Picture credit: Iuliia Bondar
Artillery Row

Save yourselves

We should not underestimate the deep seriousness of sex

Bumble has fumbled with its latest billboard campaign which instructs lovelorn onlookers that, “A vow of celibacy is not the answer”. The creators of the popular dating site have been forced to do the walk of shame as progressives and conservatives alike accuse them of “shaming women” into leading disinhibited sex lives in order to placate thirsty men and boost the company’s profits.

“Thou shalt not give up on dating and become a nun” — another one of Bumble’s slogans — is a mild and youthful way telling someone to “get back out there” and that there are “plenty more fish in the sea”. Sat alone on your doorstep, it is a wink from the old woman next-door who tells you, “Everything will be alright in the end.” It is a sweet way of saying, “Don’t be jaded”, as one is nudged in the ribs by a friend. The solution to sexlessness is not more sexlessness. And a broken heart does not heal in hiding, but in the lightness of more love.

But are dating apps about love? Hinge brands itself as the “app designed to be deleted”, priding itself on its use of a Nobel Prize winning algorithm to match the most compatible people for long-term contentment. Yet of all my friends, just one couple has formed a relationship through a dating app that has flourished to the point of an engagement. The rest tend to have a merry but anxiety-making fling before once again sitting in the corner, despondent and alone, at our next party.

Dating apps are understood in the public consciousness as tools for casual hook-ups. Indeed, apps like Grindr (the clue is in the name on that one) have built their business upon one-night stands and bathroom encounters. A critic of this culture, Connor Tomlinson, points out the obvious when he says that dating apps are not designed to help you find your forever person, they are designed to keep you on the app. And yet, surely, this fact remains overlooked by its users who spend day after wretched day scrolling for their happily-ever-after.

This keeps some people swiping to no end

Tomlinson has described these apps as a “revolving door of self-commodification” whereby our vanity is extorted to keep us swiping and sell the user on advertisements. Indeed, the act of dating itself has been relegated to a subsection of the consumer industry, in which each lonely swiper is both the purchaser and the product. If, as a dater, as a goods consumer, you find a fault with your product then you can trade him or her in for a different model. This keeps some people swiping to no end, while others end up on a series of dissatisfying dates. You liked the fact that this version of a twenty-seven-year-old woman is ginger — but that giggle of hers that you found so endearing on day one is grating on you by day three. This next one is blonde and she doesn’t snort when she laughs — but she does sleep with her mouth open… Next!

Dating then comes to resemble a gig economy: at the first sign of underperformance or incompatibility, as soon as satisfaction is achieved, one is not ceremoniously dropped but, instead, ghosted… But I can trade you in and you can trade me in and that’s freedom so it’s actually fine. In fact, it’s good and nothing like window-shopping in the mall of human misery; and I do not feel like a mannequin having the hem of my skirt grubbed by indecisive strangers.

Reactionary feminist Mary Harrington has likened the online dating world to the husband-batting seasons of the Regency period, whereby one is primed for the moment of attraction but left woeful and wanting in almost every other aspect of life. Before that, dowries and systems of inheritance defined who got dibs on whom in the bedroom department. That is to say, it is not unique to our time that sex has this commercial undercurrent, it is, in fact, as Harrington says, “just another marketplace”.

But, as yet, it is unclear whether these apps lean into one’s flightiness or whether they foster this fickleness; that is to say, whether they urge strangers to meet up and have sex, knowing that a hasty shuffle in the dark is no foundation for a long term relationship — not now the shotgun wedding has gone out of style — or whether these apps have merely tapped into each person’s rebound vulnerability, offering themselves as a shoulder to cry on, all the while saying “there-there” and pushing an advert for sports socks under your nose.

Of course, experiencing this vulnerability is not something to which the frequenters of these dating apps will readily admit; and it seems to me that the casual addiction one can develop for this swiping and these brief encounters is a manifestation of a wider and under articulated desire to trivialise the act of having sex and divest sex of its emotional significance. 

It is not that there is an organised constituency of domineering people who wish to normalise extreme or deviant sexual acts in the public square; although there is; it is that it suits even the most chaste among us to underplay the ways in which hollow sexual encounters and failed attempts at intimacy guts a person and leaves them for dead.

Underplaying the significance of sex suits just about everyone, in all walks of society:

It suits the girl who made a drunken error and it suits the boy denying his heartbreak. It suits the woman who has been convinced she must sleep around in order to be a man’s equal. It suits the man who does not wish to raise the children he has fathered. It suits the husband who no-longer feels attracted to his wife, and the wife who no-longer feels attracted to her husband. It suits the cheat who wants to tell themself that “a kiss does not mean anything”. It suits the teenager who did not enjoy their first time, and it suits those who had no say in what their first time would be. It suits the condoms manufacturer, and it suits the pharmaceutical companies who can profit from the production of the Pill. It suits the clinics that perform abortions when the pills fail. It suits the activists who petition for lowering the age of consent. It suits the fetishist and the person addicted to porn. It suits the porn websites. It suits the gropers and the groomers, the traffickers, pimps; it suits their clientele, and… and it suits their victims who beg the door might be slammed and bolted on the whole wretched business.

To propose that sex matters at some times and not at other times is incoherent. To dismiss any of the above experiences as inconsequential would make even the stoniest of stoics say, “Now, hang on a minute.” But, likewise, one cannot dismiss those who attest to sex as being one of the grand and voluptuous pleasures in life, one that can engender copious amounts of fun, for they are more often the same souls and bodies that weep of sex being a barbed, ugly and marooning thing.

