With how many people did people used to sleep? It’s hard to tell. Language changes, and there’s the problem of bragging. Take the French. Stendhal in his treatise on love is expansive on the seduction strategies of his friends (hide under the bed; announce yourself so late in the night that kicking you out would already be a scandal), but in The Red and the Black Julien Sorel sleeps with exactly two women—and for this they cut off his head! A generation later, the dissipated Frédéric Moreau hardly does any better in Sentimental Education. Flaubert himself mostly slept with prostitutes. In Russia, one could always sleep with one’s serfs, as Tolstoy did. (He felt terrible about it.) But peers, acquaintances, members of one’s own class? America was the worst. Henry James in his notebooks wonders if he should write a story about a man, “like W. D. H. [Howells], who all his life has known but one woman.” James had known zero women. Probably zero men, too. Twenty years later, there was Greenwich Village. Cold-water flats, roadsters, bathtub gin! Edna St. Vincent Millay, riding back and forth all night on the ferry, was the most promiscuous woman of her time. But her biographer puts the grand total of her conquests at fourteen, and some of these, according to a rival biographer, are questionable—and three were “well-known homosexuals.” Let’s say ten. For the modern college senior, this is a busy but not extravagant Spring Break.
OK, not quite. American culture is no less braggartly than Stendhal’s, and it turns out our contemporaries are a lot less promiscuous than they appear on television. Yet we are still living in the most sex-filled age in history. If the sexual revolution of the 1960s was really the insertion of free-market mechanisms into the distribution of sex, as Houellebecq says in Whatever, making kulaks of the sexually rich while others starved—then internet dating was a scythe in the hands of the new sexual underclass. Instant assortative mating, using the mechanisms of the electronic marketplace! Even if, in aggregate, internet dating has slightly lowered the actual incidence of physical encounters between humans, and replaced it with a definite increase in horny email traffic, it has still leveled the playing field, and must be considered one of the age’s palpable advances.
But the price has been high. Has any generation before ever had to go on so many dates? The economies of major metropolitan centers are now almost wholly reliant on the dating industry—in the bistros, bars, nightclubs. At every turn, the dater finds himself flattered: advice books, reality television shows, an infinite selection of white striped shirts to wear untucked over jeans. The contemporary novel increasingly organizes itself around a series of dates, with chapter headings like “Joe,” “Steve,” “Shaquille.” The heroine finds true love on Date 11, “Zach,” but she doesn’t see it. She keeps dating for a hundred pages, then gives up, all is hopeless, love is impossible, and at the last moment she runs into Zach at the grocery store. They ride off together in his Maxima.
Every culture produces its paradigmatic social situation, and the date is now ours. We, too, have been dating. In the little restaurants of downtown Manhattan we sit across from our dates, and over the course of a three-course meal make strange boasts (“I got a 1520 on my SATs, actually—old style”), and genuine confessions (“My room is messy”), to set up boasts disguised as confessions (“I love sex! I can’t help it”). We’ve read the dating manuals: “Be happy,” advises Tracey Cox in Superdate. “Who would you rather hang around with? A depressed unhappy mooner or a funny optimistic?” The logic is irresistible.
Dating often leads to sex. And what’s wrong with sex? We, too, have had it. We’ve also not-had it. We have, at times, been utter failures, and no use blaming dating for that. But it’s also the case that in the culture of dating sex is either a victory (sweet victory!) or an interview. “How was the sex?”—a question women ask each other (but men do not, really)—is now approximately on par with, “Does he have a job?”
Right, a job. Who says the decline of prostitution and the rise of love took the cash-calculations out of romance? If you do a lot of these things, they take time—as does the emailing, and then of course we need to update our dating profile. Amortize it: Two hours at $40 an hour when we could have been doing our freelance copy-editing. Then dinner, another $100. Drinks, $30. The cab ride over the bridge to our little room, $15. Coffee the next morning, $8. That’s $233 and on a Tuesday. For Saturday dates add the price of brunch and $4 for the Sunday Times.
Dating presents itself as an education in human relationships. In fact it’s an anti-education. You could invent no worse preparation for love, for marriage, than the tireless pursuit of the perfect partner. Keep Looking, says dating. You’re Not Done Yet. What About That One? And That One? Dating, like the tyrant, seeks perfection (within a certain price range). Whereas the heart, like the eye, can only cling to imperfections: her funny stride, and the way her voice breaks, child-like, on the phone. And so the dater, self-baffling, seeks what the heart cannot understand.
We must stop dating. But we can’t. Because the only way to stop dating would be to date more, and more efficiently, to become more adept at spotting, on the first date, those things that on the fifth or fifteenth date are going to become a problem. Of course that only makes it worse—by that standard, even Abelard and Heloise wouldn’t have made it. The other option is to change yourself. But you’d have done that by now, if you could.
The only way to stop dating is to fall in love. But how, under conditions of dating, would this be possible? You are affected by all the dates you’ve been on, the relationships you’ve had. The pain you’ve inflicted binds you to the people who bore the brunt of it. Won’t your spouse get mad if you call those long-lost dates, just once? But who else understands what made you the way you are? And so you come not only damaged and frightened and imperfect, but even imperfectly free. You are attached to all the people you’ve ever known and hurt and grew up with. The problem with dating is that it ends.
The problem with dating is that it never ends. Not all the perfumes of Arabia, that you registered for at Barney’s, will ever clean these hands. You are like Amy Sohn, the sex columnist, who finally escaped the hustle of dating into the slow trot of marriage—and then found that she had brought along the the entire psycho-socio-sexual apparatus. In column after column, we see her suffering. She cannot stop competing and comparing; she cannot stop shopping.
Because it is marriage in the end that is most affected by dating. If once upon a time your parents and relatives worried about the socioeconomics of the match while you made googly-eyes on the porch, now you must take the coldest calculations upon yourself. And so marriage, by sheer virtue of its rationality, becomes the country from which no traveler returns. You’ve made your choice, now sleep with it.
To denounce dating is therefore to denounce an entire civilization. We must. We do. We need to stop dating—and we can’t. We plead poverty, then, the only plea anyone understands anymore. We’ve run out of money and strength and lies about ourselves. The ideal number of sexual partners in a lifetime is three. Alternately, five. If you’ve overshot the mark, marry the next person you meet. At least for a while.
What was it Sophocles said? To escape from dating is to escape from a frantic and savage master. And with all these friendly Russians around, and they’ve all read Pushkin, what could go wrong? Except—is that who we think it is? Sitting on a bench along Tverskoi Bul’var? We haven’t seen R. in years! We heard he came into some money, but this is a funny way to spend it.
“R.! Is that you?”
He’s startled. He leaps up, and sits back down. He hangs his head. “I never thought they’d send youof all people. I guess this is the end of the line.”
“But I’m on vacation.”
“Ah, great!” he says. “I am so depressed. Let’s get some lunch.”
“Have you seen these kroshka kartoshka stands? There’s one back there. Really cheap and kind of ingenious. They take a potato and then you can stuff it with, it’s like your choice, some vinaigrette and maybe—”
“That’s all right, there’s a nice fake French place around the corner. A little expensive but it’s on me. You see, I’m filthy rich now, and I’m a wanted man. If I were even richer I’d take you to dinner. But so it goes.”
And on the way he explains.