It was a September afternoon in 1796, and Mary Wollstonecraft had one thing on her mind. “What say you,” she wrote to her lover William Godwin, “may I come to your house, about eight—to philosophize?” This use of code was typical. If she wanted him she would ask to borrow books or ink; he liked to say he needed soothing, like a sick child. In his journal Godwin used dots and dashes to log what he and Wollstonecraft had done, when they had done it, and where. After their third date he wrote, “chez moi, toute.”
Were Godwin and Wollstonecraft having casual sex? Sure. Neither was interested in marriage, which Wollstonecraft thought turned husbands and wives into tyrants and despots. Godwin went even further, blasting monogamy as “an affair of property” and “the most odious of all monopolies.” If Wollstonecraft hadn’t become pregnant they might eventually have parted ways, since she and Godwin believed that human beings should be able to enter and exit intimacies as they liked. By the mid-nineteenth century, this would be called free love.
Free love suggests excess, an abundance of partners as opposed to the austerity of one person per person. For its partisans, however, opting out of alliances was as important as opting into them. Victoria Woodhull, the suffragist who ran for president in 1872, proudly claimed a “right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can [and] to change that love every day if I please.” In the press Woodhull was known as Mrs. Satan, having crossed the ultimate line—not just seeking pleasure but moving on afterward.
In The End of Love, Eva Illouz offers a history of “unloving”: the rise of a culture in which sexual bonds are dissolved “on purely subjective emotional and hedonic grounds.” You or I might call this dating. For Illouz, however, unloving is neither so ordinary as to pass without comment nor the sort of utopian practice Godwin or Woodhull hoped it might be. Instead, temporary intimacy—loving for as long or short a period as one likes—radically transforms both sex and the self. As a product of “the capitalist market and consumer culture,” it reduces human beings and especially women to goods for sale, with no expectation of reciprocity from their partners or even of breakfast in the morning.
A sociologist by training, Illouz, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, has spent her career arguing that being white, wealthy, and heterosexual, despite the advantages, is an absolute bummer. Her books focus on the erotic lives of urban professionals in Europe and Israel and have names like Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Despite the titles, any resemblance to Marxist thought is mostly coincidental. Instead, the draw of this work lies in its seductive combination of left-wing sentiment—in sum, capitalism is bad—and good old-fashioned sex panic.
The story The End of Love tells is simple and familiar. Illouz begins with a brisk history of sexual intimacy from antiquity to the present era, pausing to distinguish the secular West—where “love progressively detached itself from…religious cosmology” to become a nondenominational “life-style”—from India and China, whose cultures (she says) viewed romance as inseparable from “religious values.” In ancient Greece, male citizens beefed up their social and political prestige by penetrating younger boys and getting their wives pregnant; for them, sex was about power, not feelings. “It was Christianity,” writes Illouz, “that slowly made sexuality into a heterosexual and relational bond,” even as sex itself remained governed by patriarchy and its economic interests. It did so by encouraging the ideal of courtly love, which celebrated passionate but unconsummated attachments between men and women. Not surprisingly, l’amour courtois owes much to Christian tropes of virtuous suffering and ennobling anguish: “Your lovely eyes,” wrote the twelfth-century troubadour Raimbaut d’Aurenga to his lady, “are a switch/That whips my heart into joy/I dare not desire anything base.”
In the eighteenth century, things changed. The rise of a middle class in Britain and Europe was accompanied by cultural shifts that encouraged people (at least, people of means) to see themselves as free and autonomous. The state, as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, would need the consent of its subjects to govern, and private life too became something to negotiate—like a contract—on fair, reasonably equitable, and mutually satisfying terms. In theory if not always in practice, women were now seen as having the right to choose and refuse their partners. They were no longer their fathers’ or husbands’ property; they were their own.
In a well-known analysis of political theory during the Enlightenment, the Canadian philosopher C.B. Macpherson called this way of conceiving the self “possessive individualism.” It has its pros and cons. Like all forms of private ownership, it encourages us to view the needs or desires of others as potential threats to our personal freedom. However, it also affirms that no one has the right to own anyone else. This is a good thing, although it’s necessary to remember that the extension of this claim to bourgeois women in Britain and on the Continent did nothing to stop the enslavement of African and indigenous people in the Americas and elsewhere.
