Fifteen years ago, New York Magazine launched its Sex Diaries column, turning readers into a mass of eager voyeurs getting their jollies by peering into random New Yorkers’ bedrooms (or bathrooms, or kitchens, or public restrooms of choice) each week. Over the years, the column has done more than just entertain; it’s become an exhaustive, longitudinal catalogue of the way people fuck in this city — a compilation of primary-source documents deserving of a place in the National Archives, in my opinion.
On December 16, Sex Diaries will become an HBO docuseries. In anticipation of its TV debut, I took a spin through the archives to see how sex has changed from the days when “Aqueous Transmission,” by Incubus, was considered a suitable fuck track and BlackBerries — with their filthy little rollerballs — outnumbered iPhones. I read through endless nights with thirsty finance bros, afternoons with stay-at-home moms having revenge-fuck fantasies, and hours with persevering singles determined to get to the end of a date. Sometimes I was turned on, sometimes existentially freaked out, sometimes proud of the way New Yorkers get it on, sometimes sad for humanity, sometimes so sick of reading endless details of masturbation habits I was bored to blood tears. Trends emerged, linguistic patterns evolved, demographics shifted. And sure, the diarists are a self-selecting group of really eager-to-share exhibitionists and wannabe Carrie Bradshaws with a surplus of therapy vocabulary and a kink for emotional drama, but as I read about all the different kinds of good sex, bad sex, thwarted attempts at sex, sex catastrophes, and occasional occurrences of sex that made people see God, a story about how New Yorkers have gotten down over the years began to emerge, one that revealed some hallmarks of what has made good sex (at least good Sex Diary sex) good.
“Me No Likey” Early Aughts Dirty Talk (But Surprisingly, It Made Sex Fun?)
From 2007 to 2010, sex diarists wrote about “doing sex” (their words, not mine) in a way that was simultaneously the most horny and the least horny — like this 30-something straight man (despite sounding like what I imagine Elon Musk sounds like during phone sex) in a relationship:
8:05 a.m. On the bus. It’s rainy and overcrowded. My girlfriend nuzzles me and puts her head sweetly on my shoulder. I start thinking about her freshly waxed “vageena.”
1 p.m. … Me and my penis likey.
Even though the slang was painful, there was something charming about the exuberant, first-boner-ever tone of the early diaries. They were written as if every sex act was so new and exciting they didn’t have the right language for it yet (“vageena” — not the right language). In fact, the way people spoke about their sex lives was so outlandish, it only took a year before the staff had to defend the veracity of the Sex Diaries in an editor’s note: “You guys always complain that these seem fake — they are not.”
Diarists liberally used the words pussy and cock and, in general, were more explicit — almost instructionally so. Diaries were detailed descriptions of where participants put what, how badly they wanted to do it, how things smelled, how long they lasted, the volume of semen expelled and at what velocity. Diaries were chronicles of positions and specific acts in addition to how those acts felt physically and emotionally. There were diaries from trans men, bisexual art students, older male widowers, people experimenting with queerness, phone sex, group sex. Most of them read like the horniest LiveJournals of all time, in which everyone could deep throat, and if a man didn’t go down on a woman until his jaw fell off, he had no idea what he was doing (facts). In 2008, after the first appearance of “squirting,” if you didn’t soak the bed, gush, or at least get wet immediately upon opening your eyes in the morning, were you even having sex? Fucking in this city was like diving into a diverse sexual playground, where people watched their porn on DVDs in their living rooms (and stored entire collections in duffel bags).
It’s not the apps that ruined sex so much as the lack of spontaneity
In retrospect, the New York of 2007 to circa 2013 seems like a fairy-tale land in which you’d be at a bar, talk to the person next to you, then take them home and have the best sex of your life. Or friends of friends came into town, or you’d wind up partying with a roommate’s friend, or you’d exchange sultry emails with a co-worker. Or, like the 31-year-old “Cosmetician on the Rebound” (Park Slope, straight, single), you’d meet “some bearded hipster deliciousness” at a show and fuck him the next night.
