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Eros and Technology: Jonathan Franzen in The New York Times

“A couple of weeks ago, I replaced my three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl with a much more powerful BlackBerry Bold. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three years. Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics.”

So begins Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “Liking is for cowards. Go for what hurts,” in this week’s New York Times. Franzen goes on to discuss how our infatuation with new devices may ultimately diminish our human capacity for certain forms of human love.   The essay raises important concerns about how consumer devices appeal to our human need for self-affirmation – thus helping to make us even more narcissistic than we already are.

As a sex therapist, I couldn’t help also responding to the erotic elements in Franzen’s essay.  The author “fondling” the device.  His experiencing the “silky action” of its track pad.   And his later noting that “our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful . . . a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”

I’ve lately been immersed in a new book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts,  that also takes technology as its subject – in this case, web technology designed to stimulate sexual arousal by pornography.  In the book’s climactic chapter (Chapter 11 if you have the book handy), the authors demonstrate how pornographers essentially “trick” the sexual mind by supplying it with a rich assortment of erotic cues in novel combinations.


Sex, Narcissism, and Technology

The catalog of ordinary human erotic cues includes some (such as sexual anatomy) that activate desire directly.  But it also includes other attributes (such as a partner’s welcoming smile) that stimulate sexual interest by a more indirect path:  they make us feel good about ourselves. Such “narcissistic cues” are an important and overlooked element of sexual attraction.

As Franzen notes in his New York Times essay this week, electronic technology can now supply us with a great many of these narcissistic cues.   Our electronic devices are always happy to see us.   They create customized experiences intended only for our pleasure.  And they react immediately and powerfully to our slightest touch.

In the past, one of the few ways an adult could experience this kind of automatic, effortless self-affirmation was through the magic of really good sex.   In the future, it’s entirely possible that many of us will bypass the need for sex entirely – so enchanted will we be by the machines that effortlessly do our bidding and affirm our magnificence.

This process has already begun.   One young patient of mine discovered that with Photoshop he could electronically cut and paste women’s faces and bodies together to create more powerful sexual images to masturbate to.   Over time he became so adept at it, and so fascinated by the technology, that he stopped masturbating entirely, or did it only as an afterthought.  The power to create sexual images had become more compelling than the wish to enjoy the product.

Will the narcissistic rewards of technology ultimately eclipse sex entirely?     The idea is not so far-fetched.


The Problems of Actual Love

Consider a joke I heard recently:

A woman is in bed reading.  Her husband approaches her, glides his hand down to her waist, lightly strokes her rear end, then gently explores the space between her legs and thighs.    Then he turns away from her.
“What made you stop?” she asks.
“I found the remote,” he answers.

What can we do to avoid being seduced by our electronic devices?    Perhaps nothing, but I would make the following modest suggestion:

Let’s focus our attention on sexuality’s self-affirming aspects — on the power of lovemaking to make us feel good about ourselves.   Let’s get back to the basics of love:   one person reflected in another’s eyes.

And let’s continue to wrestle with what Franzen refers to as “the problems of actual love” — including the challenge of relating long-term to someone who, unlike a piece of electronic equipment, was not designed to meet our needs but instead was only built to meet their own needs.

Avodah Offit pioneered these subjects in The Sexual Self. David Schnarch explored them further in Passionate Marriage, and more recently in Intimacy and Desire. I wrote about them in “Some open secrets about sexual arousal” in “Dining and differentiation,” and more recently in “What turns men on, really?”

Let’s keep the sexual self in focus.  Or we may lose it in our effort to find the remote.

stephen snyder md author photo Stephen Snyder, MD

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