SAMANTHA TRENOWETH (Ed) Better Than Sex: Women talk about sex and romance in the digital age. Reviewed by Annette Hughes
Better Than Sex is not just a book about the effect of the internet on relationships, but a close look at all the ways of being, meeting, relating and finding love.
When I read Samantha Trenoweth’s introduction to her latest anthology Better Than Sex, I had to do a double take. She describes dismissing her virginity listening to a Yes album (both sides), in a swoon of patchouli and candlelight under a batik bedspread and a vegetarian waiter. I thought OMG! That’s me! But then I remembered that I had lost mine on a much less romantic occasion on the front seat of a Holden.
Youth is a weird time of ignorance and confusion, a hormonal frenzy of lust and terror and daring. I still don’t know how I managed to evade a shallow grave. Now I realise that everything that attracted me to boys – the long hair, the record collection, the anti-everything badges – was sexual display. Sure, kids do the same thing now, with ever-splintering sub-genres of cultural expression, but man, it would have been so much easier back then with Facebook. I would have found my tribe so much faster with a much lower fail rate.
Better Than Sex is not just a book about digital dating, or even the effect of the internet on relationships, but a close look at all the ways of being, meeting, relating and finding love.
In the opening essay ‘What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing on Tinder?’ Maggie MK Hess talks about the wildly popular online dating platform and its potential to give singles hope of finding potential partners (long or short-term) in an increasingly busy life. She describes the ‘dual invention of online dating and smartphones’ as having a ‘pocketful of people waiting to meet her, wherever she is’. She quotes New York sociologist Ryan Hagan, who describes it as ‘an asynchronous, omnipresent singles bar’. However, he lists several technological innovations ‘that have transformed our sex lives as radically (if not more than) the internet: mass urbanisation of the nineteenth century, women’s large-scale entry into the labour force in the twentieth century, the advent of the birth control pill, the invention of cafes, restaurants and nightclubs’.
Hess thinks we need to stop pretending that the internet isn’t real. As she points out, ‘real people are spending real time during their real lives on the internet’. They are meeting up with real people and many, many women are using the net to find sexual partners, not necessarily with a view to settling down.
Anne Friedman in ‘Women Want Sex’ discusses the way female lust has been misunderstood for decades. A University of Michigan study found that women ‘like having sex, they just don’t like being socially punished for it’, which shoots down the notion, held for more than a century, that women don’t like as much sex as men. She also says that ‘some preliminary research indicates that most women are turned on by their partner’s desire for them which could be misconstrued as passivity’. It’s a catch 22 – you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Friedman investigates the social expectations about female desire. The old paradigm, which says that women must be inactive while single and then suddenly develop a voracious sex drive once they’re ensconced in monogamy, is the opposite of what research says most women feel. The advent of the web has done little to change this deep socialised conundrum, but it certainly makes it a lot easier for women to seek and find their own pleasure with the luxury of anonymity, while also providing that spark – the little thrill of someone swiping/liking you –of being desired.
Desire is examined from several points of view. Rachel Hills claims that she was never very good at being a sex object. She was the plain girl who the mean girls said would never be pretty — until the magic of hormones kicked in. Although she transformed into something resembling pretty, it didn’t cure the deep and abiding self-delusion that she was undesirable. In ‘Object Lessons’, Hills investigates the idea of being a sexual subject:
In a culture in which female sexuality has historically been variously constrained, invalidated and demonised, taking your sexuality into your own hands – either figuratively or literally – can be an act of genuine resistance.
Trouble is, if you are not already pretty, being a sex subject is not all it’s cracked up to be. If you are fat, as Rosie Waterland describes herself in ‘Pearl-clutching’, or poor, or plain, or older, or disabled, and insist on your right to be a sexual being, you get derision – you are called names or, worse, subjected to the vitriolic abuse of internet trolls.
This is the subject of Lucy Lemesurier’s essay, ‘Surfing the Fourth Wave’. She talks about how the interweb has given so many otherwise isolated women connection and a sense of community, with its myriad online spaces for organisations and advocacy groups like Destroy the Joint. It provides a safe haven to link up and discuss everything from domestic violence to child-care solutions. But the digital interface we have become so socially dependent on does have its dark side: ‘As we traverse the allegoric bridge to equality, we are forced to encounter the trolls under it.’ For all the love and fuzzy goodness the net arouses, it can also:
… bring out a lot of hate and, unfortunately but not surprisingly, much of it is directed at women. … Of young women aged between eighteen and twenty-four, 26 per cent have been stalked on line, and 25 per cent have been the target of online sexual harassment.
Trolls (they are generally men) think they have the right to say whatever they like because, they argue, the space is not ‘real’. Police have been reluctant to become involved, but are slowly coming to realise that the internet is only a communication device – like a phone. If an email can be admissible as evidence in a courtroom, so can a violent tweet, which takes us back to Maggie Hess’s comment that these are real people spending real time in their real lives.
