Swipe Right On Monogamy

Hook ups are no longer progressive and exciting. Now, we’re all ready for more than just sex.

Neil Strauss was the canary in the coal mine, though I don’t blame those who ignored him. His memoir The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, was marketed with all the finesse of his earlier hit, the brash, pick-up artist profile The Game. The book’s website opens with a facetious warning that “this book contains one of the most terrifying and obscene words in the English language” and even the title touts its own heretical power. The big reveal was that former serial cheater Strauss had come to see the appeal in sexual and emotional commitment — more specifically, in marriage and monogamy. This development would have been more shocking if so many hook up culture adherents hadn’t already arrived at similar conclusions: the path to happiness wasn’t paved with a string of flings. 2015 will forever be the year that the first generation of rabid swipe right-ers and avid GGG slam pieces went cold on casual sex.

Illustration by Matt Panuska

This shift didn’t take place because casual sex is immoral or emotionally corrosive, though that myopic, regressive rhetoric continued to dominate public discussion. Anxieties around dating apps and sex on demand between young strangers still hewed to a tired, conservative bent, one that presumed technology was eradicating the family unit because foolish women kept sleeping with caddish men who had no intention of becoming their boyfriends. Nancy Jo Sales’ lazy Vanity Fair piece on Tinder and Hinge exemplified this attitude, liberally salted as it was with quotes from FiDi goons both marveling at and tacitly condemning women who “send you pictures of their pussies without even knowing your last name.”

I was one such woman, and the pussy pic in question preceded a first date (if you want to call it that) with a man who has since emerged as the love of my life. Not coincidentally, he is the only person I’ve elected to be fully monogamous with in my many years of sexual activity — a development which continues to shock me.

As a pre-pubescent kid, I thought it seemed unrealistically restrictive to limit one’s sexual life so drastically. I couldn’t imagine monogamy coming from a place of sincere, internally consonant commitment (you I choose above all others because, for me, you are already above all others) but only sourly accepted as a cruel test of will. When I got older and embarked on relationships of my own, I studiously avoided becoming invested in my partner’s genital faithfulness. Vows of commitment seemed doomed to fail, and to humiliate the wronged party in the process. Better to admit upfront: everyone wants to fuck everyone else, and they probably will. At least don’t be the deceived fool in a desperate bid to deny fate.

This attitude reigned as I blazed through my twenties. It was deeply uncool for anyone, but most especially for women, to be actively looking for a relationship instead of a series of rowdy nights. And lots of people played by the rules of this social stigma until suddenly, they didn’t. One of my friends (famously) broke it off with all her casual hook ups when she realized she wanted more. Another was single for a full year when she started telling dates upfront that she was looking for something serious, but she’s now married. And as for me — well, I’m a hook up MVP who hung up her Tinder handle and settled into a life of devoted conjugal-ish bliss.

That Tinder and its equivalents can and do facilitate serious, loving relationships testifies much more to the durability of what humans need and want — i.e. close, reliable connections — than it does the awesome power of the respective app itself. Sure, sexual pleasure is important, especially in a cultural climate that shoves it down our throats (sorry) at every opportunity, and the pursuit of that pleasure animates many urban and exurban young people. But it doesn’t take long to realize that having lots of sex is not synonymous with sexual satisfaction, and even sexual satiation is not synonymous with joy or larger fulfillment.

I didn’t expect to become monogamous — I thought I’d be comfortably faithless forever — but I grow more and more grateful for this development by the day, in no small part because it saved me from adding to the grim parade of temporary partners who had come before. The problem with “only fucking” isn’t that sex is dangerous or wrong outside the confines of certain social containers like the boyfriend label or an engagement ring. It’s that in 2015 and before, casual sex, as practiced by straight Americans, was routinely bereft of physical pleasure, mutual respect, and interpersonal maturity. Hook ups were supposed to be fun but they… well, weren’t. And straight women, who bore the bulk of this failure, were finally fed up.

Why did casual sex suck so much? Because very few straight cis men were as libidinous, skilled, or nice as they needed to be to make the enterprise worthwhile. When arranging my “casual encounters,” I hoped for low level warmth and good naturedness to accompany fun sex, but this modest combination was exceedingly rare. And in 2015, I watched friend after friend suffer the same relentless indignities I’d endured in 2014, before Mr. Pussy Pic entered the scene. “Being straight is a constant exercise in degradation,” I found myself telling them because it was the most sincere validation I could summon. We’d been told that men were insatiable, that they’d be thrilled by our appetites and eagerness and carefully cultivated hotness, yet we kept bumping up against potheads and sluggards who seemed severally sexually under-motivated in spite of having signed up for a site designed to get them laid. Then there were the erectile problems courtesy of bad diets, prescription or recreational drugs, and performance anxiety. Those who could get it up, inexcusably, often mimicked porn moves with an alarming degree of sincerity. I daresay even the rare vaginal orgasm-er among us is shocked by the ignorance behind such cartoonish penetrative encounters.