It is true that sex can and should be playful, silly, and boisterous but that does not mean it lacks seriousness or “matter”: it has intent that lies beyond the immediate gratification of the self. There is no game that holds the focus and immerses the imagination as the game that is treated as sacred by the players; and no serious game can be played without an all-consuming commitment from both players.

It seems to me that our assertion that sex can ever be inconsequential is the cradle of our problem, one we have attempted to surmount by deconsecrating childhood, rather than the re-sanctifying adulthood. Rather than admit to our personal sense of violation and loss, of being spoiled or unfaithful, our ambition has been turned towards deconstructing the virtues of abstinence, innocence, loyalty and chastity, and turning them into vices: one is not a feminist if one’s body count is less than 10 before committing to the marriage of convenience; neither is one king of kings in the manosphere unless one has harvested a village of virgins and propagated your genes onto twenty-five lost and wandering children. So I am told, to stake worth in monogamy is to disrespect other cultures and desecrate other religions, as is critiquing polygamy and polyamory as inferior forms of relationship, to which I say, “Ya-ha”.

I shall go first, to raise my hand and say, I wish I had belonged to my lifelong partner only

But worse still such virtues as being chaste and devoted have been reduced to quaint mannerism: they are reserved for the bizzaro Christian lot; for the adults who never grew up, still believing in fairy-tales; and for those who have a misplaced nostalgia for a time that never existed. To profess that these qualities are good does not garner scorn as much as tittering. And yet, sixty per cent of the men who commit suicide do so over the breakdown of their intimate relationship, and as an influx of teenage girls opt out of the porn phantasmagoria by identifying as boys, it is clear that living without such virtues suits neither sex down to the ground.

What then is the solution to this silent devastation slowly harvesting souls from the street? My advice, perhaps to young people above all, is to save yourselves until you find your forever person.

I shall go first, to raise my hand and say, I wish I had belonged to my lifelong partner only. Romance lost its sheen for me when I realised that, in all likelihood, my future husband, like me, will have belonged to someone else — be it happily or not. Perhaps, for him, knowing that my mind if not my heart will sometimes be elsewhere will dull the edge of our intimacy. In turn, my not knowing if it is me or someone else he feels in his arms turns my boneless body frigid once more.

Long suspecting that my secret pain — my secret shame — is shared, I have made a pastime of trying to glean from others the emotional significance sex holds for them. Those who are content speak of their profound luck, whilst those who are, or have been, forlorn whisper of their profound regret.

For those whom much heartbreak preceded an eventual happy marriage, there is a sense of guilt, that they cannot gift that youthful, more hopeful and energetic version of themselves to their beloved. For those who trivialised sex in their youth, they find themselves as shamefaced and pitiful before the one who treats their body as sacred. For those who have found themselves divorced, to remarried with relief years later, there is a sense loss as they wonder, “why it could not have been this way in the first place.”

In turn, those who seem softest around the eyes are those who married their very first sweetheart. It is rare that such individuals express regret at not having slept with anyone else in their allotted time. In my own life, I know only of one instance. In every other, they responded with warm glances to their spouse who stands chatting away on the other side of the room, “Why would I want any of that when I can have my darling Margret, or, my silly John?”

Do not mistake me as saying, “No sex before marriage”, although maybe, perhaps, I am. Abstaining for sex before marriage is not a tradition I expect us to ever return to, in part because such rules were never much adhered to in the first place. Nor am I necessarily sold on the desirability of this arrangement. I shall receive many a stern glare from reactionary, but dare I say hypocritical, conservatives if I state my view that sex is not for the fostering of children alone but for the ongoing reunion of the husband and wife. To this end, physical compatibility seems important in maintaining an enduring and lively partnership. Establishing this crucial factor is probably prudent before signing the legal papers. But, of course, this veers once again into reductio ad materialism, commodifying what is — or at least should be — a spiritual communion.

Nonetheless, I believe people should date with a view to marriage, and should reserve sex for the penultimate stage of their courtship. Perhaps this belief is born of my own desire to make marriage less daunting for younger people, taking the pressure off the immediate hours, days, and months following the “I do”; to soften and make less foreign those hands that once again become stilted as this person before you, this person you thought you knew, becomes a stranger again, if only for a time

And yet, I regard my young Catholic friends for whom any sexual intimacy is off-the-table before marriage. Such an agreement has born the richest, most transcendent friendships that I have ever had the good fortune of seeing blossom. For them the mind is married in an instant, the act of unfolding becomes as necessary as breathing, and the soul… I cannot attest to it, except for their tranquillity as they stride with certain steps through life. As a little boat upon a still and silent ocean the night sky is reflected back to itself, and they are sandwiched between the heavens and the earth. They are intimate long before intimacy and, unlike most, remain intimate long after creaking bones renders intimacy a clownish affair. In light of this, sex is only one dimension of their understanding and being near to one another, and being compatible in this way seems an inevitability, even if it takes some practice.

And who does not want that? In the most private and wounded corner of their heart, who would not say, “Could this not have been me?” Could this not be me, still? 

Now, I know little of love, but I am sure of this: to love is to entrust your soul to another person, wholly and completely, and without end. It may be our greatest purpose. It may be our only purpose. And so, I say and say again, save yourselves, for you may just save someone else in return.

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