Porn on demand, dating apps and nonstop Internet commerce: Technology is ruining our sex lives

Now that we watch porn on phones and swipe right for love, it's no wonder men act like entitled customers in bed

Published November 30, 2015 12:30AM (EST)

  (<a href=''>bowie15</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(bowie15 via iStock/Salon)

A friend of mine is a cabinet maker here in New York City. A few weeks ago, he was installing cabinets in a luxury office building. He went to inspect something in one of his closets. A union electrician was in there, wiring. Except at that moment, he wasn’t wiring. He was looking at porn on his phone. It was 9 a.m. 

When I heard that story, I laughed. Busted! Then I got to thinking. Ten years ago, you couldn’t just whip out a phone and look at your screen on the job. Now you can. Maybe there are many workers looking at porn at 9 a.m. And maybe all that porn is going to our heads. 

Another friend of mine, a divorced woman in her early 40s, has a Tinder account. She met a man 15 years older than she is, and they started going out. He liked the way she looked. They laughed together. But when they began to have sex, things got strange. She called me up. “Winsome,” she said. “Is it normal that he only ever wants to do it from behind?” “Normal?” I said. “I don’t really think there is a normal. Sex is about what two people want to do together.” Then, thinking that made me sound square, I said, “Two or more people.”

She grunted.

“The question is, do you want to do it from behind all the time?” 

“No,” she said. “I don’t. And my knees are killing me.”

“Tell him you want it another way.”

“I tried to,” she said. “He told me I wasn’t good at sex. That I was like a 15-year-old girl.” 

“You are not a 15-year-old girl,” I said. “Plus, ew, how would he know? You are a fully grown woman, and the sex you have should be the sex the two of you create together.” 

Then I remembered the electrician and the sentimental education he was giving himself at 9 in the morning, alone with his iPorn. Not much “together” in that. He clicks on the particular sexual thing he likes, and gives himself a dose. He does not have to adapt to another person’s likes and dislikes. He doesn’t have to relate to another person. He is the customer, and the customer is always right.

Could it be, I wondered, that the availability of portable porn is affecting how people conduct their affairs? Are we training ourselves to have pornographic relationships? (My friend Sarah’s enthusiastic response: I hope so! And if not, why not?) 

Well, what, you might ask, do I mean by pornographic? 

That old chestnut: I know it when I see it. 

For my purposes, porn relates to buying. It relates to fantasy. And it relates to sex. Buying sexual fantasy. The first rule of fantasy is that nobody on the other end of the transaction will burst your bubble. Fantasy exists and remains inside the privacy of our own minds. 

I’ve been married to my husband, Claude, for 10 years, and we were together for nine years before we got married. We don’t really watch porn. Oh, there was a time in a hotel in Denmark we landed on the porn channel and it was hot. And another time in some other place and all I can remember is that it was also hot. But we’re not regular porn watchers. We are what Bridget Jones would call “smug marrieds.” Though I’m not smug. I listen with interest, and sometimes amazement and dismay, to the travails of my friends who are dating. Some of them are terribly lonely, and discouraged about their prospects of building a sustained, loving relationship.

When I hear stories like the sex-from-behind guy, I wonder how he got to be such a dictator in the bedroom. In most other ways, my friend says, he’s a really nice man. She invited me to meet him once; we all went out for oysters, and he spent the evening describing his really great guy friends who would like to have girlfriends. He told us about a charity he’s involved in. I am sure his mother didn’t raise him to tell his girlfriends to get down and take it… every time. So what leads a nice guy like that to ignore the most basic tenet of a relationship: there are two of us in here. 

I was mulling this over on the subway on the way home. Is it TV? Is it something in our culture? Then I looked down at my feet and saw the new shoes I was wearing. A nagging thought crept up on me: that I, in a very different way, might be guilty of the same thing. 

I shop at Zappos. I like the fact that late at night, probably around 12:30 a.m., maybe while I’m wearing pajamas, I can spend some time imagining myself in a pair of shoes, and then, with the click of a button, boom, I can purchase them, and they might even arrive the next day. I might even still be in my pajamas. Over the years, I have bought at least 10 pairs of shoes from them that I returned for one reason or another. Zappos pays for me to receive the shoes, and then, when I have decided I don’t want the shoes, they pay for them to be shipped back. This is very good customer service. It’s quite magical. Nobody ever rolls their eyes at me, as if to say, That woman has returned four pairs of metallic Birkenstock sandals in two weeks. I wish she’d just make up her mind. I can buy as many pairs as I like, and when I return them, I don’t have to give an explanation. Then Zappos sends me a very nice email saying, “Aw nuts! We're sorry that didn't work out, but we'll try to make the return process super easy.” 

