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Sex in the European City

CROSSROADS: NAVIGATING THE EUROPEAN UNION OF DATING

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by Rachel Padilla

Sex in the European City - Crossroads: navigating the European Union of Dating
> long-read / short story

// London in the rain is a fucking bitch

            He wraps his arm around my shoulders and we’re rocketing down the street — high as spaceships — so fast that I can’t feel my feet on the slippery cobblestones. The city passes me by in a vibrant blur, and I feel Shoreditch ebbing and flowing around me; the heartbeat of a city at night.

            We pause underneath a shop awning and he peers at Google Maps, his brow creasing as he ascertains our position. Looking at him, I feel that familiar drug-induced throb of effulgent affection in my chest. It becomes so intense I have to look away, look at anything else. I can’t believe we’ve met only a few hours ago. He places his hand on my lower back and his touch is red hot through my coat. I’m actively avoiding meeting his eyes, for fear I’ll vomit out of pure ecstasy.
“Make a run for it?” he asks.

            I nod, taking his arm and gazing out into the rain, watching people scatter.

            We cast off from the building like boats onto the open ocean; rocking against each other in our euphoric haze. I’m holding onto him for dear life as the rain soaks me, the cold seeping down into my bones where it hums low and strong.

Can I hold on to this moment for more than a fleeting second?

            Can I capture a tiny snapshot of this rain-drenched happiness and hide it away for later? A sadness for the briefness of our time together comes as fast as it goes, and then we’re there, at a club I won’t remember the name of and we’re inside where it’s warm and he’s taking my coat off. We plunge into the crowd and all at once we’re dancing among the jumbling, yearning bodies. He places his hands on my arms and holds me away from him, passing his gaze over every inch of my body. We lock eyes finally, and I feel like I could lose myself inside of him. He kisses me. The bodies press closer and we’re part of something bigger. 

The city of London, the sort of atmosphere it’s created, people are very skeptical and very scared of meeting new people in these new contexts, because London is so metropolitan…I think it’s like a defense mechanism, like there’s just so many people, that are so transient, so people aren’t very open.
— Emilien, 29, Anwerp/London

            It’s one week later and I’m lying in bed. I’m holding my phone above my head, gazing at the bubble on the screen in which three tentative dots appeared for one maddening minute before disappearing again — he doesn’t respond. We had passed a blissful few days together in London, a whirlwind of surprising vulnerability, passion in overbloom, and then it was over as fast as it had begun and I was back in my flat in Paris. A girl he wasn’t going to text back.

            This is the state of a Millennial’s love life in the new European city. I won’t sugarcoat or demonize it for you. It is, like many things we enjoy in our breakneck modern lives, composed of extremes: instant gratification, the heights of euphoria, contrasted by a cold, metallic distance, the feeling of defeat represented by those three miserable dots. The mediums with which we date (namely, Tinder), the standards we set for those interactions (one-night-stand or lasting relationship?), and the sheer number of potential romantic partners (not by any means limited to only one densely-populated European metropolis) are all factors which have changed drastically in the past 20 — even 10 — years. We’re facing a whole new landscape of dating possibilities, but also of dating failures, in the European Union of Dating.

Oh sure, all my friends know I’m into some weird stuff. I don’t think it’s such a big deal in Europe, not like in the U.S. where everyone is, like, religious and very closed-minded…or maybe not closed-minded but there’s a lot of shame there, I think. In Europe you see boobs everywhere. It’s just different here.
— Sarah, 25, Amsterdam

// Sexuality

photo by @mrwhisper

photo by @mrwhisper

            Europe is, more than anywhere else in the world, a bastion of open, nonjudgemental sexuality and romance.  As urban European youth — inspired by feminism and other socio-cultural movements and largely unburdened by religious moralisms — continue to integrate different expressions of sexuality, gender, love, and kink into mainstream culture, we’re seeing a revolution in dating options. Dating lifestyles which once existed as shadow worlds have been allowed to come out into the light: Millennials feel increasingly free to explore and experiment sexually without censure, and new degrees of romantic relationships are being recognized and codified in our languages and in our cultures. Open relationships, “friends with benefits”, asexual partnerships, polyamory, long-distance relationships, “one-night-stands”: every European language has its own nomenclature for the ever-evolving state of interpersonal interactions. The degree of restraint or forwardness in these names tends to say quite a lot about the individual dating cultures of Europe: from the artless plan cul (“ass plan”) in France to Sweden’s cute-sounding sambo (a portmanteau of the words for “together” and “accommodation"), but one thing is clear: Europe is leading the charge toward sexual and romantic flexibility.

