By the week before spring break, it had become apparent that my recent fling with a tall and charming older friend had reached a quiet end.
There was no formal discussion of this fact. I didn’t expect there to be; to have addressed that something had existed and then ended would have violated the generally accepted romantic etiquette of my generation. The whole affair, really, had followed what seemed to be a normal-enough contemporary pattern: a party, conversation, a kiss; afterward a period in which the relationship intensified, then stagnated, and finally an episode in which the question of mutual obligation or lack thereof was asked and answered. While it was asked indirectly in my case, what followed this episode, for my friend and me, was a week of barely speaking before completely ceasing to do so.
From what I’d observed and occasionally experienced, this was often how it went with young lovers. Ever-unlabeled “things” flared up and fizzled out with relatively minimal fuss.
Therefore, it was with great consternation that I found, upon returning to Berkeley from vacation, that the memory of the interlude continued to trouble me. I pride myself on being the relaxed, practical sort, and moreover, the tenets of hookup culture insist that only true commitment can cause hurt feelings. I don’t exactly buy into this doctrine, but I wanted to. If I could believe that a few weeks of “officially nothing” could not really cause me pain, then I could resume my lifestyle of dedicated happy-go-lucky detachment.
How to do this? The logic of most sex-positive rhetoric that exalts a rambunctious, unattached sex life with a variety of partners has always failed to resonate with me. Uber-catchy modern music about the glamour and excitement of single life didn’t work, and neither did uber-catchy oldies music about the same thing. Once the timeless raunchiness of Dion and the Belmonts’ “The Wanderer” had failed me, I did the laughably Berkeley thing and turned, at last, to the writings of one of my favorite communist authors.
Alexandra Kollontai was an impassioned Bolshevik and the Party’s authority on “women’s issues” under Lenin’s leadership. She’s perhaps best remembered today for her theories about communism’s relationship to sex and love, and it was to these theories, specifically, that I returned, keen to convince myself that my feelings were oh-so-petty-and-bourgeois.
Kollontai is often credited with having said that “in communist society the satisfaction of sexual desires will be as simple and unimportant as drinking a glass of water.” It seems that she herself never actually said this — though a character in one of her stories did compare casual sex to drinking a glass of vodka — but she indeed believed that communism had the potential to radically transform the way human beings loved. Love, she insisted, did not need to be desperate and all-consuming. It did not need to isolate you and the object of your love from the collective, and to love someone should not mean that you had to own them. Capitalist egoism and notions of ownership had stunted the potential of love and sex, degraded women in romantic relationships and had generally caused more hurt feelings and crimes of passion than entirely necessary. While she didn’t exactly advocate promiscuity as the alternative, she envisioned “sexual relations liberated from bourgeois possessiveness.”
The first time I read this, it seemed to me that my generation of fellow Americans had ostensibly achieved that liberation; it appeared that we did not insist on exclusive possession of one another, and that, if we did, did so only after long and serious consideration.
The first time I read this, it seemed to me that my generation of fellow Americans had ostensibly achieved that liberation; it appeared that we did not insist on exclusive possession of one another, and that, if we did, did so only after long and serious consideration. We are not eager to own or be owned, and thus virtually every sexual or romantic interaction between two people seems to be premised, at least during an initial phase, on a mutual assumption of noncommitment. I considered this as a history student: What had been unthinkable in our society for thousands of years had become the norm in a newly universal way during my lifetime. In the United States in 2016, we have achieved a truly remarkable transformation: Casual sex is widely accepted and engaged in by people of many ages and genders.
This was not to say that women did not continue to have their sexual behavior maligned and policed, I knew, but I thought that at least there openly existed — on the Internet, in a great deal of popular media — a strong flow of contemporary feminist rhetoric defending sexual freedom. This was progress indeed, wasn’t it? But was it progress in the way that Kollontai envisioned it? At left-leaning UC Berkeley, was I living the communist dream that my favorite Bolshevik had wished for future generations?
No, I realized after this initial period of contemplation, I wasn’t.
