June 11, 2009 by May Wilkerson
A Defense of Intimacy in an Internet Age
[Regular TTH contributor May Wilkerson was featured on Monday on an NPR segment called Sex Without Intimacy: No Dating, No Relationships. The following is May's personal commentary on the topic, which also serves as a rebuttal for what she thought was an inaccurate portrayal in the piece. You can also find an interesting commentary on developing sexuality written by May for our most recent issue. - Ed.]
I turned on the radio at 8:30 on Monday morning and tuned into NPR’s “Morning Edition” to hear myself featured in a show about sex and relationships in the “post-dating era.” Who am I kidding---I don’t have a radio. But I did check it out online, and what I heard was disheartening. The show, titled “Sex Without Intimacy: No Dating, No Relationships” ended up being a kind of eulogy to romantic love. It was a reflection on a generation (mine) of young people (like me) who have given up conventional dating, choosing casual hook-ups instead, at the detriment of intimacy and love. Brenda Wilson, an NPR science correspondent and the producer of the story, claims: “For the many who are delaying the responsibilities of marriage and child-rearing, hooking up has virtually replaced dating.” She may be right. Many of my generation are fortunately bestowed with sexual health educations, open minds, and the freedom to delay marriage and familial responsibilities, or abandon them entirely. My generation uses the term “hooking up,” to encompass anything from necking in the back of a club to going “all the way.” But we can hardly take responsibility for the activity itself. Human beings have been engaging in sex without the purpose of reproduction since way before the age of Facebook. It is also true that conventional “dates” have, for many, lost their appeal. Dates are awkward, expensive, old-fashioned and slightly chauvinistic. I find the formality of a date uncomfortable---I’d much rather curl up on the couch and play video games. And I think many people in my generation would prefer to just “hang out,” somewhere comfortable, one-on-one or in a group of friends. As Elizabeth Welsh, one of the other young women featured in the show, states, “Going out on a date is a sort of ironic, obsolete type of thing.” Time changes everything, and mating and dating rituals are no exception. Ms. Wilson’s story rightly points to the rapidly growing role of communication technologies in my generation’s sexual and romantic behavior. But her argument is flawed in its assumption that real love and romance are at stake in this culture of text messages, Facebook and hook-ups. “Have you ever been in love?” she asked me, about 30 minutes in to the interview. I balked. I had just made a series of honest confessions about my sexual history. I had spoken openly about “hooking up” at parties in college, and the impact that alcohol has on my generation’s sexual decision-making. But when it came to the subject of love, I seized up, admitting to my interviewer that the idea of falling in love is “terrifying,” and it is a subject far more personal than sex. My confession only served to substantiate the story’s message, a hand-wringing account of a loveless, techno-crazed youth. But this was never my intention. I refuse to see myself as part of a generation that is sexually reckless, coldly individualistic and incapable of commitment. Faced with the scary question of love, I worked up the courage to speak about my most significant relationship---a loving and committed two-year relationship with another woman (interestingly, this was never mentioned in the segment). I spoke about relationships I’ve had with male “friends” with whom I have shared intimacy, and even love, outside of the bounds of traditional, monogamous partnerships. And when she asked me about heartbreak, I confessed that yes, a while back there was a person who did not return my feelings fully, and it was painful. Few people make it this far in life without a major letdown. But have my relationships on the whole been devoid of intimacy? Far from it. Communication technologies may change the nature of intimacy, but they don’t hinder it. Aided by such communication technologies as Skype, instant messenger, Gchat, and Facebook message, I have communicated love and intimacy, kindled and rekindled relationships (local as well as long distance), built connections and broken them. I have poured out my heart in epic e-mails and transmitted highly personal sentiment via text message. It all might seem silly to our parents’ generation, just as our parents’ dating rituals seemed silly to their parents’ generation, and so on, back since fish had legs. Technology and innovation are crucial to propelling society forward; the “kids these days” argument is about as stale and cliché as you can get. During the story, I am quoted as describing the “fragmentation of the social world” through social networking sites like Facebook as creating “a kind of loneliness.” I would like to follow up by saying that social networks and expanding communication technologies also provide us with limitless opportunities to build connections with people outside of geographical, class, age and racial boundaries. A friend of mine for many years maintained a loving and committed long-distance relationship with a man halfway across the globe, communicating every night via Skype. And I know many couples that met over the Internet, through Craigslist, MySpace or a plethora of dating sites. A close friend recently showed me a text that he had saved in which I alluded to a T.S. Eliot poem we once read aloud to each other. Six months later and the text message is still intact and unfaded: technology is less transient than we think. Letters decompose, but as far as we know, e-mail is immortal. Romance is not dead---it has just shifted, adapting to a world fragmented and expanded by technology and new ways of thinking. Sure, communication technologies have transformed my generation. But we, in turn, have transformed the technology of dating and romance, opening doors, exploding definitions, defying and redefining previous limitations. It’s not that we have abandoned the quest for love; we, too, seek inspiration and adventure, happiness and security. We may find it in ways that seem strange to older generations, but ultimately, our struggles are the same. One of many commenters on the NPR website wrote, “I feel sorry for the girl in this story and for her generation in general.” To this individual, to Brenda Wilson, and others who feel remorse and concern for my generation, I would like to say this: Don’t. Unlike our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, many of us do not feel the same pressure to find a long-term partner in our twenties. Instead of seeking out a mate, we may choose to focus on our careers, on friends, hook-ups and hobbies. We may dream of eventually settling down, but in the meantime, we would never dream of settling. We haven’t given up on love, but we view it as something that can’t be forced or falsely recreated. We choose to hook up because sex is fun. And as far as romantic relationships are concerned, we often let them develop out of sexual relationships, instead of vice versa. We might want to test the merchandise before we buy; in fact, we might like to test the merchandise before we even step foot inside the store. So what? It works for us. If we do have a fear of intimacy, it may be because more than half of our parents’ marriages ended in divorce. Marriage is one of the most flawed institutions in modern society, not to mention the only one that still condones bigotry. Can you really blame us for trying things our own way? Relationships are fragile, no matter how they begin, or what they look like from the outside. If love is terrifying, that’s because we go into it with our eyes and minds open, ready for anything.