While LRB ads celebrate a literary culture, their presumed goal second only to the display of wit, blatantly sexual ads are the most monotonous and least rich in literary inventiveness. But words that are preparatory to nonverbal encounters, whether skin-deep or all-encompassing, always matter—sometimes even more than action. This is why the Internet has eased the life of those who like to “hook up” for sex in any form, “just for fun” or just for company, with chat messaging and chance encounters sped up, naturally filtered, and as anonymous as one might wish. Newspaper personals worked quite well, too, even in the 1700s, but back then the call for sex had to masquerade as high-minded purpose.
Online, one can be anything, anyone, of any age, gender, nationality, biography, appearance. And yet one may use words and delve into verbal play to enact one’s deepest psyche, to reveal the identity that is buried in everyday life and useless in the real world of social interaction. To hook up by way of words is often to play hooky with a reality that doesn’t obey our words. It is to search for a psychic order that can be forcefully denied by social order. Hence the intensely erotic nature of such play.
But if one wishes, one can also appear online unmasked. Beyond messenger services, social-networking tools like Facebook have created a new vocabulary of virtual seduction, a new convergence between the dating industry and the simplified but transparent truths of one’s social self. Most serious sites will be based on a “profile” form, since the user must provide basic information about herself; otherwise, there would be no selection criteria. Facebook takes transparency to the limit, since it aims to virtually reproduce and even extend one’s real social life and persona. Here, right below one’s name and surname, one can describe what one is “interested in”—women, men, friendship, dating, a relationship, networking—and what one’s “relationship status” is, from “married” to “it’s complicated” to “in an open relationship.” Websites that specialize in dating expand the concept to include “just penpals,” “activity partners,” “friends,” “let’s see what happens,” “a short-term relationship,” “a long-term relationship,” “marriage,” “a fling,” and so on. Here, one woman may call herself “Fallen Angel,” and then deliver as much or as little information as she wishes. She can describe her height, weight, hair and eye color; reveal her age and zodiac sign; discuss her eating, drinking, and exercise habits; or indicate her occupation, income, ethnicity, languages, and religion. She can outline her interests, goals, dreams, and hang-ups.
This is ordered chaos, a new world where a partner or friend or intermittent lover can pop out of the virtual world and where no boundaries at all prevail—yet where one can summon romance out of any corner, real or virtual, and where some people still expressly choose to live within the boundaries of old rites such as marriage. One may argue that the order-disorder dichotomy is no longer quite as strict as it once was, especially since few Westerners or Westernized groups care about old orders anymore. Individuals may do as they wish. No person or institution will condemn them, and no order will collapse. This individual freedom is what a modern society is supposed to afford.