Have you ever gone back to a boy’s flat and had his ex-girlfriend let herself in with keys at 3am? I dined out on that story for weeks. Even while it was happening – and it was every bit as horrifying as you’re imagining – I was thinking, ‘This is an anecdote to bank’. As I hastily gathered my things and pulled my shoes on to get the hell out of there, the ex asked me whether I liked her cushions and if I’d enjoyed the view out of her window. It was fucking weird, but I was kind of pleased she was adding more colour to an already entertaining story. I didn’t throw faeces out of a window and have to be rescued by the fire service, but as far as dating tales go, it was a good one.
I took that story to the pub the next night and my audience loved it. An audience laughing at (or with, I was never sure) their single friend's ‘busy’ life. Delivering stories that had the whole table hanging off my every word was addictive. Sometimes I’d hand-grenade the story halfway through the evening when the chat got a bit boring; other times I’d bowl in with a "You’ll never guess what happened…" Either way, I always felt socially safe, armed with a dating anecdote. I adored the attention and found that as long as I didn’t cry and kept it breezy, people rarely got bored of my single life.
Five years on from that 3am-key-in-the-door-ex-visit, I’m on the other side of the pub table. I have a boyfriend and we have a son, and as the only parents any of our friends know apart from their own, we’re known as ‘Mum & Dad’. It’s now us offering the post-match comment and analysis on friends' dates, hook-ups and one-night stands. I’m pretty sure I love the chat a little too much. At the risk of sounding like a creepy auntie rubbing her knees with glee – no detail is TMI. He tickled the roof of your mouth with his index finger while fucking you? His penis is how wide? She read you a sonnet before turning out the lights? What moreish details! As much as I love these conversations, I’m definitely questioning my want for these stories. It doesn’t feel healthy. Am I attempting to live vicariously through others? Was that what I was doing when I joined the other 2.43m people who tuned into this summer's Love Island finale? Or when I watch Channel 4’s First Dates, Naked Attraction and The Undateables?
There are crude amounts of entertainment franchises set up on the back of actual feelings; Channel 4’s dating shows alone go well into double figures. And those pub table chats – obviously no one's monetising anything but there is a definite awareness of singles as the entertaining commodity. I asked my single friends how they feel about their post-8pm lives being conversation fodder (you can see why they call me Mum) and none of them minded. In the same way I collected boy anecdotes to hand out at parties like business cards, people are definitely still fucking for the story. "Sleeping with a married woman was one of the badges I wanted to collect," says a friend. "Some people were horrified when I told them, but I liked eliciting such a strong reaction."
This is the problem with the fishbowl we place single people in. Novelty fucking isn’t something to do lightly. Engaging with someone’s feelings and body for banter is exploitative. I’m realising that when I act as audience to the latest fuck story, I’m condoning that. Not that my abstinence is going to change the world, but I no longer watch Take Me Out. I have less of a problem with Naked Attraction, where people are judged on their genitals, than I do with men picking from a line-up of women based purely on how low their body-con scoops.
It’s not just the lowbrow end of ITV2 and Channel 4 that is obsessed with dating; even what Hollywood calls a 'love story' is often really only a meeting story: Titanic, Pretty Woman, Dirty Dancing, Grease, The Bridges of Madison County… We get something from watching two humans come together that we don’t get elsewhere. Vulnerability, lust, excitement, embarrassment, humour, validation, status, disappointment and love: those first meetings and early dates package up so many real, guttural emotions. By being a dating spectator I get to experience all of them, while never risking a broken heart.
You get into a relationship and stop sharing so much, because no one wants to hear about a 5-year-old sex life, and happiness and contentment don’t make for a storming story. The linear plotline of most relationships is predictable and if it goes off the rails there’s often too much at stake for it to be entertaining. That’s what’s great about dating stories: they involve real emotions and allow us to examine the human condition, but if a date goes badly you can swipe right and start again. I know I’ve taken the smug bullet and now have a seat in the stalls, but friends, please don’t all couple up. I mean, seriously, what will we ever talk about?