Rediscovering desire in a panopticon of virtual pleasures

Dean Kissick prescribes a renaissance of sensualism to save us from our collective ennui

My mother once advised me, out of the blue and uncharacteristically for her, to have as much sex as possible while I’m still young. I was so surprised I didn’t know what to say. But maybe I should have told her, “No, Mom, it’s different for my generation, the ’60s are over, and listen, how can I find exactly what I desire?” I might have told her that some nights I scroll through these apps looking at everyone’s pictures, the widths of the brims of their hats, and despair that we have no common humanity. Nonetheless I do feel that not having as much sex as possible is one of the many ways in which I’ve let her down.

I’m not the only one. Eighteen-to-30-year-olds, a recent survey found, are nearly twice as likely to not have had sex in the past year as 50-somethings. A widely-shared chart from The Washington Post showed that the portion of men under 30 reporting no sex with an opposite sex partner in the past year had nearly tripled between 2008 and 2019, reaching 28 percent. For women, the number went up from 8 percent to 18 percent. While a rising acceptance of LGBTQ+ orientations and the number of people coming out may well account for part of this change, it surely does not account for all 28 percent. These are mad figures. And they are from 2019; given the last year of lockdown, financial hardship, and unemployment, they’ve likely increased. So, what happened in 2008, and why have our sex lives been in decline ever since?

It was a year marked by both the stress of the global financial crisis and an influx of new services and technologies engineered to transform our relationship with desire. The year before, the first iPhone came out. In 2008, Facebook released its mobile app and exploded in popularity. Instagram followed, in 2010. Pornhub was launched in 2007; Tinder, on September 12, 2012, beckoning in a new era for sex and intimacy: validation on demand, with the accompanying dopamine hit now separated from the carnal and the physical. In the years since these products flooded the market, old pleasures such as sexual connection and social interaction have been replaced by an unceasing Pavlovian flow of pings and notifications that hijack the gratification-seeking part of our brains. They encourage us to abandon biological pleasures in favor of new, virtual pleasures; to nod gently off into what Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883)—the meaningless, nihilistic decadence of the Last Men:

“‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’—so asks the Last Man, and blinks. …

“‘We have discovered happiness’—say the Last Men, and they blink.”

According to another study from 2019, American men think about sex nine times a day, and women, seven. The average American, however, checks their phone 96 times a day and probably thinks about it a whole lot more. In One Night in Paris, her sex tape from 2001, Paris Hilton—who was born in 1981, among the first cohort of millennials—was able to embody the story of our generation far ahead of the event: making love to the camera, having sex for the camera, even stopping fucking to answer her phone. She was in this moment the world spirit.

Much of culture now has the hollow, vacant feeling of having been made by algorithm. Consider the drab, broken anti-spectacle of Addison Rae performing trending TikTok dances onstage with Jimmy Kimmel or NFTs sold for millions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s—it’s art and pop stripped of all verve, fertility, and eroticism. What’s left is the new aesthetic of lifelessness and void, a consumer culture of throwaway experiences that wash right over you like an Ambien. It’s made to be experienced without friction: seamless post-death entertainment from an empire ruled over by a sleepy, old man. “Avoiding friction,” the critic Rob Horning has noted, “becomes a kind of content in itself—‘readable books’; ‘listenable music’; ‘vibes’; ‘ambience,’ etc.” And this is in keeping with a generational preference for light demi-pleasures: bumps not lines; microdosing, not getting high; sugary milks made of oats; podcasts, not conversation; the simulated intimacy of ASMR. Each of life’s pleasures in small amounts.

Indeed, the figure of the debauched, decadent millennial is an elusive one. The great junkies of the last 10 years, the notorious Casanovas, who were they? What would they even do? Drink long, sticky cups of lean, sitting down in a penumbral room. Contemplate the misery of fame. Watch the evening fade away? Though I’ve moved from continent to continent and their respective artistic milieux, I never do seem to meet the crazed, visionary sensualists who’ll lead me to the edge, where I can no longer make sense of my own experiences, to ecstasy and transcendence, and finally complete doom.

“Desire is the anticipating, the act of imagining, pleasures we wish to experience in our lives. It’s the cause, according to the Four Noble Truths of the Cosmic Buddha, of all suffering.”