            In a purely research capacity, I find myself naked from the waist up in a libertine club in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris. I have been given a silky sarong, which I quickly tied around my waist after undressing downstairs, and a velcro anklet full of condoms. I’m holding a fruity cocktail in my right hand and my left arm lays awkwardly across my chest, an intimation of modesty. I have come with a group of friends, the age of which skews young, but we are surrounded by a crowd of almost exclusively over-50 clients, mulling around the hot tub.

            “Are you ready to go up?” my friend asks me, holding the hand of her married boyfriend. They have been seeing each other for six months — his wife does not know.

            I nod, but I can feel my hesitation. As with many millennials, graphic sexuality don’t bother me in the least; I find beauty in the naked human form and in all expressions of intimacy, but it’s something about this contrived environment of seediness that doesn’t appeal to me.

            Old men leer at me as I make my way past them, up the stairs.

            The upper floor is dimly lit, labyrinthine, and doors open onto small, padded rooms where clients 'play'. There’s a larger room with a raised platform in the center, presumably for more public displays. After a short period of noncommittal chatter, our group starts pairing off. A hunky Frenchman (who I later find out is also in a non-open relationship) heads off with a young British woman. The boyfriend of my friend offers me his hand, but I smile noncommittally.

            “I’ll just watch for now.”

            As everyone gets down to business, their bodies intertwining on the plasticky cushions, I sit apart, watching. I feel uneasy. And while I recognize the appeal of sex with strangers, I still find myself averse to the environment. In its attempt to evoke a hammam, the club has achieved a much more contrived effect, a caricature of sin. Why come to a place like this for wild, contextless sex, when a night at the bar can just as easily end the same way?

            The client base here and — from what I can ascertain — most clubs like it, is old and getting older: a relic of more conservative times in France. The libertine lifestyle, once the avant-garde of contemporary European sexuality, is aging poorly. It is so acceptable nowadays to satisfy once-taboo sexual needs within the mainstream framework, and there exist so many modern means of seeking parters out, it makes sense that there are so few Millennials here. Want to have sex outside of your relationship? Get into an open relationship. Want to experiment with BDSM or other fetishes? You don’t have to go to a sex club to find people willing to try it with you.

            I came here expecting the cutting edge in urban European sexuality, but what I found was a community on the down and out, existing mostly as an enclave of outdated ways of thinking about sex, where people not ready to eschew the old world order can hide away. Infidelity, hyper-masculinity, and a kind of self-satisfied ‘naughtiness’ abound.

            The beautiful thing about sexuality in young urban Europe is that there is simply not the same need for skulking around in the shadows anymore. I know many of my friend’s sexual kinks and we discuss them without judgment. I have friends in open relationships (with various arrangements), friends who go home with a new girl/guy every time we go out, LGBT friends and others who are experimenting, friends in deeply committed relationships, and those who are content being single, maybe forever. It is truly a new urban landscape for sex, and there’s no need to hide away.

I guess it’s very, I don’t know — shallow? — is that it? Like very… like you could date five people at the same time and not really care. That could be fun but also, for me, I’m just dating different people but never settling down with anyone; I guess because there are so many opportunities, and you get tired of everyone
— Sofia (19) Stockholm/Paris

// The Paradox of Choice

            Conducting interviews for this article, the most overarching theme — one which made an appearance in nearly every interview — was a problem which has come to characterize many discussions about contemporary culture: the paradox of choice. This paradox postulates that when given an excessive amount of options, so that it seems we ought be able to choose the perfect one for us, we tend, counterintuitively, to be less satisfied with our choices. This theorem holds strong in the context of urban European dating: Tinder, Grindr, Happn, Bumble, and other dating applications have created a dating landscape in which thousands of potential partners are at our fingertips twenty-four hours per day, and yet people seem exhausted by the amount of options.

            It is common to see friends go through phases of 'Tinder exhaustion': after hundreds of matches on dating applications, a handful of dates, and a few big failures, a once-avid dater may delete all of her dating applications at once, declaring that she is through with the whole thing. This person might then try to meet dates the traditional way — at bars, museums, through friends — and find that it, well, sucks. In one month most people meet a mere handful of people that they would consider dating. Of those people, there’s no guarantee anything lasting will develop past the initial stages, no guarantee that this person will check any of the boxes. Inevitably the dating application is re-downloaded, and the swiping continues. How can a lackluster batch of random girls you met at Oktoberfest compare with the hottest, smartest, coolest girls in your city swirling around in omnipresent cyberspace?

