College life has long been seen as a kind of debauch: “To understand all is to forgive all,” an intoxicated Etonian tells Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, and in Animal House John Belushi’s monosyllables echo agreement. Yet these days, something new is taking place. Scholars and journalists offer their takes on the hookup culture: the deflowering of American youth that takes place every weekend (and many weeknights) on university campuses.
With the exception of Hannah Rosin—whose The End of Men argued that hooking up empowers women—these writers largely agree that the hookup culture hurts those who participate in it. In 2008, Donna Freitas, then an assistant professor of religion at Boston University, published Sex & The Soul. She described how students at secular, Catholic, and evangelical universities understand their faith, their sexual mores, and the reconciliation (or lack thereof) between the two. The book was based on many interviews with students, as well as Freitas’s own time in the classroom, and offered concrete suggestions to parents, faculty, and clergy for helping students think about sex in a healthier and more meaningful—even spiritual—way.
Over the course of five years, Freitas—no longer a full-time professor—has lectured extensively and expanded her research. The result is The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. Aimed more at popular audiences, this book leaves aside the soul and focuses on the sex. Specifically, it examines the hookup culture at secular and Catholic universities, the roles that culture trains men and women to play, and how students can opt out of hooking up.
What exactly is “hooking up”? The students Freitas asked offer three criteria. First, “a hookup, as far as sexual intimacy goes . . . is broadly understood to include just about every type of activity imaginable.” From kissing and oral sex—which, in many quarters, is the new kissing—to going all the way, the term “hooking up” covers a multitude of things. This ambiguity helps students look more or less sexually involved in front of their peers, depending on the perception they need to create.
Second, a hookup is brief, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. It is one event during the course of an evening, not necessarily the main event.
Third and most important, “a hookup is intended to be purely physical in nature and involves both parties shutting down any communication or connection that might lead to emotional attachment.” Eliminating both reproduction and emotional attachment, hooking up is the ultimate form of contraceptive sex.
But emotional contraception is extremely ineffective. Try as they might, students regularly fail to remain detached as they look for physical pleasure, flouting the unwritten social code.
Why do they engage in sex that doesn’t make them happy? For starters, relationships take time. College students are busy and competitive. They need to fit the sex they’re supposed to have into their schedules, along with the classes and meetings they’re supposed to attend. It’s just what everyone else does—or seems to be doing.
Of course, there’s also alcohol, a prerequisite of the hookup culture. Students drink to put themselves in a state where, wanted or unwanted, sex “just happens.” That some of the resulting sexual encounters are more like assaults should not be surprising.
The ubiquity of pornography also shapes the sex lives of college students, particularly when it comes to the social roles they are encouraged to play. Most pornography depicts a male sexual fantasy in which the men are always in positions of power and authority. By contrast, women are dependent on and subservient to men. Freitas elaborates that
the woman “suggests” this by taking the uniform of whatever submissive role she’s in—maid, cheerleader, secretary, schoolgirl—and turning it into an outfit that reveals all. . . . Above all, her “job” is to visually become the ultimate male fantasy. But instead of standing before him as an unreachable pop star or porn star in a video, now she’s the girl from his American Lit class and she’s standing right in front of him at a college party.
College theme parties allow these porn dynamics to meet reality. The paradigm of male power and female promiscuity remains constant: As one student put it, the themes are “pretty much anything and hos.”
College theme parties might seem like a man’s paradise, but Freitas found that when she spoke to them in private, many men expressed dissatisfaction with the hookup culture:
In all of my research and visits to campuses in the past several years, I have found that men are the most talented actors of all within the hookup culture. They have been taught to appear sex-crazed and reckless, even if what they feel is something else.
Since the hookup culture hurts both men and women, how can concerned students, pastors, faculty, and parents help students opt out of it? Freitas offers three suggestions, all of which involve reinterpreting traditional mores or structures.
First, she addresses virginity: More students are virgins than their peers think. Virginity makes students in the hookup culture feel “humiliated, alone, and unwanted,” she argues. Yet, because most equate virginity with not having had vaginal intercourse, virginity can be a marker that allows students to be part of the hookup culture while not going farther than they choose.
Whereas some progressives discourage virginity altogether, Freitas argues that students should be encouraged to define it as they see fit. For some, virginity can serve as “one of the only boundaries left within the hookup culture . . . And whatever helps students expand their sense of rights around sex in the middle of the hookup culture is valuable indeed.”
Second, Freitas argues that we should bring back dating, a practice in dramatic decline. It used to be that couples met, dated, got more serious, and then became sexually active. Students today are much more likely to hookup and then, maybe, get to know each other, but many speak privately of a desire for old-fashioned romance. Freshman orientation teaches students how to use a condom, but no one offers tips on who pays for dinner.
