Reportage

The vulnerability threshold

"WE TELL OURSELVES stories in order to live." So begins The White Album, Joan Didion's collection of essays about the 1960s. If the '60s were about imposing a new narrative on events – constructing a story out of the times (women burning bras, men burning draft tickets, naked couples making love in the mud at Woodstock), then what is the narrative their children impose on their lives?

Growing up in the most rapid era of change means there's little room to absorb events, let alone derive meaning from them. In the early part of this century, only one clear narrative has emerged – terrorism. Whatever we do in our lives – however unconnected it is to the realpolitik – can be interpreted through this prism, the lens greased with fear.

The sexual landscape of the young does not escape. A rise in young marriage rates? A grasping for security and comfort in a time of war and unease. Casual sex on the rise? A symptom of anxiety. A baby boom in New York? It's a post-9/11 thing. An increase in binge drinking and drugs? Blame nihilism – that end-of-days feeling, when every night on the news we're confronted with suicide bombers, terror training camps, ASIO raids, the war in Iraq.

Yet – in bars and clubs, pubs and at parties, through the smoke, the hyper-flirting, sexually aggressive women, confused men, booze and the pills, disco and trance, pop and heavy metal – we come together. Through the dancing and drinking and the sweat and the lust, we come together then disconnect. It's what human beings have always done, but how we do it says something about this age. Later some meaning may be clear. What it is right now – when the moments still have heat in them – is hard to say.

Already we know what this era won't be. In a time of generalised anxiety and fear, a Summer of Love circa 1968 is the stuff of movies. Even the more recent 1988, ecstasy-driven Summer of Love and the rave parties of the early 1990s seem a lifetime ago – the epoch of another, lighter age. Love and sex now have a harder edge. Hooking up – the young person's sexual game of choice – is transactional and cold. The trick is to get your rocks off physically while escaping with minimal emotional impact. The yearning that we have, the deep need to connect, is still there – indeed, stronger than ever – but to express the need to be loved is to risk rejection. It is to make yourself vulnerable. And in the age of anxiety, we have already reached the vulnerability threshold.

 

I PICK UP the latest issue of Harper's Bazaar in a Kings Cross newsagency after a cover line catches my eye – "No Sex in the City". The article quotes an American study that found women were having less sex than ever before. Work, a lack of suitable sexual partners and too many things to watch on television were blamed by people interviewed in Sydney, New York and London. The tone was bleak: women preferred to drink expensive cocktails in trendy bars than risk second-rate sex. Men preferred to stay at work, make more money or watch sport with their mates than try to please a demanding woman. One "sexpert" advised that yoga was a good replacement for sex, "as it contained all the physical benefits but with none of the intimacy". Is that what we're scared of?

Beach Road, Hotel Bondi, the first weekend of daylight saving: four chicks are buying rounds of champagne, by the bottle. By the time we are done, everyone has drunk a bottle each, plus the jugs of sangria at the restaurant beforehand.

The women, in their late twenties, agree that alcohol has fuelled the new sexual landscape, but that Australian men – with their reluctance to "behave formally towards women, to ask them on dates" – also tilt the landscape. Heather, a twenty-eight-year-old Brit, says without rancour: "They won't ask you out for dinner, so after you've hooked up – they say 'See you at the pub next week.' It's a lot looser and more open to interpretation."

Claire, twenty-nine, is seeing Russell, a twenty-five-year-old guy she met at this pub some weeks ago. But it's just sex, she says. She doesn't let him stay the night and resents it when he drops off to sleep in her bed because he snores. "I'm not his girlfriend. I shouldn't have to put up with that," she says.

Russell knows the rules of engagement are stringent. He doesn't call or send flowers or turn up as Claire's date at dinners or parties. They communicate by text and see each other late on Saturday nights after Claire has been out with her friends. She's not sure where Russell lives, but knows it's out in the suburbs – far away from the beach. She suspects that, apart from sexual compatibility, they don't have much in common. It's sex at its most transactional – bodies bared but their true selves assiduously hidden.

Claire doesn't want her heart broken ("again" she says. "I can't go through that again"). This kind of no-frills relationship gives her control – she gets the sex without the messy emotional stuff.