There must be people working at Zappos. There must be a person sending me the aw nuts email, and another putting my shoes in a box and mailing them to me, and another person at the clearinghouse who unpacks my box and restocks my shoes and makes a note of it in a ledger. I never interact with any of those people. They might as well be cheerful little elves. I do imagine them as cheerful, because their emails to me are always so bubbly. Here’s one: “We’ve got a surprise for you—your order has shipped! We’ve also included your tracking info, so you can track your order to its final destination. XOXO,” They sign their emails to me just like I sign my emails to my friends, xoxo. It makes me feel like they really care about me. And it was a surprise, too, because they weren’t supposed to ship my shoes for three more business days, but they sent them overnight, at no extra charge! 

This is the kind of service I could get used to. And do you know what, I did get used to it. I am used to it. In fact, I have come to expect it. 

I realized I had taken my expectation of excellent service too far the other day when I lost my keys.  I was zipping around our apartment, my head cocked like a ferret, dizzying myself between the bathroom, our bedroom, my desk, the kitchen counter. I was throwing sofa cushions in the air, sticking my face into the dirty laundry. The thought came to me: Why can’t I call my stupid keys? Why don’t they have a “find my keys” function? What kind of crappy customer service is this? 

Then I remembered: I am not the customer of my keys. They’re just plain old-fashioned keys, and I am responsible for them. 

The technology that surrounds us, especially through the anonymity of the Internet, conditions us to forget that we are in fact responsible for our actions. Maybe it’s because when you do things on the Internet, or on your phone, it doesn’t really feel like an action. Just think of those politicians who email pictures of their wieners to their constituents and then are surprised when they get thrown out of office. Clicking “send” doesn’t feel as emphatic as pulling your schlong out in the Assembly Room. And yet that is what you are doing. 

Just like when I click “purchase” at an online store, I am in fact causing a shop assistant to go to the storeroom, ring up my sale, send me the goods. Online purchasing from commercial giants like Zappos, with their excellent and anonymous customer service, encourages us to expect things our way now. We learn to be demanding and inflexible, and to ignore the presence of other human beings, human beings with feelings, desires, opinions, on the other side of the transaction.

What happens when what we are purchasing through the Internet is not shoes, but people? Tinder. OkCupid. eHarmony. Grinder. Manhunt. And we treat our purchases with the same coldheartedness as I treat my unwanted shoes. 

Another woman friend of mine hooked up with a man through one of the dating sites. He had a habit of texting her to make an immediate rendezvous. His first “meet in 45 minutes - Enoteca” text was charming. He seemed like a spontaneous, romantic kind of guy. Two weeks passed and she got another text: “Put on a cute outfit and come out to Brooklyn tonight. Something special.” As she was leaving early the next morning on a business trip, she declined the invitation, but countered with several invitations of her own. He did not respond. Another couple of weeks passed and she received another text: “Meet at 10:00 tonight? Bar X.” What seemed fun and alive before now appeared as part of a pattern of control. He wanted to see her when he wanted to see her, and where he wanted to see her. She called him on it. “Look, I like you,” she said. “But you squeeze me into your busy schedule entirely at your convenience. Someone who fits into your life exactly as you want them to, who doesn’t demand your time in between, isn’t a girlfriend. It’s someone you pay.”   

My friend is unusual in her frankness. I know many women who have put up with disrespectful treatment for a very long time in the hopes that a man will commit to her. 

For people like Mr. From Behind or Mr. Last Minute, the experience of dating can come dangerously close to the experience of shopping, or of consuming pornography on-demand. Accustomed to getting what they want, they forget to build a relationship together with a real-life woman.

It’s not just online commerce that encourages fantasy. In the drive for sales, some retailers attempt to sweeten the experience of shopping in order to make each shopper feel special. A kind of newspeak has developed about the transactional nature of the relationship. I’m in the checkout line at Old Navy, two stuffed shopping bags made out of that plastic that feels like outdoor fencing under my arms. My feet ache. Over the sound system, the Toora loo rye ay of  Come on Eileen, removes all ills and fills me full of gladness. I reach the beginning of the line, and the cashier with excellent blue eyeshadow calls me. “Would the next guest please step down?” 

I plop my clothes on the desk and take out my credit card. “It’s funny that you say ‘will the next guest come down,’ isn’t it?” I say to the cashier as she removes the security tags from my clothes. “Because I’m not a guest. Right? Because guests don’t pay! I am a customer.” 

I laugh, thinking she will laugh.

She doesn’t laugh. 

She says: “We say guest.”

Is it better to be a guest than a customer? It certainly puts one in a more “cared-for” position. But it encourages the fantasy that the cashier with the blue eyeshadow is my “host” and not an hourly worker who may or may not be getting insurance benefits. A customer can, perhaps, expect service. A guest can expect hospitality.

