UPDATE: Digital Isolation—Not Porn Addiction—Is Why Millennial Men Can't Date

Even Miley Cyrus blames it on porn. "[Miley's] reluctance to trust has made dating fraught since she and the 24-year-old Australian actor Liam Hemsworth ended their one-year engagement last September," Ronan Farrow wrote in the February issue of W magazine. "'Guys watch too much porn,' she confides, absently prodding a bedazzled iPhone. 'Those girls don't exist. They're not real girls.'"

Miley falls into the same trap that a lot of so-called experts fall into: That the ubiquity of porn has made men from the "internet generation" bad at dating. Stanford psychologist Phil Zambardo calls it an "arousal addiction" in his "Demise of Guys" TED Talk. Ian Kerner, the guy who started goodinbed.com, calls it "SADD" or Sexual Attention Deficit Disorder. "Guys with SADD have become so accustomed to the high levels of visual novelty and stimulation that comes from internet porn that they're unable to focus on real sex with a real woman," Kerner has explained.

Even my friend Jack, 25, a DJ living somewhere in Europe, when asked if he thought he was part of the internet generation, replied, "Of course I am—my sense of sexuality was spoiled by a pre-pubescent over-exposure to hardcore pornography."

I, too, am firmly part of the millennial generation, which supposedly started in 1982 and ended in 2004. (I was born in 1991.) The first computer showed up in my house in 1995, so I don't really remember life pre-AOL or the 56k modem. I do, however, remember searching for "britney spears naked" when I was 8-years-old. My mom found it in the browser's history, and I definitely remember her yelling at me because of it.

My life has been characterized by instant access—to porn, yes, but also to information and people. So in my opinion, millennial men aren't bad at dating because we watch too much porn. We're bad at dating because we watch too much everything: viral videos, GIFs, social media. Our lives revolve around screens. And what we're usually watching on them is ourselves.

My friend Peter, 25, who lives in Brooklyn, says that, as a group, "we treat the internet as an extension of our consciousness"—a notion that makes me super self-conscious to think about. On a certain level, my Facebook and Instagram accounts are extensions of me, and yours of you. We have an easy buffer—the screen between us—and the way we communicate, whether via Facebook message or text message, allows us to keep it there. "If the purpose of the first date was to learn about someone's background, education, politics and cultural tastes, Google and Facebook have taken care of that," Alex Williams wrote in his New York Times piece, "The End of Courtship?" Or as Alex Wylde puts it in her essay "A 2013 Love Story", "Approximately 445 clicks later, I knew everything about him."

Dating has always been hard. But in 2014, with social media, texting and online dating, we have all these tools that are supposed to make it easier. Hey, Tinder Girl, thanks for putting your Instagram handle in your description. Oh, now I'm clicking through our one mutual friend's list of friends looking for your profile. And now I'm writing you a message about how you're from X place and I love X place because blah, blah, blah. And now I'm deleting it because I don't want to seem like a fucking creep. Even though everyone is internet stalking everyone else, admitting it makes you seem like you actually care, which means you're desperate.

"We've reached a point as a society where giving someone a call instead of a text makes you look like Humphrey Bogart," my friend Malcolm, 24, once told me. And that's not apparently what women are looking for. In her Time magazine piece, "What Boys Want," Rosalind Wiseman interviewed a kid named Dre, who told her, "I went on Instagram and took some of [my crush's] pictures and made a cute little collage and told her I was going to make it my phone wallpaper so I could have something to think about her everyday."

The girl's reaction wasn't what Dre expected. It was something along the lines of "That's creepy as hell!"

I mean, it is creepy, Dre. You should never have told her what you were up to. Just stick with the kind of cryptic text conversations you're used to, where you overanalyze each non-thing she says, breaking down the semiotics of her emoji use and spelling. "You can tell what she wants pretty much by how she texts," Dre says later in the Time piece. "The dry 'Hey' is O.K. But then there's some that have the 'Heyyy' with the extra Ys and the winky face, and that means this conversation could possibly go somewhere. They're probably the hooking up type."

I do this kind of decoding work on texts all the time—the "oh-my-god-she-texted-me-dude-what-does-this-mean-and-what-should-I-say" thing. The behind-the-scenes work of crafting and reacting to texts is emotional, but the words themselves project only calculation and detachment. Texting helps us avoid that butterflies-in-your-stomach nervousness feeling, which is what dating was once all about.

Aziz Ansari jokes that setting up a date over text is like being "a secretary for this really shoddy organization scheduling the dumbest shit with the flakiest people ever." He's so right. We don't make plans but "maybes"—scheduling dates we don't even think we'll be a part of. It's a fucked-up, whoever-seems-more-enthusiastic-loses contest, as Charlotte Lieberman points out in her Cosmo piece, "Why Is College Dating So Screwed Up?"*

A lot of us just choose not to play. We'd rather go through the motions and seem like we're dating without having to let our guard down. Take my friend Josh, 23, who spent a summer on OkCupid under the ridiculous pseudonym Prince Eggplant, "a superhero whose powers were to take on the characteristics of household vegetables," he explains. "People more or less ignored everything I wrote and just sent me winky faces. I never got any dates out of it." Prince Eggplant was probably the coolest guy on OkCupid at the time, but that wasn't Josh. The real Josh didn't want to get rejected, so he didn't allow it to be a possibility.

Tinder is an even easier place to play "date." I've been on it since November, and for the first three months, I had no intention of seeing a girl from it in real life. The girls didn't feel real because there are almost zero personality signifiers, just a few photos from their Facebook profiles. But eventually, I matched with this cute girl named Nina. She took my shitty joke about her T-shirt in her third photo really well. We kept talking for a week. Then she said she wanted tacos.

We decided on the following Friday. I had my older sister text her friend who works at a taco spot in the Lower East Side to get us in. The tacos, however, were the best part of the night. The rest of it—an intolerably long 60 minutes—was awful.

For me, the idea of being forced to actually interact with someone with no screen to hide behind was difficult and scary. But I also found it exhilarating to look an actual human being in the eye. The problem was that Nina didn't look back; she looked away. Our witty online conversations turned into awkward silences in person. She didn't speak unless answering a direct question, as if we were texting. And at times, she was actually texting. It only sort of surprised me that she was on her phone for half the date. After all, we met through our phones, and without a Wi-Fi buffer, she was searching for a new way to seem detached.

My reaction was to try to reject my "internet-generation" instincts. If I'm going to be here, I'm not going to hide. I'm going to put myself out there. I'm not here to act chill. I'm here to go on a date. But Nina's reaction was more typical. She was stuck in internet-aloof-mode. It made her awkward, and that made me awkward. In turn, it was shitty for both of us.

And trust me, none of that shittiness had anything to do with porn.

*UPDATE: The original version of this piece did not acknowledge (or link to) the Cosmo article, "Why Is College Dating So Screwed Up?" in which the writer, Josh Segal, was quoted and from which Segal drew some inspiration. Playboy SFW regrets the oversight, and we have now included the link here and within the body of the piece.


Josh Segal is a student at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, where he studies creative writing. Follow him on Instagram @j0sh_crime.

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