At least as far as the Sex Diaries go, sexual interactions seemed to lose some of the spark as “I saw her standing by the ice bucket and imagined undressing her” got replaced by “I have been exchanging messages with ‘J’ online for three weeks, then we met once and actually hated each other even though we smushed.” (“Smush” — an example of acceptable slang.) It is too reductive to say this is just a problem of “online” versus “real world,” when really the magic ingredient is pure, uncut chaos. Take, for example, the way online arrangements were set up before 2010, when Craigslist was the most popular option: The requests were anarchically horny, and the desires were expressed succinctly, directly. Take this single line, for example, from the diary of the 42-year-old male “Planning a Thanksgiving Threesome”:
12:30 p.m. Heading home for the day. Answered a couple of Craigslist ads from guys looking for random blow jobs.
Or the 33-year-old “Office Don Juan With a Taste for Casual Encounters,” (male, single, straight):
2:15 a.m. Awakened in the middle of the night by my Craigette — a Craigslist casual encounter from a few months ago that worked out. We’ve been seeing each other fairly frequently since meeting. It’s starting to get pretty serious, which is as nice as it is unexpected.
The range! Blowjobs or commitment? Who knows? The thrill of looking for ass on Craigslist just cannot be beat!
The Right Kind of Catastrophic World Event Is a Great Excuse for Sex
Around 2009, the diaries’ signature joyful horniness gave way to a bleaker, but still horny, horniness as a general air of financial anxiety and job-market pessimism settled in during the peak recession years — one of the few times in the Sex Diaries there has been noticeably less sex across the board. People were still interested in having sex, but the attempts were tinged with stress, depression, panic. People avoided masturbating in the childhood homes they had to move back into or when the new roommates they took on for help with rent were home. People were searching for jobs in between YouPorn sessions. (None of this stopped people who kept their jobs from masturbating in the office, though.)
Political uncertainty — particularly regarding the McCain-Obama matchup — caused sexless times. The lead-up to the 2008 election had a run of entries by diarists (back when it was tallied) engaging in zero acts of sexual activity (except with themselves), and the hallmarks of Sex Diaries became perfunctory, routine masturbation and preoccupation with exes on Facebook. But the night Obama won, at least according to “The Soul Singer and Possible Sex Addict” (male, 31, straight), nothing makes people hornier in New York than Obama, and a renewed belief in democracy was extremely horny-making. He celebrated the victory with an “Election Night kissing bonanza.”
These days, it’s possible we’ve sustained enough shitty societal moments that our libido has become global-calamity resistant. New Yorkers seem to have figured out the aphrodisiac benefits of a world in turmoil, and now we’ve learned to turn disasters into an opportunity to bone.
Be it plague or natural disaster, recent elections or Capital coups, we might as well fuck our way through it. Perhaps the first lesson in disaster fucking was learned amid Hurricane Sandy, during which some people managed to get Category 5 laid. Being rained in, then stranded without electricity became an excuse to “bed surf” through a rotation of lovers.
This trend of seeking sexual comfort and companionship continued to be a balm through the hellscape of the 2016 election, when a woman “Embracing Eroticism to Cope With the Election” discovered that the only time her “mind stops racing with the rapidly encroaching state of worldwide disarray is during great sex.” Another diarist that November did not fuck the man who didn’t vote. She did fuck the woman she met in a local bar while mourning Hillary Clinton’s loss.
And while COVID, in general, was atmospherically tough on libidos — we can all agree the quality of sexual activity took a nosedive during the truly terrifying portion — quarantining with someone turned out to be an excellent tactic to increase sexual activity in one’s life, according to the Sex Diary of “The Art Teacher Quarantining With a Fling,” though fucking while COVID is coursing through you is not medically advisable.
8 a.m. I am SO over quarantine.
9 a.m. One good thing though … sleeping next to A has me remembering how amazing our morning sex used to be.
