Here I describe the average-case life trajectory of a very average young professional female in Manhattan.
September 21, 2009: Sarah’s 28. She double-majored in biology and history at Brown University, and now has a high five-figure job in advertising. Sex and the City inspired her to come to New York. She came to the city after graduating from college, and has lived here since. She’s attractive, intelligent, and sociable. She has a large number of friends, and she’s never alone on a Friday night. Finding men poses no challenge for her, but the right man seems out of reach. He has to (1) make more money than she does, (2) have a prestigious educational pedigree, (3) have important friends, (4) not be full of himself, (5) not be religious, but not too atheist either, and (6) be exceptional in the sack. Plenty of men are available to Sarah who meet criteria 1-3, but they tend to fail #4. Finance guys are usually boring douchebags. Consultants are never around. Doctors want to get married too soon. Men in real estate? Sarah’s sown a few wild oats, but she’s not that slutty.
Enter Aaron Wright. Mr. Wright is a 32-year-old (Michigan B.A. ’99, Harvard M.B.A. ’04) whose career in quantitative finance ended last year with the market crash. Laid off in March 2008, he spent the summer backpacking in Asia, returning in July 2008 to join a venture capital firm where a few of his friends went after B-school. He works only fifty hours per week, and loves his job. Six-foot-two, handsome, and outgoing, he can easily “work a room”. He projects social dominance when he needs it. Yet he never comes off as overbearing or arrogant, as years of traveling have lent him a genuine humility and sensitivity to the needs of others. His politics? Mostly libertarian, but politely liberal, he voted for Bush in 2000, Kerry in 2004, and Obama in 2008. (Although Sarah pretends to hate his decision to vote for Bush in 2000, there’s something about Republican heartlessness that she considers masculine– sexy, even.) Religion? With a Jewish mother and Episcopalian father, he was raised in two religious traditions. He now attends an upscale Episcopalian Church irregularly, but is mostly agnostic. Perfect, Sarah decides.
Sarah and Mr. Wright met through mutual friends, early in May. They became “exclusive” in July. It’s now September 21, and Sarah is pretty sure this man is “the one”. He has the ideal combination of “alpha” social presence and “beta” sensitivity. Only one thing is odd: they’ve grown very close, and Sarah slept in Mr. Wright’s apartment once, but they haven’t had sex yet. This fateful Monday, Sarah decides that it’s time. In the evening, she invites Aaron to her apartment, they drink some wine, and he opens up.
Mr. Wright: “I’d love to sleep with you, Sarah, but I have something to confess.”
Mr. Wright: “Well, I’ve been working very hard for most of my life, and haven’t always had time for relationships, so I’m not as experienced as you might think.”
Sarah: “You’re a virgin?”
Mr. Wright: “No, but I don’t believe in sex outside of a committed relationship, and I’ve only had two of those. So I haven’t had sex in three years, and I’ve only slept with two women.”
Sarah doesn’t know what to make of this. A 32-year-old with a “number” of two is practically a virgin, from her perspective. This sort of man would have been ideal, in her eyes, when she was 16. But she’s not 16 anymore and, having had casual sex a few times, she’s had to tell herself all the ridiculous lies that casual sexers tell themselves to feel better about their behavior– that chaste women are frigid prudes and that chaste men are socially inept and horrible in bed. Mr. Wright, noticing Sarah’s sudden discomfort, becomes slightly worried.
Mr. Wright: “How many men have you been with?”
Sarah is well-versed in how a woman “should” discuss her past if a potential husband asks. She subtracts all the one-night stands and regretted relationships from her actual number.
Sarah: “Oh, three or four.”
Mr. Wright: “Four, then? So only in relationships, I assume.”
She’s caught in a lie, and she knows it. (Author’s note: In real life, she might be able to hold the lie for months, or even years. I know that women aren’t actually this dumb.)
Sarah: “Well… okay, more than four.”
