You’ve probably already seen the Vanity Fair piece on how the dating/hookup app Tinder is changing “mating rituals” for young Americans. The article is harsh and at times graphic, so read with care and discretion. Under normal circumstances I probably wouldn’t link to it. But what this article describes is nothing less than a voluntary sex market; the way the young men in the piece describe the joy of seeing all their sexual conquests mount up, you’d think it was prostitution but with social media for currency.
The title of the piece mentions the “Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse.” That’s an excellent choice of words. The point of an apocalypse is that you can’t imagine what comes after it. I think Vanity Fair’s editorial team is asking the right question: When you have a culture of utterly meaningless sex, whose geographic and practical boundaries are all but evaporated by technology, and whose random nature is encapsulated in the frivolous “swiping” of a smartphone screen…what’s next? How could the stakes be any lower?
Of course, casual sex has been around for a long time (though I would argue that, in America, its public endorsement by the ruling and academic class is pretty recent). What hasn’t been around for a long time is the mindless rituals of social media and smartphones. What Nancy Jo Sales describes in her essay on students and Tinder is more than casual sex; it’s nearly automated sex. For the students interviewed in the piece, Tinder is a human menu, to be thumbed through for the “hottest” members. There’s no interpersonal dynamics or even the kind of hookup rituals you see in bars and nightclubs. It’s made to order sex without ever looking up from the phone.
Listen to how Sales’s subjects describe it:
“It’s instant gratification,” says Jason, 26, a Brooklyn photographer, “and a validation of your own attractiveness by just, like, swiping your thumb on an app. You see some pretty girl and you swipe and it’s, like, oh, she thinks you’re attractive too, so it’s really addicting, and you just find yourself mindlessly doing it.” “Sex has become so easy,” says John, 26, a marketing executive in New York. “I can go on my phone right now and no doubt I can find someone I can have sex with this evening, probably before midnight.”
Instant. Mindless. Easy. In other words, there’s no substantive difference between the Tinder hookup culture and pornography.
The blurry distinction in our contemporary culture between sex and masturbation is a frightening one. National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson wrote a harrowing description of the pornography industry that depicted the subsuming of sex by pornography. The porn industry hasn’t just changed how people think about sex, it’s changed how they define it. Williamson observed the intense effort that pornographers put into their products to make the solitary experience more “lifelike,” and concluded: “Porn is no longer an ersatz, last-option sexual substitute — it is an end unto itself. The…spectacle turns out to be a perverse vindication of the theories of Jacques Lacan: The signifier here has indeed taken precedence over the thing signified.”
What Williamson means is that pornography has redefined the sexual ritual–the unique attributes of real physical intimacy, even prostitution–and rewired the minds of its consumers to accommodate its fictions. The fantasy of porn is more desirable than the situations the porn actually simulates. Ergo, the age of pornography is the end of sex.
Of course, Tinder differs in that it is human bodies together. But is the proximity of bodies really enough to differentiate hookup culture from pornography? If the bodies are so disposable, so inconsequential, so ethereal in personhood, what’s the difference? Sales’s piece describes the lewd messages girls receive trying to initiate a sexual encounter. It’s important to understand that those messages aren’t merely requests for satisfaction, they are a form of satisfaction in and of themselves. That’s how pornography works. Tinder’s users are living in a sexual echo chamber. The people they let in to that chamber don’t exist as people but as instruments of satisfaction, or even lower, as “bragging rights” for their virtual selves.
What we’re seeing is that, in elite, affluent culture, where money and technology remove the barriers that most other people encounter when looking for “no strings attached” sexual recreation, the sexual ritual is reduced to masturbation. Individualistic, custom tailored, lacking personality. There’s no real difference between the hookup culture described by Vanity Fair and the culture of a million individual minds living out private fantasies via pornography. In both cases the arc of sex isn’t very long and it bends immediately towards the self.
This whole travesty reminds me of a letter that C.S. Lewis once wrote to someone on whether masturbation were ethically permissible for Christians. As only Lewis was able to do, he saw through the social claptrap of the day and got right to the heart of it:
For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival.
Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself…. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.
“They become the medium through which he increasingly adores himself.” That’s us, all right.