mating rituals

Socialism for Sex: The Way of the Future?

Photo: SSPL/Science Museum

Like so many people in their 20s and 30s in recent months and years, I didn’t consciously choose to become a socialist — eventually, it just became undeniable that the ideology and my ideals were in close alignment. I realized I was a sexual socialist, though, long before I ever considered seizing the means of production. A couple of years ago, during the medium-drunk portion of a friend’s birthday party, my friend Alexa lodged a familiar complaint: finding a decent source of casual sex is way more difficult than it should be.

The problem is persistent and perplexing. We’re not dealing with a shortage of resources here — if New York houses so many uncoupled, horned-up adults in their 20s and 30s, and almost all of them would like to get laid (competently) from time to time, then what gives? It’s a problem that technology has been trying and abjectly failing to solve — at least for straight people — for most of my adult life. But there with Alexa, five glasses of Champagne deep, I saw a solution taking shape in the middle distance. I blurted out the only thing that seemed logical: “You should have sex with this guy I used to date. I think you’d like each other.”

I’ve made smoother propositions in my life, but after a weird moment during which Alexa digested my offer to get her laid, she admitted interest. I gave her Tim’s Instagram handle along with a promise to make him aware of her existence. Hooking up Tim and Alexa was my first foray into what might be termed Dick Socialism, but now I’m a true believer. From each man according to his ability, to each woman according to her needs.

That women aren’t able to snap our fingers and find satisfying sex if we want it contradicts the more optimistic narratives that people — maybe just dating app developers, at this point — would have you believe about the potential upsides of hookup culture. Still, in and of itself, that’s not terribly surprising: Traditional ideas about femininity mean women often aren’t taken at their word when they say they want casual sex, and traditional ideas of masculine sexual prowess don’t tend to line up with what actually feels pleasurable for women. So if you can help out a friend, why not? It feels like we’re already through the looking glass when it comes to so many American social ideals. Why not strive for Medicare for all, and satisfying casual sex for all who desire it?

When I asked other women about their experiences referring exes or old hookups to female friends, most told me about wanting to spare others the needle-in-a-haystack search for a skilled partner. “There are so many mediocre lays out there — everyone I know who sleeps with dudes has many, many stories — and I think it’s a public service to point the people you care about toward fulfilling sex,” Emma, 30, told me. Eva, 33, agreed. “It’s not like good dick is so thick on the ground you can just toss it off. And it’s nice to reward the guys who aren’t shit heads.”

(I assumed initially that this sharing of resources was yet another dating development that straight pairings had borrowed from gay men. But the situations might not be quite analogous. “I think it’s more subconscious with gay men,” Jake, 25, told me. “If I know someone who’s getting some good dick, I’m automatically like, How can I get in on that? There’s no formal offer necessary.”)

At its best, Dick Socialism is a way that we can help each other carry the burden of an enormous endeavor: sorting through all of the eligible straight bachelors to find ones that provide a good match in tastes, skills, and intentions in the realm of casual sex. Emma told me that for her, it’s a natural expansion of the backchanneling women already do in the interest of looking out for each other. “That information-sharing impulse gets a bad (and very gendered) reputation as ‘being gossipy,’ but it’s honestly the most practical thing in the world,” she said. “If this is the 21st century version of preparing your younger sister for what to expect on her wedding night, then I think we’re doing okay.”

Referring your female friends to your past hookups is about a spirit of community-minded generosity. The post-Tinder world of modern dating is stacked with indignities and obstacles, and there are precious few shortcuts and kindnesses we can provide for the people we care about when it’s time for them to negotiate their own intimate lives. “At least in my group, it’s understood that the women are permanent in a way the men aren’t,” Eva told me. “If a dude ends up not working out for whatever reason, he’ll leave and we’ll all still be friends. So it’s easy.” This does not guarantee an anxiety-free experience for the owner of the dick in question, at least at first. After Eva referred a friend at a party to a neighbor she’d previously slept with, he showed up on her doorstep the next day. “He was like, ‘Hey, I was kind of tipsy last night, I hope none of this is going to cause drama for you.’ And I laughed, because it’s not that big of a deal. I think that somehow makes them feel unimportant?”

Dick Socialism is not without its emotional challenges. When Sarah, 34, was referred to a college friend’s ex, everything was fine until she and the guy actually hit it off. “The minute I flirted with him and we started in on something, she got mad and decided she still wanted to fuck him after all.” A friend sleeping with your ex might not bother you on a theoretical level, but when put into practice, it could potentially dredge up some regret or jealousy you hadn’t realized was still there. Dick Socialism is a novel concept for most people, even in places with relatively liberal sexual politics. Encouraging friends to sleep with your exes requires all involved to ignore a whole pile of romantic norms that have long given structure to the social lives of young Americans, which can be unsteady ground for even the most sure-footed among us.

But those are the exact norms that millennials have been chipping away at since they hit puberty, and in that sense, Dick Socialism functions as a heat check of sorts: Have we made the progress we think we have? A few months ago, when my 24-year-old friend May was talking about an ex of hers who I said sounded interesting, she told me without hesitation that she’d hook us up if I wanted to meet him. It wasn’t until later that I thought about the proposition and how natural the offer had seemed relative to my own early foray into Dick Socialism. As in politics, it’s the youth who are rapidly expanding the boundaries of possibility.

As for my ex Tim, 35, he said he’d considered his referral to Alexa a point of pride. “I was glad to be thought of in that situation. It’s hard to know how people you’ve dated in the past view you, and it was nice to be remembered fondly.”

Socialism for Sex: The Way of the Future?