Mr. Wright: “How many? I won’t judge you.” (Author’s note: Riiight…)
Sarah’s full sexual history: 3 boyfriends from relationships lasting more than 6 months. Normal. No problem. She’s had flings, one of which was an earnest attempt at a relationship that nevertheless failed early and explosively, and two of which were rebound relationships with no intention of permanence. She broke off all of those flings, each in an extremely rude way. Then there are three one-night stands– her first sexual encounter, at 16, was with an unemployed man then twice her age; one was in college (sophomore year, early winter) with a frat boy; and the third was at age 26 during a grinding dry spell, when she was “too busy for relationships”. She’s never cheated, technically speaking, although her college one-nighter occurred two days after breaking up with a long-term boyfriend, and everyone found out about it. Her total number is 9.
Sarah does not consider herself a slut. Sluts, in her mind, are those actively seek casual sex, those who have it a lot more often than she does, and those who are proud and vocal about having casual sex. Sarah has a clear definition of a slut and, by her definition, she’s not one. (Author’s note: I tend to agree with Sarah: she’s not a slut. She’s a worse-than-average modern woman, but I wouldn’t describe her as a slut. She’s just badly behaved.)
Confronted with the revelation of Sarah’s past, Mr. Wright is taken aback. He has spent 32 years doing the right thing– studying hard, getting good grades, working late, refraining from excessive drug use– in order to achieve his ideal future. Believing his future wife would be displeased by a string of casual encounters, he also abstained from casual sex. At this moment, he remembers the darkest and most trying point of his life. It was in the small hours of January 21, 2000– his twenty-third birthday– when he nearly surrendered his goal of becoming a venture capitalist. He hated New York– a city with frigid winters, where he had no friends. He was less than a year out of college, and he loathed his job– he was an analyst at an investment bank; the work was boring and the hours were brutal. A virgin to this point, he questioned his decision to pursue academic excellence in lieu of college “fun”, i.e. binge drinking and the pursuit of women. This is what I worked my ass off for? THIS? Taking a 3:00 am cab ride out to Brooklyn after a 19-hour work day, he was pretty sure that in five hours, he’d be resigning from Wall Street forever. No more rat-race, no more half-dead cab rides through the black, polluted Manhattan air. The stark, lonely aura of the Financial District at night would become a distant, nostalgic memory. His parents would let him live at home and regain his bearings, so long as he did his share of the housework.
When Aaron arrived at his tiny Brooklyn loft, he felt queasy and weak, as if he had lost a fight. His muscles ached and he could feel his heartbeat, throbbing, on the inside of his left knee. As soon as he sat down on his couch, he crashed. He hadn’t set an alarm clock, but who cares about being on time for a job that one is about to quit? Nonetheless, he arose naturally at 7:20. The winter sun had barely risen, but the sky was the clearest he had ever seen it. Outside, it was certainly very cold, but at least it was beautiful. Aaron, a freshly 23-year-old nobody, brushed his teeth, skipped the shower, suited up and went to work. He felt a bit better, and was determined not to collapse entirely, not to flunk out of his job. He could resign from his analyst position, but implosion was not an option. His only motivation for enduring analyst hell was the two-year track to business school; he could take a less impressive job and a 3- or 4-year track. He decided to resign in a more measured and polite way. He collected his bonus on June 30, and tendered his resignation, effective August 15, the next day. He was let go immediately, but given an excellent reference. He used his bonus to travel for four months, returned to the United States, and took a programming job in Silicon Valley. (Author’s note: sorry for the “Aaron’s career” diversion– ’twas boring– but I can’t have a semi-sympathetic character spend two years in I-banking.)
That night in January, when Aaron nearly lost hope, could have derailed his career. It was the point where he stared into the hibernal abyss, and nothing but a few drifting snowflakes stared back. At the same moment, Sarah was in college. At a party. Getting split open by a beer-breathed fraternity brother.