The notion of control has always been tightly bound up with sex. But the children of Baby Boomers are walking an even finer line than usual. Girls are going out in groups and drinking and drugging more than ever. Hard drinking and ingesting so many substances means control is relinquished. Sex drive is up, inhibitions down. In their backless tops, tiny silk camisoles, high heels and tight jeans, they feel sexy. Their mates in a hunting pack pump each other up. They say: "I'll be your wing man" when one goes in for the kill. If the bloke turns out to be a dud, they'll signal or text each other for backup.

But even with your "wing man" nearby, how do you keep control when it's two in the morning and your libido is skyrocketing, inhibitions are gone and one more drink will leave you slumped on the floor? Easy – pash and dash. Like a grown-up version of kiss-chasey, it's popular in nightclubs, bars or pubs where escape is possible thanks to numerous exits and big crowds.

It works like this. The girl sits next to a guy. She might put her hand on his leg. Maybe she'll introduce herself, maybe she won't. She then goes in for a French kiss. Or maybe she brushes up against him on the dance floor. They dirty dance for half a song, then pash towards the end of the third verse.

Then she dashes – makes an excuse that she's going to the loo or the bar, or doesn't bother making an excuse at all. To stay with him – to prolong the moment – is to open all sorts of doors that may entail loss of control.

If she doesn't dash and keeps kissing him, they get increasingly turned on, then move off the dance floor and to a booth, or the couches. Maybe they'll go outside. He'll have her back to the wall and her skirt hitched up. What follows is banal in its timelessness.

"Want to go back to my house?" he asks. "Sure," she says. They kiss in the back of the cab. They fuck on his couch while his housemate sheepishly tiptoes past. She may not want it. Or he may not want it. But in a stranger's house at four in the morning – with too much to drink and the wheels of something set in motion – it is hard to turn back. Even in the heat of it – even when it's really good – both will push back forebodings of the next morning. The awkward sight of new flesh and makeup on the pillow. The way he snores and the odour of his socks. The possibility of parents somewhere in the house. The small talk, exchange of names. The offer of a coffee or a cab. The excruciating pretence at another meeting ("Yeah, I got your number – I'll call you ...") How, in the sharp sunlight, neither can look the other in the eye.

The pash and dash. A coward's way out. Confusing for blokes? Sure. But for young women operating late at night in a full-on sexual landscape, it's the only way to maintain control.

 

HOOK-UPS HAVE BEEN around for a while. Bret Easton Ellis's novel The Rules of Attraction (Vintage, 1998), set on an elite New England college campus in the 1980s, details the frantic love lives of a group of students. Although there is energy in the physical coupling, yearning and ennui are the most overwhelming emotions in the book. Lack of connection – despite physical intimacy – is the theme.

Many of the characters are sleeping with people they don't like, or hooking up with others just because they are there, while the true objects of their desire stand across the room, or stride purposely around campus, or are briefly seen at a party before departing for Europe. But love is different – it remains private, hidden from everyone including the object of affection. In the emotion/body split, young people become nihilistic, drifting through their own lives as if they were observers, not participants.

In Donna Tartt's The Secret History (Penguin, 1992), also set in a small university in Vermont, hook-ups happen when you have taken too many pills with too many different-coloured drinks – and you wake up in a strange bed wondering how you got there.

"This homey little sin, somewhere above sloth and below gluttony," is how the book's narrator, Richard, describes it after he slips out of the room of an undergrad, whose eyes he later avoids when he sees her on campus. For Richard, real love – true love – is reserved for friends. "And if I say love is something we had in common, then that would be true."

In Tom Wolfe's 2004 campus door-stopper, I Am Charlotte Simmons (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), hook-ups are an obsession. They reflect social status – more important than grades at Wolfe's elite fictional university of Dupont. Wolfe's heroine – virginal and naive – hooks up with the head of a prestigious frat house. The joyless encounter (a suite at the Hyatt, both of them drunk, he rolls off her and goes back to the party) leaves her ashamed, listless and depressed. She goes home for Christmas and is unable to eat, or even leave her bed.

At the Melbourne University college where I lived between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, it was common for students to hook up. It wasn't called hooking up then. It wasn't called anything, it just happened. You knew the names of the people you pashed. You sat next to them in the chapel and borrowed their lecture notes. You cheered for them when they played football and you stood with them in the dining hall complaining about the food.