For what it’s worth, the notion of possessive individualism is behind some of the greatest bangers of literary history. Think of Jane Eyre refusing to marry Mr. Rochester once she learns that he is, alas, already married. “I am no bird,” she says, “and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.” Indeed, and as Illouz rightly points out, the modern novel evolves hand in glove with what she calls “emotional modernity,” a way of being with others—in love, in marriage, in bed—that depends on the shared belief that our bodies and souls are ours to share or withhold as we please.
It’s a small step, Illouz warns, between thinking of ourselves as our own and thinking of ourselves as commodities, to be signed away on the dotted line. Contemporary sexual culture turns out to be the worst of all worlds. We are still treating society as a marketplace, where our assets—height, build, favorite bands, secret kinks—are put up for sale, but we’ve also traded the protections of the old “contractual logic” for the “generalized, chronic and structural uncertainty [that] now presides over the formation of sexual or romantic relations.” Intimacy, whether casual or conjugal, no longer comes with the guarantee that each party can count on something from the other. There is scant expectation of honesty, fidelity, or a future beyond what happened last night.
Dating apps are partly to blame, but “unloving,” as Illouz sees it, is a pervasive feature of social life both on- and offline. Defined as any erotic relationship “driven by uncertainty” instead of being “structured and organized around clear norms”—such as marriage, or, to use Illouz’s example, the punishment of a woman’s adultery by stoning—unloving encompasses everything from making out with a stranger to getting a divorce. It includes “the one-night stand, the zipless fuck, the hookup, the fling, the fuck buddy, the friends with benefits, casual sex, casual dating, cybersex,” lingerie ads, and Sex and the City. It makes common cause with the decriminalization of sex work. It lines the pockets of the sex-toy industry. It is mostly done by heterosexuals, although gay men, if they’re promiscuous, can unlove too. Not so lesbians, whom Illouz idealizes as having less permissive attitudes toward sex and not caring if their partners get old or fat.
Above all, unloving is characterized as sexual activity that is “devoid of emotions” and features “no or little involvement of the self.” Here we might pause to consider the wise words of the literary critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: “People are different,” from one another and also from you. It is true that some of us are not emotionally and psychologically engaged by casual sex; it is also true that some of us are. It is true that some of us experience the fuck-buddy system as confusing, painful, and maybe degrading; it is also true that some of us sleep with our friends because we trust as well as desire them. What turns you on may turn my stomach. What makes you feel safe might make me feel stifled.
Such broad-mindedness escapes Illouz, who is committed to the familiar proposition that women are dupes and men are pigs. Given her source material, she could hardly have drawn a different conclusion. Her evidence comes from interviews with chronically disappointed wives, girlfriends, and single ladies along with male subjects who range from predatory to clueless. She also extracts testimony from the Internet’s id: Reddit, Facebook, Tinder, and the personal website of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer.
Here is a world starkly divided between male and female, straight and gay, sex and love, dignity and humiliation. None of Illouz’s informants are identified as people of color, who appear only as items on an anonymous man’s list of prospects: “The JAMAICAN WOMAN who was getting her PhD in literature,” “A VIETNAMESE LADY who was in dental school,” and so on. There are no queer people, no trans people, no happy relationships, and—with the exception of a 1,700-word Quora post, quoted in full, detailing a drug-fueled threesome—no good sex. If anything, the book is openly hostile toward pleasure, which, when enjoyed “for its own sake,” turns out to be complicit with capitalist enterprise. “Jouissance,” Illouz concludes, using the French word for enjoyment or orgasm, “cannot properly find or constitute objects of interactions, love, and solidarity.” Well, you might ask: Since when?
The End of Love is not a book about literature, but it’s still compulsively literary. Illouz gets her sense of the present from rummaging through the dustbin of digital culture, but when it comes to thinking about the past, great books—by Plato, Dante, Austen, Trollope, Tolstoy, Flaubert—are her primary sources. A historian might complain that fictional texts don’t have the same evidentiary heft as court or household records, census data, and the like, but let’s leave such grumbling aside. Stranger by far is that Illouz presents a view of both sex and literature so joyless and antiseptic it makes you wonder why anyone would be interested in them at all.