Eight years ago at Boston College, Kerry Cronin, associate director of the Lonergan Institute, decided to tackle this problem head-on. She gave the students in her one-credit capstone seminar a simple assignment: Ask someone out on a date—no booze, no physicality, no gossip afterward, and you pay. Only one of her eleven students had the courage to complete it. Now that the assignment is mandatory, the class is a legend on campus, and students routinely take it so that they will be forced to try dating at least once.
Third, what about abstinence? Freitas argues that promoting chastity before marriage is not an effective response to the hookup culture: “It is an extreme to the point that students cannot imagine living it, nor do they wish to.”
Paradoxically, though, she admits that “there is a growing, vocal minority of sexually conservative college students at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities who are standing up for exactly this—saving sex for marriage.” She offers Princeton’s Anscombe Society and its offshoots through the Love and Fidelity Network as primary examples of this increasingly popular phenomenon.
On the one hand, Freitas recognizes that the Anscombers do exactly what she is looking for: “These groups represent the only organized, visible effort to directly and explicitly address student unease about hookup culture on college campuses so far. It is student-generated responses that have the greatest potential to help ease the strains that young people feel within hookup culture.”
On the other hand, she is troubled by their “right-wing veneer of heterosexist, antigay leanings.” It’s logical that such anti-hookup groups would be anti-liberal, she continues, and it’s a pity that the university didn’t help them do some “serious rethinking” to broaden their scope and definition of abstinence “beyond right-wing religious politics.”
Instead, she argues, we should reclaim abstinence from “a single, politically interested, religious group” and teach students that abstaining from sex could be a healthy temporary decision for them. Pressing pause on your sex life “could become one of the most subversive, profoundly effective tools” students have. “It is abstinence within reason. It is abstinence that makes sense, given the sexual activity that young adults already engage in.”
But, one might ask, what are the reasons? According to what criteria does such abstinence make sense? Freitas admits that the Anscombe Society gives reasons for its views on its website, but she doesn’t reproduce them or bother to engage them. She calls for them to rethink those views, but makes no sustained argument about why they are wrong and what they should espouse. Instead, she labels them right-wing, then condescendingly dismisses them.
Elizabeth Anscombe, however, was a serious philosopher. Like her, the society that bears her name makes arguments—serious, thoughtful, and rationally accessible arguments that demand an engagement Freitas never attempts to provide.
Perhaps that’s because Freitas doesn’t argue from a set of clearly proposed truths, but from an unelaborated mixture of contradictory assumptions. To start, her whole book is premised on the argument that sex is “a big deal” and that the hookup culture is harmful because it makes many students have bad sex. Moreover, she thinks that when hooking up is the only form of sexual intimacy, “students learn to treat others as objects existing for the sole purpose of providing them a certain good, to be disposed of or put aside once they are done.” This instrumentalization, she continues, will spill over into other aspects of their lives.
But given these arguments, the instrumentalization doesn’t come from the fact that hookups are the primary kind of sexual interaction. It comes from the fact that hooking up, as Freitas has defined it, inherently instrumentalizes another person. Further, to argue that instrumentalizing other human beings is bad implies that there are objective standards of right and wrong by which we can judge how we treat people—including how we treat them sexually.
Unfortunately, Freitas’s underlying principles contradict this line of argument. She claims that her ultimate goal is “to help make available a set of diverse structures through which students can make the best, most informed choices they can about their bodies and their lives.” But that “best” has no deeper foundation than how people feel. What about those who instrumentalize others in sex and feel good about it?
In short, Freitas wants to encourage students to think about the meaning of sex. But that meaning will vary from person to person such that sex has no real meaning at all. She wants students to have good sex, but this goodness is based only on changing sentiment. And therefore, her primary criterion for whether something can help counter the hookup culture is whether it will work, not whether it is true.
In other words, Freitas fails to offer a robust alternative to the hookup culture. She founds her solutions on the same relativism, emotivism, and pragmatism behind the problem she seeks to combat.
This is not to say that Freitas is all wrong. She offers a clear account of the dynamics of the hookup culture, and her solutions are in many ways helpful. We should teach today’s young adults how to date and cultivate intimate friendships. We should encourage students to pause their sex lives and ask what the truth about sex is, but we should argue that there is real truth to find.
We should also explore the moral and historical underpinnings of romantic ideals that many still hold. For example, Notre Dame’s David O’Connor offers the popular course “Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love,” which is also available for free on iTunes. Kerry Cronin has her dating assignment. And professors, parents, and pastors alike can ask questions and have an ear to listen. As Cronin says, “You are only about three or four questions away from finding your students’ pain, and most likely only one good question.” The best way to combat the hookup culture is to help students seek not just what feels good, but what is good. Therein lies the path to sexual and, more broadly, human flourishing.
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral student in theology at Boston College.