I start caressing his arm, down to his legs, and know he is getting turned on. He asks me to ride him and although I find this position difficult in the morning I am always open to his bedroom suggestions. I writhe on top of him and am happy to find that it’s easier than I thought. It’s been several days since I had sex (with a casual lover I see every few months when he comes to town) so my body is rearing to go. I have two orgasms in rapid succession.
10:30 a.m. After a few minutes of not fucking, I feel queasy. I had not felt any COVID symptoms so I think I am just dehydrated. I suggest a break and he is happy to finish himself off as I recover.
11 a.m. He jerks off in the bedroom while I get some water. Turns out COVID sex is not quite as fun as sex-sex. I just want to go back to sleep.
2014 Was the Year Butt Play Went Mainstream
By 2012, we were finally free from the tyranny of the constant expectation of deep-throating, and, I daresay, male diarists had become increasingly conscientious while receiving blowjobs. As one trend died, another began to take hold. Previously, any mention of backdoor activity among heteros was met with a skittishness (or often a flat-out “I don’t do that”) or an extreme chest-puffing boastfulness, as if the straights were doing something revolutionary. But by the time Maureen O’Connor wrote her famous “Butt Stuff” column in 2014, a butt plug was a nearly mundane part of sex. A fingie in the booty? It’s just as common as deep breathing! A little tongue around the ol’ buttle? Just another Wednesday.
Soft-core BDSM Has Sex-Trend Stamina
Butt stuff isn’t the only trend that emerged in the 2010s and has endured: Soft-core BDSM took a hold of our necks and never let go. The firsthand accounts of dominatrixes “juggling three clients” or submissives on the hunt for the best testical stretchers gave way to Fifty Shades of Grey fanfic, starting with a 2013 Sex Diary totally inspired by a love of the movie. Soon, soft-core exploration of BDSM themes and a general interest in kink became more mainstream: handcuffs, spanking, and nipple clamps popped up regularly. According to a diary from “The Male Feminist Who Wants Love to Be Real,” if you weren’t asking to get choked, were you even alive?
11 p.m. We end up fucking at my apartment. It’s pretty traditional sex, but nice. I like-y. Gotta say, I was surprised how un-kinky she was. These days, any woman under age 25 (she’s 23) seems to be all about the spankings and threesomes. I went out with someone not too long ago who brought two butt plugs to our dinner.
Shame Is Down, But Guilt Is Forever
The diary of the “Single Male Feminist” made me wonder about the age-old question: Single or married, who is banging better? And, over 16 years, to be honest, there has been very little discernible difference between frequency of sex as a single or partnered person. Neither guarantees you get laid. Emotionally, being single remains a grab bag. There are evergreen anxieties — the anxiety of seeming like you care, of actually caring (people who don’t care always seem to have better sex), of being unloveable or unfuckable. (Though that last one is not isolated to single people.) One trend I noticed was that over time, single people seemed to lose any shame about having multiple partners in a row in one week, even if they couldn’t shake the guilt that their promiscuity might hurt someone’s feelings.
Married or partnered people seem ultimately free of the same existential shame and clearly have better chances for sexual activity in a weeklong diary, but diarists often take that for granted. Cheating or considering cheating, especially in straight couples, has increasingly become a fixation. According to the cross-sampling of Sex Diaries, at least, y’all have some issues to talk out.
Knowing Your Target Makes for Hotter Sex
Single and partnered alike, the sex is more interesting and more frequent when there is a single object of affection (or obsession, infatuation, hatred). When people fuck with one person in mind (be it fucking to get over them, fucking other people because they want to be fucking that specific someone else), even when they’re not fucking that actual person, the sex seems better. This can manifest in different ways. People fucking their way through a breakup, for example, or fucking other people while still hung up on someone else. Polyamorous diarists on dates without their primaries. People engaging in goal-oriented fucking really just for their own pleasure — like this woman going on a dating binge. Or, my favorite, a vengeful-ass, husband-hating housewife on the prowl.
