A few months back, one of my best friends from high school slept with the guy to whom, years earlier, she had lost her virginity. This time around, though, Suzanne wasn't 16 and they weren't in her parents' basement — instead, they had wild sex in a Las Vegas hotel room. Around the same time, she got it on with the first love of her life, a boy she met during high school, and whom she hadn't seen since he finished breaking her heart during her sophomore year of college. After reconnecting via Facebook and G-chat, they met up, and eventually hooked up. These two incidents were hardly unique — last year she extensively mined her past for present romantic encounters.
"In 2008," Suzanne unabashedly shares, "I only had sex with two new people, but I never went longer than nine days without having sex." There was really only one word to describe her (no, not that one). She had become a retrosexual.
The neology is obvious: retrosexuals are people who rewind their own lives, digging into their past to emerge with a current romantic partner. So, too, is the cultural context: like chicken-noodle soup or Beverly Hills 90210 DVD compilations, retrosexing lures its participants with promises of familiarity — a comforting concept that's hard to come by in these complicated times.
A retrosex episode can fall into two major categories, with some subsets: a one-time hook-up or a longer-term romance. The textbook retrosexual, the perfect specimen, if you will, is the former — someone like Suzanne, who hooks up for casual sex with someone he or she knew in high school. Within this group are two narrower classifications: some retrosexuals, like Suzanne, have been there, done that; others might be reconnecting with old friends but hooking up for the first time.
Here's an example of a conversation a classic retrosexual might have:
Retro: "I made out with Jon Whateverhisnameis last night!"
Friend: "Jon Whateverhisnameis? That guy you drank vodka with / gave your first blowjob to / studiously ignored at the 11th grade homecoming dance?"
Retro: "Yes! I ran into him / friended him on Facebook / saw his name on a mass e-mail a few weeks ago, and we've been chatting — he's totally great now! We hung out last night and ended up sucking face in an alley."
The other type of retrosexual is someone who romantically reconnects with someone from their past, but not necessarily someone from high school or college. Ex-sex, in other words, but not sordid, desperate, we-just-broke-up-last-week-and-I'm-so-lonely ex-sex. More like, hey-let's-try-this-again ex-sex. Or, old-habits-die-hard-for-a-reason ex-sex.
Beyond these broad definitions are finer distinctions, such as those who retrosex and then wish they hadn't (call them "regretrosexuals"), or those who hooked up years ago and have no desire to be reminded of their past romantic encounters (see the sidebar "Fretrosexuals," by Jeff Inglis).
Typically, the retrosexual must be 25 or older, because true retrosexing calls for some degree of reconnection or rediscovery, not to mention experience. Retrosexing is more common in large cities, where the chances of randomly bumping into an old friend or lover are always higher.
The popularity of social-networking sites — okay, really just Facebook — has made retrosexing all the easier. Whereas potential retros used to have to wait for their five- or 10-year high-school reunions to have old acquaintances fall into their lap, now they can simply search Facebook for high-school classmates and fellow college alumni, and re-establish contact without too much gumshoeing.
Why we turn back
Finding each other on Facebook might be how it starts. But how does retrosexualism gain traction, prompting the transition from innocent reunion to romantic attraction?
Consider Gillian and Chad, both 26, who never dated, but were part of the same circle of friends in high school. Their fledgling relationship epitomizes the most common type of retrosexualism: now that they're older, they're reconsidering a previously unexplored romance.
After graduating high school, they ended up at different colleges and lived for several years in different cities. They saw each other occasionally over the years, but neither one ever contemplated romance. Then, about a year ago, both of them ended up in New York City, where they started seeing more of each other in larger groups, gradually planning one-on-one meet-ups. As they became familiar with each other's adult self, Gillian and Chad increasingly drew nearer. Recently, they started dating. And while a romance when they were younger would have been unlikely (she was a bit too serious for his class-clown self), Gillian thinks she knows why she went retro.