“Today, we don’t have any religion, we don’t have any convention. We believe that we are totally free,” Olivier Zahm, Paris’s bright young art world intellectual turned satyr and tight-jeaned Pygmalion, said back in 2010. “We believe that we’re living in a time where everyone does what he wants, there’s no convention, and everyone can enjoy themselves. But that’s totally a pure lie…. Everyone is scared of having a free sexual life, and what they do is go on the internet and masturbate. This is the pure sexual misery today. They don’t even go to the movie theater like in the ’70s.”

Buried under the shifting sexual norms and collective ennui is a deep uncertainty about the place sex has in today’s culture. Sex has taken on new meaning with each cultural era, from the hedonistic fantasy of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll to the new vision of society offered by the free love movement. It’s not at all clear what it’s related to today. Sex has been uncoupled from traditional meanings by the introduction of new technologies and modes of interaction and recontextualized as just one of the many soft pleasures that make up modern life. There’s no sure narrative around it anymore. I keep reading that it’s good for our health? Going off the most popular pornography, it’s about fucking your stepsister? Or Japanese cartoons with pixelated vaginas? It’s certainly ripe for redefinition, and for the reintroduction of some Dionysian chaos.

This is an age of great individualism and narcissism. We live in the marketplace of identities; vanity is what drives economies now. And this is a problem that transcends not just sexual desire. Everything we do in our lives—for instance, my writing and sharing this essay—can be thought of in terms of self-presentation, a world full of people living for an imagined audience. Going to the gym, I’m surprised by how many more men are there than women and how they’re mostly young men in great shape, working toward their perfect bodies, lifting up their shirts before the mirrored walls, taking pictures of one another in the changing room, talking about diet and nutrition. The way we flirt now, by sharing images and impressions of ourselves online, is yet another way of expressing your personal identity. In the sexy panopticon of social media, we’re all socialized more like how women have always been: Our goal is to appear desirable to others rather than feel desire ourselves. Who can be expected to connect with someone else, to experience real passion under these conditions? I have a beautiful friend, very thin, who likes to say she never has sex with her boyfriend anymore—she finds this amusing—and also likes to make videos of herself for Instagram wearing an expression of total disinterest and impassivity, rolling about on the floor of different rooms in her apartment. I think she’s on a lot of antidepressants or possibly antipsychotics. She’s extremely good at what she does.

I have a great sexual-crisis group chat with a few of my most handsome guy friends, who were once among the most eligible young men in Western Europe. We’re supporting one another. They say that being a single thirtysomething artist or DJ is a massive red flag, but I tell them, no, it’s highly desirable, it’s close to the apex of contemporary society. We tell one another we’re looking for love. We’re snowflakes, perfectly unique, bursting with creativity and self-expression, and believe we deserve somebody else equally unique. I think we’re chasing after an idea, rather than any one person, and that we’re searching for a part of ourselves. My friends say we carry the ghosts of past relationships with us and construct this ideal from fragments of our past relationships—this Frankenstein’s gf, Exquisite Corpse gf. I often feel we’re chasing after someone who does not exist.

Desire is the anticipating, the act of imagining, pleasures we wish to experience in our lives. It’s the cause, according to the Four Noble Truths of the Cosmic Buddha, of all suffering. Tracking the decline of Western sexuality and civilization in his novel Atomised (1998), Michel Houellebecq writes, “The Utopian solution—from Plato to Huxley by way of Fourier—is to do away with desire and the suffering it causes by satisfying it immediately. The opposite is true of the sex-and-shopping society we live in, where desire is marshalled and organized and blown up out of all proportion. For society to function, for competition to continue, people have to want more and more until it fills their lives and finally devours them.”

Now we’ve moved on again, from the ’90s sex-and-shopping society to the ’20s selfies-and-scrolling society. If life was about desire and suffering then, it’s now about doing away with suffering and all hardcore sensations in favor of the constant rolling satisfaction of, and creation of, more hollow, artificial yearnings. But these will not satisfy us. Content won’t make us happy. A part of me misses the deathly terror of last spring in New York, because I felt so alive in that moment. Now we’re kept trapped in this ambient state of desiring here in the eternal present, where everything is at once neverending and meaningless. This big, wide mood. This faint desiring ache; a phantom sensation of a phone vibrating somewhere about your person, of someone trying to reach out and touch you. We live in the cities, we’re always available, we’re supposed to be more connected than ever, and yet we’re alone as can be.

