“Wassssssuppppppp!” comedian and former MTV VJ Bill Bellamy squeals into his little finger during a classic episode of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. The set begins as a rollicking defense of heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, accused in 1991 of raping an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant in an Indianapolis hotel room. But in the years that follow, it will become famous not for its sensitive treatment of a woman’s right to withdraw consent, but rather for its coining of the phrase booty call.

“Every brother in here done made a booty call,” the comic says. “How many times you been in the crib on a Friday night — chillin’ — saying to yourself, ‘Damn. Who can I call?'” I was in grade school when I first heard these words, and though I was definitely interested in sex, I mostly laughed because Bill Bellamy had the men in the room bark like dogs when he finished a joke. Nevertheless, I was saddened recently to hear Bellamy lament the death of the booty call, nearly two decades later, in an interview with CNN.

“Before, you would call for the booty,” says the How to Be a Player star, who now has two children with his wife of twelve years. “Now, people don’t even talk — they just text the booty.” His grin turns to a look of pained concern; his loud gold Def Jam blazer has been replaced by a steely gray safari shirt. “[P]eople don’t communicate as much as they used to.”

Born in 1987, I missed the golden age of the booty call, but I got to experience it vicariously through the triumphs of my older brother. I would sit on his bed and watch as he stood in front of the mirror, his phone (the only cordless one in the house) cradled in the crook of his neck, talking to girl after girl. He was confident but never arrogant, assertive but never forceful. It was like watching my dad expertly, yet unthinkingly, shifting gears in our old Ford Fairmont.

It seemed that invariably, if occasionally cutting it close to his curfew, my brother would eventually have to “go out for a bit,” and I would return to my own bed to dream of the future. A bashful, awkward child, I would never master the subtle, intricate dance that my brother performed so effortlessly. But like most of my fellow millennials, I would never have to.

“What are you up to?” read many a late-night text message during my years at Oberlin College. The text was a feeler, a thin, transparent antenna, projecting out into the night. While during the day, such an innocuous message could be followed up by any number of requests or offers, at two o’clock in the morning, it could mean only one thing.

But unlike the analogue booty call of yore, which required at least a semblance of tact and care — “How have you been?” — the booty text is a Boolean expression, a true or false question, a gambit to be either declined or accepted. It is the ring — in that awkward moment between the caller ID and SMS — not the call. They know who it is. They know what it’s about. The only question is: do they reply? The rest is just booty logistics.

Further diluting the process is the fact that, when texting, your words can be in many places at once. No longer must you focus your attention on one booty while you pretend to be interested in why he or she is kind of tired. No longer must you anxiously check the clock, wishing the person on the other end of the line would just make a decision while you still have time to call someone else.

Indeed, the litany of messages that lights up your local bar after last call could very well come from a single prolific texter. And the only potential difficulty is what to do when more than one booty replies. But you can always just ignore them and say you fell asleep or something later.

As The Atlantic contributor Ian Bogost muses in his recent piece “The End of the Hangup“:

Today we have replaced synchronous communication methods with asynchronous ones: email, text message, even instant messaging are means of dispatch for which reply is never guaranteed, nor perhaps even expected. . . . In the past the telephone was most threatening when it cut someone off; today it [sic] its greatest menace is to reveal that you were never really connected in the first place.

And therein lies the true loss of booty calling discretely, bit by bit, rather than continuously. A game of polite circumlocutions, a microcosm of the very rituals it seemed to bypass, has become one of brute force reconnaissance.

Like drone warfare, we have traded the sticky morass of the personal for the remote safety of the technological. But at the end of the day, we know that something is missing on this new frontier. That’s why, when it comes to the people we really care about — our Osama Bin Ladens, as opposed to our Abu Yahya al-Libis — we power down our digital proxies, put on pants, and head to our targets’ compounds, in person, at one in the morning.

At the end of the joke, Bellamy finally convinces Kim to get out of bed and come to his house. Unfortunately, his booty call was as doomed as his defense of Mike Tyson, who would ultimately serve three years in prison for his crime. Kim arrives at Bellamy’s place, as promised, but when he opens the door, the comedian discovers that she has brought her surly friend along.

So maybe we have always desired a buffer in these types of interactions, and the technology has finally arrived to provide it. Still, I can’t help thinking that we were better off without this safety net, that there was more to the booty call than simply getting the booty. This kind of nostalgia is pointless, of course; the booty text has arrived, and the booty call has commenced its walk of shame. But booty text just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Bark if you’re with me.

 
Eric Jett is a writer, designer, and teacher from Charleston, WV. He is a founding editor of Full Stop.


 

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