#89: The death of sex
Last week New York media twitter and everyone who follows it was subjected to a gentle, distributed rage surrounding an article called “A Vibe Shift Is Coming.” It was written by Allison P. Davis for The Cut, but the original idea belongs to alt-trend-forecaster Sean Monahan, who predicted the culture was on the brink of a new, yet-to-be-defined era last June. Monahan distinguishes “vibe shifts” from your standard rotating emergence of new trends, instead describing them as larger, possibly national key changes, like when the “Hipster/Indie” era (2003-2009) gave way to the “Post-Internet/Techno Revival” (2010-2015) which gave way to the “Hypebeast/Woke” era (2016-2020). But the most important detail, and the heart of the Twitter debate surrounding Davis’s article, is the suggestion that this shift alone could signal the official obsolescence of those who aren’t fit to journey forth: “[N]ot everyone survives a vibe shift,” Davis wrote. “The ones still clinging to authenticity and fairy lights are the ones who crystallized in their hipsterdom while the culture moved on.”
My favorite part of the discourse surrounding this article is that the people who hated it—claimed it meant nothing—seemed to accidentally out themselves as believing it meant something. It was a Kafka trap: True or not, denial only made you seem guilty. “Omg who cares!?!?!” a tweet might say, belying its own answer. There were plenty of good critiques though. I particularly liked this one from @waikikiwanda: “I get that the internet democratized cultural production and consumption which is fine but there’s this weird recursive industry of Culture People Worrying About Culture while 95% of the nation behaves normally.” It’s a great point, and I say that as a Culture Person Who Worries About Culture. I could attempt to invoke the Miranda-Priestly-on-cerulean argument, but I actually agree the internet fixation with trends has mostly lost sight of what makes the topic interesting. As always, we’ve made everything too literal: the right shoes, the right meme, the right drug.
The exquisite irony of paying attention to those things is the quandary of what to do with the information, because trying to stay relevant by buying, doing, or saying the right things has a negating effect. Too much neurotic effort cancels out the success. I think this is why Davis’s piece made such a stir; it both fought against and emphasized this catch-22, violating the ethic it was attempting to describe. To read the piece, to be aware of the forthcoming vibe shift, didn’t make you any less susceptible to aging out of it. In fact, to fear it seemed a sign of irrelevance in itself. Of course, like @waikikiwanda said, most people care significantly less about the bleeding edge of culture than New York media people, who are constantly proving their own insufferability, myself included, but all this is just a metaphor for the fear of death anyway. Or at the very least, the self-defeating trap of trying too hard to represent something to other people, a truism that requires no specific context.
People on social media are constantly trying to destigmatize being “try-hard,” because you can’t really be online without trying. But it will never work. It will always be more compelling to garner people’s admiration naturally than to do it on purpose, and the people best at that will always be the most interesting, culturally speaking. If I were to guess why everything’s felt so stunted and unimaginative lately, from our celebrities to our general ways of life, it’s because we’ve forgotten this. In our attempt to digitize everything, we’ve funneled all our attentions towards the unreal. This started first with the tech entrepreneurs aiming to code and commodify social bonds, and it’s just spiraled downward from there: work, commerce, beauty, art, sex, money, popularity, wisdom, style, nostalgia, cachet, activism, communication itself. In a culture of convenience, where values are understood increasingly through their digital imprints, things feel nauseatingly 2D because they literally are. Marshall McLuhan predicted this a long time ago.
I’ve started thinking of this quality as sexlessness. I’m using sex here as a euphemism for the natural arousal that attends life in 3D, sexual or not. It is the antithesis of the gamified pleasure we pursue online, which has now infiltrated our values offline too. Consider beauty, which is today often understood as a set of objective, imitable, purchasable characteristics, rather than a quality experienced through movement, context, subjectivity, mystery, actual presence. Technology will naturally favor the former because it is itself a set of objective, imitable, and purchasable characteristics, and even moreso because it values efficiency above all. The techy pursuit of immediacy and frictionlessness which have become hallmarks of modern progress are comically at odds with genuine pleasure. Here my use of sex becomes more literal: Imagine it without friction.