            Tinder has effectively gamified the dating process: people as represented by an easily digestible collection of selfies and some stats (23 y/o, love Rammstein, 420 friendly) cease to resemble the very complicated humans they are meant to stand in for, and as a result dynamics shift. While this gamification has allowed Tinder to lead the dating app revolution, it has also drawn a fair amount of ire from those who claim that while the quantity of potential partners has increased markedly, the quality is lower than ever. Few men would approach a woman in a bar by humping her leg, and yet somehow the digital equivalent of an eggplant emoji is common: the distance of digital interaction allows us to forget that another person is really there, trying to communicate with us. This distance can be isolating, like we’re floating around in this digital ether all by ourselves.

            Let’s imagine, however, that you have not only matched with someone you like, but that you have managed to maintain a decent conversation and set up a date. It’s a sunny day, so he has invited you to a park. On the way you flip back through his Tinder profile, reminding yourself of his name, and taking another close look at his pictures, so you can be sure to recognize him. Mischievously, you swipe a few more guys while the bus rolls past the Reichstag building. A new match! The park on this day is flush with young beautiful people lolling on the grass, and as Tinder-man approaches, you can’t help but notice that he’s not even the most attractive person in the immediate vicinity. Not to mention, he looked taller in his pictures. Also didn’t he say he likes Rammstein? You hate Rammstein. Look — that guy over there has an eyebrow piercing; haven’t you always wanted to date a guy with an eyebrow piercing? It’s almost impossible to focus on the date you’re on right now, as Tinder pulses with possibility in your pocket.

            With so many options to choose from — a huge percentage of the young, single people in our European metropolises —  how can we ever be sure that the person we’re with is the right one?

When you go on dates in Europe, a lot of the time, it’s not with people from the same country as you, and it’s not even with people from the country you’re living in. Cultural exchange is such an important idea in Europe, and there’s so many Erasmus students — international students from everywhere in the world, really — and people that have moved here to build their lives… dating in Europe is almost a way of getting to know other cultures too.
— Vanessa, 23, USA/Paris

// Multiculturalism

            It’s not an uncommon experience in our new urban Europe to sit down for a drink with a large group of friends, look around, and notice that not a single person at the table comes from the same country. The open borders of the European Union, arguably the greatest success of the European experiment, has created a generation of urban youth more exposed to their geographic neighbors than ever before. This has contributed to a dating landscape akin to a roulette of nationalities, where you’re almost as likely to fall in love with a native as a Greek in Brussels or a Serbian in Berlin.

            It’s refreshing to date outside of your own culture, to play around with differences and to build bridges across the void of misunderstanding. National identities, when combined, form something that is greater than the sum of its two parts. Intertwined cultures enrich one another, they play off each other and they can open our eyes to other ways of life.

            Increasingly, relationships between two non-native speakers are carried out in English, or a mixture of multiple languages. While this presents its own set of challenges, as signals can be misinterpreted when our capacity for expression and comprehension are limited, it is a welcome challenge for many, as it makes dating — a sometimes monotonous process in our world of digitized romance— new and exciting again.

            I once had an Austrian boyfriend (who — surprise! — I met in France) for whom I moved to Vienna one summer. I had essentially nothing to do there; just a boyfriend, a culture I didn’t know anything about, a city I had never been to, and a lot of chutzpah. In about three months I was essentially given a crash course in being young & Viennese: dinners with my boyfriend’s family, days spent paddling in a boat down the Donau kanal, traveling in Central and Eastern Europe, enjoying the local EDM scene, watching the EURO 2016 games projected onto the side of Rathausplatz, drunken weekends in the Austrian countryside. Everything was new to me, and while I was used to moving to new cities on my own like this, it was a vastly different feeling to have a local, my boyfriend even, show me his life. This sharing, like plunging into the frigid water of the Danube river, requires a huge amount of vulnerability and courage. You have to trust that the person you are with will help you navigate the deep waters of a new culture and lead you safely back to shore. Dating someone from another culture is not something to be entered into lightly, it’s true, but it can also be a massively rewarding experience.

After two years I was really, really tired of being in a long-distance relationship, but I didn’t know what to do. I felt totally trapped. What do you do when you love someone, you know? It started off so easy — it was like, we had a plan that she’d move back to Germany after her internship, but then she got this great job in Brussels and she wanted to go for a year, and I said yes. But it was too much. Even with FaceTime and talking every day I just couldn’t do it anymore.
— Niklas, 27, Berlin

// Long-distance Relationships

The rise of cross-cultural dating has brought with it a necessary normalization of long-distance relationships: people travel to study and work all over Europe, and not necessarily always in the same place as their romantic partner. The spectre of the long-distance relationship haunts many internationally-minded European partnerships, and the possibility of it always looms large when either person is seeking work or applying for a new university program. Everyone has heard the horror stories: perfectly healthy relationships torn asunder prematurely by distance.