After that came the inevitable emotional abuse, either through casual cruelty or empathetic laxity. Ok, we get it: masculinity doesn’t indoctrinate its conscripts in thoughtfulness, kindness, or basic manners. But too many otherwise intelligent grown men wallowed in their narcissism and sexism, gaslighting one-time partners into believing that an expectation of decency was evidence of simpering clinginess rather than indicative of healthy self-respect. If a woman initiated a repeat physical encounter, she was regarded as desperate to date. If she stood up for herself after being treated rudely, she was “crazy.” Whenever a woman was something other than merely sexually pliable and passive, her presence suddenly became onerous. Straight men, in turns out, largely had no idea how to actually be friends with the women they would have once called “fuck buddies.”

Women were always risking more when striking out into the brave new hook up world because we’re (usually) the ones with a limited time frame on when we can have children, the ones publicly scorned for staying single into later years, and the ones who stand the most to benefit from linking our finances with someone who, notoriously, receives a Man Bonus with every paycheck. “In the current dating culture,” writes in Lisa A. Phillips in Unrequited, “the idea of ‘being led on’ has become an anachronism. Ambivalence thrives.” This is the environment Alana Massey critiqued in 2015’s seminal “Against Chill,” an essay that rightly blasted the environment in which apathy is the most prized quality in a sexual partner. Romantically and sexually, men had been absolved of all social responsibility, and they knew it.

To be fair, this state of affairs is far from a utopia for them. They’re pressured to chase sex even more than women are, regardless of their actual desire level, and with sex education nonexistent or in shambles, they’re given little to no practical information about how they might get a woman off. The presumption that men always want it means there’s no public discussion about how men can also be sexually pressured or coerced, or about how many men might deeply want a relationship instead of a hook up. Rachel Hills’ The Sex Myth looked at how our cultural obsession with sex does a disservice to both men and women because it defines “not only what we cannot do without fear of stigma or harm, but what we feel we must do in order to avoid feelings of shame and inadequacy.” Emotionally mature men’s relational affinities aren’t part of the larger discussion when a society ignores the existence of such men altogether. Happiness is never a component in the stories of those like the Wall Street-working manipulators in Sales’ Tinder article. Of course those types are content to splash around in an emotional kiddie pool, their hearts as shallow as their aesthetic tastes as they consign themselves to the brittle, inconsequential life of the interpersonally vacuous.

My generation is the product of numerous divorces, so it makes sense that so many of us decided it was safer to be promised nothing, committed nothing, than to have trust violated and partnership severed or, worse, revealed as illusory from the start. The Ashley Madison leaks were a reminder — as if we needed one — that even married women can’t count on loyalty. (Virtually no Ashley Madison coverage admitted the possibility of female cheaters and the hackers released no women’s names; female profiles were dismissed as those of sex workers or bots.) Serial monogamy, we knew, meant navigating a series of break ups, betrayals, and disappointments. But after throwing ourselves into a life of never being beholden to nor invested in nor emotionally vulnerable with the person we were shtupping, we realized the warnings were true: complete freedom looked and felt a lot like loneliness. But this time around, that knowledge could be directly experienced instead sternly delivered from dubious authority figures invested in an old world order.

The reformed hedonist tale is nothing new. Behavioral 180s — and the new moralizing that usually accompanies them — are the stuff of our most beloved redemption tales. Daddy Warbucks realizes the love of a child makes him infinitely happier than money; the Persian king falls in love with Scheherazade after resisting the emotional charms of 1,000 women before her; Keith Richards gives up drugs after he falls out of a palm tree. The luxury of this sort of evolution is that you get the coarse pleasure up front, before you opt for the soulful life: Keith trips and tweaks and loses consciousness on whatever he gets his hands on before he decides it’s better to go without. Daddy Warbucks has to taste every luxury before he can definitively say fatherhood trumps them all. The Persian king’s vengeful bloodlust is slaked by the death of a thousand women before he — awww! — learns to love.

So now have we, the proudly slutty, the swipe addicted, the late-night Craigslist browsing, tasted the fruit of unfettered sexual conquest and found it more bitter than sweet. The difference is that, as the examples above indicate, it used to be only men who were afforded the opportunity to reform after exhausting their self-indulgence, but now women have tested the same trajectory. That once-new sexual permissiveness, hatched in the late ’60s and perfected in the ’00s, no longer seems progressive and exciting. We’re ready for something more coherent, less reactive. We’re ready for more than sex.

Marriage and monogamy are not the answers. Or rather, they may be the solution for some but surely not all. The extinction of “dating” as the baby boomers knew it speaks to how rapidly old social patterns are being overturned as technology — that old bogeyman — facilitates new forms of introduction and relationship building. A less restrictive sexual culture has let couples try out swinging and poly lifestyles, means of staying tied to one another without forfeiting sexual variety. The challenge of 2016 and beyond is to make an honest stab at intimacy in whatever form it might come, to treat each other more gently and to prioritize what makes us feel complete rather than what makes us sound cool. Of course we’ll still mess around and bonk strangers and be reckless with our nude pics, but the scales have fallen from our eyes, and our expectations of what casual sex can and can’t yield have been adjusted accordingly. Thank god we learned our lessons last year.