FACEBOOK GIVES RISE TO THE RETROSEXUAL

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BY CLAIRE SUDDATH
Time Magazine

Elise Garber married the first boy she ever kissed. She met him at an Outward Bound–style summer-camp program when she was 15, she “sort of dated” him for the summer, and then, like most teenage romances, it ended. Twenty-two years later, they met again on Facebook.

“I don’t know why I looked him up,” says the 37-year-old former advertising-agency executive in Chicago. Garber was showing a co-worker how Facebook works, and to demonstrate the search function–a feature that allows users to search for the names of people they know–she entered Harlan Robins, the name of the first boy she kissed. At the prodding of her co-worker, Garber sent Robins a message. And then she waited. Would he respond? Would he accept her friend request? Was it weird to contact an old summer-camp boyfriend?

As Facebook users have begun to skew older–the website is now as popular with 30-, 40- and 50-somethings as with the college students who pioneered it–they have found ways to reconnect with one another. And who better to get in touch with than an old flame? “Facebook makes it easier for you to take that first step of finding someone again,” explains Rainer Romero-Canyas, a psychology research scientist at Columbia University. “It has finally provided a way for people to reach out to someone without fear of rejection.” The Boston Phoenix even coined a term, retrosexuals, for people who are taking the plunge into recycled love.

“It was like opening a time capsule,” says Drew Peterson, a 34-year-old former IT worker from Long Island, New York. Peterson’s retrosexual experience occurred a few years ago when he found his high school girlfriend on MySpace–”You know, before it became the cyberghetto of the Internet.” The two dated during junior and senior year of high school; the last time the two saw each other was on the day they graduated. Sixteen years later, they exchanged MySpace messages, and then Peterson flew from New York to San Francisco to see what had become of the woman who had once captured his teenage heart. “I knew it wasn’t going to turn out like some Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy,” Peterson says. “I just wanted to see her again.” The pair still got along, although this time just as friends.

Most retrosexual experiences seem to spring from an intense, almost uncontrollable mixture of nostalgia and interest. “You get a thrill out of finding an old girlfriend just to see if she still likes you,” says W. Keith Campbell, a University of Georgia psychology professor and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic. “You’re curious to see what she looks like, and it’s easy to fantasize about alternative courses your life might have taken.” It’s the same feeling that compels people to attend high school reunions. In a way, these meet-ups are the same thing, especially for people like Los Angeles film developer Jillian Stein, 30, who traveled to her hometown of Tampa, Fla., and had three Facebook- and MySpace-inspired reunions within 72 hours.

She met up with her 12th-grade boyfriend, who is happily married and wanted her to meet his kid. Then she reconnected with her first crush, “the embarrassing kind where I couldn’t even talk to him, I liked him so much.” He had liked her too; they confessed their old crushes on each other through MySpace and arranged to meet in person the next time Stein was in town. But when she met him at a bar, she was immediately disappointed. He had gained weight, worked in a dead-end job and had already been engaged three times. “I was like, um, no,” she says.

The third meeting–with a boy whom Stein would occasionally meet after high school for what she describes as a “behind-the-bleachers sort of thing”–went differently. He found Stein on Facebook, and they began talking. Stein added him to her list of people to see. They met for dinner, but “it was beyond awkward,” and their conversation felt forced. So they left and went to a pool hall.

Several hours and drinks later, the former flings were kissing. Then Stein went home with him. In the morning, she made the drive of shame back home to her parents’ house. “Here I was, almost 30, and my mom was so pissed at me,” Stein says. She felt as if she were back in high school.

Stein doesn’t know what inspired her to do something like that. They knew each other. They had talked extensively through Facebook, and their fling felt like more than a one-night stand. But it was definitely less than a real relationship. They had a history, a rapport. They weren’t just hooking up; they were doing something they had always wanted to do but had been too young to try. “It was fun,” says Stein. “I got this really great closure, and it felt safe in a weird way.”

And what about Elise Garber and her first kiss, Harlan Robins? For them, life really did resemble a romantic comedy. Robins remembered his summer-camp girlfriend and replied to her Facebook message. They agreed to meet for drinks the next time he was in Chicago. When they saw each other, something clicked. They talked into the night, went out the next day, then decided to give their long-distance retrosexual romance a try. Surprisingly, it worked. Garber quit her advertising job and moved to Seattle to be with him. On Sept. 6, they married. “And to think,” says Garber, “I worried that we’d spend the whole evening talking about summer camp.”

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