I Didn’t Sleep With Her. But I May As Well Have.

May 21, 2008

Last night, the first season of Gossip Girl came to a close, or, a kind of fizzle. But if Georgina’s comeuppance was a tad disappointing and all the promising relationships (Lily & Rufus, Blair & Chuck) somehow relapsed, the show might have had one of its most telling and honest moments yet.

After much misunderstanding, Serena and Dan reach what might be the point of no return. The previous episode ended with Dan, manipulated, confused, and believing that Serena just drunkenly cheated on him, canoodling with Georgina on a stoop. The big question was, would they have sex or wouldn’t they? You’d be forgiven for optimistically thinking, as Serena and I did, that Dan and Serena “were forever,” and that the writers would never pull something so cruel. Turns out they’re even crueler than we could have expected.

The next morning Serena finds Georgina coming out of Dan’s bedroom: she assumes the worst but really doesn’t want to know the details. Dan, however, insists on sharing them: “I didn’t sleep with her,” he tells Serena. Relief! “But I may as well have.” Yikes.

Grown-ups usually get pretty nervous over the idea of hooking up. They put the phrase in quotes, they ask each other what it means, and then they declare that kids themselves don’t know what it means. That’s the inherent danger in hooking up: the ambiguity. No doubt many of young people’s romantic and sexual interactions are ambiguous, and I’d like to return to this topic later–exactly how much uncertainty can our delicate frames withstand, I wonder–but in this particular case, it seems that hooking up is scary not because it’s vague but because it’s heartbreakingly explicit.

The bloggers at New York know just what I mean: in their weekly tally of Gossip Girl‘s “reality points,” they declared “Plus 8 for the fact that Dan offers an awkward, horrifyingly evocative confession of said visit for the purposes of clearing his own conscience: ‘I didn’t sleep with her. But I may as well have.'” They go on to allot “Plus 2 for the fact that that totally means oral.” Whatever interpretation you choose, what’s so awful about this moment is that it requires you to wonder: if they didn’t have sex, what EXACTLY did they do instead?

“Sleeping with someone” has always sounded incredibly adult to me. As an adolescent, I felt that the phrase belonged only in a world where people have passionate affairs and betray one another. It suggests the worst, of course. But it also suggests an existence where there are only a couple of options. In most movies, for instance, an adult character might share an unexpected kiss with somebody, but after that it’s straight to the sex.

In some ways, “sleeping together” skips over the whole intimate, heated, hesitant, and unmistakably bodily experience of having sex. It skips over the in-between, the heavy petting, the not-tonight-but, and the i-like-this-better-than. The phrase isn’t meant to evoke actual sex; it’s meant to refer to a social transaction between individuals in an adult world where the sex itself is private, but the fact of having had it carries meaning.

This isn’t the world we live in today, though. We’re more familiar with and exposed to the ins and outs of sex, and we know that it’s an inclusive and often public experience. The kinds of sexual activity that kids engage in before they’re ready for intercourse is no longer hidden, but all out on the table. Sex involves so much variety that we have to say hooking up in order to capture the range of possible experiences. So far from not knowing what our words mean, in fact, our conversations are attuned to every contextual shift. Hooking up suggests a number of things, and, in the case of Dan and Serena, the writers’ wicked and brilliant move was to invite us, and Serena, to imagine its worst possible meanings.

And perhaps that’s why grown-ups are so afraid of “hooking up.” Because it’s all too clear. It doesn’t slip sex behind the bedroom door, but exposes it in the dorm room and on the gossip blog. It acknowledges a very detailed, varied, and concrete experience of sex–and, worst of all, it reminds us that our kids are having it.

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