Saturday, December 17, 2016

Sex in Silicon Valley

When I turned 30, in 2011, I envisioned my sexual experience eventually reaching a terminus, like a monorail gliding to a stop. I would disembark, find myself face-to-face with another human being, and there we would remain in our permanent station in life: the future.

I was single and straight. I had not chosen to be single, but love is rare and frequently unreciprocated. Without love, I saw no reason to form a permanent attachment to any particular place. My friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, as if love were something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape.

I had known love but, having known it, I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. I knew that it did not arrive for everyone, and as I got older I began to worry it would not arrive for me.

On a Monday in April 2012, I stood in line at JFK airport to board a plane to California. I had decided to visit San Francisco because my desires and my reality had diverged beyond the point of reconciliation. I wanted to picture a different future, one aligned with the freedom of my present, and in those years San Francisco was where the future was going to be figured out, or at least it was the city designated for people who still believed in free love. They gave their choices names and they conceived of their actions as social movements. They saw in new technology an opportunity to refashion society, including ideas about sexuality.

By 2012, the young people who came to San Francisco were neither dropouts nor misfits. They were children who had grown up eating sugar-free cereal, swaddled in polar fleece jackets made from recycled plastic bottles. They had studied abroad, knew their favourite kinds of sashimi and were friends with their parents. Unlike their parents, they commuted to the suburbs and lived in the cities. As they arrived, the cities reshaped to receive their disposable income.

In San Francisco, the young people went to coffee shops where the production of espresso was ritualised to resemble a historic re-enactment of the hardships of 19th-century pioneer life. Nobody smoked cigarettes. They honed their bodies with the aim of either perfect homeostasis or eternal life. They ate red meat only once a month, to time their consumption of iron with the end of their menstrual cycles. They started companies whose names referenced fantasy fiction. They were adults, but they could seem like children. Their sex lives were impossible to fathom, because they seemed never to have lived in darkness. They had grown up observing foreign wars, economic inequality and ecological catastrophe, crises that they earnestly discussed on their digital feeds, but avoided internalising as despair.

I’m not saying Elizabeth was all of these things, but she described herself as an optimist. Elizabeth had a membership at a rock-climbing gym; she meditated and practised yoga. She organised hot-air balloon rides and weekend trips. She worked long, punishing hours, but had the energy to stay up all night at weekends, go on cycling excursions or attend silent retreats. A friend of mine had met her at a circus arts class and suggested I meet her.

Elizabeth had moved to San Francisco after college. Her boyfriend had moved to the south to go to medical school. No matter how much she loved him, or how much her mother, an infertility specialist, urged her to have children as a young woman, she was not yet ready to start a family. She had a job offer as a consultant at an economics firm. So, in 2010, when she was 22, she moved west and they broke up.

Elizabeth had never before lived in a city. She knew the suburbs in Virginia where she had grown up, and the small New England town where she had attended college. She arrived in San Francisco and made friends, some through internet dating.

She met Wes one night in late 2010, when he accompanied one of her co-workers to a boardgame party at her house. For their first date, they attended Nerd Night at a local bar. They watched a lecture about the future of teledildonics. On the walk home, they kissed. Then Wes, with the transparency he thought of as mature and fair, gave a speech of pre-emptive relationship indemnity. He was still getting over his last girlfriend, he said. He did not want to be in a relationship. Elizabeth tried not to roll her eyes – it was the first date! They said goodnight and parted ways.

Wes had grown up in San Francisco, studied computer science at Harvard and returned west after graduation to work at Google. Somewhere along the upward incline of his precocious youth, he had skipped a grade and was still only 21, tall and handsome.

Wes’s previous serious relationship, the one before he met Elizabeth, had ended during his senior year of college. At the time he met Elizabeth, the discovery of how much he liked casual sex was still new to him.

Still, Elizabeth and Wes lived near each other. They began meeting once a week for drinks, dates and sleeping over, always with a show of nonchalance. Given the choice, Elizabeth would have wanted a more serious commitment. She was only 23, but she had one reaction to Wes’s lack of interest in their relationship: he was acting like a baby. Fine, she decided. She would also see other people.

A few weeks later, she met Brian, a graduate of Stanford who also worked in tech. Soon Elizabeth had two non-boyfriends. Neither relationship had the expectation of exclusivity, or any defined path into the future. She kept the two separate and never saw the men together. They balanced each other, one providing security against the possible failure of the other.

One day in May 2011, six months after they met, Elizabeth introduced Wes to psilocybin mushrooms. The trip shifted their relationship. They still did not use the word “love”, but they now acknowledged what they referred to as “emotional involvement”.

Elizabeth was hired at Google. They took the bus to its Mountain View complex and ate in the cafeteria together. When they went for dinner with Wes’s family, Elizabeth was presented as a friend.

Elizabeth did not describe what she was doing – having sex with two men on a regular basis over an extended period of time, with the occasional extra-relationship dalliance besides – as polyamory. The word had cultural connotations for her, of swinging married people or creepy old men.

Although, like most people her age, she had friends whose partnerships allowed for sex with others, those friends tended to use the term “open relationship”, which was somehow less infused with the stigma of intentional weirdness, and did not amount to a proclamation of sexual identity. (...)

They were not bothered, as I was, by the evidence that nonmonogamous arrangements had been rejected by the last generation of straight people who had tried them. I looked at the experiments of the 60s and 70s, and felt they had taught us that communes and other alternative arrangements that celebrated sexual freedom generally ended in jealousy and hurt feelings. We obedient children of the 80s and 90s saw the failures of the counterculture, and held ourselves in thrall to drug laws, health insurance, student loan payments, internships, condoms, skin protection factors, antidepressants, designated smoking areas, politically correct language, child safety locks, gym memberships, cancer screenings and career advancement. We had a nuanced understanding of risk.

by Emily Witt, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Stephan Schmitz