Polyamory Might Have Been More Fun Before Google Sheets
Although some more recent diarists act like they invented ENM when they downloaded Feeld, sex diarists have been about their ethical non-monogamy life since the very first days. In 2007, every other diarist was a swinger. Then poly became the buzzword, then open, now nonmonogamous, but a rose by any other name would still be juggling a schedule of partners. The early aughts might have seen ENM in its horniest formations. Swingers and tantric-sex and play parties were the happiest bedfellows. More recent entries read less like polyamorous lifestyle fan fiction and more like practical user manuals: While “The Poly Lawyer Keeping a Spreadsheet of Her Six Lovers” certainly made good use of her six lovers, a spreadsheet was involved.
Or this entry, from “The Woman Navigating Her First Week of Nonmonogamy,” where the nonmonogamy is tinged with complicated (maybe toxic) feelings instead of sex. Although not particularly horny, the diary is maybe useful as a cautionary tale of how not to engage in ENM or as a reminder that therapists need therapists too.
Take another example — a recent entry from April 2022, “The Married Swinger at a Weeklong Sex Party in Jamaica“:
2 a.m. S and I have been grinding on each other, and I’ve come about five times at this point. We have amazing sexual chemistry. We join A and F back in the hot tub and they introduce us to new friends of theirs.
A wants to play with me so we grab fries and decide to have sex on a cabana on the way back to our room. Fries and sex, can you think of a better way to end a day?
She did get off five times, but the tame descriptions make me miss the horny, fantastical, hobbyist erotica days of “vageenas.” Somehow, the fries seem more interesting than the cabana sex. I can’t believe it, but I’m yearning for the 58-year-old tantric newbie from 2009 trying to arrange trysts with a limited understanding of email.
Self-awareness Has Turned Us Into Prudes
By the 2020s, even if a diarist was having a lot of sex, the way they described their sex became very self-aware — almost prudishly so. We’ve moved on from people watching porn on their iPhones in the grocery store or waking up ready to fuck (and often doing so), popping many boners (literal and metaphorical) at the office, at the gym, on the subway, in a movie theater, at brunch with their parents. Those early entries sometimes read like an outtake from American Pie. They were unpredictable and oftentimes offensive and a little grody. And sometimes, like in the 2015 diary of “The 36-Year-Old Having a Second Adolescence,” a threesome of all those adjectives.
4:01:03 a.m. I realize there is a TOOTH RATTLING AROUND IN MY MOUTH and that it is not my tooth. I repeat: IT IS NOT MY TOOTH.
And yet, you have to admit that she had a lot of fun, especially in contrast to this recent entry from “The Divorced Mom Not Ready for Sexting“:
It’s not that I’m scared of sex with men, I just feel like it always makes and then breaks everything. Sex is so heavy these days; it used to be so light.
Sex Is a Journey, Not a Destination
What’s become clear close-reading hundreds and hundreds of Sex Diaries is that when we’re seeking novelty and spontaneity, there are better chances the sex will be good. One of my favorite Sex Diaries is as sweet, yearning, fun, deviant, and unabashedly horny as it is problematic (listen, it was 2016).
It is the diary of a 38-year-old lawyer who outsources his orgasm: straight, married, Murray Hill. His wife had just had a baby and, while interested in having sex, was not ready to have sex, so this guy spent a week in pursuit of a single hand job. He enlisted a friend to go with him. He ran into obstacles (said friend had to cancel the night they were supposed to go). They had setbacks (he was afraid to google “hand jobs” on his work laptop), but finally, after earnest perseverance, he got what he had sought: a very quick orgasm he paid generously for, and which he immediately ran home to tell his wife about. She was amused. They then cuddled and watched Catastrophe. His story is a parable, one that shows us that sometimes the best part of sex is in that quest — the excitement, the single-minded pursuit, in which desire is where true satisfaction lies, even if nobody ends up coming.
Want more stories like this one? Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to our coverage. If you prefer to read in print, you can also find this article in the December 19, 2022, issue of New York Magazine.