…for insight on the sexual culture of young adults.

Let’s get one thing straight right up front. Whenever I am confronted with an article in an American pop-culture magazine about the way young adults organize their sex lives, I know it’s going to suck. Perhaps there will be pearls-clutching, perhaps there will be moralizing, perhaps there will be a heavy dose of “in our day, we were proper young gentlemen and ladies.” But the fundamental thing is, you can’t trust these articles. I know this from bitter experience, and I know it right down to my roots.

But here’s the thing: I’m not getting any younger, and my ties to the culture of twenty-somethings are few. So it’s getting harder and harder to dissect the specific flaws when I see these kinds of articles. I don’t always know what’s true and what’s warped and what’s the author’s misguided fantasy about how things are.

Still, the newest contestant in Vanity Fair has all the signs of an article that sucks in this special way. The title and subtitle are really all you need: Tinder and the Dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse”: As romance gets swiped from the screen, some twentysomethings aren’t liking what they see. The headline begs the question: if the dial was set at “some aren’t liking what they see”, how did we dial it all the way up to “Apocalypse”?

Nonetheless it’s a fun article to read, because of all the voices and perspectives we hear in it. But fun is not the same as honest. The author, Nancy Jo Sales (who is past 50 and thus older than me) is careful to craft the thing almost entirely out of the quotes from her interview subjects; almost none of the moralizing and pearls-clutching comes in her own authorial voice, at least not until you remember who selected the content and order of the quotes. This subtly-nasty (and IMO, sexist) paragraph may illuminate what I mean:

“Women do exactly the same things guys do,” said Matt, 26, who works in a New York art gallery. “I’ve had girls sleep with me off OkCupid and then just ghost me” — that is, disappear, in a digital sense, not returning texts. “They play the game the exact same way. They have a bunch of people going at the same time — they’re fielding their options. They’re always looking for somebody better, who has a better job or more money.” A few young women admitted to me that they use dating apps as a way to get free meals. “I call it Tinder food stamps,” one said.

How many times, over how many decades, have we seen articles where somebody who doesn’t approve of the then-current dating scene implies or outright states that women who go on dates are engaging in a form of prostitution? This paragraph doubles down on that ancient slam, first by letting “Matt” complain that women are “always” looking for a richer man, and then by quoting unnamed “young women” who say they hook up with and (we are invited to infer) fuck guys for food. Not that there’s anything wrong with fucking for your dinner, mind. But it’s a nasty and rusty old barb of a harpoon, and it’s unclear why Nancy Jo Sales wanted to throw it. Maybe just to show how she’s clever enough to throw it without getting her hands dirty?

The whole article is like that. An engaging read, but every paragraph is cast in a soggy matrix of unvoiced authorial angst, which oozes out around the words of the folks who got interviewed for the piece. Yes, the young people are having a lot of sex. Yes, they are using the latest newfangled tech to find sex partners. Yes, it’s easier than the old-fangled tech. Yes, some of the young women wonder if the old way wasn’t better, and say so. Yes, some of the young men (possibly fewer) wonder the same thing. Yes, some of the other young men are having a blast and acting like assholes, something we never saw before in human history. Yes, we can find people with horror stories to tell, same as we could when it was all the rage to make arranged marriages using semaphore flags (or whatever). Does any of that support the use of the word “apocalypse” in the title? I wouldn’t say so. But don’t worry: the author sources even that to one of her anonymous interviewees. You’ll never pin a thing on Mary Jo Sales!

The best feature of the article is its many engaging short quotes from young sexually-active people. I even learned some new-to-me slang. Men and women alike are quoted using the phrase “get it in” for having casual sex, which seems both functional and suitably…well, casual. In its degree of practical and emotional descriptiveness, it’s a big improvement over the “making love” and “sleeping with” euphemisms for fucking that I learned in my childhood. And now I’ll send you out with Meredith, using the phrase “catch feelings” to describe the problem of when mere hookups threaten to get emotionally serious:

“Some people still catch feelings in hookup culture,” said Meredith, a Bellarmine sophomore. “It’s not like just blind fucking for pleasure and it’s done; some people actually like the other person. Sometimes you actually catch feelings and that’s what sucks, because it’s one person thinking one thing and the other person thinking something completely different and someone gets their feelings hurt. It could be the boy or the girl.”

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