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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.

We are living in the age of digitally enhanced dating and mating.

Getting a mate used to take a lot of time. First, you had to actually find possible suitors -- through work, hobbies, friends, family. Then you had to figure out when to call the person, and they would have to be sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.

Not anymore.

"Has the search for erotic gratification ever been so efficient?" asks Wesley Lang, who just read and (sympathetically) critiqued 132 Sex Diaries, published weekly in New York magazine since April 2007. In each, using a pseudonym (i.e. The Polyamorous Paralegal), a New Yorker keeps a daily (sometimes hourly) record of his or her dating and mating activities, then a "rambunctious cacophony of commenters" pounces. Taken together, the collection cracks "open a window into the changing structure, rhythm and rhetoric of sex in New York."

Much has clearly changed. "Palliatives" like personal ads, paid dating services, dirty videos and magazines used to be "generally understood to be the province of weirdos and losers." Now, of course, palliatives are the norm. Dating sites and Facebook are ubiquitous, as is text messaging. And these social technologies have "changed the nature of the game."

Lang thinks they've made dating easier in some ways but have exacerbated the confusion and anxiety. In fact, in the taxonomy of the 800 pages of diary entries he read, what he was most struck by was anxiety.

There's the anxiety of too much choice, because someone can always be "doing something other than what one is presently doing, or being with someone other than the person one is with." And it leads to the paralyzing and "nagging urge to make each thing we do the single most satisfying thing we could possibly be doing at any moment." I feel the panic already.

There's the overwhelming anxiety about making the wrong choice.

"An inordinate number of diarists find themselves at the brink of enjoying one sexual experience, only to receive a phone call or text from another potential suitor. They become a slave to their compulsion and indecision." More than one diarist said they just didn't know who or what they wanted.

That means most people have someone on the back burner while they look for Mr. or Ms. Right, to avoid facing the terror of having no one. But while those late-night booty calls may be a temporary solace, they're also "confusing, destabilizing and exhausting."

It means people are constantly playing a high-stakes game. And while there are various complex ideas about what it takes to win, there is overwhelming agreement about how you lose: "by betraying a level of emotional enthusiasm unmatched by the other party. Everyone's afraid disarmament won't be mutual." Constant detachment is the rule.

And yet, there is the constant fear of loss. Life used to be a "linear sequence of relationships that began and ended," but now there's separation anxiety. With Facebook, you keep all of your friends, past and present, on a single page, which reminds us of their existence and makes "relationship recidivism irresistible to many."

The anthropology of the digital mating game is fascinating and complex and material for almost endless discussion (as witnessed by various comments sections).

But some people don't like complex and are wringing their hands. Kids these days! The sky is falling! Love is going to hell in and handbasket! The lightning rod critic is New York Times columnist David Brooks. As a result of this NY mag piece, he and many of his commenters are looking back through rose-colored bifocals to the days when men were men and many women weren't glad. And they want them back.