By the law of three-makes-a-trend, I am now obliged to consider reports of the death of sex. In case you’ve missed these dispatches, allow me to fill you in on what you’ve been missing (aside from sex, apparently): First, the New York Observer ran an article proclaiming, “Young New Yorkers no longer care about having sex.” Meg Wolitzer, author of “The Uncoupling,” a magical realist novel about a sex-strike, followed up with a commentary in the New York Times about whispers in her friend circle of 40-plus women about growing “sexual disengagement.” That brings us to this past weekend, which saw the publication of a Times Op-Ed by Erica Jong lamenting the sexlessness of young women today.
This concern isn’t new, it’s just the latest in a long history of arguments about how sex is being corrupted or destroyed. Previously, cultural commentators put the blame on the pervasiveness of pornography and sexually aggressive girls who scare boys out of their boners; and let’s not forget the ever-present argument that sex before marriage is sinful and perverse. It seems that no matter the state of the current sexual union, someone somewhere is gravely concerned that everyone else is doing it wrong. More often than not, though, concerns about what other people are doing behind closed doors are really just our own projected anxieties about sex — whether it’s about what goes on in our own bedrooms, or our ability to maintain some semblance of control over the driving force of desire.
Beyond this customary nosiness, these recent reports specifically reflect current anxieties. What all three pieces have in common is that they link this alleged sexual malaise to technology. The Observer piece claims that young New Yorkers are more enamored with the smooth body of their iPhones than actual human flesh, more invested in upping their number of Twitter followers than notches on their bedposts. These caricatured young professionals get off on onanistic maintenance of their Facebook profiles, not on real-life human interaction. It strikes me that this is really just a way of expressing the depth of despair over the fact that, as I’ve written in the past, we feel “more connected, and yet more isolated, than ever.”
Sex often stands in as a marker of personal and relationship health. As Wolitzer, who also gave a nod to the “seductions” of Facebook, Wikipedia and pornography, wrote in the Times, “[I]t’s as if we still believe sex equals strength, health and life; and therefore, not-sex equals weakness, illness and death.” Maybe it isn’t as simple as that, but the connections are certainly there. Pointing the finger at technology — whether it’s addictive social media or the abundance of online pornography — is a way to escape the uncomfortable self-examination that follows from asking whether we’re intentionally avoiding something and, if so, what. It’s no surprise that Jong pinpoints it: “We want to keep the chaos of sex trapped in a device we think we can control.”
Has that ever not been the case, though? This is how it goes with something as vulnerable-making as sex, and in different generations people seek out different modes of control. Of course, when you’re a member of the generation in question it might not seem like an attempt at control at all. Just as she claims that young women — which she generalizes about based on a handful of women writers in their 30s — are seeking out technology for controlled release, Jong’s elders might have painted “Fear of Flying” as an example of a young woman using the “zipless fuck” to guard herself against emotional vulnerability.” Similar arguments have been made about my own “hookup” generation. Sadly, these generational cri de coeurs are typically made by older women against younger women (maybe because women keenly understand that sex has high stakes, both concrete and abstract).
Most of us are engaged in a search for power and control on some level. Blaming certain symptoms of modern disconnection on culture, and pathologizing people who are having sex differently from us, are forms of containment — and the same might also be said for my attempt at dismissing “sexless” trend pieces.