In the conservative world, hookup culture is often understood primarily as a symptom of sexual excess. Because young people do not place a high value on sex, they will have as much of it as they can with as many partners as possible. In this narrative, every young person is Samantha from Sex in the City, pursuing intercourse as a leisure activity.
The intrinsic connection between sex and love has been severed for my students. Sex is just as often the opening salvo, facilitated by dating apps like Tinder. Almost every young woman has had an experience in which the first communication they received from a potential male suitor was an unwelcomed invitation for sex.
Still, through teaching undergraduates over the last ten years, I have concluded that sexual excess is not the primary cause of hookup culture. Rather, the root of hookup culture is a paralyzing, anxiety-ridden fear of commitment. The hookup is intentionally ambiguous. A student gets a text message on a Friday night, “Hey, you awake?” What does this message mean? Does it mean that there is someone out there in the world who thinks about me when they are going to sleep? Does it mean that said person wants to meet up for a late-night liaison? If the recipient of that text message participates in enough of these liaisons, will the late-night texter become a boyfriend or girlfriend?
Who knows? The hookup brackets out the guarantee of a sustained committed relationship. Yes, the couple hooking up wants to feel something, to experience at least a modicum of communion with another person. But they are unwilling to defeat the ambiguity through commitment. Commitment means vulnerability and thus losing control. They might find themselves dreaming about a future together, one where they chose to live in the same city after college, to get married, to have children, and God-willing to spend fifty years together before a separation precipitated by death alone.
But who can commit to the future? The fragile quality of all human bonds in liquid modernity—where every relationship is commodified—are too much to bear. The hookup is then a communion of the anxious, afraid to give their full lives to the flourishing of another person. Commitment could happen one day, maybe. After the young adult has achieved the job of his or her dreams, saved up money for a rainy day, gone on exotic vacations, and dated enough men or women to know what one desires in a relationship. With this built-up security keeping at bay the underdetermined horizon of the future, one could at last commit.
Of course, things rarely play out in precisely this way. The hookups preceding marriage—if marriage comes—tend to inflict wounds on both parties. Jobs and relationships alike do not complete the young adult, who now discovers the hard way the restlessness of the human heart. Men who have been formed for ambiguous non-commitment—as Mark Regnerus has shown in his Cheap Sex—tend to continue that pattern well into early adulthood. Hope often deferred leads eventually to a hardened realism. Love ain’t going to happen for me. At least, that is what I often hear when chatting with fellow young adult travelers in airport and hotel bars.
One can see why a young adult, then, would exclude children from his or her horizon. Yes, these young adults are often aping an inhumane credo. This noncritical ideology proposes that a human society producing ecological devastation and political violence should be blotted out from the face of the earth. The generations must end to save the planet.
Underlying this profession of a monstrous creed against human generation is hopelessness. There is no path to a meaningful future. Not for me, the wounded lover. Not for society. The best that we can do is seek whatever small happiness we can find, to remain resilient and prepared for whatever impending changes lie around the corner. Yes, there is a future, and it is probably terrifying. My personal life, my career, and my experience of society has demonstrated this fact. How can I introduce a creature into this dreadful world?
A Medicine for Hopelessness: Rethinking the Rhetoric of Higher Education
What is a religious person or a conservative thinker in higher education to do as a response to this hopeless anxiety? Yes, responding to the apotheosis of sexual experience is one dimension of this response. Religious persons should offer a counter-narrative to the “sex weeks” that dominate campus life at secular institutions. But this cannot be the only response.
Here, I seek to offer one way of healing this anxiety, which is the root of both hookup culture and the crisis of human generation. At every single commencement at my institution, Notre Dame students are told that their degree is not exclusively an accomplishment earned through the completion of credit hours but a pledge to change the world. They are charged by a commencement speaker to go cure cancer, secure a spot on the Supreme Court, end political polarization and corruption, and renew communities on the margins through being a transformative teacher. Oh, and some of you, if you have time, may also get married and have a family.
In other words, the bar of anxiety is raised. The future is presented to these students as a series of endless accomplishments that they must complete to be judged as worthy by their alma mater. This rhetoric is a perpetuation of the very surveillance pedagogy that these students have been reared in since they were in elementary school. It dominates students from the time that they arrive on campus, when they are told of the various tasks that they must accomplish to possess the “future” that Notre Dame makes possible for them. No wonder students get drunk and hook up on weekends to escape the impending and seemingly impossible responsibility of changing the very arc of human history before they reach the age of thirty.
Yet, marriage and family life—except for rare circumstances—are not part of what Notre Dame (or few institutions of higher education) proposes for students at the conclusion of college. They have been told, sometimes quite explicitly, to bracket out marriage and family life for the sake of their professional careers. And when the marriages and children of prominent commencement speakers are publicly raised on the commencement platform, they are always considered a lesser accomplishment.
What if religious and conservative higher education ceased speaking about marriage and family life as an accomplishment and began to treat marriage and children as that which enable human flourishing and a meaningful future?
Students are interested in this story. They want to hear how to be happy, and they want this happiness not to be tied to their accomplishments. Commitment in marriage, as I remind my students, is not about achievement. Marriage provides stability in a liquid world. I cannot control every dimension of the future, but I can dwell with this person for the rest of my days. I can commit to a common project, to a hopeful future with this man or woman. The permanence of the commitment—although remarkably mundane—is what enables us to create a space of hospitable, stable love that benefits the future of society.
Marriage, in this sense, is a counter-cultural, prophetic act. Rather than await an unknown and angst-ridden future, dominated by politics and the economy, I commit to loving this person as long as we both shall live. I become kin with my spouse, creating a space where we can dream together of a horizon ordered toward meaning, hope, and love. We need not be Pollyannish about this commitment. After all, there will be conflict, boredom, financial precarity, and other unnamed sufferings. But in this act of commitment, of foregoing a supposed security for an authentic communion, I participate in the creation of a future ordered toward love.
Further, the birth of children is itself an exercise of hope, the creation of a future that is ultimately good. Higher education tends to reward macro-transformations of the world. Having children is a micro-transformation. No one receives an honorary doctorate for raising children who recognize the true, the good, and the beautiful. You are not asked to give a formal lecture on raising children for a hospitality in which anyone who is hungry or thirsty is invited around the domestic table.
For those of us who are married and with kids, these micro-transformations are most of our life. We change diapers, play endless games of horsey with toddlers, teach our kids to read and write, ask our teen the questions that matter, and endure the wrath of the same teen when we limit their use of a digital device. We do this because we hope in a future in which truth, goodness, and beauty will be passed on not by us but by our progeny. After all, we will be very dead. But the pursuit of wisdom will continue through our children, who hand on the gift of life to their children, and so on until a future generation knows us exclusively because of a seventh-grade family history project on the part of our great-great-great-great granddaughter.
All of this may seem a strange way to deal with hookup culture and an increasing fear of procreation. But if hookup culture and the anxiety of introducing children into this world is about fear of the future, then we must uphold the gift of commitment, stability, and those small acts of love that no human being will recognize as an accomplishment worth fêting.
It is precisely through these micro-transformations that a future will be created that is marked by generosity and communion. In other words, a future in which everyone will introduce children into a world that is very good.