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The Sexual Economy of Air Conditioning

Whenever the heat in New York City reaches 90 degrees, I see people on Twitter joke about adding their AC-positive status to their dating profiles or texting an ex whose apartment has built-ins.

Here and in other locales that combine old buildings with seasonally soaring temperatures, the window AC unit reigns supreme. But for people who can’t afford one, have yet to con a friend into helping install theirs or whose windows simply won’t allow it, there’s but one universally recognized solution: boning your way into the home of someone whose air-conditioning situation is better.

Forget winter — for the sweaty and AC-free, summer might be the real cuffing season.

Dating and sex in American culture has always been more practical and less straightforwardly romantic than the prevailing narratives would lead you to believe. But the circumstances and motivations have shifted radically since the 1960s, and especially in the past 30 years. Previous generations might have had to fuck secretly, in the suburbs, or with no hope of air conditioning in the first place. But millennials have both the means and opportunity to fuck their way into a cool, comfortable night’s sleep, if they so choose. It’s not quite affordable home ownership or a pension, but I suppose we’ll take any progress over boomers we can get.

Any romantic or sexual relationship, no matter how impermanent, is a perpetual motion machine of pros and cons, pluses and minuses, things in favor of continued intimacy and against it. As long as there are enough positives, people tend to stick around instead of dealing with the upheaval and emotional turmoil of leaving.

But is air conditioning in summer enough to make someone stick it out?

Apparently, yes. I spoke with many people who continued to see ex-partners long after things might have otherwise fizzled because of their twin desires for physical coolness and a consistent source of casual sex.

Twenty-eight-year-old Dana, for example, stuck it out with a stand-up comic whose Bensonhurst studio was an hourlong commute from her job in Manhattan. “I moved into this shitty apartment where we could only have AC in the kitchen, and I was DYING because I’m the sweatiest girl in America. I met this guy who said he kept his AC on all the time because he had no roommates to yell at him about the cost. So I basically threw myself at him.”

Their season-long fling had some downsides for her — “His bed was a pullout couch, and he forced me to watch a lot of WWE” — but it was worth it… at least until fall rolled around. “My friends still make fun of me for dating such a loser for an entire summer just for air conditioning, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”

That’s the thing about AC: It serves as a useful bargaining chip for those who want to get away with the type of bad interpersonal behavior that might otherwise stop an enjoyable hookup dead in its tracks. Molly, 21, is currently seeing a man she’s been dating since April, and sleeping coolly and comfortably has resulted in compromises she wouldn’t normally make. “Last month he flaked on me a couple times, and I later found out it was to hook up with another girl!” she admits. “I’ll probably break it off when the summer’s over.”

In the meantime, her reasoning seems very practical. “I don’t have any other prospects right now, and getting laid and sleeping in a place with AC is better than a sweaty, sexless existence, I guess.”

Make no mistake: The possessors of AC are generally aware of what’s happening and are totally fine with it. Ty, 36, lived in a historic Charleston, South Carolina, neighborhood where climate control was at a premium and window ACs barely took the edge off during long, swampy Southern summers. “I owned my place and had central air. It worked to my advantage several times, but it wasn’t an advertised thing.”

After he met Courtenay on a friend’s boat and later went with her to happy hour, they dropped by his place so he could grab a tie to serve as her date to a more formal event. “I left her to hang out in the front room while I went searching. She noticed. We hooked up that night and occasionally the rest of the summer.”

They’d go to her place, too, but doing so just further underlined the role central air played in their dynamic: “The couple times I hung out there, it was a low-key sauna.”

Sometimes, the draw for a cool night’s sleep can even be enough to make you think about expanding your sexuality. Although Joe, 32, identifies as entirely straight, he briefly considered the possibility of having a threesome with a couple in order to get some AC after a cruise through the Craigslist Casual Encounters section during Portland’s recent heatwave.

“The mw4m listings looked more promising because hotel play was a common theme, but this introvert was put off by the fear of complex social negotiations,” he says. Instead, he found a solution that’s likely familiar to many of us. “Ultimately, a wank and nights of sweaty, medication-assisted sleep have been tried-and-true.”

But the hope to get laid and sleep comfortably with a blanket spring eternal. After our interview, Joe sent me a screenshot of his newly updated Tinder profile, which made his aim more explicit. “Desperately seeking air conditioner. Will trade shoulder massage and/or weed for respite from this heat.”