Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2016/ Sex, Affection, Commitment

Sex, Affection, Commitment

(This entry should probably be under an NSFW cut, but I am making it public anyways. You have been warned.)

Recently, I have been thinking about something I wrote in the Heterosexual Pride entry:

[A]s a prude I suspect that the casual hookup culture so prevalent among gay men does not work that well for many of its participants, and that this culture leaves too many men emotionally calloused, anxious about their body images, and craving deeper relationships than hookup culture has to offer.

I am too frightened/ugly to participate in hookup culture myself, but I have read a lot of accounts on the Internet, and this idea of emotional callouses keeps coming up. People start using these hookup apps thinking they will find relationships and looooove. Then they hook up with someone, fall in looooove a little, and promptly discover that their someone doesn't want a second hookup session. But there are plenty of fish in the sea, so they find somebody else, who also promptly doesn't want to continue the relationship beyond a one-night-stand. After enough of these rejections, people get emotionally calloused. Eventually they reject some innocent first-timer who fell a little in looooove with them. Thus the cycle of hard-heartedness continues. The fact that people on hookup apps are so quick to judge and discard potential partners does not help at all. The end result seems to be a bunch of people who have plenty of hookups but feel empty and lonely nonetheless.

I am not about to claim that hookup culture is bad for everybody. Some people are just fine having strings of one-night stands; they aren't looking for anything else from these hookup apps and websites. But I think lots of other people get hurt, and develop emotional callouses in order to protect themselves.

This is by no means an original idea, but I feel that one big problem is that people turn to hookup sites thinking that they want sex, when really they want something else. Usually we talk about distinguishing sex and love, or sex and relationships, but I don't think that these are good terms. Although less catchy, the most useful terminology that occur to me are "sex", "affection", and "commitment". I do not know that these concepts are completely orthogonal, but I feel they can exist independently, and that we conflate them too often.

I feel "affection" is a better term than "love" because affection spans a whole range of emotion. People can feel no affection and thus be indifferent to each other, or they can possess a small amount of affection and be friendly, or they can possess a large amount of affection and be in love. Conversely, people can feel antipathy towards each other, resulting in dislike or even hatred.

It seems to me that a lot of people enter hookup culture secretly looking for affection, and then get hurt because they find a lot of sex instead. It is doubly hurtful because many of the ways people signal sexual desire sound like affection ("You're so hot!" "I would wade in water for you!") but as soon as the hookup is over the tone turns to utter indifference, which feels like rejection.

Sex and affection can exist independently of each other. There are lots of people who used to be in relationships but now despise each other -- but still find sex with each other really hot. There is "breakup sex" and "post-fight sex" and "sex with the ex". Surely there is some reason people keep coming up with this concept.

One nice thing about distinguishing affection from sex is that it makes affection less creepy, and yet keeps relationship affection relevant to the kinds of affection we feel for others. Yes, one is supposed to feel affection towards one's sexual partners, and certainly towards one's spouse. But people also feel affection -- sometimes really strong affection -- towards their kids, their pets, or their relatives despite not feeling any sexual attraction towards them. (Even typing that makes me feel creepy, which is all the more reason to distinguish the two concepts.)

Then there is commitment. On one extreme are commitments people make for life, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, until death do they part. On the other extreme people feel no commitment for each other at all. Then bad things can happen because people treat each other as expendable. I feel that every sexual encounter should involve some commitment (even if only to be honest about one's sexual history and STI status) but the real world does not abide by my feelings. Showing others basic kindness and courtesy is a mild form of commitment. Maintaining communications after the sexual encounter is another. I think many people enter the dating scene (and even use the hookup apps) because they want to get married, but then get disappointed when the people they meet don't want committed relationships. That is why some dating sites cater only to those who are explicitly looking for commitment.

I feel that we like to conflate sex, affection and commitment because we think they are a natural progression in Correct Sexuality: first you find somebody attractive, and then you fall in love with that person, and then you get married and propagate the species. Certainly, relationships where all three attributes are strong are nice, but I do not feel that this is necessary for people to have good relationships. Some people already have committed, affectionate relationships, and look for sex on the side. In the right circumstances, that can be okay. Similarly some people are done with sex, but still want some combination of affection and commitment in their lives. Some people have relationships in which they have neither sex nor affection, but are stuck with a great deal of commitment (for example: people raising children in unhappy marriages, or people taking care of their parents with dementia, or even parents of certain autistic kids who never seem to show their parents love). Even the combination of sex and commitment but no affection is conceivable: think of royal marriages arranged to produce heirs.

Distinguishing these three concepts has given me some useful vocabulary -- vocabulary I lacked while flailing around in previous blog entries. It is clear to me that what I crave most these days is affection. I do not want to be strongly committed to others or others to me, although I expect and desire basic commitments of decency, honesty, kindness and maybe even reliability. Surprisingly for somebody who has been celibate as long as I have, I crave sex much less than affection. Maybe that is why hookup culture seems like such a poor fit. Unfortunately, hookup apps seem to be the dominant way male-male relationships form, and they seem to be gaining ground in mixed-sex relationships as well (hi, Tinder!). Even if I was serious about changing my unhappy state, there may not be any effective way to do so.