On the cover of the New York Times Sunday Styles section this weekend, the always thoughtful and provocative writer Alex Williams makes the argument that hookup culture is being fueled by technology: text messages, check-ins, and languorous perusal of dating profiles as if they are so many racks of clothes or items in a supermarket aisle. Millenials, he says, are “subverting the rules of courtship,” which makes it sound like it’s actually fun to be asked to get “a drink or whatever” with a guy you met on the Internet and have a bunch of his friends be there too, a scenario faced by one of the sources in the article (she turned down the offer). That source, a 27-year-old social media and blog manager, rightly called this proposition “a step above a high five.”
Williams recently wrote about the New Disconnectedness in a great article about how friendships change as you age, but here, he sounds a bit like a nature documentarian stalking an elusive subject. Hookups have existed since the dawn of alcohol, if not before. If Williams’ sources are any indication, the problem is not that gadgets enable people to treat each other as short-term sources of pleasure, but that gadgets enable young men to be the way they have been forever: emotionally underdeveloped relative to their direct female peers, commitment-phobic, pack-oriented and more prone to fleeing than to fighting — game for adventure, not so game for settling down.
The final message of Williams’ piece is that a bunch of young, straight women were disappointed by young, straight men who treated them as if they were disposable, or at least, that they were no more than a friend, and certainly not worthy of being wined and dined. Where are the male sources in this article? If this is an actual problem, a problem faced by people of both sexes and all sexual orientations, why are 20-something straight women the only people with supposed horror stories about keg parties and terse communications and getting half-heartedly invited to a group date via text message at 10:30 at night?
I’m a millennial, and when I think back on all my relationships and flings and hookups, the ones that worked for me involved technology just as much as the ones that didn’t. For as long as I’ve been having sex, there has been the text message, the e-mail and the instant message. Sure, the best relationships have tended to involved more long, thoughtful e-mails, epic instant message exchanges and digital plans that turn into meaningful real-life hangs and dates. But some of the biggest loves, the most consuming connections, also included brief, cryptic text messages, opportunistic late-night calls, “dates” that turned into group hangs, and casual meetups that turned out to be more romantic than dinner and a bottle of wine. Love is unexpected, “the heart wants what it wants,” and so on. Sometimes the recipe for true love is weeks of frustrating text message banter, or even years of silence.
Similarly, I have felt heartbreak and disappointment in places where there was no technology of any kind save for a landline. In those cases, I may have actually found a cell phone or an Internet connection to be pretty useful, because face-to-face communication, body language, pages-long handwritten notes written on shaggy sheets of paper torn from a spiral-bound notebook and ESP just weren’t doing the trick. Still, there was an investment of both space and time with those relationships, as fraught as they may have been in the end. There was a hell of a lot of face time, for lack of a better term, and, for me at least, I don’t know if a shared history in physical space can ever be rivaled by a shared chat history or text history. At least, my memories of sharing both my, er, geolocation and my time with certain people are richer and more plentiful in my head. The sensory experience of those memories is just more substantial, more variegated. But there are many texts, emails and chats that come awfully close. Face-to-face communication can be terrifying, stultifying. The men of my past have said some things electronically that I don’t know if they’d be brave enough to say to my face, and the same goes for me. You can be sitting next to a person and saying absolutely nothing and feel more than if they were seducing you over text message. But the converse is also true.
But here is where we can ask a question that is often on the brains of digitally-minded humans of all ages, including Williams: whether technology is stunting all of us further because it is actually supplanting face-to-face communication. In the early stages of courtship, we may be “too busy” to meet more than once every couple of weeks, but there is a good chance what we’re actually doing during that time is dicking around on the Internet, possibly browsing other people’s profiles on OKCupid. In the time it would take us to ride the subway to a bar and have two drinks with someone, we could instead scroll through Facebook a couple of times, check Twitter, look at some porn, read a few news articles, and buy a pair of shoes. Our brain seems to need this time built into our daily lives; it’s a habit, and it’s so much easier than going out. The stakes are lower. We can find connections there, on the Internet, but the keyword there is “find.” Our attention there is so spliced, our commitments so varied, that it can be hard to carve out a digital space for connection, love, or a bit of fun with a person, and to actually stay in it for more than a few minutes, to invest the time and attention. But if you do, there’s no question it can be just as significant as getting drinks or more so.
“We would go to cafes,” my mother recalls of her 20s in Montreal and Toronto, “and we would hear someone like Joan Baez, and when she wasn’t playing, we’d just talk and talk and talk.” It’s hard to hear this and not long for the ’60s again. But it is still possible to “talk and talk and talk.” Alongside the noise of the crowd we now have the noise of our news feeds — the noise of more choice. But it would be wrong to think that just because my mother and her friends and dates talked incessantly to each other that the 20-something men she knew back then did not have had a tendency to be completely unromantic, hard to pin down, and emotionally stunted. My father didn’t even hail a cab for my mother after their first date; he just kind of awkwardly sauntered off. That was 40 years ago.
The truth is I don’t know any men in their 20s who want to be committed, and few women who want to be. This is not just an aversion of Hannah, the 24-year-old aspiring writer at the center of Girls, who rejects her boyfriend’s offer of love and cohabitation in favor of casual sex, friendship and professional focus. It’s also an aversion of many women in their late 20s and early 30s. More and more, we strive for financial independence, for certain career successes, to play the field, and to know ourselves before we “settle down.” We don’t feel a pressure to be married by 30 anymore, nor should we. The only people who still want that for us are our tradition-bound mothers and grandmothers (“I don’t want that for you!” my mother countered last night on the phone). More women in their 30s are single because they want to date until they find exactly what they want.
Our direct peers, men in our own narrow age bracket, may seem undatable. Many 20-something men are traveling the world, or living with their parents. Many still like games, mental and literal. They may not be great at communicating. They may keep their cards close to their chests. They may love their friends above all else. They may long to be free. Good for them. Many 20-something women can be described as such, too, yet none of them featured in Williams’ article. The problem with the women in his article is that they seem to think love springs from some dusty old rulebook of romance, which I found surprising. The other problem, which is easier to solve, might simply be that they’re dating men in their 20s. I could fill a book with the slights and frustrations I’ve experienced dating men in their mid- to late-20s, though of course this is only my experience. I don’t think any amount of phone calls, intimate dates or thoughtful letters could have saved us. What we both needed was time — years of it.