The politics of hookups

The Devil's Advocate

In her provocatively titled new book “The End of Sex,” noted religion and sexuality scholar Donna Freitas does something rather unusual — she attacks the notorious college “hookup culture” from the feminist left.

Commentators sometimes nostalgically lament the supposed collapse of courtship among young people. But as of late, feminists have generally been more sanguine about the culture of casual sex on campus. Hanna Rosin articulated the argument best when she wrote last year that “feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture,” because “an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”

Broadsides against promiscuity, on the other hand, are typically associated with puritanical social conservatism. They frequently rely on the idea that too much sex is inherently sinful or that it damages our integrity as human beings. New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example, once proclaimed that “anyone who has several sexual partners in one year is committing spiritual suicide.”

But today’s elite college students couldn’t care less about religious, spiritual or moral arguments against casual sex. And it’s not just that we are less religious than older generations. Educated Millennials have a distinctively libertarian social outlook. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote, “there’s something about the process of becoming comparatively well-off and educated that seems to shrink the moral domain down to its bare minimum — I won’t hurt you, you don’t hurt me, and beyond that, to each her own.”

Freitas’ book could prove to be more influential than past treatises on hookup culture because she recognizes the socially libertarian ethos that pervades college campuses. Though Freitas has a background in theology, she eschews rhetoric about abstract moral concepts like sanctity or degradation, opting instead to make a detailed case that casual sex does real, tangible harm. She appeals to socially progressive priorities, like rape and gender inequities, rather than conservative concerns about debauchery and moral collapse. In other words, she argues that casual sex violates even Haidt’s minimalist definition of morality.

Her commentary on the complex relationship between hookup culture and sexual assault is especially lucid. She describes the experience of one young woman who “was so out of it that not only was she unable to consent, she was too drunk to move away when someone was ‘masturbating into her mouth.’ That this sexual assault went unreported by her is a given — a big part of what hookup culture teaches both women and men on campus is that ‘sex just happens,’ especially when you’re drunk.” She suggests that sexual assault is inextricably linked to the culture of casual sex and that the two must be addressed together.

Gender inequalities also feature prominently in Freitas’ indictment. She enumerates a number of themes for campus parties she observed during her research: “CEOs and their Secretary Hos,” “Superheroes and Supersluts,” “Bussinessmen and Office Sluts” — you get the idea. Women are expected to show up drunk and half-naked to these events, where many hookups take place. According to Freitas’ surveys, women believed participating in these parties was “the only way to get the male attention they craved — male attention that has become extremely fraught and hard to win in any other way within the context of hookup culture.”

Resistance to the hookup culture has emerged on some elite college campuses. Students at Harvard, Stanford and Princeton founded “Anscombe Societies,” socially conservative groups dedicated to “a proper understanding for the role of sex and sexuality,” as Princeton’s puts it. But these groups use an outdated moral lexicon that relies on stigma and taboos that have been largely dismantled in the decades since the sexual revolution. It’s no wonder that, even though Freitas’ surveys indicate that many students are uncomfortable with the hookup culture, the Anscombe societies have failed to attract a serious following.

Freitas’ book isn’t perfect. Her tone might at times seem retrograde to some college students, who do not object to a level of laxity toward sex even if they are uncomfortable with the hookup culture as it currently exists. And she fails to put forward any solutions that could plausibly have a noticeable impact on the problem she so vividly describes. The best she can come up with is having parents and professors educate students more about the emotional harm wrought by the hookup culture.

But maybe she doesn’t need to explicitly offer solutions. “The End of Sex,” with a bevy of data and anecdotes, builds a powerful practical case against excessive casual sex — one that will speak to Millennials’ libertarian social and ethical outlook. Maybe that’s enough.

Jason Willick is the assistant opinion page editor. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @jawillick.