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Sexual self-delusion, the Brooklyn hive mind, "the way forward" for modern love - and Louise Perry makes the case for a little less liberation
Progressive ideology frequently irritates me — and has done since I was small, wandering around the West Coast draft dodger island of my youth, perplexed by what I saw. At a young age, I can recall wondering why the adults could not just be a little more sensible. In their generation’s quest to smash all cultural norms, they birthed a brand of chaos that seemed, to me, far worse than the conformity they were looking to upend. In other words: Someone has to leave the drum circle early to put the kids to bed. Surely we should all be able to see this?
The older I’ve gotten, the more annoyed I am by the excesses of the progressive mindset. I felt this anger anew this week, reading Emily Witt’s piece in The New Yorker, “The Hook-Up App for the Emotionally Mature,” which highlights the coldness and alienation of modern love and proposes “a way forward.”
In the essay, Witt describes the experience of being 39 and childless, and suddenly single and without a home (and a cat!) during a global pandemic — and how distressing and lonely and unmooring it was. I have much sympathy.
Unfortunately, the solution that Witt arrives at is the only one the Brooklyn hive mind is capable of: More aggressive forward motion. More boundary-pushing. More progress. Escalating levels of extreme freedom; in this case, of the sexual variety.
So, if the problem — as Witt herself defines it — is a lack of deep and meaningful connection, the solution is to uproot oneself and move across the country. To download technology, in the form of Feeld, a hookup app for “open-minded singles and couples who want to explore their sexuality.” And to pursue compartmentalized casual sex with strangers, many of whom are emotionally-attached to somebody else.
Now, to be fair, there may be women for whom this sort of no-holds-barred sexual freedom is indeed liberating. But I would bet that the majority of us would prefer a stable domestic life, with all of its social, emotional, logistical, and financial benefits.
If Witt belonged to the former group, her essay might make more sense. However, she is clearly part of the latter.
Witt writes: “I was thirty-nine and scared by the idea that I would not be reproducing the kind of heteronormative nuclear family I had grown up in.” And:
Over and over in my adult life, despite being an introvert with a preference for monogamy, I have found myself in situations where I’ve had total sexual freedom. The older I’ve got, the more I’ve understood how often sexual freedom imposes itself on people who don’t seek it out — no marriage contract, religion, posture of tradition, or abortion ban will protect a person from having to contend with the sexual possibilities of the present.
She describes her first post-breakup pandemic Feeld liaison in these terms:
Meeting up with the couple was a way of pretending that everything would be fine … It was nice, but I was lying to them, cosplaying a sexual optimist instead of being a person with no idea how to start over.
And then there’s this:
It was an old strategy: when life doesn’t deliver on a promised expectation, I look for alternatives, and what I found on this app seemed like an alternative to the fantasy of family I was letting go of. “Feeld is for a new type of human,” Dimo Trifonov, the app’s founder, once wrote. “A human belonging to a new world, one of creativity, openness, respect and exploration.” This was one way to make my unwanted future tolerable, to at least make it interesting for myself: to pretend that there was such a possibility as a new kind of person in a new kind of world.
Again, I have empathy.
But I have zero desire to be the “new type of human” that Witt is promoting, however reluctantly, in this essay. And I suspect I am not alone.
There’s one moment in the essay that gets closer to the heart of what’s actually going on here — which is that being the old type of human is increasingly impossible.
For single people, casual sex is not a glib life-style choice but a serious attempt to be happy within a specific reality. There are many more single adults now than there were in 1973, the year Roe v. Wade established a constitutional right to abortion, which was taken away in June. In 2020, a Pew Research Center study found that forty-five per cent of adults between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-eight do not live with a spouse or a child, a shift that is as much about the economic conditions we live under as a sense of identity.
Let’s take a moment to let that number sink in. A whopping 45 percent of adults do not live with a spouse or a child. This is unprecedented. And even a cursory look at our culture reveals this state of affairs is not making people happy — Witt included.
Reading The New Yorker piece, I wished — as Lean Out guests Sohrab Ahmari and Nina Power noted in their “Weather and Leather” episode of the Compact Magazine podcast — that the essay had had a more critical editor. Perhaps one who could have pointed out the places where Witt may be deluding herself. One bold enough to question the wisdom of dressing up alienation as liberation and selling it to a new generation of women.
Perhaps we could, instead, insist on a more humane vision for our romantic lives. This would probably involve easing up a little on the festishization of the future, and being open to solutions that might originate in the past.
In other words: questioning the very progressivism that put us in this position in the first place.
The timing could not be better for my next podcast. I’m pleased to have British writer Louise Perry join me to discuss her brilliant debut, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: A New Guide to Sex in the 21st Century. Stay tuned for that next week.
On the housekeeping front, I’m working to increase the value for paid subscribers. The most frequent request I’ve gotten so far has been for podcast transcripts, which you now have for both weekly episodes. These will be paywalled going forward. I am also going to reserve the comment function for paid subscribers, starting today.
I’m open to other suggestions from readers. What else would you like to see at Lean Out? Discussion threads? Live events? More mailbags? Guests you’d like me to interview? You can weigh in by hitting reply on this email.
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