in a conspiracy not to put out. "I basically refuse to sleep with any more people," says one well-known writer, confirming the worst. "If you're a man in my position, which is to say 35, single, hetero, HIV-negative, solvent, good-enough-looking, and not a banker asshole, you could have a lot of sex if that's what you wanted. But I just realized I'd slept with enough people."

"We will have sex," he said. "But tonight I'm going to a birthday party." He never called again. (To add insult to injury, he was signed by Ovitz days later.)

Hmm, enough people. How can one tell? "I reached this point where I was sleeping with women more because I was expected to than because I wanted to," he explains. "Right before I entered this phase -- 'the New Purity,' I call it -- I fooled around with this woman at a wedding. She clearly wanted to pursue something; she was very persistent. Finally I said, 'Listen, I just don't think we're a good match.' She said, 'Okay, but we could just have some fun.' The implication was pretty clear," he tells me, practically winking.

"It stunned me," he continues. Here's this woman who wants to have the kind of relationship that men have always wanted -- and it's not to her advantage!" Well, not if you turn her down it isn't, but what if you'd said yes? "I don't buy the idea that women are sexual machines like men are; the wiring is a little different. I watch Sex and the City, and I'm like, those whores! How incredibly shallow they are to bed-hop in this way! I think it makes them really unappealing and really unsexy. Pathetic, actually."

Youch. Pathetic whore is much worse than whoa hey. But why does he reserve so much contempt for women who want "what men have always wanted" -- what he wanted not long ago? It sounds like what's really at stake here is power -- surprise! -- rather than sex. Possibly, Mr. Purity's feelings reflect a grim, larger truth: that all along, men were in it more for the conquest than for the bumping and grinding that used to follow it. Now that sex is offered freely, they wonder, can it really be so great after all?

As for "the wiring," I don't buy the idea that women are like men, either. "Women were always thought to be the more lascivious gender," says John Jay College professor Carol Groneman, who has just published a history of nymphomania. "Look at Greek mythology, or even at the first temptress, Eve. It wasn't until the eighteenth century that women were recast as modest and submissive. Historians have linked this to the rise of the bourgeoisie and their desire to differentiate themselves from a debauched lower class."

That's all well and good, but I can remember a time when men wanted sex. You could set your clock to it. Some of the other men I spoke with had considerably gentler perceptions of women who enjoy the occasional romp, but that still doesn't mean they were about to join in. "If girls like having a lot of sex, they should have it," says a generous 27-year-old Internet entrepreneur. "But for me . . . Look, if I could be granted a wish, and it was like every time I'd be great, it'd be fun, then I'd do it all the time," he says. "But you don't know when you won't be able to . . . you never know. And you don't want all the girls to gab about it." Ah. Performance anxiety. Well, you can't really hold that against a guy. If my body betrayed my boredom or fear in intimate situations, I'd never let it out of the house.

But there are plenty of men out there who have every confidence in their prowess and refuse to share it with others all the same. "When I was younger, I was crazy for girls -- they were the focal point of my life," says a 28-year-old art director who works in fashion, carries a man purse, and looks very much like a male model. "I can remember times when I slept with three or four women in a single day. But then I started feeling like, why? You get what you pay for with sex, and it's more satisfying if you've actually invested something."

This I find persuasive. Many of us would prefer sex with a loved one to yet another anonymous coupling that culminates with "Okay, bye." If there were a sign-up sheet for perfect love, I would pay good money to get my name on it. But I am not aware of any such list. Just parties, blind dates, bars, friends of friends. So even if we want the real thing just as much as our newly pure gentlemen friends do, in the absence of a list, we assess the situation and do what men have always done (until lately, anyway). We say, Fuck it, and do.

So what happened to men -- men! -- to make them so sensitive? Partly, they would have us believe, it's a response to the New Impurity of women. To hear these soft men talk, you'd think they were regularly surrounded by drooling packs of Do Me Feminists out trolling for sex in the moonlight. And if they haven't actually encountered these succubi in the flesh, they've seen them on television or in the movies, undulating insatiably in thongs, writhing in bandeau tops.

Apparently, all it took to propel a Victorian man into a frenzy of desire was a little flash of ankle, an understated peep show in a world of repression. Could it be that men are now so saturated with Britney's midriff and J-Lo's backside that all it takes to propel them into a world of repression is an understated peep show of female desire? Or are they just plum tuckered out?

My last undersexed suitor unexpectedly gave me his pitch for A Weekend Away just before he turned 38. "Ambition has been my partner," he said earnestly one night at dinner, after we'd been dating sporadically for about five months. "I want to experience intimacy with a person."

So I bought a bikini and he somehow managed to rent a car the Thursday before the Fourth of July, and we headed for Montauk. Our room was beautiful, on the water. We went out on a boat and caught unthinkably large bass and bluefish, which we barbecued in the moonlight at his friend's house near Georgica Pond. He didn't touch me once the whole time. It was a long weekend.

Ambition is often the soft man's invisible other woman. I would later find out -- via e-mail, that most pervasive and passive-aggressive form of romantic communication -- that he had been preoccupied with a pending lawsuit at his ad firm during that interminable holiday vacation. Exhausted from the endless pursuit of success, it is all the soft man can do to get a girl to the bar or the beach. Once he has her there, he'd rather use her shoulder to cry on than her anything else for anything else.

It's not all that bad, really. Emma put it best when she returned from L.A. with nothing to show for her troubles. "I'm all right," she told me. "I'm just gagging for a shagging."


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