Outgrowing the little black book

In the process of publicly shaming a West Hollywood restaurant for having broken WiFi (a goal I wholeheartedly endorse), Ezra Butler recently gave the internet some of the more interesting sexual statistics this side of OkTrends. The Fucking Statistics, as he calls them, are based on (anonymized) data gathered from the Little Black Book iPhone application. Among the insights gleaned from mankind’s never-ending need to confide sexual secrets in technology are:

  • The most frequent day Little Black Book users have sex is Saturday.
  • More people than you’d expect are having sex in alleys behind bars, which, more than anything else, seems uncomfortable.
  • 23 percent of Little Black Book users are dissatisfied with the sexual encounters they record in the app.
  • People are, generally speaking, horny.

As is the case with the various infographics OkCupid churns out from time to time, there are a handful of methodological problems. The most significant one is that the population of Little Black Book users in no sense corresponds with the general population of people having sex. As someone who generally keeps abreast of interesting new iPhone applications, I’d never even heard of LBB until Ezra’s article. The sample size is small — only about 2000 hook-ups; but, more than that, it’s a tiny slice of a very particular population: people who are able and willing to document their various sexual encounters on a smartphone application.

A few years ago, Bedpost made the rounds as the latest in a series of products designed to track your sex life. As Safari reminded me when I opened the site tonight, I had (and, I guess, still have) an account. It’s unclear what the purpose of a service like Bedpost actually is. The site bills itself as a way to generate “a rolling history of your sex life on which to reflect,” but stops short of explaining how people are meant to deploy the data the Bedpost service has to offer. Knowing more about the numeric nature of our sex life is, presumably, valuable prima facie.

Foucault tells us, in The History of Sexuality, that contemporary man did not invent the idea of speaking frankly and publicly about sex. The supposed prudishness of the Victorians masked a fundamental prurience. And, more to the point, in true economist fashion, John Maynard Keynes kept rather detailed diaries of the ins and outs of his sex life. Talking about sex — and quantifying that talk — is noting new.

But we have, in important ways, renegotiated how we think of and manage our sex lives through the use of technology. In interesting and problematic ways, we’ve digitized the gay bar with Manhunt, Grindr, and their ilk. With Craigslist personals, we’ve made the process of finding a sexual partner as close to anonymous and transactional as possible. (The link for “men seeking men” is, after all, only a few pixels away from used cars, apartments for rent, and a listing of part-time jobs.) And, with Bedpost and Little Black Book, we’re deploying technology to obviate the need to work to remember the people we have sex with. None of these phenomena are unprecedented; but, together, they constitute a real change in how sex works in American society.

Little Black Book is designed to make the task of managing one’s sexual partners easier. The names of former hook-ups no longer need to be interspersed with one’s “real” contacts in an address book. The app advertises that its users can rate, categorize, and otherwise provide metadata for their various encounters, all of which is hidden behind a numeric passcode.

The message is a little confused. On one hand, Little Black Book seems to suggest that, as a society, we’ve reached a point where we want to confide our intimate information to technology — and that our complicated sex lives require us to be diligent in managing that information. But, by locking everything behind a passcode — by maintaining the metaphor of the discreet “little black book” — we still insist that these data are things to hide. We remain, as Foucault wrote about the Victorians, paradoxically repressed and bursting at the seams with the incitement to publicly reveal our sexual secrets.

Posted 3/23/12 by Yoel Roth. Comments. 0 notes.

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