So – how do we negotiate love and marriage in these times of instant communication and shifting cultural mores? In ‘The Bride in Her Head’, Lena Dunham wonders if she’ll ever get over the idea of herself in a white fluffy dress. She comes to the conclusion that ‘it’s nearly impossible to detangle personal preference from social conditioning, our deepest desires from the codes we have been taught to follow’. And often, those deepest desires turn out to be fuelled by a yearning for companionship, as Eleanor Margolis points out in her hilarious essay ‘Are Lesbians Too Boring For This Queer New World?’ in which she complains, ‘I’m way more Scrabble and monogamy than ketamine and gender-blind orgies.’
In ‘Bachelor Generation’, Van Badham finds that ‘unexpected midlife singledom presents a statistical challenge to romance’ and that though ‘feminism can make you aware of the cultural messaging that demonises the maturing single woman … it does not make you immune to it.’ When her father dies, she watches her mother suffer the loss:
‘You yearn for this great relationship, you want this kind of partnership so much,’ she said, ‘Well … this is the cost. Me, on my own for the rest of my life, left behind.’
You don’t think of it that way until you feel it – until you find that other one. Romantic love, says Badham:
… cannot be scheduled … and you can’t, whatever the marketing may suggest, order its delivery on the internet or download it from an app. It falls in almost impossibly fragile moments of connection between people, created by an intersection of infinite coincidences … It trembles the universe, this feeling, and for all the silent orchestral surges and invisible fireworks that announce its arrival, it is not easy.
Emily Maguire would agree. In ‘Forever Maybe’, the author found a love-match from the outset and is still attracted to him, as much, if not more, well into their marriage. It hasn’t always been a bed of roses but she can’t imagine life without him.
In ‘The Most Terrifying Threat to the Existing Social Order (Is Me)’, Celeste Liddle is of the opposite view. She is dedicated to the freedom and autonomy of her hard-won singledom. In spite of her activism and forthright feminism, she learned the hard way that it takes years to recover from a toxic relationship – to rebuild a sense of self-worth after prolonged abuse. The fear of winding up alone compels many women to endure. It takes a lot to actually leave – especially when kids are involved. Liddle argues very convincingly that the nurturing, care-giver role women are groomed for from birth is in itself toxic and possibly at the core of the epidemic of violence against women in Australian society:
We don’t see women as worthwhile in their own right – as individuals entitled to take up space … we can only conceptualise the effects of violence on women if we think about the harm it may do to their husbands/parents/children … We don’t warn about male perpetrators by creating offender awareness campaigns warning us that he could be our father, our son, our brother.
While she is not averse to the idea of finding love, she says she is not scared of ‘growing old alone’. Instead, she feels valued for her social contributions and thinks that the experience of being seen as completely autonomous has shown her just how much women and their social roles are devalued.
Jennifer Mills, too, is ambivalent about the urge to love and belong to someone else in her surreal short story ‘Ex’, about her ex-boyfriend who just won’t leave. When she finally buries him for good, she admits,
I wasn’t lonely, and I wasn’t sad and although I felt sorry for Jason I wouldn’t miss him … We were place holders in one another’s lives, seeking the shallow advantages we meant to each other, marking time in a way we both knew wasn’t living.
And just when you think maybe, just maybe, we might be punching though the double standards, Catherine Lumby in her essay, ‘The More Things Change …’ looks at how (if at all) gender deprogramming is progressing among young people. In 2015 she published a study entitled Young People, Sex, Love and Media, in which she and two colleagues held focus groups with young people between 13 and 17 and asked them about their views on gender and sexuality, their social media habits and intimacy. She was struck by how self-aware and articulate they were and their perspective is very refreshing – young people so seldom have their own voice ‘in debates about pornography, sexting and the alleged perils of social media on their lives’.
Boys clearly understand the difference between reality and the ‘stunt sex’ of porn, and girls have a solid sense of etiquette when using social media, but it was the question of double standards that threw up the most troubling ‘unspoken dissonance’ between how they want things to be and the reality of how things actually are. According to the study:
Both boys and girls frequently expressed strong support for the idea that women were equal to men and that sexism was completely outdated. In the same breath they described sexual and social double standards that plunged [Lumby] right back into 1970s Newcastle … Girls’ sense of agency and choice – however confusing that choice might be for them – disappears when you start asking them about gendered dating roles.
And then, at the very end of this extremely thought-provoking collection, we come to a breathtaking piece of short fiction by Roxane Gay, which seems to tie all the strands of the anthology together. ‘Break All The Way Down’ is a blistering, terrifying descent into what it is to be a human being inside a female body, at the mercy of hormones, in the grip of grief and self-loathing and how that other – the one who can empathise and feel your pain, who knows who you really are and can bear it with you – can drag you back to that shared space of intimacy. It is a beautiful story of loss and redemption, especially rewarding when read with all the previous ideas and perspectives in mind.
There are 15 pieces of narrative non-fiction and short fiction in the anthology, all equally interesting and challenging, with high-quality writing consistent throughout. Books like this can change the world – or at least one’s own small corner of it.
Samantha Trenoweth (Ed) Better Than Sex: Women talk about sex and romance in the digital age Hardie Grant Books 2016 PB 224pp $29.99
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