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Serious Fun

So much for sex in the age of conspicuous consumption. since september 11, more New Yorkers want marriages, fewer are having casual sex, and many are happier with their dating lives. Maybe less is more.

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After all that's happened, it's still hard to put a finger on how exactly the culture of the city has changed in the past few months. But change it has. I remember being at a bar maybe five years ago and overhearing a woman ask her friend, "Have you slept with that guy?" She was slim and slick with blow-dryer-straight hair and a pastel cocktail. Her friend said she hadn't. "Good," the woman replied. "I'll do it for you."

It's hard to believe the nineties were actually like that: Balthazar and dot-coms, hookups and monkfish. Even if it wasn't your life, it was the New York state of mind. We felt daring, acquisitive, invulnerable. I made half as much money then, but I remember spending more and worrying about it less -- there was so much cash rolling around, it seemed logical to assume that some of it would imminently land in my lap. Really, who knew what might wind up in your lap? Sex was the most affordable form of conspicuous consumption of all, and you tried to get yourself the best and the most. It seemed perfectly appropriate -- glamorous, really -- to bounce from bed to bed, just as we were bouncing from stock to stock and shop to shop.

September 11 didn't change everything singlehandedly, of course. There were other moments along the way, like the bursting of the Internet bubble, and Lizzie Grubman's bad night at Conscience Point, when you could feel the glitzocracy dissolving.

Safety, family, community, all those values not necessarily celebrated in a sleek TriBeCa bistro, are not just words used by politicians anymore. These days, we aren't so giddy out there in the night by ourselves. The sky could fall -- it already has once: Who will hold your hand?

These are more than perceptions. A poll of more than 600 city singles commissioned by New York and MetroTV, and conducted by Global Strategy Group, Inc., shows New Yorkers changing their attitudes about dating, romance, and nightlife in surprisingly large numbers. Thirty-six percent of singles say they are more interested in marriage, 32 percent are more interested in a family, and 46 percent want a more serious relationship since the 11th. "I feel like there could be a third world war or something; I feel like I should get married before it gets any worse," says Diana Roderick, a 31-year-old from the Bronx. She's not alone. "I'm looking for a more serious relationship," says 20-year-old Lisa Plubla. "Before 9/11, I wasn't even looking; I was just out having fun. A lot of people I know are already in serious relationships or getting married, and now I think I want that, too." Thirty-nine percent of gay New Yorkers polled are also more interested in a serious relationship -- marriage, remember, is not a legal option -- and 22 percent are more interested in a family.

That exhilarating moment when women were supposed to be the new men -- and all the ladies'-night-style sexual opportunism that implied -- seems to be slipping away. The women we polled were considerably more gunned up about fusing into a post-September 11 domestic cocoon than the men. "The wish to be with someone is more urgent," says Tina, a 29-year-old musicologist. "I am more drawn to people who are open and sensitive -- and everyone seems to be a little more open and sensitive since 9/11."

Well, women a little more so than men. (Sorry.) Forty-two percent of women polled are more interested in marriage now, compared with 29 percent of the men, and 36 percent of women said "more" to family versus 27 percent of men. A 36-year-old male attorney from the Upper East Side told us, "The women I'm meeting since September 11 are more likely to be concerned with 'long term' right up front. I am, too, but not as concerned as these women." Scaling things down a bit commitment-wise, 41 percent of women say they are now more likely to date "for a relationship than for fun," compared with 31 percent of men. Stay tuned for the return of toxicity to bachelorhood.

Even if you were busy making nourishing baby food in Park Slope in the nineties, you knew that somewhere in the meatpacking district, singles in tube tops were out trolling the night for erotic adventure and fabulosity in general. And if you are a member of that second group, you may be uncomfortably aware that it's now the responsible grown-ups who are getting all the attention -- the family is looking awfully attractive in pop culture these days. In the fantasy New York of Friends, Monica and Rachel's fun-and-pigtails bachelorette pad has become Monica and Chandler's first home as man and wife. Meanwhile, Rachel is pregnant and living with Joey. (This I have no explanation for.) On Sex and the City, once -- recently -- the televised manifesto of sharp-heeled sluts across the city, the focus has shifted from issues of dating and doing it to issues of marriage, cohabitation, and parenthood. There is a moment in one episode this season when Samantha -- Samantha! -- proclaims, "I think I have monogamy," looking at married Charlotte, engaged Carrie, and pregnant Miranda. "I must have got it from you people."

