Trends in Marriage and Family
Students, who in class recognize the ethical imperative not to use other people as means to an end, do so every night in their dorms.
The hit HBO series "Girls," which is wildly popular with 20-something audiences, is also notorious for its frank portrayals of the dark side of the casual-sex culture reigning among America's young adults. In the first season of the show, the main character, Hannah (played by Lena Dunham), finds herself in a dysfunctional relationship with an actor, Adam, whom she regularly sleeps with but isn't dating in the traditional sense. She really likes him, though, so she asks him one day, during intercourse, "You want me to call you?" His response is to push her head down into a pillow.
For decades now, young women have been taught by popular culture that casual sex is supposed to be liberating. Shows like "Sex and the City" sent the message that promiscuity was at worst no big deal and at best empowering. But stories like those on "Girls," and those in Donna Freitas's illuminating new book, "The End of Sex," suggest that for many young women it proves instead to be dehumanizing. Using extensive survey research and dozens of interviews with young men and women on college campuses across the country, Ms. Freitas explodes the myth of the "harmless hookup."
The hookup, as Ms. Freitas defines it, is meant to be "an efficient form of sexual interaction." To qualify, a sexual encounter must be brief—lasting "as short as a few minutes to as long as several hours over a single night"—and it must be "purely physical in nature." One freshman at a Catholic college sums it up this way for the author: "There are no strings. You just do it, you're done, and you can forget about it." Among its practitioners, first base is tonsil-hockey and home plate is learning each other's names, as Tom Wolfe put it over a decade ago. The point is simply to have sex (often very bad sex) with no emotional bond formed with one's partner. The basic human desire to love and be loved is a sign of weakness here, and traditional courtship—exchanging high-fives over a game of beer-pong doesn't count—has no role.
A professor of religious studies at Boston University, Ms. Freitas draws a portrait of life on campus in which sex is almost completely decoupled from eroticism. One college woman describes juggling three men at once; a male student admits that a hookup is just a "trial run" for a date; a third student explains that oral sex is "almost expected" in a hookup: "People have these urges and they are trying to satisfy them." Sex on campus, writes the author, has been reduced to a solitary and selfish act—basically, onanism "with another person present."
In other words, many college students, who in philosophy class would surely recognize the ethical imperative not to use other people as means to an end, do so every night in their dorms. This selfishness is why, as Ms. Freitas argues, the hookup culture is intimately related to sexual assault. In both, one person uses another to satisfy a sexual or social desire without any regard for what that other person wants, needs or feels. Once alcohol is added to the mix, and there is plenty of it in the hookup culture, consent becomes a murky issue.
According to various academic studies, 65% to 75% of undergraduates report having participated in the hookup culture. But many are troubled by it. In a survey that Ms. Freitas gave to 1,010 students from Catholic and secular institutions, around 50% had reservations about whether casual sex is acceptable. Three quarters of the respondents objected to the notion, central to the hookup culture, that "sex is primarily the taking of pleasure from another person." And contrary to depictions in popular culture, men are just as troubled by casual sex as women are.
So why do they do it? Social pressure plays a large role. But there is something else. College students may not be lusting after sex so much as they are chasing after relationships. In our wider culture, where more and more interactions are occurring via text messages, Facebook, Twitter and email rather than face-to-face or at the very least on the phone, students are yearning for meaningful connections. Hooking up offers an immediate substitute for the relationships and romance that young people admit they want, but without the constraints and sacrifices that authentic relationships require.
Ms. Freitas's book is a timely and alarming wake-up call to students, college administrators and parents, and she presents a compelling argument against the hookup culture. Less convincing are her ideas for fixing it. The author, whose own thinking is firmly rooted in the feminist left, thinks administrators on campus could do more, for instance, to educate students about healthy sexuality—even though, given the politically correct bureaucrats that administer most campuses, there are already plenty of consciousness-raising events pushing messages that overlap with and complement hookup norms, such as replacing Valentine's Day with "Vagina Week."
In the book's conclusion, Ms. Freitas says that she wants young adults to have "good sex," a category that can include, she suggests, hooking up—as long as students recognize that casual sex is "just one option among many." Yet this jars with the nearly 200 preceding pages on the corrosive effects of casual sex. She also wants students to "feel empowered" by their sexual decisions and to recognize that "it is their right to define what they want out of sex"—even though feminists who champion the hookup culture rely on the same rhetoric. Their ideas about liberation and empowerment, like the hookup culture itself, treat human sexuality as a social and political battlefield. In the end, though, sex isn't a political act, nor is it about empowerment. It is one part of a complete relationship between two people. Meaningful sex is grounded in love and commitment, not power—an insight students seem to intuitively grasp, even if they don't act on it.
Ms. Esfahani Smith is an associate editor of the New Criterion and editor of the pop-culture blog Acculturated.
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