Sex & Relationships  
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Instant Sex: Has the Digital Age Destroyed Relationships or Made Them Better?

Digitally-enabled mating culture has opened up the mate-finding process while also generating a whole new set of dating anxieties.

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In his column this week, he says today's dating culture is like an "eBay auction," and that the interplay between technology and hook-ups is an interesting "roadblock in the country's social evolution."

Oh those kids. They're trading each other like cheap trinkets and preventing the U.S. from surging forward into the social future, um, whatever that is.

To start with, he blames the feminists. The pre-feminist era, apparently, was a time to forgo "immediate selfish interests and enmesh them with transcendent, spiritual meanings." Love was a "holy cause, an act of selfless commitment."

Luckily, there are more commenters calling for clarity than wringing their hands. Most say they must've missed that phase, even though they lived in it. One NYT commenter, Pauline, pointed out, "actually, in the pre-feminist era, the 'holy cause … self-sacrifice' bit was the female's assigned role," and the men were unofficially allowed to shop around, just without text messaging and Twitter.

And anyway, as another, commenter pointed out, feminism is about the opposite of cheap and meaningless relationships -- it's about according to women the respect that is due to all human beings. Something that only makes relationships stronger, unless I missed Relationships 101.

Second, Brooks blames the loss of social handcuffs, I mean social guardrails: "Once upon a time -- in what we might think of as the ' Happy Days' era -- courtship was governed by a set of guardrails. Potential partners generally met within the context of larger social institutions: neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and families. There were certain accepted social scripts. The purpose of these scripts -- dating, going steady, delaying sex -- was to guide young people on the path from short-term desire to long-term commitment."

I have to say, I watched a lot of Happy Days, and never saw an episode like that. But in a recent episode of Mad Men, Betty asks her lawyer about divorcing Don (after he committed a variety of moral and actual crimes), and the lawyer says if she leaves him, he'll get the kids and all the money. People may have stayed together, but like Betty, it wasn't just because of social scripts. And they weren't necessarily the happier for it.

In fact, commenter Rachel Benjamin wrote, "As far as your ' Happy Days' era fantasy is concerned: my great-grandmother got married to an abusive man because she was pregnant with my maternal grandmother; both my grandmothers were married by the time they were 16, and no amount of 'community guidance' could have prepared either of them for the men they would find themselves permanently attached to after their husbands returned from service in World War II."

And even if some people were happier, not everyone was. Those social scripts didn't exactly support gay people, women, lovers from mixed backgrounds or different religions. They really just supported one demographic (Brooks' incidentally) at the expense of the others.

Anyway, history sure isn't just full of people having pure, long-term relationships. There were one-night-stands and shotgun weddings long before cell phones.

And it wasn't just full of authentic, unguarded, easy interactions. One commenter posted the following excerpt from Vanity Fair: "Be cautions then, young ladies; be wary how you engage. Be shy of loving frankly; never tell all you feel, or (a better way still), feel very little. See the consequences of being prematurely honest and confiding, and mistrust yourselves and everybody. ... Never have any feelings which may make you uncomfortable or make any promises which you cannot at any required moment command and withdraw. That is the way to get on, and be respected, and have a virtuous character in Vanity Fair."