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The terrifying free market of modern love

2013 February 17
by Zoe Strimpel
If only multiple partners were this easy.

If only multiple partners were this easy.

At the Union this week I opined on the whys and wherefores of the “loss” of sexual meaning in today’s world. What I wrote was, in the end, a relatively conservative speech. It came down to a plea for intimacy unmediated by video clips of humping strangers. Porn=ruinous, hypersexuality=bad. I went deep into anti porn arguments, the proof of how porn seeps into our everyday psyches, numbing us and forcing performativity into our bedrooms when we yearn, or I believe somewhere inside of our lizard brains, yearn for some kind of naked authenticity.

I lambasted hypersexuality – as Ariel Levy puts it, the “hypersexual thumping” of our society. I lambasted sex without “meaning”.

But I didn’t define what the right amount of sexuality is, and thus what the right amount of sex might be, when or with whom, nor what the relationship between that right amount and meaning and finally, happiness, might be.

That’s because I honestly don’t know, though I wish I did. Clearly the answer would not be the same for everyone, though what’s right for everyone is never the stuff of personal conviction. And nothing is right for everyone.

So, what I want to know is: would “we” be happier if we only had sex in relationships? Some people do just that, after all. Is casual sex a male-priveliging construct masquerading as liberatory action for women, or is it really a happy outcome of the “sexual revolution” that women can take a quantitative as well as a qualitative approach, or an impulsive one at any rate?

The problem as I see it is on the level of the psyche and the way feelings of guilt, allegiance and desire for devotion (which we feel ought to be reciprocal) have been built into our psyches. Rationally, “each to their own” should be just fine. You should be able to see, date, flirt with, kiss, maybe even sleep with whoever you want. Nobody owns you. And you can do all of that (though modern sexual etiquette tells you all the partners need to know they’re not the only ones). So why the rub, the angst here? Well, we have this terminology – “I’m seeing other people”/”I’m sleeping with other people”/”I am dating other people” as if these are isolated, detachable activities, like rock-climbing or going to the movies. They aren’t, though. To me, the casual simultaneity of the modern dating system seems like a false friend, a fake sell. Because unlike a spot of chess playing in the park with a stranger, each of these flirtations/encounters goes somewhere. They become either wastes of time, disappointments or real attachments. Wastes of time and disappointments are easier to deal with in a way- they’re the (occasionally destructive) detritus of sexual freedom. But when more than one of these things becomes a real, or a potentially real attachment as surely they must, that simultaneity begins to feel evil. The true modern at ease in their skin is meant to pick the favourite and ditch the less promising contender. For those less at ease, that pesky psyche kicks in and begins mewling. Feelings of guilt, fear of disappointing the “loser” or of being disappointed/making the wrong choice, creep in. Put in rational terms, you’ve done nothing wrong. You haven’t explicitly lied and I repeat, you don’t belong to anyone. You have no duty. And yet your mewling psyche is suggesting you might have a sense of duty and so in creep the the feelings of guilt, confusion and fun-spoiling nonetheless. This jarring, between stern psyche and liberal cultural framework, is extremely uncomfortable.  Now, if I was using “liberal” here in an ironic or sarcastic way, the case would be closed: ignore the evil credos of modernity, hark back to pre-feminist ideals and off you go with your virtue and moral purity in tact. But that’s not what I’m saying. For I believe that this sexually liberal society is a rational, clever structure, far preferable to what came before in the death-by-childbirth, dowry-wrangling and virginity-for-sale days. It pushes for individualism, self-ownership and not answering to anyone. This is “freedom”, of course. So, by participating in, or working towards, a modern feminist society, one feels rather like one ought to be enacting these manifestations of freedom. 

But what precisely do I mean by the “freedom dictates” of our sexually liberal society? (NB these seem applicable mostly to a certain socio-economic class for whim marriage and more traditional structures are not necessary for getting by either socially or economically). I mean the confidence to have non-exclusive relationships, having multiple partners at once on whim and without guilt, being open about this state, ie that one is “seeing other people“, not muddling sex with “signs” of intimacy, that is, being able to do both without one necessarily impinging on or ruining the other, calling one’s constellation of partners “lovers” and thus evoking some old bohemian notion of free love unfettered by even older notions of guilt and the religious horrors this suggests.

Now here are a few of the inconvenient and contradictory feelings that may arise for people living among these sorts of discourses: a consumer attitude towards men alongside a questing for “the one” who gets it all, ticks all boxes, gets me totally, loves me totally; greedy; stressed; deceitful, dissatisfied, critical, annoyed at potential wastage of opportunities, exploitative, demanding, numb, worried.

Capitalism is another system I basically respect (sorry ’bout that, Marxist friends). Consumerism is its handmaiden. Indeed, much has been written about the relationship between capitalism, consumerism and romance. But what has not been satisfactorily resolved to my knowledge is our society’s elision of consumption/gain/accrual of resources with the consumption/gain/accrual of bed post notches/relationships/dates. At this point I volunteer myself as your classic greedy person. I am full of appetites. I want more. I want everything – the problem is that “everything” is, literally, everything. It’s chocolate, it’s fun, it’s holidays, it’s romance, it’s experience, it’s this kind of night out and that kind of night out; it’s conversations, ideas-sharing, and I want more youth. But sticking with economic capitalism, if I have enough money, I can buy the goods I want. All of them. Affluence brings the luxury not of choice but of *not* having to choose. In fact, the particular form of satedness that comes from having lots of everything, that is, the satedness of gluttony.

So what happens when gluttony – the fair and just desserts (as it were) of capitalist enterprise – seeps into emotions, sex, love, and the trappings of all three? When men become pawns in a game (as women for centuries have been for men) of power and validation? When you want more of them, when you get more of them (as nobody’s stopping you), and on and on? Utter confusion. Dark stirrings. A sense of wrong-ness. If you are entirely unfettered, or “monogamish” as America’s GGG (Good, Giving, Game) community of modern relationship-havers calls it, then how can you not feel that the main event, the partner figure, is holding you back from other opportunities? That the other opportunities, since you’re permitting yourself to have them, don’t ruin your time with your main event? And what if it’s true – that you ARE being held back?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I suspect wisdom is the field in which the answer lies. It does seem to me, though, that if our  Puritanical (or is it our Marxist) psyches moan loudly enough, we will be forced to consider that more is not always more. At least when it comes to what we want the most: more.


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