Not coincidentally, her ideas about who does what to whom are derived entirely from representations of high-status people, among them Athenian citizens, English aristocrats, and the French bourgeoisie. Ancient Athens was a patriarchal slave state, no doubt, but its material culture—religious artifacts, paintings on urns, friezes, and so on—depicts a world of multifarious identities and acts that don’t make it into Plato’s Symposium. Literary texts, too, survive that add much to Illouz’s crude picture of premodern sexuality, from the songs of Sappho to sometimes rueful, often raunchy epigrams by poets like Philodemus—“I’ve been in love. Who hasn’t? I’ve processed/Drunkenly after dinner to her door”—and Dioscorides:
Doris, the rosy-buttocked: on her bed
I stretched her out, and at her tender touch
Became immortal. For she straddled me,
And rode me, dominant, unswervingly,
Till Aphrodite’s marathon was run,
Looking me in the eye all sleepily;
And like the leaves that flutter in the wind
She shook that scarlet bottom till we came,
And the white seed had made us both a mess,
And she was spread there twitching, all undone.
(translated by Gideon Nisbet)
Or take these lines from Theocritus’s Idyll 12, in which a man welcomes his lover’s return after an agonizing absence (of two days) with a fantasy of reciprocal affection and future renown:
How I wish the Loves might breathe an equal passion
Into us both, so that future men might sing of us:
“These were two famous men in former times—
One the ‘Inspirer’ (as the speech of Amyclae has it)
And one the ‘Listener’ (as they say in Thessaly).
They were yoked in mutual love.”
(translated by Anthony Verity)
While it would be absurd to deny that sex is and has always been indivisible from questions of power, it would be equally absurd to suggest that no one in the ancient world ever had a good time or treated a lover kindly while getting them off. Enlightenment philosophers may have invented the sexual contract, but they did not invent consensual sex.
Why does this matter? For one thing, it points out some difficulties in the study of sexuality. People are different, but difference tends to vanish from the historical record. As Saidiya Hartman puts it in her exquisite Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals:
Every historian of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor.
In other words, communities, identities, desires, habits, and acts that don’t conform to the sensibilities of elites are often silenced or lost.
The End of Love is about relatively wealthy, mostly straight, and mostly white people, so it’s not surprising that its history of hitherto existing society focuses on that same demographic. And yet Illouz’s conviction that the literary past bears out her view of the libidinal present is so tendentious one has to ask what ends it serves. Who benefits from denying that sex, however complicit with social control and domination, has sometimes made human beings feel good and happy, has been a form of care, an occasion for solidarity, and a nice thing in a hard world? Who wants to forget that for every Dante connecting amorous desire to “a quasi-religious prayer-like emotion” there are the refugees of The Decameron, swapping dirty stories while they wait out the plague?
The best way to understand this book is as a symptom of heterosexuality’s hard-earned contempt for itself. The End of Love is populated by women who see sex “as undermining the possibility of being recognized as a person,” who long for relationships anchored by certainty only to find out that marriage and monogamy can be terrible, too. As “Julia,” a sixty-seven-year-old Austrian woman, says of her husband, “He criticizes me for not being careful enough with my weight. We often have fights about it but the bottom line is that I have been dieting all my life.” This is awful, but so is Illouz’s determination to make a spectacle of her subjects and to insist—against all evidence to the contrary—that the problem with relationships these days is how easily they end. Run, Julia, run!
All of Illouz’s anecdotes unfold along these lines. There are no dominant Dorises shivering with orgasmic satisfaction, no poets dreaming of equal passion and mutual love. Rather, the shabby lives of her informants are measured against the marriage plots of nineteenth-century novels. In such unsexy fiction as Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? love is “the starting rather than end point of” courtship, which follows “a narrative and sequentialized structure”: men declare themselves right off the bat and propose soon after. This is all to the good, for it neutralizes “emotional uncertainty” and thus saves the female ego from fracturing with self-doubt. In the words of Alice Vavasor, who in Trollope’s Palliser series surrenders to a marriage she doesn’t quite want, there is just “no alternative but to be happy.”