My editor told me about a friend of hers, a man in his thirties, who’s dating a girl, mid-twenties, who doesn’t want to hang out much, but wants to talk and text every day around the clock. This sounds like a fucking nightmare. But a self-fulfilling one: The illusion of perpetual connection has become a barrier to the experience of physical closeness. After all, why meet up if you’re getting your emotional needs met from afar? I suspect this illusion of closeness is, in part, what’s stopping us from experiencing lust. There’s a loss of distance and mystery, of both risk and reward. We cannot begin to close the gap between ourselves and another person if we don’t believe one exists.

Dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, and my elite dating app for good-looking creatives and models provide a frictionless, hovering experience of lust. Emotional validation is dispensed without intimacy or vulnerability. “I enjoy,” a friend named Isabela wrote recently, “long walks on the beach and having empty unfulfilling sex with beautiful strangers.” On these apps you have only the illusion of choice; you’ll ask the same questions again and again, have the same conversations, and go on the same dates. And if things go well, as they generally do, you’ll have perhaps a night of great sex, a couple more nights of drunken sex, breakfasts together, texts, photographs, some emojis, an eternity of ghosting. It’s quite undignified. You might feel sad, but likely won’t feel anything.

“Let’s tear down the culture of narcissism. Sunbathe naked by the Teufelssee and watch the wild boars take off with our laptops. We can tear off all our clothes and go down to the slow riverbend.”

“Love is like heroin,” my friend Dagsen, a beautiful male model, tells me. It was in a cozy Hokkaido restaurant on Bayard Street that I first overheard he was looking to buy some wholesale oxytocin from China. “Literally,” he continues. “Oxytocin is prescribed off-label to treat chronic pain. It causes the body to naturally produce opioids. It currently exists in a legal gray area in America, where you can order it from Amazon or Walmart. I have a shipment arriving in four days.” When it arrived a day early, he told me, “I am actually terrified of trying this in my current mental state.” But we must be prepared to do anything for love. And perhaps self-medicating with oxytocin will restore feelings of love and desire to everyone, and we should all be taking it this summer. His surname is Love, as it happens.

Twitter critic Christopher Lasch’s Angry Ghost (@ghostofchristo1) recently wrote, “My main hope is that the first post-COVID summer turns into a carnal free-for-all that transcends politics and brings people together at the basic level of physical connection, sans phone. People’s psychic energies can’t be drained by the virtual political space any longer.” That’s what I’d like as well. Let’s tear down the culture of narcissism. Sunbathe naked by the Teufelssee and watch the wild boars take off with our laptops. We can tear off all our clothes and go down to the slow riverbend. There’s nothing stopping us from doing so.

I hope there’ll be an explosion of desire and wantonness where I live this summer. It’s spring now, and it’s already started. Last summer in Manhattan there was a lot of hooking up, a lot of making out on the piers, like how the old city might have been, how the new city might be, a lot of going home and fucking, a lot of experimentation. Everyone wanted to make out. At least downtown they did, from the East River Amphitheater to the West Side Highway, although it felt like it wasn’t driven by sexual desire so much as by a desire for human contact, for intimacy and closeness, and to recall that after everything that had happened, we were still in a body, we were alive. There’s another passage from Atomised where Houellebecq writes, “What the boy had felt was something pure; something gentle, something that predated sex or a need for sensual fulfillment. It was the simple desire to reach out and touch someone, to be held lovingly in someone’s arms. Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so difficult to give up hope.” That’s what last summer was like.

Now I hope for, if not a new Summer of Love, a Summer of Desire, of Passion. So here’s my trend forecast: There’s going to be a lot of ecstasy going around. Lately I’ve noticed more ecstasy pills in the States. I think people will be taking ecstasy in the street in Koreatown, listening to terrace trance, drinking cocktails from bags flashing with LED ice. I’ve seen a lot of crop tops in SoHo, on men and on women. I think there’ll be a trend of wearing almost nothing—like, half naked, three-quarters naked. More drinking in the parks and down on the boardwalks on long, hot summer nights. I think we’ll see more dolphins in the East River. It’s already happening. I don’t want to write anymore, I want to go outside. They say you should never have what you desire. But every day I ask myself, what do I want in this life? My greatest fear is to have lived with too little abandon; that when I look back on my life, I’ll feel I’ve wasted so much of it and held too much inside.