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Sarah, Kate, and Alison--"downtown babes," they call themselves--share an overpriced two-bedroom apartment in a five-story Greenwich Village walk-up. A few years removed from the comforts and unreality of expensive campus life, they're all laboring at low-paying but much-coveted and challenging jobs. Sarah is a junior editor at a young women's magazine, Alison an assistant account manager at an ad agency, and Kate screens slush-pile manuscripts and composes dust-jacket copy for a major publishing house. On a recent balmy spring evening, they invited me to come by their apartment to gas about men--"a bitchfest," Kate promised.
Kate is the daughter of an old professor of mine. Over the years I've watched her mature from quiet bookworm to glamorous high school athlete, and now into a sensible, accomplished young woman. I didn't see her much during her four years at Stanford, but since she graduated she's been over to cadge dinner several times. Like my own children, Kate, an honorary member of our family since her parents divorced and moved out of New York, often tells my wife and me more than we really want to know about her personal life. This is the awkward truth about boomer parents and their kids and the kids of their close friends: they confide in you as they do in their best buddies, perhaps more. Nothing is off-limits. Sometimes your ears burn.
For a couple of years now, I've been hearing a troubling litany from Kate: men her age don't have a clue. Are they all gay or what? The only way she can get a date with someone who might be interesting is to ask him out, but then right away she's put him in a position of weakness--the last thing today's reticent guy needs. The only men who do have the courage to ask her out are hypermasculine throwbacks with Beatle boots, ape-drape haircuts, and an equally antediluvian attitude toward women. Kate's complaints echoed those I heard repeatedly at a women's magazine where I recently worked. The fecklessness of all men under thirty was attributed to a lack of "commitment"--just a fancy way, I suspect, of describing male fear and insecurity. Along with recent census figures that show startling increases in the number of women--and men--who remain single well beyond their usual reproductive years, the testimonials of all these women suggest that romance has fallen upon hard times. A lot of men, it seems, just aren't interested in getting the girl, or even pursuing her, which has always been an important challenge and defining accomplishment of manhood. I was hoping the downtown babes might have an explanation for the dearth of standup guys in training. I was also hoping to confirm a particularly troubling bit of information I'd picked up during interviews I'd done with other young women. After deploying their wiliest seductive powers over the course of an evening, some men, I'd heard, would at the crucial moment withhold sex, knowing their refusal delivered a more humiliating blow to their partner's ego than anything else they could do. If this were true, I figured, the ongoing gender war had reached a new low.
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Kate and her roomies are supremely attractive, bright, engaging, funny, and--dare I say without sounding lecherously middle-aged--sexy young women, not that any men who possess the "résumé" they'd be interested in reviewing would necessarily agree. And since the résumé men are all in hiding, how would they know? The résumé men they have managed to meet, the downtown babes say, are hopelessly passive, squirrelly, in perpetual retreat, like the one my wife and I set Kate up with a couple of months ago. We suggested she arrange to meet the son of another friend of ours, who was on summer break from his job as a private-school teacher at a boarding school. She called him, of course, because that's what girls do these days--they make the call. For the next three nights the two gabbed for hours on the phone. Naturally, we received daily updates (Kate was between jobs and stopping by for more than her usual number of meals): they'd read and reread all the same books, liked the same movies, food, and sports. When they finally met at the Time Cafe, they again talked for hours, gazing into each other's eyes, forging a "real connection," marveling at what seemed like incredible kismet, giddily in love. Kate couldn't believe it. They held hands as they walked to her apartment, and kissed at the door. "It was corny," she says, "like a thirties movie." She told us a few weeks later that it didn't work out. Despite calling him repeatedly, she didn't hear from him for a week. Finally, he left a message on her machine explaining that he just wasn't ready for a relationship right then. "I can understand that," says Kate, "but I wish he'd told me before I fell in love with him. Or before he encouraged me to fall in love with him."
"Men were like that in college, too," Alison says after we all crack open beers and settle in their living room around a tape recorder, but at least there was sex--"hooking up," in contemporary parlance. Surveys of campus life indicate that students are having more sex than any prior generation did, but doing nothing beyond groping each other in the dark on a drunken Saturday night to advance any kind of lasting relationship. At the first hint of anything deeper than mutual physical satisfaction--they know nothing about love, but they're pretty sophisticated sexually, it seems--the men would vanish. I ask them to explain the phenomenon.
"Well, there was always the question of who would call whom the next day, or the next week," says Alison, sitting upright and cross-legged on a threadbare couch. She's tall, fair, athletic--gorgeous. "Actually, there was no question at all. The guy would never call, even if you sensed he was dying to. Guys were just totally afraid of appearing one whit more interested than you. There was like a massive epidemic fear of rejection among men, at least at Cornell. So if I liked a guy, I'd call him just to make it easy on him. But I resented it. It made me mad. And right from the start, I'd have this idea that he was a passive wimp, a dick."
