So What's Good about Dating in New York City?
Let me start by saying that dating in New York City is not nearly as much of an uphill battle as dating in Japan. Does that make you feel any better? I lived in Japan for two years, a land of widespread sexual repression, xenophobia and anonymous “love hotels.” Japan is a country where some estimates say that 40% of young people rely on their parents’ income, which means most young people also live with their families.
I dated two guys named Satoshi there. In a fit of bravery, Satoshi ‘number one’ actually took me back to his parent’s house after a few too many moscow mules. Right before opening the door to their tiny apartment, where the five member family was sitting down to dinner, he mentioned that I was the first foreigner they’d ever met. Having me in their home was an embarrassing experience for all of us. I could feel the reverberations of repressed shock and awe continue even after we closed the rice paper door to his room and had an awkwardly quiet (and wholly unfulfilling) sexual experience.
Satoshi ‘number 2’ and I dated for a year and never had sex. So, there you go. At least I can get laid in New York.
That being said, I’ve been back from my stint in Japan for 12 years now and the glittery appeal of being able to walk into any bar and talk to people without looking for signs that say “no foreigners allowed” has worn off. And dating here is confusing. The sheer number of people means that the ups and downs of being single can feel like you’re dropping ecstacy at a rave party, getting high and coming down week after week, year after year. One week you’re having sex on a roof and the possibilities seem endless and the next week, well, you’re crying on the subway platform listening to Tori Amos on repeat.
Because I know these things to be true and yet am also swayed by the psychology behind self-fulfilling prophecies, I reached out to some friends to chime in with the positives. There must be some, right? You sneaky New Yorkers turned positives into negatives whenever you could, but here are the highlights. One thing I can assure you of is that if you’re frustrated with dating here, you are not alone.
What DO you like about dating in NYC?
“Not having to run into an ex if you don’t want to.”
“Women in NYC are probably the most progressive/open-minded in all of 'Merica~ (Maybe too open-minded for their own good. ;-))”
“The variety of people you can meet. Every race, religion, socio economic background is represented. It makes for interesting conversations.”
“At least the city is so big you can have a one night stand and avoid the other person.”
“The diversity of races, occupations and global exposure (travel, food, customs) that people tend to resonate.”
“There are so many different men and scenes. I feel like I'm able to explore a bunch of personal neuroses and micro-cultures all at once!”
“People are ambitious and creative and generally interesting af. Also our date venues are the best. And because people are so busy and physically far apart and perfectly content being single and capable of falling into option paralysis, you know that when someone chooses you it's because what you have is truly special and worth all of the energy a relationship takes.”
“I found that the 25-26 year old boys had more bravado and expressed more excitement to actually pursue and date me, even if I had ten years on them, than the "men" of my age group and older. Things that make you go hmm….”
What DON’T you like about dating in NYC?
“The BBD mentality. There is always a bigger and better date around the corner. This creates a zero attention span issue.”
“Ghosting, sleazy attempts at one night stands and narcissism”
“Never go on a date to Sleep No More. They'll inevitably split you up and you'll wonder why you dropped $100 per ticket to roam around a hipster fever dream in a sweaty mask while watching a naked Shakespearean techno-orgy. Actually, that part was pretty lit~”
“Inter-neighborhood relationships are basically long distance.”
“The transient nature of the city makes it difficult to feel any shared sense of identity with most people you meet/date. (Unless you're both Jewish~)”
“My first tinder date ended up as a scene from 50 shades.”
“Multitude of dates that are both time consuming and go nowhere.”
“Once had a reality TV show star insist on buying me dinner even though it was cash only, and then ask me for money for a drink at the next bar and get a blow job from someone else in the bathroom. I'd like to take you on a date Brooke.”
So, there you have it. I didn’t promise to make you feel better. The "positives" are sweet, but none of them really made me feel that much better. At least I got asked on a date.
I struggle to define how I feel about dating in New York City, because it is so many things at the same time. Here’s a list of some of the things it’s been for me:
Stealing a Christmas tree from the Food Bazaar parking lot.
Staying up until 6am drinking martinis and wine from the bottle with someone that you really connect with and only see every two months.
Selling incense on Bedford avenue to support a burgeoning ‘Sacred’ Palo Santo business.
Deciding that I wanted to date someone older that I wasn't really that attracted to because I needed to see if I liked letting someone else take control once in a while.
Reading Camus’ The Stranger together and comparing notes on eachothers’ respective existential crises
Posing for weird art school projects.
Not being able to get into bars because my boyfriend was underage and didn't have an ID, and then breaking up because I was a career professional and he had to “focus on college”.
Dragging my friends week after week to see a DJ set that went until 4am then trying to stay awake for the DJ to come sleep over after he packed up his gear.
Crying on the street. Lots of streets.
Walking around Bushwick taking a midtown jock to his first vintage store.
Having my boyfriend convince me to go to Grad school.
Having sex in a stairwell. And on another roof. And maybe another stairwell. And maybe a cab. Whatever.
Thinking, “Hmm, maybe I’m gay, wait queer? Wait, what? Fuck, I’m going to Pride this year.”
Thinking, “Hmmm, maybe I want an open relationship.”
Thinking, “Hmm, open relationships are a terrible idea.”
So, What do I Think?
The complexity of NYC is that we get such sensory overload of good and bad in such close proximity. We use our apps and our calendars to constantly search, swipe, schedule and trash people while going about our daily business. We never escape the feeling of being packed into a city like sardines, but still feel totally alone and often dehumanized. This condensed experience leaves us understandably frazzled.
