My life in online flirtation

A survey finds that we rely on texts and e-mails for hookups and relationships. I've never known anything else


Tracy Clark-Flory
January 27, 2011 5:01AM (UTC)

Technology is the best wingman around. Such is the wisdom to be gleaned from a survey published this week by Shape and Men's Fitness. Both men and women reported that they rely on texting and social networking to help them flirt, get laid and maintain romantic relationships. This should come as no surprise: It's simply how we communicate now. In fact, the most remarkable thing to me is that this would be news to anyone, because it's all I've ever known. Coming of age in the '90s, sex, dating and relationships hardly existed without digital technology.

Before I even kissed a boy, I learned to flirt online. The AOL chat rooms of the mid-'90s were my training ground and the middle-aged men that populated them were my instructors. They pretended to be teenagers and I, with all of 13 years under my belt, pretended to know what I was doing. They would write, "a/s/l?" and I'd respond, "13/f/cali. wanna cyber?" I was intent on figuring out what boys, and men, wanted. Women's magazines, with their how-to's on driving guys wild, seemed an inefficient route -- why not go straight to the source, I thought. Little did I know that this particular source represented the deepest, darkest and most disappointing depths of the male sexual psyche.

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In high school, there was AOL Instant Messenger. As soon as I got home, I would log onto the computer and begin the vital social interaction that had been hampered by teachers, nerves, my 10-pound algebra textbook -- and zits. This is how my first relationship budded: He was my lab partner in bio, but things only developed when we were at a safe distance, without the liability of stuttering or turning red. I could even have my best friend sit at my side and help me analyze his each and every word as it appeared on the screen; we would debate whether "let's hang out" was code for "go on a date." (How little has changed in the past decade-plus.) It was dating with virtual training wheels. And when any doubts arose about his interest, there were countless chat transcripts to sift through and reevaluate.

When college came around, there was the convenient 21st century yearbook of Friendster and MySpace, and then -- sound the trumpets -- there was Facebook. The digital flirtations continued, only now so much of it was done in front of an audience -- through a wall post, a "liked" photo or a relationship status update. And, of course, I was a spectator of other ladies' overtures; sometimes toward guys I was interested in. There were ex-girlfriends to investigate, photo albums to sift through and relationship statuses to keep an eye on. All this observation and calculation was added to the equation; it was suddenly so much more social. But the juicy stuff -- like an eyebrow-wiggling one-liner concluding with a haloed or winking smiley face -- was sent through private messages. Making my way through my 20s, Facebook became the way to keep in touch with not only my friends but also men that I had dated or hooked up with. It also became a way to find out about the man I had just spent time with: Who was he, really? And, of course, the investigative quality worked both ways.

That brings me to text messaging. According to the recent survey, it's "the No. 1 way lovers stay in touch ... with men texting 39 percent more often than phoning and women 150 percent more," reports Reuters. From planning dates to late-night booty calls, sending sweet nothings to X-rated "sexts," texting is the norm. Part of this is because it's so damn easy -- which can also be a downside. There's a reason Google created Mail Goggles, which is meant to prevent regrettable beer-fueled e-mails, and apps exist to prevent drunk-dialing and -texting. When you're five deep at your local watering hole it can seem a grand idea to message that guy from OKCupid (never mind that it's 2 a.m.).

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More than convenience, though, I'd venture to say that we text because it's safe. It lets us navigate an emotional battlefield with some protective armor. I had the recent experience of sending a super-cool, casual and uncommitted "whatcha doing tonight" text only to get an immediate call back -- like, my phone actually rang, I picked up and then we talked, in real-time, about a plan for the night. It brought me back to the nervous excitement of having a boy I liked in elementary school call to personally invite me to his birthday party. It was unfamiliar and unnerving -- and I liked it. We use technology to protect ourselves from getting hurt, but it's that vulnerability that makes it exciting.


Tracy Clark-Flory

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