"There were times," Sarah offers, "when you were just looking for companionship, and you'd call up a guy you'd been with the weekend before and he'd diss you by pretending not to remember who you were. This is a guy you slept with! And you'd be pissed because you didn't even like him that much in the first place. It's a power play. He'd wuss out because he was afraid of it more."
"Afraid of what?" I ask.
"Everything," says Sarah, a lanky brunette with almond eyes. "Afraid of anything that might possibly lead to his being a boyfriend to your girlfriend. I mean, it's not like you're desperate! But every once in a while I'd meet a guy and go, 'Wow, this is somebody I could get to know better.' And you'd sense the same feeling from him. But it was like, when he had that feeling he had an allergic reaction."
"The men were just very wary of coming on too strong," says Kate, settling into an overstuffed loveseat after changing from her power suit into jeans and sleeveless top. "A lot of guys thought that if they took the initiative, women would think they're assholes. So they went way in the other direction. They acted like dicks--passive and quietly hostile. There's nothing in between. They were totally afraid of intimacy, so if you hooked up, intimacy was not an issue. Although you could have sex."
So as both parties circled each other, afraid to make the first move, how did so much hooking up ever come about? "There are a lot of things you learn at college so you don't cross the line into being too aggressive," says Alison. "You arrange it so the guy makes the move, but it's because you've set it up. It's subtle. It's called 'waiting it out.' Like, if the party is emptying out, you say to yourself, 'If I go to the bathroom and he's still there when I come out, then I know he's waiting to go home with me.' Then, like at Cornell, where a lot of people live off campus, you share a cab home. You kiss on the way there. The result is sex, but no one has actually had to say, 'I'd like to go home with you.' "
After graduating, Kate and her friends expected this all to change. As dynamic young career women, they'd be mingling with other budding world-beaters, forward, confident, accomplished young men with résumés--and the sense that a relationship can offer more than a night of boozy wrestling with the lights off. None of these women says she's looking to get married--immediately, anyway. They all speak passionately about wanting to be established in a career before shuffling toward the altar, of being independent and capable of taking care of themselves in case the marriage doesn't work out. Of course, in the next breath they also talk about how, if after seeing a guy two or three times and they can't imagine marrying him, he's toast. "Even though you're not consciously looking for a special partner," says Alison, "it is, ultimately, what dating is all about."
If there were such a thing as dating. Meeting men is not the problem, according to the downtown babes. Alison receives regular invitations to parties sponsored by media buyers; Kate shows up at three or four book parties every week, and Sarah is a regular at magazine glamfests. They pool their invitations and travel in a pack to the same functions. But most of the guys they meet there, guys with the "résumé" whom they could bring home to meet Mom and Dad--men they expect one day, despite their current nonadventures, to marry--are even less interested in them than those they experimented with sexually in college. Excuses for male disinterest are tendered: everyone is working obsessively on his career, striving to gain some purchase in an unreliable workplace. Still, they find the passivity of the boys mystifying. As we work on our second beers Kate confirms for me what I'd heard elsewhere: more than just a few of today's young men appear to be using sex--withholding sex, that is--as a weapon.
"I don't even know how to talk about this, it's so humiliating," says Kate. "In the last two years, I've met three men I liked a lot. Unless I'm just totally delusional, the feeling in each case was mutual. Without putting too fine a point on it, we got to where it was like, the penultimate moment. I mean, we were naked. And why are you naked unless, you know, you're going to do it? He's naked, too, and ready. But then he says no." She sips her beer, catches her breath, her face flushing at the memory, blue eyes flashing. "What is that? I'd like to know. When in history has that ever happened before? And with me it's been three times."
Alison leans forward. "God, I thought I was the only woman on the face of the earth to whom that had ever happened."
"Well, there are at least three of us," says Sarah.
"God, why haven't we talked about this before?"
"Is there, like, some conspiracy among them? Maybe they all chat on the Internet and go, 'Okay, for those of you who have never done this before, listen up: Wait until you get her dress off, then say, No way, José. The effect will be devastating. But don't say it until she's naked.' "
"My mom said when I got to college men were just going to want to sleep with me," says Alison. "And when I was a young career woman, that would be even more the case. But they don't. They reject you. I know this guy who has started relationships with three different women, but they break up with him because, after they get close, he won't have sex. He's on like some kind of mission."
"A mission to be a dick," says Sarah.
"Maybe he has an old-fashioned sense of honor," I suggest. "Maybe he's very maturely pulling back, saying, 'Hey, I like this girl, and it's moving too fast.' Maybe amid all this meaningless and frenzied copulation, he's holding out for something better."
From the Hardcover edition.