All Tabs, No Tap

The plague of urban erotic indifference

On a recent Friday night, a 22-year-old in his first year of living in New York hosted a late get-together in his Little Italy apartment. Everyone there would call it a good party, but it decidedly lacked a climax.

Until 10 in the morning, a dozen attractive men and women—day laborers in film, public relations, media and fashion—drank Peroni, smoked cigarettes and indulged in cocaine as someone with an iPhone 4 blasted songs through the speakers. A girl sitting next to a Harvard MBA student looked through a coffee-table book of Todd Selby’s photography. There was a conversation going on about Twitter—most of those present kept a vigorously updated account.

Then came the sun—the traditional cue that one should choose a member of the opposite sex to sleep with and set off for his or her apartment. Instead attendees departed alone. They peeled off instead of pairing up. No one at the party got laid that night and, even worse, no one gave a fuck.

Young New Yorkers no longer care about having sex. It’s not the endgame, nor even the animating force of social interaction. Men and women still get dressed up, but not for the purpose of taking off their clothes in another’s company. What used to signify desire or the desire to be desired now boils down to narcissism. How will I look on Patrick McMullan tomorrow? Or just on Facebook? The Observer spent a few weeks at parties and gatherings fraught with abstinence but slack of any sexual tension, and we heard a repeated sentiment, often delivered with uncharacteristic fervor: “We are a self-obsessed generation.”

What devalued sex for 20-somethings in New York City? Social media networks, rather than bringing people together, encourage nothing so much as an orgy of self-congratulation. Anyone worried about accumulating Twitter followers could be racking up bedmates. The networks are omnipresent. Dueling iPhones rest on the nightstand. And if you sleep with someone, they’ll be all over five Firefox tabs for the next week.

“He was in my Twitter feed, on my Tumblr dash, in my Gchat group, writing the articles I read,” a young woman who works at an Internet start-up told The Observer, over Gmail chat. “It’s like you don’t want to become attached with someone else’s online identity—or known because of someone else’s online identity, who you’re dating. You want your own, damn it.”

There are aggravating factors. Cocaine is again going around, and everyone would rather stay up doing it than going to bed. Cab rides from downtown back to Brooklyn with a potential paramour ruin the mood and are best avoided. But the most prominent cause for the shift is the way the codes of online interaction have been transferred to the mores of New York socializing.

The platonic cliques spend all day Tweeting at each other, forming exclusive @-reply feeds that appear only to them, and at night flock to the same bars, clubs and after-parties. It’s harder to go home with someone knowing that you’ll be seeing their avatar the next morning and every morning after that.

“New York is too dense; you’re running into people all the time, everyone knows everyone,” said a male consultant in his mid-20s. “Sex just doesn’t make sense—it’s dirty.”

It was around 2 a.m., and The Observer was sitting with the consultant at a booth, presumably taken from a diner, that has abetted the consumption of thousands of cigarettes. It now rests by the panoramic windows in his Low East Side apartment, which doubles as his office. Noise is insulated from neighbors, and there is ample crowd space. On the wall hangs a glass marlin named Marlin Brando. It’s a swell place to stay up all night drinking, doing drugs and not finding other people to sleep with.

For a while, the apartment has welcomed last-call castoffs who arrive around 4 or 5 a.m.—a mix of nightlife promoters, musicians, aspiring actresses, friends connected through college, television personalities, Google employees, gossip reporters, skate kids and writers for The New York Times. And, in the past, certain attendees would see former sexual partners.

“It’s gross to be, like, at a party and there’s five people you’ve had sex with, but you don’t really even have a relationship with them to the point that you’d even say hi,” the consultant said. “I’ve noticed that happen at parties here. It’s just … awkward.”

But such encounters have become less likely, he added.

“It’s come to a point where people don’t necessarily want to do that anymore.”

No, they don’t. Sex is antithetical to the way they socialize, disruptive to the larger plan, a gateway to chaos in a digitally ordered world.

At a wrap party for a film shot in downtown Manhattan, underpaid and raccoon-eyed film assistants sucked dry the open bar, and after shmoozing with the producers—the key grips and set managers needed new gigs—they poured out clumsily onto the Bowery to head home. They were tired.

“My hours are so fucking absurd,” an office production assistant on the film told The Observer. “I work a minimum 12 hours a day and up to 14 or 16, and you don’t have time to bring anyone into the equation. If having sex with someone won’t fit in your schedule, it’s just not gonna happen.”

The same cadre from that previous Saturday morning party reconvened a few days later for comped gin cocktails at a Lower East Side speakeasy. The good-looking men and women sat with plenty of space between them.

“Twenty-somethings are wary of sex,” said one, a young man who works at a hedge fund. “It’s not 1998.”

It was the same at Kenmare, where we sat in the back nook between a photographer-DJ—his art collective has a prominent Tumblr—and a striking fashion model.

“Capitalism has replaced sex,” the model said into our ear, a black, flat-rimmed hat crowning her blond hair and waifish features. We were sharing a hidden cigarette. She then took the half-empty Stella on the table and disappeared into the crowd, and The Observer left alone to get a cab home.

There is, however, hope for these poor souls, sexless in the city; younger kids are poised to take their places.

The Observer ran into Sofia Black D’Elia and James Newman, the teenaged stars of Skins, at a party at Jimmy, the sleek lounge on top of The James Hotel. D’Elia is television’s coquette of the moment, Newman her well-cheekboned onscreen counterpart. They were sneaking champagne, gussied up and beguiling, their hungry eyes recalling the racy ads for their show. The posters plaster subway trains and imbue the minds of commuters with their first naughty thoughts of the day.

The Observer asked them why young people in New York don’t want to have sex.

They both laughed.

“That’s a funny idea!” D’Elia said.

“I haven’t actually, um, heard that,” Newman said.

“I’m 19, so I don’t think I can weigh in,” D’Elia said.

Newman gave her a mischievous smirk.

“Both of us are kind of right out of high school,” he said. “We’re in that period where you supposedly ‘lose it.’”

“Everything makes you assume that this is Your Time,” D’Elia said. “For example, the media …”

“Or, for example, television shows …” The Observer said.

“Yes,” D’Elia laughed. “For example.”

They may be onto something. The adolescent heat of Skins is an MTV put-on, but on the show, their cell phones—not iPhones—are a means to an end. The texts are always sexts. They don’t seek to expand their persona within a scene, online or otherwise. The carnality is evident and, to some in New York, enviable.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it with someone who’s a good writer,” a young woman, who is a journalist in New York, said over Gmail chat. “Because all it comes down to, really, is whether he/she smells good and can wiggle around well.”

“I agree!” The Observer typed back.

The words stopped coming, and then Gmail indicated she had entered text.

“Being naked, warm and squirming with someone in a bed has nothing to do with the Internet,” her Gmail chat message read. “Never has, never will!”

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