Is this state of affairs truly preferable to our current regime of “it’s complicated”? Illouz seems to think so. For her, the marriage plot is not just the basis for a certain kind of fiction, it’s the blueprint for a certain kind of life: a good one. When women (always women) lose its shape, they exchange Mr. Rochester for piddling jackasses like the hero of Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Curiously, Illouz treats the titular Nate Piven like one of her real-world informants, his odious appraisals of a potential girlfriend—“If Hannah had been more obviously hot, he was pretty sure that he would have given her more thought” (Illouz’s emphasis)—presented as a window into the modern male psyche.
Now, this isn’t to suggest that Illouz is misreading Waldman’s novel, whose success depends—at least partly—on how true it rings to an audience of hyper-educated, semi-single thirty-somethings and especially to women like Hannah. By a similar token, the romances of Sally Rooney seem aimed at readers who, like her characters, have sex with the austere diligence of a high school valedictorian. What sets Rooney apart is that she makes what ought to be the most ordinary aspects of intimacy seem aspirational, as if consent and mutual gratification—however defined—were the summit and not the ground of erotic possibility.
The End of Love is the perfect complement to novels like these. It takes great pleasure in describing a world that offers close to none. It is also the perfect complement to varieties of contemporary feminist critique that refuse to imagine what a sexually free future might look like, instead confining themselves to the sort of fashionable misandry and censorious elitism Illouz indulges here. What to make of the claim that (according to a single, nearly twenty-year-old study) virgins who “transition” to casual rather than “romantic sex…[are] far more likely to suffer symptoms of depression, to be the object of violence, or to commit crime themselves”? With nary a word about how poverty or racial oppression might twist the arc of a person’s sexual career, Illouz asks us simply to accept that sex without love is a one-way ticket to social death.
If The End of Love has a literary hero, it’s the French novelist Michel Houellebecq. “In the same way that Henry James, Balzac, or Zola examined in their novels the massive shift from a pre-modern hierarchy and cosmos to a society governed by exchange and money,” Houellebecq examines “a society governed by sexual freedom”—that is, by a joyless permissiveness that trivializes human attachments to the point of destroying them entirely, with terrible consequences. In Houellebecq’s “fictional universe,” Illouz observes, “the very future (and demise) of Western civilization lies in its (de)regulation of sexuality.” When we talk about the end of love, we’re talking about nothing less than the end of the world.
Now, one would think, reading The End of Love or, say, Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles—which alternates between dismal scenes of group sex and eulogies for an old regime of “unwavering connection between marriage, sex and love”—that sexual freedom is precisely what we do not have and desperately need. The trouble is not that we are sluts or seducers, that we’re too gullible or lecherous or watching too much porn. The trouble is that we live at a moment when our basic needs aren’t being met by institutions, and so we are forced to rely on personal relationships to provide us not just with pleasure, excitement, and spiritual growth but with health care and a place to sleep. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a marriage or a throuple or a situationship and, with so much at stake, it’s no wonder that even the most seemingly adventurous propositions often default to a depressing conventionality. Sex, you might say, does not yet know how to be free. It hasn’t been given the chance.
Illouz, it seems, is one of those people who hates capitalism without much liking anything else. She never asks herself if casual sex would be okay (or even awesome) if it happened in another kind of society organized around a different set of values, one in which people truly were free to eat when they needed to eat, rest when they wanted to rest, get medical treatment when they were sick, or fuck when they felt like it. Are dating apps bad in themselves? Or are they bad because the tech companies that profit from them also drive the gentrification that makes Grindr necessary, the bathhouses having long since vanished? To ask a grander question: What would our lives, and not just our sex lives, be like if we thought of pleasure as a social good, to which everyone ought to have access?
And what would modern literature be like if it wasn’t obliged to yoke sex to either marriage or misery? Maybe it would be like the dream Audre Lorde recounts in the first essay of Sister Outsider, in which she’s having sex with an anonymous sick woman—not, she notes, her longtime companion Frances Clayton—in a department store and realizes to her delight that health care is free and her lover is covered. Or perhaps, like the novels of Barbara Browning, it would follow an oblique arc toward no particular conclusion, leaving the marriage plot behind to explore the narrative potential of polyamory. Unloving, for Illouz, is a social catastrophe with a sodden aesthetic footprint. It has left its mark on a whole host of adulterous, libertine, or otherwise incontinent fictions from Madame Bovary to Pornhub’s most viewed videos of the week. But unloving has another history: less tragic, more ordinary, a little hard to find but by no means invisible. It too is worth a read.