Fall/Winter Issue 2011
The Modern American
by Alexandra Ares
The modern American has gone a long way... astray, hasn’t he?
        I am in the New York City subway greatly enjoying The American by Henry James. Written in 1877, it describes a self-made millionaire American visiting Paris in search of a wife. Although the snobbish highborn Parisian families for whom work is a shameful endeavor look at him with disdain as a vulgar example of the nouveau riche, by today’s standards there isn’t an ounce of vulgarity in the person of Christopher Newman, Henry James’s American. There’s an enchanting integrity and thoughtful eloquence about this character. Meeting and falling in love with a young widower Madame Du Cintre, he asks her to marry him after five or six innocent morning visits, and when she asks him not to mention marriage and anything too personal for six months, he complies, keeps seeing her a few times a week, while also befriending her family. The book portrays a wholesome American innocence and practical intelligence, in contrast with a corrupted and snobbish old Europe populated by a good for nothing top 1 percent of nobility.
        Now fast forward 144 years to today’s date. The modern American, unlike Henry James’s one, mentions sex, not marriage after a very few dates, and if you ask him to stop mentioning it for at least six weeks, let alone six months, he disappears into the sunset. To cope with this, American girls read ‘enlightening’ and ‘inspirational’ magazines like Cosmopolitan, which has become nothing more but a trashy how-to-sex-manual for dummies, advising their female readership from 18 to 35 year-old to greet their boyfriends at the door with a surprise bj; and lots of other invaluable, empowering, ‘cool’ advice.

I’m in the number six subway going uptown. I put down my book, and gaze past the mass vulgarity around me to which I became accustomed by now, although I never grew to like, and I wonder what happened with the modern American male? It’s the interior vulgarity of people wearing even the best suits, that bothers me more than the baggy pants with ample views to people’s underwear; this vulgarity of thought comes to slap me in the face over and over again when I least expect it.

The last guy I met, from a great family and with a great education and a great address, told me, toward the end of a first successful date that he likes swinging and can’t be with a woman for more than six months without getting bored. While we romantically sat on a bank in Central park at dusk, he also had the good taste of asking me whether I enjoyed anal sex. He had also mentioned earlier that he would let another men perform oral sex on him if the act would have brought him a large sum of money and advised me to do the same, if a lucrative opportunity presents itself for one of my projects. So strange, coming nor from a hobo but from a man of very good financial standing...Guys, we want to be able to look up and admire your sterling character, how can you not know something as simple as that?

 The second last guy I met online, a very handsome male under 40 who seemed really sweet on a the phone, sent me an email and asked me, if, in case we hit it off after our first blind date, he could come over to my place for a night cap. So forget sex on the first date, welcome to planning sex before the first date!

The third to last guy I met had a long history of taking amphetamines and talked to me about his drugs ravaged youth; at 50, he still lived like a bald teenager. The fourth guy back, was pressing for threesomes. The fifth guy back, notwithstanding his charm and worldly success, had been on cocaine since his early 20s. The sixth guy back wanted an open relationship and no question asked. The seven one back told me that he had never been in love, always had friends with benefits which really worked for him.

Where are the ‘normal’ people?

The list of examples could go on and on. I can’t help but wondering what and who is cheapening the game, the liberated women who are throwing themselves at men who seem worthy, the easy to access online dating, the widespread porn?
Human rights advocate Bruce Wiseman says that "there's a reason why feeling good has become better than doing good. And why  morality is considered out of date. Earlier this (past) century the world took a wrong turn."  And he tracks the source, arguing that "psychiatry is probably the single most destructive force that has affected American society in the last 50 years" because it inspired the new liberal ethos where everyone is a victim, everyone has special rights and no responsibilities, advocating the re-interpretation and eventually eradication of the concepts of right and wrong.

Many of these modern American men are nice people, very well educated, Caucasian, have good jobs and a very good income, some just like Henry James’s American.

But something has fundamentally changed.

Is it a generation thing? Is it an American thing? Or is it a little bit of both?

It’s more of a consumerist society thing.  One may argue, and be right to a certain point, that very often reality reflects the quality of our state of mind. However, recent article upon article, and I will only point to All The Singles Ladies in Atlantic Monthly, point to big societal shifts, the decline of men, the improvement of women’s education and work opportunities, and how the hook-up culture of the 90s changed the way we engage in relationships. 

I don’t even imagine today’s guys befriending a woman they like for six months, like the American of Henry James, without mentioning sex. Not unless they are in college, or coworkers. I don’t even imagine them doing it for six dates. Many women too, are so accustomed with this state of affairs, that get worried if sex is not brought up fairly soon. Fortunately, people still fall in love occasionally and become ‘good’ or at least ‘better’ or ‘good enough’ to sustain a relationship or marriage; at least for a while.

My European girlfriends also noticed that most of the American men they meet have a rather hypocrite stance toward casual sex. They pretend they are better than it, but in fact almost all seek it, as if the modern ‘dates’ are but a tad more respectable, cost effective solution to hiring prostitutes. More and more people have hookups but no relationships.
Each time I meet a new American man, I’m sporting a bright smile, hoping that he would be different. And yet, too many times, these ‘cultural differences’ get so discouraging, the vulgarity so biting, the superficiality so mind-blowing, that sometimes I leave my date in tears.
                             Alexandra Ares is the author of Dream Junkies, the USA Book Awards award-winning finalist My Life on Craigslist and The Other Girl,
                                                                                                                                                                                            and the publisher and  founder of Manhattan Chronicles