Friday, April 23, 2004

Come together

Justin Hall's Cellular Cruising for Casual Sex takes a look at using technology in our search for, ahem, companionship.

He begins by introducing the historical shift from supervised family and community courtship rituals to unsupervised public dating largely enabled by car culture, but then makes a dodgy connection between cars and mobile technologies: "The car allows travel between spaces, and it can be its own space. Mobile devices continue this evolution, presenting a private space for communication separate from physical location."

Automobiles, while certainly mobile, provide contained spaces of interaction where metal and glass clearly separate the interior from the exterior. The space of mobile phone conversations involves considerably more slippage between public and private, interior and exterior - where private talk and public performance co-mingle to produce hybrid and fluid spaces.

Regardless, this shift to dating culture created the desire or need to find new ways to meet other people. From bars and clubs to online dating sites, people continue the search for love - and sex. And Hall's basic premise is that mobile or locative technologies increase our "availability," especially to people in close physical proximity, and especially for more casual or fleeting (sexual) encounters with strangers: "Without having to unzip my fly, I can wave my phone around to show that I'm ready for something randy." However, as sociologist Nalini Kotamraju states, "What's technologically possible is not necessarily socially desirable."

The question of casual sex (or any kind of sex for that matter) is one poorly understood by anthropologists and sociologists. Historically, it was considered immoral (pervish) to study people's sexual activities and currently it is considered unethical (privacy-violating). Given this scenario, we tend to look at popular culture for indicators of social sexual mores (which are quite often different from actual practices).

In the 1954 educational short film Towards emotional maturity Sally and Hank negotiate whether to pet or not to pet, and the 1958 short film How much affection? asks "How far can young people go in petting and still stay within the bounds of personal standards and social mores?" Today's social norms are much more relaxed, although the most sexually permissive cultures remain somewhat fringe or hidden.

But what about technologically or otherwise mediated sex? And those types of intimacy that require distance, or what social theorists call "absent presence"? I suspect that 19th century love letters often enough explored sexual (and emotional) intimacies not permitted in public. Likewise - but perhaps more often with people we do not know in person - with phone sex, instant messaging and SMS.

But socially and culturally, I think it is most interesting how this absent-presence relates to when we physically come together. What is possible or desirable in one scenario but not the other? The key, I think, is not to ask which comes first - technology or social norms - but to pay attention to how the two slide together, and shape each other, in actual practice.


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