I am not living it because our hookup culture lacks several important conditions necessary for the sexual utopia as Kollontai imagined it. First: absolute equality between the sexes. While UC Berkeley proclaims itself a liberal bastion, everything from the persistence of sexual assault cases involving students, to the recent revelation of 19 UC employees being in violation of the university’s sexual misconduct policies since 2011, to the infinite microaggressions I continue to experience as a woman on my reputedly radical campus screams evidence to the contrary. Women who have sex with men exist in a sexual climate that continues to be characterized by male aggression and dominance, even in the bedrooms of the most leftist-minded, Bernie-loving male “progressives.”
Second, Kollontai acknowledged a reality that my generation seems to be loathe to: Some amount of pain is inextricable from the very nature of sex and romance. Capitalism had intensified the lover’s suffering by reinforcing jealousy and alienating lovers from the collective, but Kollontai nonetheless knew that not even peak socialism could hope to totally eradicate neither the bittersweet acuteness of love nor the sting of a loved one rejecting you, leaving you or preferring another. Suffering was almost always inevitable somewhere along the line.
In hookup culture, I see a valiant attempt on the part of my generation to reject this truth. I see an effort to eliminate the possibility of pain that is the price of intimacy. We do this by calling commitment, rather than the very nature of vulnerability, the root of our suffering. What the new normal seems to have accomplished, though, is to have simply forced everyone to pretend not to hurt — because, of course, we do. I have borne witness to too many tears and shouting matches, too much tortured, drunken iMessaging, to deny that despite our desperation not to, we hurt. But having by default accepted a basic premise of no-strings-attached upon initial sexual encounter, we are bound by wordless agreement to not admit if and when those strings occur anyway. We are contractually obligated to demand no obligation.
And therein lies the basic, glaring reason for the disparity between our sexual culture and the future Kollontai envisioned: She was a communist. She was an adherent to a philosophy whose perhaps most fundamental assertion is that human beings are obligated to have concern for the wellbeing of other human beings, kin and stranger alike. It’s a philosophy unvaryingly couched in a rhetoric of brotherhood, solidarity and the sacrifice of the ego for the good of others. Her vision for sex in the future was firmly grounded in this world view.
In hookup culture, I see a valiant attempt on the part of my generation to reject this truth. I see an effort to eliminate the possibility of pain that is the price of intimacy. We do this by calling commitment, rather than the very nature of vulnerability, the root of our suffering. What the new normal seems to have accomplished, though, is to have simply forced everyone to pretend not to hurt — because, of course, we do.
Hookup culture in 2016 is premised on the opposite: the notion of owing absolutely nothing to the people you sleep with, notwithstanding whether the relationship is entirely superficial, deeply intimate or somewhere in between. To illustrate: We seem to generally accept that it’s disrespectful to blow off your friends or ignore their text messages. A friend could confidently call you out for only ever asking them to hang out at 2 a.m., failing to acknowledge them in public, abruptly ceasing to speak to them, or otherwise acting with disregard for their time and feelings. Yet these are all behaviors that characterize many, many casual sexual relationships in college.
And it was this that had lodged my fling-and-fizzle with the tall-and-charming older friend in my brain and disquieted me. It wasn’t the thing itself, exactly. Rather, it was the thought that by beginning a sexual relationship with one of my friends, I’d lost the ability to actually communicate with someone I’d once felt I could discuss virtually anything with. It was realizing that by sleeping with him, I had relinquished the basic consideration he’d owed me in the context of our platonic relationship. And so, having eventually demonstrated the unconcern for one another that young lovers are enabled to, we had done untold damage to what might have otherwise been a fun, healthy, full-fledged friendship.
Casual isn’t inherently bad, but there is a narcissism at the heart of college sexual culture that is far more concerning to me than other symptoms of “self-obsession” that older journalists love to lambast — selfies, social media, demanding pay raises irrespective of job performance. We each think about what we want out of our sexual relationships — both in the long run and at particular moments — and are licensed to do no more than that. Kollontai understood that romance was unavoidably bittersweet, but she saw humanity’s potential to maximize its sweetness only in dismantling such egoism and treating one’s sexual partners with the same consideration, openness, and respect she so fervently wanted all members of society to owe to one another.
Fixing hookup culture doesn’t mean reverting to an insistence on monogamy, nor does it require us to incite a full-blown communist revolution. But surely at UC Berkeley, at least, we might be able to adopt some communist thinking — and be a lot happier for it.