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As a young and, at times, unemployed woman in New York, I knew my strength in public relations was as necessary for finding a partner as it was for finding a job. I never opened an account with an online-dating service—except for the one time I downloaded Tinder while on lunch break in Midtown and closed it minutes later, my appetite lost. Still, when I was writing a cover letter, I couldn’t tell whether or not I was filling out an online-dating profile. It makes sense, then, that while I was applying for jobs, I started to develop an elaborate fantasy where singles would pay me to perfect their courting performances across the multiple immaterial labor economies of online dating. A good online-dating profile strategy, like a strong brand, turns a suspect into a prospect, and a prospect into a buyer. Platforms calibrate how daters reach their target audience: SeekingArrangement—a platform for “sugar daddy dating”—allows users to filter search results by annual income, while PlentyOfFish—a Canada-based free online-dating site—asks new users to take a “chemistry test” that no one can fail. Desirability and desire are reduced to a data set of “taste,” with all of its classist and racist trappings, and in this myopic echo chamber we often match with others whose tastes remind us of our own. On her profile, the single starts sounding like the job seeker, courting mutually beneficial relationships and setting up coffee dates like one would an interview. Except the single is both interviewee and interviewer, puffing her appeal while judging if her potential is a “good fit.” She is, after all, “on the market.”
In 2016 alone, Match Group, owner of Tinder, OkCupid, PlentyOfFish, and 45 other brands, reported $46.6 million in profit from their various online-dating ventures. “The new global corporations produce nothing,” Paul Preciado reminds us in Testo Junkie. “Their only goal is the accumulation and management of patents in order to control the reproduction of bodies and pleasure.” Or, put more bluntly: “Its purpose is to transform your ass and mine or rather your desire and mine into abstract profits.”
Singles might be the product and the consumer, but they are also on the clock. “Does Online Dating Feel Like An Exhausting, Time-Consuming Struggle?” If you answered yes, and have an extra thousand dollars a month to spend, you can outsource the work of online dating to “a professional.” Years ago, partly for research but mostly for a paycheck, I trained as a professional matchmaker for what I will call, thanks to an NDA, The Company.
Matchmaker is a misnomer for the work, meant to spritz a whiff of old-time luxury on the equivalent of hiring someone off TaskRabbit to swipe Tinder for you. I was more of a virtual assistant—that precariously murky job title for workers who are always available, and so never paid by the hour. In fact, I would be paid by the date, but I would benefit most if my clients fell in transactional love with me. Like a good drug, The Company sold a cycle of excitation and frustration. You never wanted the client to fall in love, just to fall in love with the service. I wrote in my training notes: “You are working for relationship that could last forever . . . the relationship with your client.”
I didn’t last more than a month after the training, and only had one client, a single mother and former military employee from Queens whose schedule I was never quite able to coordinate with her match, a divorcée who worked in finance. She soon dropped the service and went back to using PlentyOfFish. I quit—the second time I had done so in that year. The first time, I handed in my notice at the corporate book publisher where I had worked as an editorial assistant for over a year. I would come home from work to more work as if I had no choice, my hands tied by a combination of unspoken obligation to abstract expectations and the desire to please my boss. When I bitched about work to my best friend, as I often did, she gestured to the pile of manuscripts in front of me waiting to be read, symbols of my chosen trade, and asked: “Do you want this or does your cop want this?”
I took the question as a playful koan on consent. I understood the “cop” to be the cop to kill in your head—an internalized adherence to the logic of conformity and control, the legacy of indoctrination. My cop could be my laziness, my boredom, my pity, my default mode. His was the voice I acquiesced to when I couldn’t summon the willingness to say no to unwanted labor, either at work or in bed. Regardless, I would always “consent,” and my cop would be my witness.
How can we summon the effort to assert the erotic when even our faculty for pleasure, our instinct for “what feels right” has been put to work? When the possibility of consent—of feeling together—is reduced to a contract drawn up by those who profit from us that we are forced to sign?
I continuously negotiate the possibility of encounter with my words and with my body, but consent treats this practice as if I were checking the box to accept another’s terms and conditions. The contractual implications of consent assume sex is a heterosocial transaction in which the man draws the terms and I, the woman, (re)sign. This legally binding agreement protects him from accusation, under the guise of protecting me from assault. And no amount of enthusiasm on my part can null the terms and conditions of my sexual subjugation, the very terms and conditions that allow for such a depressingly high incidence of assault. The contract of consent implies the pernicious fiction that all parties benefit equally under the law, when many people cannot and do not consent to the very basic conditions of their lives. Who can say they “consent to” the quality of the air that they breathe or the condition of the water that flows from their tap?
“God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual,” Maya Dusenbery said in a piece for The Cut. We’d like to say it is pleasurable too, but patriarchal indoctrination only speaks of pleasure in terms of possession—of how one can seek it or chase it. Pleasure is never a condition for sex. At best it might be an outcome.
What if pleasure were the basis for a sexual and political education? That is what Audre Lorde recommends in her 1978 lecture “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Lorde argues pleasure is what is always present and always possible within. The erotic—our faculty of perception for pleasure—serves as a guide, as a nonrational knowledge not of what we do but of “how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”
The erotic is what you want, not what your cop wants. Or in Lorde’s terms: “what feels right.” This feeling runs deeper than the spiked and shallow excitation we are taught to seek. It is, rather, a form of intelligence, a judicious channel that can be tapped and heeded. “In touch with the erotic,” Lorde writes, “I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.” We should begin with a new education, an unlearning.
Around the time I quit my job at the publishing house and trained in matchmaking, the friend who said the koan about the cop—Victoria Campbell—invited me to teach an alternative sexual-education course at Bruce High Quality Foundation University. We called it Sx-Ed. Rather than a class, we named it a “research group”; rather than teachers, we called ourselves “programmers.” We didn’t want to transfer content to our students. Instead, we hoped to foster a certain relational potentiality.
Once a week for two months, a group of 15 adults would meet in the East Village on the third floor of a commercial space reimagined as a free art school. Class didn’t begin or end at any set time. People would arrive around an allotted hour. There was always a writing prompt on the board, something to pull our attention into the room, into each other. After a few minutes, we would enter into an informal discussion about what we were reading, what we had been writing. At some point, we’d clear the space for play, toying with somatic exercises or relating through structured communication games. Eventually, play would dissolve into pockets of conversation; we’d dim the lights, gradually start cleaning up, huddle for a final smoke, and go off into the rest of our Saturday nights, sometimes alone and sometimes with each other.
Sx-Ed was as much an experiment in education as it was in community building. We asked, each other and ourselves: How can we study, and overcome, the ways in which capitalism, patriarchy, and political economies condition how we relate to one another? How can we undo not just the structures of domination aimed at our own bodies but those aimed at repressing the possibilities between bodies? How can we be more deliberate with one another? And more responsible for one another?
“Responsibility would mean to pay attention to response,” Victoria wrote in an interview panel I edited on consent. “To slow down and listen. And to learn, physiologically, how to read a body’s response.” An education that teaches pleasure as a physical response rather than sex as a contract might return us to consent’s action—the possibility of feeling, together.