In my 20s I spent a lot of time mustering the energy to assert the entirety of my personality on the world every time I left the house, working to prove myself, then retreating home to zone out and get ready for the next battle (I lost my voice a lot and had to go to a vocal coach who made me use kazoos). This was a goal-oriented approach that assumed some endpoint that I suppose looked something like a couple running barefoot hand in hand at a Sandals resort. Success!(?) Since I was also struggling with whether I even believed in marriage and monogamy, I was chasing a goal that potentially meant absolutely nothing to me. I internalized societal pressure and cared too much about the validation a relationship provided. All while pretending to need no one. That was draining.
But, what if the payoff of dating in NYC is something very different from the conventional models of 'success' we’ve been fed?
The philosopher Michel Foucault talks about the ethics of sexuality and relationships in his book “The Use of Pleasure,” most of which I don’t understand, but am in love with the parts that I do. He discusses the depth of thought that the ancient Greeks put into defining one’s own moral codes and ethics around sexuality. Personal moral codes are, of course, always influenced by the context of the times, but in ancient Greece people were also encouraged to define the ethics of their sexuality through their relationship with the self. This is in stark contrast to the moral policing, legislative overstepping, and media messaging that pervades our modern western approach to sexuality and relationships. It's an inside-out process of discovery, instead of an outside-in mandate.
“The relationship to the self is not simply “self-awareness” but self formation as an “ethical subject,” a process in which the individual...decides on a certain mode of being that will serve as his moral goal. And this requires him to act upon himself, to monitor, test, improve, and transform himself.” (Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, Volume 2 of The History of Sexuality)
The joy that NYC affords us is the ability to tap into so much variety that we can ultimately calibrate our most authentic sexual and relationship selves based on actual experience. It’s a lab. All of the experiences are not inherently failures just because they didn’t “last.” Nothing lasts, and it’s a real treat to be able to kiss and rub and feel up (Beyonce’s words not mine) on so many different kinds of people, lifestyles and ways of thinking.
The thing is, it’s easy to forget this because we have feelings. And it seems to be going all wrong most of the time. We tend to focus so deeply on the negative residue that gets scattered all over our inner emotional world after a relationship ends. We tend to chalk the demise of the entire thing up to our own, or the other person’s inadequacies. And we find some very justified arguments to blame the city.
It is easy to compile a tapestry of what we want from little pieces of people, but it's also dehumanizing and can make us feel like we never get to enjoy the full potential of partnerships. NYC nurtures an addiction to pieces of people, especially when those pieces act as stand ins to placate the parts of ourselves that we are insecure about. It can feel like a lost cause for those of us that like to be investigated and known over time (uh, everyone?). We can feel like we get reduced to pictures and representations of people that really just reflect back what others do or don’t want to see about themselves. And this is what manifests in many of the short lived dating experiences in NYC, and the way we talk about what this city does to love.
We are all guilty and we are all innocent. I’m sure most of us can conjure in our memory a time that we ghosted, dipped out without explanation, or were more attracted to someone’s image than their actual authentic self. The goal is not to be perfect, or to find perfect people, but to develop more empathy and sense of self with every trial gone “wrong.” And, damn can we practice that here if we choose to.
It’s each of our jobs over time to learn, grow, self reflect and weed out (with a highly evolved warp-speed radar) those who aren’t interested in doing the same. We can also choose to keep company with those who aren’t meeting us there, but who are hilarious or intriguing or interesting in some way, because we can do whatever we want. As long as we are not deluding ourselves into thinking someone must necessarily morph into our conventional partner when we have all the information to conclude that they won’t. We can revel in "doomed" relationships and also keep a foot in reality. Self-awareness is a super power.
So, the glass half full view is that there is potential for tremendous growth in trial and error. I’m challenging myself to see 15 years of dating in this city through the lens of the highs of spending time with people who were conventionally “poor choices.” I was laughing, I was learning, I was experiencing new places, I was experimenting with my own interests. I’d be doing myself a disservice not to recognize the impact that the art, music, sex and exposure to varying worlds that dating other humans who weren’t necessarily able to “wife up” provided me.
Over time, I’ve compiled a set of experiences that make me feel that I’ve problem solved enough to be able to apply healthy tools to relationships in the future. In that way, I try to respect the things that every weirdo I’ve dated has given me. It’s a gift to learn, even if it comes in an unconventional package, and doesn’t lead to ends that are societally endorsed. It’s ok if you’re single, it’s ok if you’re not. Nobody has the answers just because their life looks more or less like a Sandals billboard.
Alan Watts talks about being hypnotized by the structures and accepted methods that help humans to digest the universe. He says that gurus use tricks to help people see beyond the limited versions of world they’ve been conditioned to see. In his book Out of Your Mind, he says,
“You can struggle and struggle, and you will do so for as long as you have the feeling inside you that you’re missing something. And everyone will encourage you to think this way, because they also feel they’re missing something, and they think they can get it by such a method, so they’re going to try to convince you that their method is the thing to do.”
Marriage or monogamy, or dating someone your age, or dating someone with a good job, or shacking up or dating someone for a year is not necessarily success. People on all sides of the coin are struggling to find authentic connections, and that takes so much work that they often get swept up in the tide of easy stand ins for authenticity. We have to be careful not to tell ourselves and each other a story of failure.
While all of this perspective resetting might be helpful, it's still a fact that commitment is not something that's largely on the menu in this city. I'm doing some traveling soon and I'll have to get back to you to let you know if all my tools come in handy, and if it's any better anywhere else.
I'm maxed out, and I'm aware of that, and self awareness is a superpower.