I became fixated on the death of sex only recently, while discussing, ironically, the debate around whether to have kids. Is it too on-the-nose to say the conversation around procreation has become totally sexless? Studies, data, biological clocks, cost-benefit analysis. As if imitating computers ourselves, we imagine that with enough information we can spit out a definitive answer as to which path will be “advantageous.” But that’s not really how life works, or how meaning is measured. Not everything can be explained on paper. As my therapist once put it to me, “Having kids is not logical.” There is no amount of data-driven rigor we can apply to procreation that will change its fundamental nature. It is not an intellectual pursuit. It is an instinct, and we are animals.
When I think of the dominant trends of the last five or 10 years, most of them engender this same lack of humanity: personal branding; biohacking; virtual reality; reality television; fillers and filters; botox and plastic surgery; being extremely online; corporate activism; minimalism; cancel culture; labels for every type of person and personality; two-day shipping; ghost kitchens and ghost stores; e-books; cryptocurrency and NFTs; smartwatches that remind you to move. Each one feels empty and sexless in its own special way. And they all trace back to the digital panopticon, the hyperobject du jour, bleeding into our social fabric in every way imaginable. One way to view the irritating state of things is as a kind of collective sexual frustration.
“Nobody does anything cool anymore, and everybody is afraid of everything,” Vinson Cunningham said in a recent roundtable about the death of the sex scene for the New Yorker. “We are in a decadent, post-excitement world.” The impetus of the discussion was a comment by filmmaker Paul Verhoeven on our culture’s “general shift towards Puritanism,” and similarly, the article reads like a diagnosis for sexlessness in more than just the movies. They talk about the proliferation of art made solely for profit, the increasing infantilization of adults, the politicization of everything, the metaverse, the dumbed-down appeal of literalism. “So much of our culture right now is really earnest and de-sexed,” said Doreen St. Félix.
It seems appropriate to me that they were having this discussion during a time when sex has never been more flagrantly depicted and available. The point is that sex, or eros, is about more than just people fucking on camera. To take that further, it’s about more than just fucking. “Sexuality is the most essential element of nature,” Verhoeven told Variety. It is the ultimate euphemism for earthly pleasures and all its attendant qualities: desire, touch, anguish, longing, satisfaction, thrill, connection, presence. Essentially everything the internet can’t meaningfully give us.
Obviously plenty of things are and should remain sexless, like checking your email or doing your taxes. But I’ve been thinking about this quality a lot lately and I’ve been surprised by how often sexlessness is a decent descriptor for things that suck these days. Internet scolds, celebrities making NFTs, overthinking tiny decisions, perfect Instagram faces and bodies, trying not to offend anyone online, every idiotic app ad that sells you on the idea of never talking to another person again, being home all the time, calories on menus, the fake laughter on late-night talk shows, pretending your life is like a movie on TikTok. These things have nothing to do with each other. They were just the first 10 things I could think of. Everything is so wildly flat these days—imagine codifying it all for good in the metaverse! Bone-chilling. As Candace Bushnell said in a recent interview, “I think it’s so much more interesting to be out, and living a life, and having actual drama happen in the moment, than to be online.”
I know all this sounds depressing, but I’ve actually found the litmus test funny and illuminating. As a guide for how to be, I’ve also found it useful. The question of whether something is sexy or unsexy is less prescriptive and more up for interpretation than a lot of other frameworks for “how to live,” and it’s easy to respond to in the moment. Maybe the most appealing aspect of pursuing sex in the platonic sense is that it stands in opposition to doing what you think you’re supposed to do, thereby freeing you up to live less like a nervous little freak. In my experience, it’s a great way to feel less like a loser, all tangled up in your own neuroses. That’s my main takeaway from Davis’s piece on the forthcoming “vibe shift:” Trying to be cool subverts the value proposition. The bad news is there are no rules. That’s also the good news. You just have to loosen up a little bit.
My favorite article I read last week was “There I Almost Am,” an essay about twinship by Jean Garnett for The Yale Review. Last week’s recs email also included an amazing art documentary, my new glasses, a great essay collection, etc. The rec of the week was the ultimate afternoon snack. Genuinely blown away by all your snack suggestions…lots of sexy stuff in there. Frankly I need to up my game.
Have a nice rest of your Sunday!