Girl: Aren't those two dating?
Guy: They're together when they're together, and when they're not, they're not.
Girl: So basically you mean like every other New York relationship?
Him: I thought we agreed we weren't going to be serious about this.
Me: Define "serious." I'm very serious about this blowjob I'm about to give you. Now lie back and be quiet.
I've given some thought recently to how many times I've said to a lover -- or had a lover say to me -- that we "weren't looking for anything serious." And in some traditional, signified manner, this is true: I'm not looking to get married anytime soon (even if/when I do get married, it likely won't be very traditional), I don't consider monogamy a priority as much as I consider it something I can either take or leave alone, and I'm not terribly concerned about how long any given relationship is going to last. (If it's going well at the time, I always want it to last "a few more months." Anything beyond that is usually beyond my immediate comprehension.) In our society's generic, codified relationship-speak, these leanings usually translate to "I'm not looking for anything serious."
The truth, of course, is that I take dating, sex, romance, seduction, and relationships very seriously. I mean, obviously. I wrote a whole damn book about the subject. I plan dates in a way that would put Carl von Clausewitz to shame. I spend more time thinking about how to be effective in my romantic affairs than I do thinking about how I'm going to publicize my book when it comes out in December. (I'm not proud of this, but I'm just going to call a spade a spade and hire a publicist. If publicity were my thing, at least insofar as publicity is different from seduction on a grand scale, I'd have written a book on publicity instead of seduction.) So anytime I utter the words "I'm not looking for anything serious," even though by society's standards this is absolutely true, I kind of feel like I'm selling myself short.
Why must the word "serious," as it applies to relationships, seem to define only the kind of relationships that our parents' generation considered serious? Why are we discrediting our own levels of involvement simply because they often suit our lifestyles better than those in years past? I feel the same way about the word "commitment." My lack of need for any spurious guarantees about the future with a given partner has no bearing on how committed I am to making things work in the present moment. If anything, I think it's an even more honest and committed way to live -- if I'm not resting on the laurels of any promises we've made to each other, then I'm even more dedicated to making sure we're both happy on a day-to-day basis, because what's keeping us together is not any sense of obligation but rather the choice we make every day to spend our time with one another once again.
My point here is that I think we need a new relationship lexicon. The old vocabulary doesn't seem to do well by us anymore.
A few months ago my literary agent and I were having dinner and she mentioned having just sold the publishing rights to a book called "The New Monogamy." It's a book about how the present generation's version of serious, committed relationships doesn't necessarily equate to a partnership of two people who only ever have sex with each other. I was ecstatic -- this seemed so timely and progressive! Then she told me she was persuading them to retitle it "The New Erotic Couple." My face fell. Really? This is not at all the same thing, nor is it a title that would make me pick up the book. She said she felt the first title was too dry and wouldn't catch people's attention. But this is exemplary of the problem with our current romantic lexicon. Eroticism is not by definition linked to either monogamy or lack thereof. I have had erotic relationships of both the monogamous and non-monogamous variety. The other problem here is that no one has really been able to use the word "erotic" with a straight face since Madonna in the 80s. I'm even trying to bring back the word "lover" from its exile following that Saturday Night Live hot tub sketch, because "boyfriend" has too many monogamous undertones, "playmate" is too BDSM-specific, "fuckbuddy" is devoid of romance, "friend" is simply disingenuous, "partner" is too future-oriented, and "paramour" is both too antiquated as well as homophonic with the name of my favorite band. There is no word out there yet that means "person I am currently most frequently having sex with but don't worry you may also be able to have sex with me too if you want." I actually introduced the person I'm most frequently seeing and sleeping with with as my "unboyfriend" the other night.
See what I mean?
Either we need a new relationship vocabulary entirely or we simply need to stop being afraid of words like "relationship" and "serious" and "boyfriend" and start allowing them to work for us instead of against us. We need to allow them to evolve, like all language does, and start having attached meanings that are useful to our current lifestyles. I'm at a point in my life where I don't really care what people want to call things -- I believe that my involvements will come to define themselves naturally through their interactions and that any labels are only secondary affirmations of what's already there -- but it gets frustrating when I'm trying to communicate and there is no language for the things I want to say. And it's this same lack of language that causes my agent to think of a non-(traditionally)-monogamous pairing as an "erotic couple." We are struggling to normatize the relationship structures that work for us, but at the same time we don't want our relationships to be mistaken for the old normative structures that have been in place for so long. We want our own relationships on our own terms, but we neither want to have them mistaken for relationships they're not, nor do we want to have to use language that marginalizes them.
What do we do about this? I'm not sure exactly, except perhaps that until a new language is established or our old language evolves, I think it's a good idea not to care too much about what everything means. We live in a world where every social media site wants us to define our relationships with whatever labels and checkboxes they have available: "in a relationship," "single," "in an open relationship," "it's complicated," etc. It would be great if all our relationships fit into these neat little boxes, but they don't. Even when checked, they're merely hints at what is actually going on. I've started leaving mine blank entirely. Whether a box is checked is really irrelevant in comparison to the quality of time I'm spending and sex I'm having with any given person, and social validation is a really relatively minuscule part of what a relationship is actually about.
But I think we're discrediting ourselves and our partners by confining words like "serious" to relationships that have a picket fence in their future. I'm serious about every seduction I undertake. I mean, obviously. If I didn't feel serious about someone, they wouldn't be worth my time to seduce in the first place.
photo by Monty Leman