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Romance, Sex, and Fantasy

Online dating has become a viable and often successful way for people to connect and find meaningful relationships with one another. The world of catfishing often intersects with this corner of cyberspace in a way that gives caution to every success story one hears.

Scams are scams, however, whether they’re online or in physical space. The issues of love and romance are something different altogether. Anthony Giddens deals with the issues of love, romance, and sexuality in a nicely summarized piece about his own work, found in the text Sociology:

In my own work, particularly The Transformation of Intimacy (1993), I looked at how intimate relationships are changing in modern society. The introduction to this chapter shows that marriage in pre-modern society was not generally based on sexual attraction or romantic love; instead, it was more often linked to the economic context in which to create a family or to enable the inheritance of property. For the peasantry, a life characterized by unremitting hard labour was unlikely to be conducive to sexual passion – although opportunities for men to engage in extramarital liaisons were numerous.

Romantic love, as distinct from the more or less universal compulsions of passionate love, developed in the late eighteenth century. Despite its promise of an equal relationship based on mutual attraction, romantic love has in practice tended to lead to the dominance of men over women. For many men, the tensions between the respectability of romantic love and the compulsions of passionate love were dealt with by separating the comfort of the wife and home from the sexuality of the mistress or prostitute. The double standard here was that a woman should remain a virgin until the right man arrives; whereas no such norm applied to the men.

I argue that the most recent phase of modernity has seen another transformation in the nature of intimate relationships. There has been the development of plastic sexuality. For people in modern societies there is a much greater choice over when, how often and with whom they have sex than ever before. With plastic sexuality, sex can be untied from reproduction. This is partly due to improved methods of contraception, which have largely freed women from the fear of repetitive (and life-threatening) pregnancies and childbirths. However, it is not only technological developments that led to the emergence of plastic sexuality, but crucially the development of a sense of self that could be actively chosen. This process can be described as the growth of social reflexivity…

With the emergence of plastic sexuality, there is a change in the nature of love. I argued that the ideals of romantic love are fragmenting and being replaced by confluent love. Confluent love is active and contingent. It jars with the forever, one-and-only qualities of romantic love. The emergence of confluent love goes some way towards explaining the rise of separation and divorce discussed earlier in this chapter. Romantic love meant that once people had married they were usually stuck with one another, no matter how the relationship developed. Now people have more choice: whereas divorce was previously difficult or impossible to obtain, married people are no longer bound to stay together if the relationship doesn’t work.

Rather than basing relationships on romantic passion, people are increasingly pursuing the ideal of the pure relationship, in which couples remain because they choose to do so. As the idea of confluent love becomes consolidated as a real possibility, the more the idea of finding the Mr or Mrs Right recedes and the more the idea f finding the right relationship becomes crucial. The pure relationship is held together by the acceptance on the part of each partner that, ‘until further notice’, each gains sufficient benefits from the relationship to make its continuance worthwhile. Love is based upon emotional intimacy that generates trust. Love develops depending on how much each partner is prepared to reveal concerns and needs and to be vulnerable to the other. Each partner in the relationship constantly monitors their concerns to see if they are deriving sufficient satisfaction from the relationship for it to go on.

There is a diversity of forms of pure relationship. Marriage can be one, though it is increasingly an expression of such a relationship once it already exists (as the number of couples cohabiting rises) rather than a way of achieving it. However, pure relationships are certainly not limited to marriage or indeed to heterosexual couples. In some forms, same-sex relationships, because of their open and negotiated status, come closer to the ideal of pure relationships than do heterosexual ones.

Some critics have argued that the instability of the pure relationship, which was thought of as a relationship between adults, contrasts with the complexities of family practices which also include children and neglects the different experiences which men and women tend to have when a (heterosexual) relationship ends. By focusing on relationships between adults, critics have noted, the idea of a pure relationship reflects the marginalization of children and childhood in sociological thought (Smart and Neale 1999).

While Giddens’ views aren’t to be taken as comprehensive or the final word on the subject, his notes offer a way to talk about love, romance, relationships, and sexuality in historical and cultural terms. When engaging with digital media and cyberculture, one might begin from Giddens’ perspective and ask questions about how love, romance, relationships, and sexuality are different, or transformed, by the introduction of digital media. Giddens’ arguments center on the organization of human history in periods known loosely as pre-modernity, modernity, and postmodernity. We might alternately turn to the general organization of history familiar in this class, primary orality, literacy, and electronic cultures. In either sense, one is characterizing history according to its most profound transformations. In Giddens’ model, an established and popular point of view, the focus is on social arrangements, including political and economic factors. In the media ecology model, we focus on transformative technologies and their impact on larger communicative/perceptual order. The two can compliment one another nicely.

So, as we shift from modernity into postmodernity, and leave behind traditional aspects of culture brought about through literacy, many of Giddens’ observations take root. Dan Slater writes in The Atlantic that online “romance” may be threatening monogamy. Julie McCarthy of NPR offers a look at how the Internet is empowering women in India, who choose online dating over arranged marriages.

Sexuality online is a complicated subject that extends beyond romance, however. The dark side of online sex can be found in the use of Craigslist for prostitution and exploitation as noted in the New York Times. Arranging for sex online makes it easier for individuals to find one another for sexual encounter that avoids relationship beyond the physical, or in a fashion that stands outside traditional boundaries. The sex trade has been facilitated by digital media, and represents one of the darkest corners of the Internet. Sex trafficking is akin to slavery, and many advocacy groups have attempted to counter the online trade with activism of their own. Pornography is easily accessible online, which ought to be a surprise to few, but the frequency with which individuals rely on the relative anonymity of the Internet to use services like AdultFriendFinder (the 304th most frequently used website in the United States) and AshleyMadison (the 2113th most frequently used site in the US) may come as a shock. Dating sites have been wildly successful at matching like-minded people for long term, meaningful relationships, while many sites aimed at facilitating casual sexual encounters, often between otherwise married individuals, shows something of the postmodern attitude towards romance, love, relationships and sex that runs counter to much of what we understand as characterized by modernity and its formal bonds.


About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University


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