Years ago, in what was for me a difficult time of transition between the clear byways of college and the wide unmarked plain of adulthood, I spent many evenings drinking and making extravagant plans for the future. One night, a male friend of mine and I met for a splurgy cocktail at a trendy hotel bar. As we got drunk, he asked, “Have you ever been to a strip club?”

“No,” I said.

“Do you want to go to one?”

“Sure,” I said. 

We went to the concierge and leaned conspiratorially over the desk. My friend put his hand on mine as if we were married. “We’re wondering if you could recommend some adult entertainment,” he said. 

The concierge sent us to Scores. 

I learned so much about commerce and sex that night.

First of all, my friend paid a hefty entrance fee. I got in free. I remember thinking how strange that was. Most of the patrons of the strip club were men. Wouldn’t their private experience with the lap dancers be compromised by a woman like me looking over at them with morbid curiosity – these are the men who go to strip clubs. Are they married? Are they desperate? (The fact that I was also a patron of the strip club didn’t register. I was just there for the experience, I told myself, a kind of life journalism.)  

Having women there must be good for business, I decided, and that’s why they let me in free.

My friend ordered a lap dance. 

“Am I dancing for you, or for her?” the dancer asked my friend.

“For me!” said my friend, pulling his chair away from mine.

I sat there musing, one eye on the lap dance. Why would it be good for business to have women watching men watching women strip? I took stock of the dancers in the club. Most were pneumatic women with breasts pumped up like foam pillows. But across the room, there was one dancer who was being hired for more dances than any other woman. This popular dancer wore glasses, had small breasts, and carried a purse. She looked normal, like somebody the men might actually know. I supposed the patrons could fantasize that the woman next door had suddenly turned into a professional stripper and was doing a hot dance for them. Would they think that about me? I returned my gaze to my friend and the dancer he had hired. There was no denying that the environment of sex was making me feel… sexy. I get it, I realized. I am part of the fantasy. And it’s my fantasy too. That’s why they let me in for free.

Fantasy is great for business. But with technology that allows us to watch porn while we’re on the job, and turns the people we date into items to be selected or returned with the ease of a click, fantasy can spill over into real life. A person might come to expect a romantic partner to come and go at his pleasure, to be a cheerful elf, to put his demands over her needs. Fantasy can get in the way of an actual relationship.

When I met Claude, the man who would become my husband, I was 22 and he was 26. We were like Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda in "On Golden Pond"; I was cheerful and smiley and bubbly; he was taciturn. His frankness embarrassed me. We’d be visiting a family member’s house and they’d put a record on the stereo. “Do you like this music?” they’d ask hopefully.  “No,” Claude would reply.

I’d jump in. “What Claude means to say…”

His priority was being honest; my priority was being nice.

He was a good man, though, and a kind man. His own father had died when Claude was 21, and so he stood in and took his younger sister to her school’s father-daughter dance. He rescued a cat, and even though she was a snarling, ill-tempered stray, he kept and cared for her until she died 12 years later. It was clear that he could, in his own grumpy-bear way, sustain long and affectionate relationships.

But I didn’t know if he wanted to make such a relationship with me.

One afternoon in November, after we had been going out for six months, I asked him, “Do you even want to love me?”

Claude looked down at the floor. “What if I already do?” he said.

Being in a relationship is not like buying shoes at Zappos, where you know that no matter how you behave, you will always be taken care of. In a customer-service business, it’s somebody’s job to make sure you are satisfied; when you’re married, you’re nobody’s guest. Claude and I challenge each other with our needs and wants. We argue and make love and compromise and forge ahead. Over the years, our roles have changed too. Claude is so much sweeter than he was. Now, sometimes, I am the grumpy one. There’s a kind of seasonality in the life we’re building together.

I asked Claude to give me an example of times where we’ve had to work to maintain harmony; instances that would set our marriage apart from the kind of order-on-demand sex and romance that surround us. “What about driving cross-country?” he suggested, “Or sharing an apartment?”

“What about them?” I asked, but already the image of Claude driving through Seligman, Arizona, where we had almost been struck by lightning, flashed in my mind. He is looking straight ahead at the road, his face younger, rounder than it is today. From the corner of his mouth, the tiny little tip of his tongue is sticking out at me.

Our road trip from Los Angeles to New York was in fact two trips – his trip and my trip. I wanted to see the Grand Canyon and Graceland. He wanted to see minimalist art: the Lightning Field and Marfa. He wanted to listen to Philip Glass; I wanted Johnny Cash.

It’s a big country, and it takes a long time to drive across it.

We took our two trips together.

By Winsome Brown

Winsome Brown is a writer, director, and Obie award winning performer. Her most recent play This is Mary Brown debuted in New York City and internationally at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer.

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