            What is so scary about long-distance relationships? Well, while I talked earlier about the relationship revolution, it is true that most people still find themselves in traditional monogamous relationships, and these can be difficult to maintain in a new city with a new crop of romantic distractions. Infidelity, often concealed by well-meaning friends, is common. Add to this the pressure of talking via text and/or on the phone every day (the usual set up in our highly-connected age), the imbalance between schedules of the respective individuals, the expense and time demanded by regular visits across the continent and we are presented with a veritable cocktail of relationship-killers.

            In the past — the Second World War, for example — it was normal for lovers, separated by circumstance, to maintain contact maybe once a month, by means of long, sickly-sweet letters extolling their undying love. It is somewhat disheartening, then, to see that as constant contact became possible, and then expected in long-distance relationships, the interactions underpinning these relationships have become steeped in mundanity. For many, the content of a day’s text messages with their significant other resembles a running commentary, as if to lose track of the other’s daily activities would spell disaster. This near-constant relay of information can suck a lot of the fun out of being in a relationship, and long-term long-distance daters can develop a somewhat embittered air. This is not to say that long-distance relationships cannot or do not work for some people, on the contrary, they are a necessary part of our increasingly globalized world, and often offer the possibility for people to pursue their ambitions within a relationship worth preserving, but as they become increasingly common it is important to recognize them for the massive amount of energy they consume and to approach them with the reverence they deserve.

I feel like there are so many opportunities to do things together that are really interactive and that can actually be, in themselves, a really good way of getting to know someone’s personality. Like, for example, I really like going on dates to museums because I think it can be a great conversation starter and it’s an easy way to create a flowing dialog with the person you’re on the date with.
— Marie, 24, Paris

LASTLY // Getting To Know Your City

            Despite a small subset of the people I interviewed having been seemingly beaten into submission by dating, there was a general tone of optimism, even excitement, about the prospect of dating in Europe’s cities. “There’s so much to do” was a common refrain, and it’s easy to see why: European cities are brimming with cultural, cultural, and social activities which make for ideal date options, and it often seems that dating can be as much about discovering a new restaurant or having a partner for that tango class you’ve been wanting to go to as it is a search for love.

            While the classic “cup of coffee” is never going to be usurped as top first date choice, it’s nice to know that after determining that this stranger you met on Tinder is not a total psycho you have so many options for fun and interesting outings around the city. Whether it is museums, concerts, parks, markets, street festivals, art exhibitions, theaters, bars, sports outings or one-off events, the European city offers it in spades. Not to mention, websites like meetup.com offer us the chance to meet people who share the same interests as us, promising a more targeted, fulfilling way of meeting not only friends but also possible romantic partners.

Advice? I guess, stay open-minded, and, like, really take advantage of this crossroads that we’re at here. Dating, and just going out and making new friends can be a great way of opening yourself up to new cultures, new ideas. It can be a really dynamic process. And I guess, like, really profit from the opportunity that we’re given here to have this collective sense of so many cultures coming together.
— Franz, 25, Zurich

            Combine the high volume of potential dating partners available on dating applications with the nearly infinite options for dates, and a boring weekday afternoon when all of your friends are busy can be easily transformed into an impromptu date night with a stranger: a fun way to get to know our ever-evolving European cities.

            Our generation faces a dating landscape which has been changed dramatically by our new globalized, always-connected, high-tech status quo. Despite undeniably presenting a slew of new problems, there are so many reasons to be optimistic about our current dating reality.

          I would argue, in fact, that as citizens of urban Europe, we are perhaps the best equipped to deal with this major cultural shift. The openness of young, city-dwelling Europeans, their international mindset and their ability to create vibrant urban culture, is what will carry them through this transitional period in the world of dating.

            Our access to such a huge pool of potential romantic partners — although sometimes overwhelming — is unprecedented. Romance, partnership, and sex are no longer a one-size-fits-all model; we now have a plethora of terms to describe almost every arrangement. Unique, interesting date ideas are all around us, and dating can be just as much about falling in love with our amazing city as it is about falling in love with a person. We have access to a smorgasbord of potential partners not just from our own city or country, but from the whole of the continent, and the long-distance relationship, difficult as it can be, allows us to sustain those connections across borders. The future of modern, urban dating is unchartered territory, but it is clear to me that young Europeans are its trailblazers.

by Rachel Padilla
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