I. Baby It's Cold Outside
"The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. [...] There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize."
-- Timothy Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web
On the left side of the page is a picture. This picture is an extreme close-up. The picture is both low-contrast and slightly out-of focus, its left and right sides defined by two tapering pillars a color somewhere between ivory and almond. They meet in the center of the frame, forming a "v." At their nexus is a darker area, an arrangement of vertical folds in russet and pink, labyrinthine but without a center. They meet at the top, forming a small ruby. Above sprout tiny, well-coiffed hairs that from this Lilliputian perspective seem to loom in mystery.
To the right of this below-the-waist portrait, with its labial mountain ranges rendered in satellite-imagery detail -- the overall packages about as erotic as a colonoscopy -- is the heading, "Looking for Mr. Right."1 A short introduction follows.
Welcome to AdultFriendFinder.com, which bills itself as "The World's Largest Sex & Swinger Personals site." AdultFriendFinder (AFF) is part of FriendFinder2, Inc., a collection of personal networking sites that includes FriendFinder (a less risqu? version of AFF), ALT.com (for BSDM aficionados), and Amigos.com (bringing together Spanish/Portuguese members). AFF boasts 18,654,919 members3, who find in it an electronic version of the "key parties" and swingers gatherings that have been around since at least the 1950's. The goal is typically quick hookups with people who are clean and discreet, and who know exactly what they want. Members fill out a lengthy personality profile (used to find potential matches), describe who they are and what they're looking for, and typically post a picture. All this and $19.95 a month (discounted for 3-month and year-long subscriptions; more gets you a "Gold Membership") earns you access to AFF's database of eager swingers, many of whom are in your area!4
AdultFriendFinder, then, is another fascinating beast in the strange menagerie that is the American dating scene. Through the wonders of technology, you can make new friends and bang them hardcore, with just a few clicks of your mouse. (Well, not the banging -- not yet, anyway.) You can participate in message boards with like-minded swingers; the Pittsburgh board promises a failed orgy at least once a month, and you'll thrill to multiple postings of "April 1 gangbang -- who's in?" followed by what seems to be, to the author's ears anyway, the longest, saddest silence ever captured in text form. And of course there're the explicit pictures, many with blurred out faces if that's your thing.5
Take out the sex, though, and you're left with a site not all that different from more mainstream Internet dating services such as Yahoo! Personals or Match.com. AFF may be more up-front about its members' end goals, but if you compare the actual profiles, after correcting for the sex angle, there's not a lot of difference. You'd be hard-pressed to tell a profile on AFF from one on Yahoo! Personals.
In its single-minded pursuit of convenient hookups, AFF has more in common with dating services like It's Just Lunch or Speed Dating -- those that promise no-stress meetings with like-minded people, typically professionals, who just don't have the time for the inconvenience of the dating scene. Eight Minute Dating, for example, promises that you'll spend no more or less than eight minutes with 8 different successful professionals. Or, to express that in a more efficient way that won't waste any more of your motherfuckin' time: 8 Great Dates - 1 Fun Night!
If you're getting a weird little tinge at the back of your head, something along the lines of, "Eight minutes? I spend more than eight minutes test-driving a car...then again a car is a big investment, and this is just a night of fun dates and great fun and probably some fun booze, which helps kill the emptiness that sometimes wells up when I realize I'm unable to feel anything beyond the need to be constantly fucking entertained by the world around me, and should that entertainment fail I think I'd just totally die!" then in that, at least, you are not alone.
II. The Extremely Difficult Realization That Someone Other Than Oneself Is Real6
"Sex is not love. Love is not sex. But the best of both worlds is created when they come together. ... The best way for human beings to show love is to love one another. It's the way we spread love in the universe: one to one. Love is something we make."
-- Madonna (not the Virgin), Sex
You also wouldn't be alone in thinking AFF looks a lot like eBay, or maybe Buy.com. You put in your search terms, click a button, and a bunch of matches pop up, be it for "antique Hummel figurines" or "Pittsburgh, PA + female +pulse -fatties." Then you may lean back. Put up your feet. Smoke a pipe, or pole, or pope. Realize that before you scrolls a near-infinite variety of consumer choice. The Internet is your shopping mall, for love, for Hummel, for meat and for sporting goods. Turn up your iPod, check the lock on your gated community, double-check that your Ford Armored Personnel Carrier is safe and comfortable within its garage. This is your castle; here before a crackling fire you are comfortably numb -- you will find an Adult Friend, and it will be one of your choosing, tailor-made to your likes and pleasures.
And that, my friends, is really all we ask for from love, isn't it?
For a nation of individualists, we are surprisingly afraid of being alone. Yet we're also afraid of being in the world7 -- we armor ourselves with iPods to shut out the noise of other people, sit alone in our SUVs to avoid public transportation, use caller ID on our cell phones to decide who we talk to and when.8 This is the consumer paradise, where every choice is up to you and your wallet. Can't we just choose love, then; open up our cocoon just enough to sneak another person in, that we might not be so lonely in our fortress of solitude?
