Jennifer Pinkerton on ‘Heartland’
Jennifer Pinkerton’s Heartland (A&U, May) is a wide-ranging survey of modern dating and relationships that addresses topics from love in lockdown and dating app usage to polyamory and pornography consumption. Reviewer Georgia Brough, who says Pinkerton’s ‘insightful and intriguing’ book is sure to ‘cause deep introspection and reflection’ in its readers, spoke to the author.
Heartland elegantly blends and contrasts stories of your own personal relationships and experiences against those of the subjects you interview. What drew you to this research and, ultimately, to writing this book?
There’s kind of a long answer to this one! I’d been working up the journalism ladder in various high-pressure roles in Sydney, but ultimately, I didn’t find the work fulfilling. I took six months off from the grind to follow a bucket list agenda around the world. One of my first stops was a peaceful old, riverside town in central France where I enrolled in language school. It didn’t take long to see (and admire) the French love for asking deep questions of life, and to notice that Australian culture tended to involve far less probing, less deep diving into these bigger questions. It was then I started getting philosophical: asking more questions about love and what role it plays in a meaningful life—and from there, what an Australian take on this might be. How might we do love differently, if indeed we do this universal thing differently at all?
At this point in my own life, I hadn’t been making great decisions about love. I’d fallen for, and stayed with, people who I wasn’t truly connected with. These two factors—a natural bent for asking big questions, and finding love quite tricky and unattainable—made me want to explore this big, unwieldy topic and see what I could uncover. I needed to go well beyond my own experience (after all, I was just one person!), so I started reading, researching and seeking love conversations with friends of friends and, eventually, strangers too, as well as those with vastly different experience to me—such as polyamorous people, swingers and asexuals. It was important to me that I draw on every resource I could unearth: personal experience, the experiences and insights of others, expert opinion, neuroscience, studies … the whole fiesta of modern love and sex knowledge.
I was volunteering in Alice Springs (at the tail-end of my bucket list trip) when the stars collided and this idea crystalised in my head. It also happened that I had someone beautiful and mysterious ride through my life in the desert right at that moment.
The book prompts introspection and self-analysis: did you find your own beliefs about sex, love and dating shifting during your research and studies? Or, conversely, did you find that your beliefs became stronger?
I absolutely did feel them shift … quite dramatically. I started my book with a real belief in serendipity and the ‘right place, right time’ idea of meeting someone with whom I (or anyone) might have amazing chemistry. This was an old-school romantic view, I suppose. Now I see technology as having a lot to offer certain love- (and sex-) seekers—depending on their personality type and what exactly it is they’re seeking. Though I also see that there are pretty significant drawbacks of a tech-heavy approach.
I held kind of stuffy ideas about sex, too. And I gained an appreciation for the way broader things, bigger shifts—such as climate change, the proliferation of porn, and a more fluid suite of identities and subcultures—affect love and relationships. After all the conversations I happily sat through (well over 100 in total) and the research I dug up, my brain was sprinkled with fertiliser and I developed more expansive, deeper and more interesting … more hopeful … views on sex, love, dating and commitment. At the finish line of my six-year researching and writing travels, very few of my old ideas remained.
When I think about my refreshed ideas, I credit some of the people I spoke to for my book for this: millennials and gen zs who did things differently in this space. Hearing their take on love and sex—seeing better, more thoughtful ways for doing things, such as long-term love—really shifted my thinking.
Anecdotally, many young singles have noted or hypothesised about shifting attitudes towards dating and relationships amid Covid and rolling lockdowns. Do you think that global events such as the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the way we relate to one another romantically? For example, leading to longer-lasting relationships—or perhaps the opposite?
Covid has seen a big uptake in the number of people using dating apps to connect with other singles, and also to chat. There was a 42% increase in overall Tinder matches during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, for instance. And that makes good sense, as lockdowns were widespread and fairly indefinite back then. It’s my guess that hook-up volume decreased though! While overall online porn watching shot up significantly—that much we know.
I think we’re still working out where we’re going to land with Covid and how much of a role it will play in our futures. For now, the pandemic has heaped a lot of stress onto people in romantic relationships, as well as on singles, because it adds another wobbly layer to an already unstable global cake. In other words, it contributes to an overall sense of uncertainty about the future—one that’s also influenced by factors such as natural disasters, increasing property prices, climate change, and more recently, war overseas.
What I noticed about Covid in my friends’ and family’s lives, as well as in those I interviewed for Heartland, was that it seemed to amplify whatever feeling people had about their situation pre-Covid. Lonely people felt lonelier, content couples loved the chance to spend more time together, and those in difficult relationships felt the fractures deepen. In some cases, Covid-enforced isolation allowed people to see what really mattered to them—and often the answer involved love and other people. I hope that sense of what matters, and prioritising what matters, remains with us. I am equal parts optimistic and pessimistic about this being the case.
What reading supported you throughout the research and writing process?
I started off reading loads on the philosophy of love, and I found myself quite taken with 20th-century philosophers like Eric Fromm (The Art of Loving) and Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning). I also read long-form journalism and books on modern love from American authors (there didn’t seem to be much Australian research around at the time) such as Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg (Modern Romance), Emily Witt (Future Sex, where she explores emerging trends like orgasmic meditation), Kate Bolick, who wrote a brilliant essay for the Atlantic called ‘All the Single Ladies’ (and later a book on the same topic called Spinster: Making a life of one’s own), and Peggy Orenstein’s article, also for the Atlantic, called ‘The Miseducation of the American Boy’.
I also read research into generational shifts within Australian society by Rebecca Huntley and Hugh Mackay, as well as books and journalism about social and environmental shifts by author and academic Clive Hamilton (climate change), and journalists James Button (climate change) and Jeff Sparrow (who looked at porn and censorship). Then, there was my reading on alternative love models, like polyamory, which saw me read books with attention-grabbing titles such as The Ethical Slut (by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy).
Considering what we have learnt from your outstanding research in this field, what advice would you give to singles, whether looking for long-lasting love, or contentedly rolling through life untethered?
I would say neither state (single or partnered) is better than the other. Both have their advantages. When you’re single you can connect with a range of people more freely, move around as you wish, explore and experience new things, and pursue big goals that might be … I dunno … about changing the world. For those looking for long-lasting love: gravitate towards those people you admire, and who are generous of heart. Opt for someone (or ones) who expands your world and give back in equal measure.
And if conventional love/sex/relationship models don’t work for you, open your mind to other ways of operating. There are alternatives to straight-up monogamy out there that I was unaware of! I explored many of these in Heartland, but since finishing the book, I’ve heard of even more ways that non-hetero people in particular are doing life and love, and these can be quite eye-opening and inspiring.