They were friends and acquaintances. To hook up with a college boy (or a boy from another college, or a school friend of a college boy) was a public act. Everyone knew – it was discussed with laughter at breakfast the next morning "Who scored?" we would whisper to each other. At lunch, if you scored multiple people in one night (which was not unusual), you would be cheered as you sleepily lined up at the toaster. The quality (and quantity) of the score would neatly correspond with the level of drunkenness and the hour. Alcohol was always present, and in large quantities. Everyone drank to excess – sculling competitions, pre-dinner drinks before formal dinners, carafes of wine with dinner, port with dessert, beer in the common room afterwards. Girls competed with the boys as to who could drink the most – the results were messy.

After I left university, I travelled around Europe and met a cute Swiss boy on a train. We had a picnic at Lake Zurich and held hands as we went on a tour of a chocolate factory. Later that night, when we kissed, it felt strange. I realised I was sober. So intractable had the relationship between sex and alcohol become that to remove one from the equation felt wrong.

For the kids at college, only a few hook-ups turned into relationships. Most turned into friendship. There was a vapour tail of affability following these encounters. No one expected too much of them – they were quickly forgotten, even by the participants.

I remember one lunchtime in the dining hall, sitting with a group of friends, talking about boys over cups of tea trying to prolong the inevitability of returning to afternoon classes. "I think Angus is quite cute. I wouldn't mind scoring him at the next dinner," said one.

We discussed the merits of this until someone pointed out that she had already "scored" Angus at the last dinner. She had forgotten.

Another friend – careful to avoid too much overlap when it came to pashing – started an elaborate diagram called the "trim tree", connecting everyone at the college who was involved. Green was for relationship, red was for sexual fling, blue was for pash (or trim) and a broken black line was for groundwork done – preparing for a likely encounter.

By the end of semester, the diagram looked like noodle nation, a messy scrawl. Many had kissed the same guys or had been seen putting groundwork into someone else's fling, or had crushes on the same golden-haired med student. I doubt that many of these hook-ups resulted in sex. There was an innocence to those times. Maybe it was because we lived in a fairly small community – and it was acknowledged that too much sex between too many different members of the college would introduce a tension to a place that was determinedly easy-going, that strived to be carefree.

After university, the rules of engagement changed. The boys I met subsequently carried a different set of expectations. There was no self-contained community to lay down a moral tone. There were no unspoken, but mutually understood, parameters. I learnt that if you started kissing someone certain expectations followed; that it was a dance that was difficult to bow out of gracefully; that the music stopped only after sex.

 

THE 1960s WAS the dawn of the sexual revolution – or so we have been told. The advent of the pill turned sex for procreation into sex for pleasure en masse. In the '70s, the pill became mainstream, and the first big publishing phenomenon of the decade was the transformation of women's magazines. Women were reading about – and discussing – sex. Deep Throat, a porno film, was the highest grossing movie of 1972. Feminism provided a new mindset to go with the new science. Germaine Greer's book The Female Eunuch was a worldwide bestseller – and women became conscious of their own sexual potential.

Many of these women are mothers now, and are finding it difficult to embrace their children's personal sexual revolution. In 2003, Deirdre Macken wrote in the Australian Financial Review: "Hooking up seems to encapsulate both a blithe attitude towards sex and a dismissal of intimacy. A hook-up is both predatory and dismissive. It's as easy to achieve as threading a soggy prawn on to a hook and as easy to toss back as an underweight yellowtail. A hook-up isn't possessive and is often anonymous as many girls refer to hookups without bothering to attach the boy's name. But then, we live in a society where the majority of thirty-year-old men are still single, one in four city women will remain childless for life and the population is failing to reproduce itself on a demographic scale. A hook-up is as close to getting hitched as most young people want to get today."

Ouch. Is that the sound of a backlash?

Macken says the hook-up trend is epitomised by Sex and the City and Seinfeld, where new partners feature every week, and "intimate moments are prodded with the sensitivity of a toddler over a potty and passion is reserved for the straps of leather on their feet".

Baby Boomers watching from a distance are horrified at the new way of doing things. Where are the values of love and respect in transactional sex, they ask – forgetting that sex has alway been fraught, regardless of the age, with winners and losers, someone left wanting, someone more powerful, someone with control, someone relinquishing it. Maybe they have forgotten that sex feels like sinking underwater – scary, soothing and primal all at once.

Baby Boomers worry loudly that young men and women are living emotionally stunted lives – where consumerism is god and new shoes the communion. Sex is empty and transactional, intimacy avoided at all costs and the worst thing you can be is vulnerable. Yet young men and women have always rolled in and out of each other's beds and lives. In Helen Garner's classic, Monkey Grip (Penguin, 1977), old lovers are discarded in favour of new ones without any explanation.