In advertising, we are seeing fewer greasy nudes and more moms. Banana Republic has those pictures of a baby nestled between his hip mom and his Gary-from-thirtysomething-like dad. Kate Spade shows little cuties in devil costumes and elegant parents patrolling their classy but loving homes. Versace has been featuring a mommy, a maid, and a child (albeit a miserable one), suggesting that even the richest among us are glamorizing responsibility of a sort.

And in fashion, comfy is in. Designers like Marc Jacobs and Miuccia Prada have been showing pajama-ish eveningwear -- a far cry from the bitchy, stretchy garments emblazoned relentlessly with interlocking Gs (which might as well have been $'s) that we used to think were so cool. Meanwhile, the aforementioned pocketbook queen, Kate Spade, recently told a reporter she's been busy cooking roast chicken and chocolate-chip cookies until one o'clock in the morning in fits of domesticity.

In keeping with this new, grown-up mood, our poll suggests that New Yorkers aren't simply more invested in relationships; we have an increased commitment to all things cozy. Fifty-eight percent of New Yorkers say that an evening spent nesting in their apartments sounds more appealing than one spent going out on the town. "Before September 11, going out was easier . . . the bars on Houston Street used to be packed until two or three in the morning, and now they are empty," says Richard Tsai, a 32-year-old furniture consultant in Brooklyn. "It changed because people don't go out to have fun like before." Says Heather Middleton, a 23-year-old financial-services trader, "After September 11, I think I'm more focused on finding a relationship; I've started thinking I should really meet someone . . . I don't go out just to go out. I have to feel like it could go somewhere."

She's not the only one. Thirty-four percent of our respondents have dated less frequently and dated fewer people since September 11. "I've slowed down since 9/11," says 21-year-old Brooklynite Cara Sentino. "I used to go out more often and meet guys in clubs. Now I stay home more at night; I just feel like I haven't done that in a while." Thirty-six percent of New Yorkers say that they are now more likely to date with the express intention of entering a relationship. "I am pickier," says Heather Middleton. "I don't want to waste my time on someone who's not going to work out." And 35 percent of our respondents report having less casual sex than before. Apparently, what we want now at one in the morning isn't hot, anonymous sex; it's hot chocolate-chip cookies and chicken.

When we last polled New Yorkers about their sexual and romantic habits, in 1998, 7 percent of respondents said they "almost always" had sex on the first date and 8 percent reported they did so "very often," compared with a mere 2 percent of "always" and 4 percent of "often" now. That means that about half as many New Yorkers are engaging in casual sex, at least the kind preceded by a date. "My outlook is that I want to find someone and I want sex to mean more than just sex," says 32-year-old Manhattanite Karen Jacobson. "After the 11th, people realized that life was too short to expect certain things . . . I don't care if I'm taken to a scene-y restaurant on a date. Take me to an Irish pub and we'll just talk."

All of this didn't happen in a single, horrible day. When we asked New Yorkers whether, since September 11, they've been dating more, been dating for different reasons, been having more casual sex, and become more interested in pursuing marriage and family, for each of those questions, about half of our respondents answered that their behavior has not changed. A whopping 81 percent said that the qualities they look for in a mate haven't changed, either.

Fashion, in turn, has been getting increasingly diaphanous and less scary for several seasons now. Rachel has been pregnant since Monica and Chandler's wedding last spring. This season of Sex and the City, which started on January 6, feels like a response to September 11, but in actuality all six episodes were already completed by then. The one reference to that day was unintentional: Throughout the season, Carrie shakes a snow globe of lower Manhattan when she's feeling contemplative -- the Twin Towers call out to us every time she does it, but this is accidental poignancy.

Pop culture and, reciprocally, the American mood are always swinging back and forth between the puritanical and the Dionysian -- we stay too long in one place and suddenly the other looks fresh (the ultimate entertainment-industry compliment) once again. So, for the moment, Blahniks and sport-fucking seem tired and empty, while wedded bliss looks chic and deep. Perhaps the happiest news our poll provides is that while many New Yorkers have been dating less than we had before September 11, the majority also say their romantic lives have gotten better in the past few months. (New Yorkers happier with less: no small feat.) And, whether or not we reach the lofty new relationship goals we're setting, the good news is that we are enjoying trying to get there.


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