Well, no. Here's how Clementine responded to that idea in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, "Joel, I'm not a concept. Too many guys think I'm a concept or I complete them or I'm going to make them alive, but I'm just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don't assign me yours."
Clementine's spiel -- easily found on AIM and Facebook profiles everywhere -- is partly right: If you think you're incomplete, sex and/or love probably won't make you whole, and AdultFriendFinder has little to offer you. (But if we adopt Clementine's view as a life philosophy, does that mean everybody runs around looking for his or her own peace of mind while simultaneously refusing to consider anyone else's? So, uhm, do we just all retreat to our rooms to play solitaire, leaving a note on the door saying, "Mind at Peace. Do not disturb."?)9
There's another way, though, that Clementine's speech is, if not wrong, certainly a little sad in its impoverished view of love.10 Every way of talking about love is unrealistic -- we either end up talking nonsense or poetry or both -- but how is Clementine's view unrealistic?
"I'm just a fucked up girl looking for my own peace of mind."11
Peace of mind being the same thing used to sell cars12 and insurance; peace of mind being, let's be honest, the selling force behind every piece of crap we're told will make us whole, or at least enable us to cope with day after day of bone-wearying monotony long enough to catch the new episode of Law and Order. Hooray for love, then, which promises us...peace of mind.
What's sad about Clementine's stance is that it masquerades as a kind of hard-eyed realism. "I've looked at myself," it says, "And I've realized I'm just so fucked up. The world's fucked up. You're fucked up." Then it has nowhere to go. Once she's stripped love of all its "illusions" -- denied the fairy tale of white-horse-riding princes and long-haired princesses -- she can't seem to believe that the world might offer more possibilities than a choice between fairy-tale delusions or her "everything is dirt" "reality."
In other words, she thinks like a 15 year-old.13
In other words, by focusing on her supposed "fucked-upness," she turns any relationship into a salve for said fucked-upnesss -- exactly what she chooses Joel of doing.14
Here you might be getting another one of those twinges, something along the lines of "Wow, it's almost as if we can relate to one another only as pre-packaged products, the choice of which will both define who we are and rid us of the burden of this constant low-level anxiety15 brought on by consumer overload.16 Unable to feel past our own ineffable dissatisfaction, we make our lovers into just another accessory, bit players in the Play Called Me17...hey, is that a new Nokia cell phone?"
III. The Futile Pursuit of Happiness18
"You're looking for the wrong person. But not just any wrong person: the right wrong person--someone you lovingly gaze upon and think, 'This is the problem I want to have.' I will find that special person who is wrong for me in just the right way."
-- Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions
The old joke is that, for men at least, overdosing on pornography (say, 30-40 straight hours) always ends with a guilty, sheepish phone call to Mom.18 (And this is a stretch, but you explain it...) there's some primal need to reassert the possibility of a woman as another, separate human being, rather than simply a flesh-fantasy playground.
Overdosing on AdultFriendFinder profiles20 provokes a similar feeling, but one not exactly the same. If a porn OD is like the inevitable crash after a week-long coke binge, leaving you listless and borderline suicidal, AFF profiles are more like an acid-trip that starts out fine, then slowly, sneakily, creeps out of your control and into a bleak, existential void. Porn promises escape; AFF is all too real. There's the attractive blonde from Ohio, 25, who's unhappily married and looking to find real love in a hotel room (daytime rendezvous preferred); there's the woman in Warren whose husband is a sad loser who cannot satisfy her. She quotes Ayn Rand, "I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine," before challenging anyone who's not a "two-pump chump" to take her on.
The more romantic profiles also seem poignantly out of place. To the woman who writes, "I'm looking for a Romeo to my Juliet," there are two questions: First, you know how that play ends, right? One hint: it's not "happily ever after." Second, are you sure you'll find Romeo on a site whose "purity test" includes the question, "Have you ever engaged with a hooker or gigolo?" Not to be judgmental of either you or AFF fans, but this might not be the place for Montagues and Capulets.21 Unless that's your fetish; there's probably a bulletin board for that.
Spend enough time reading profiles like, "I made a New Year's resolution not to be lonely anymore," and you start to feel you should call up that one ex-girlfriend -- you know, the one who's written you out of her life, your only connection the fading ellipsis of things left unsaid, but when one day you see her walking on the street with another guy, his hand on the small of her back as they pass, you crack into infinite jagged reflections of that touch, the fingertip language of lovers, and though you can't see her face because she is walking one way, your bus going another, you hope she is smiling, and the silence in your chest is the sound of your heart not beating -- and say something. Anything. Apologize for the state of the world, for being who you are, maybe -- apologize that there are so many lonely people in the world and then hang up.22
Then you go back to clicking away, still searching for that one perfect vagina with the personality that will make you complete.
"...not just a lithe, shapely ass, people."
© DC Comics
"Not too much, Mom, just called to see what you were up to. I love you, you know."
"Oh for God's sake. If you rented Rear Entry XII with my Blockbuster card, I better not be getting any late charges."
Subject Arrgh! I've used all my emails!
Hello. I seem to have used all my emails for this month. Admittedly I did go a little crazy trying to hit every available woman within 75 miles of Pittsburgh. But God Help Me, I'm so lonely.