Although she probably hasn't consciously meant to do such a thing, Garner's books have traced this sexual evolution, from the good-natured libertines of Monkey Grip to the castigating, cold-blooded products of post-feminism.

In The First Stone (Picador, 1995), the young Ormond College women are portrayed as physically luscious but emotionally punitive, while Anu Singh in Garner's Joe Cinque's Consolation (Macmillan, 2004) is also outwardly sexual and flirtatious, but cold and bloodless at her core – so cold, in fact, that she doesn't care about her boyfriend slowly dying in the upstairs bedroom. She is described in the opening pages as "the figure of what a woman most fears in herself – the damaged infant, vain, frantic, destructive, out of control". The other major female character, Madhavi Rao, is a handmaiden and cipher to the charismatic Singh.

These characters (remember, they are real people) are bereft of tenderness, the main quality that lit Monkey Grip's Nora from within. These modern young women are law students who have enjoyed a privileged, middle-class upbringing, yet Garner paints them as defective. Something vital is missing from their makeup – replaced by treachery and narcissism. They are women who not only view sex as transactional, but see life that way as well. The only people they care for are themselves.

There is something pursed-lipped and disappointed in Garner's more recent depictions of young women. It is as if they've let down the side somehow. But they are a reflection of the times, and perhaps a reaction to the world their mothers helped create two or three decades earlier.

 

THE CHILDREN OF the Baby Boomers came of age after the 1974 Family Law Act – which ushered in no-fault divorce. They are members of a generation which spent one in three weekends visiting dad, returning to mum and the cartoon sky of the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. Growing up in the wreckage of their parents' marriages, it is little wonder that they are self-protective. Sex becomes transactional if you try too hard to protect yourself.

This self-protective veneer is evident in figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which show that in 2001 marriage rates were at their lowest point in a century. That year, 103,100 couples married in Australia, while 55,300 divorced. Couples who married were five years older than they had been in 1981: the average bride was twenty-seven, the groom twenty-nine.

Professor Johanna Wyn, the director of the Australian Youth Research Centre at Melbourne University, has tracked 2,000 people who left school in 1991 in a longitudinal study on patterns of living. They are now thirty, and their lives are very different from those of their parents. Wyn's study showed that just over a third were married and only 260 had children. Tracking the class of '91, she has seen attitudes to marriage and family change. When I interviewed her in 2004, she said: "As people are getting towards twenty-six or twenty-seven they say, 'I think family is not what I want'. But when they got to thirty, both men and women are saying, 'I would have thought I would have had a stable partner by now but it's not happening' ... they were definitely disappointed and a little puzzled [their love life] hadn't worked out yet."

The stats point to an emotional disconnect – we are quite happy slipping in and out of each other's beds, but commitment (and the vulnerability that it entails) is more illusive. However, if we look at what the market has done to sex in the last few decades, are we really surprised that relationships are becoming more transactional?

Children of the Baby Boomers grew up in a society that became more sexually saturated with every birthday. Advertising, TV, video clips, music, books – no medium was exempt. Now it has reached into early childhood, even Hilary Duff and Hi-5 flaunt little skirts and midriff tops. Little girls pout and thrust out their chests. Little boys, like tweeny-pop sensation Aaron Carter, wear too much hair product and try to look aloof, yet desirable.

There is nothing new in objectifying women; the sons of the Baby Boomers are the first generation to absorb the conflicting expectations of women: of rights and opportunities packaged in a hot body, jeans slung low, adorned with the right brands.

I date this to the Levi ads which appeared on television in 1985. A young man walks into a laundromat, strips off and throws his jeans in the wash. He sits in his undies watching the spin cycle; we sat in our lounge rooms watching him – his perfect body, carved abs, slicked back hair. It has been relentless ever since. Chris McGillion, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, asks: "Is it really surprising, then, if young people behave in sexually irresponsible ways when their culture bombards them with messages about how their maturity and sophistication are expressed in sexual conquest?"

A sexual revolution happened in the '60s. What we need now is an emotional revolution – to chip away at the calcification that has begun to form in the marrow of those too young to be so scared. Something that diffuses the anxiety we are feeling about each other, that enables us to transcend the anxiety of the age. 

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