Bad Sex That "Just Happens"
Donna Freitas is very worried about today's college students. If you read The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy (Basic Books), you will be worried too. Freitas provides compelling evidence that far too many young adults live lives of quiet desperation—sexually and socially. While her proposed solutions to this problem are not radical enough to be deeply redemptive, she has much to say that Christians should heed.
The End of Sex paints a vivid portrait of hookup culture. A hookup is any level of physical intimacy, from prolonged kissing to sexual intercourse, as long as it takes place within a context understood by both participants to imply no commitment beyond the present encounter. "Hookup" is a term that is designed to be ambiguous. There is a social point to the term's ambiguity. The significance of what would otherwise be a meaningless encounter is the postmortem discussion and gossip among the peers of those who hook up. Males can say that they hooked up and hope that their buddies will assume that they had intercourse. Females can have multiple hookups and hope that others will think they are popular without assuming that they are "cheap" or "easy" (after all, maybe nothing more than kissing and fondling took place).
As the subtitle of The End of Sex makes clear, Freitas thinks that hookup culture is destructive. "Hookup culture promotes bad sex, boring sex, drunken sex you don't remember, sex you could care less about, sex where desire is absent, sex that you have 'just because everyone else is, too,' or that 'just happens.'". Her assumed audience is concerned adults—faculty and administrative staff at colleges and universities, as well as parents. The book ends with an appendix of practical steps for combating hookup culture. The appendix has three sections: "Things Parents Can Do," "Things Administrators and Staff Members Can Do" and "Things Faculty Members Can Do."
What Freitas finds most disturbing about hookup culture is that most of those who participate do so less than willingly. The students that she interviewed almost always saw their hookups as imposed by social expectations or as random acts—"It just happened" was a prevailing theme. In this context she has illuminating observations about the link between hookup sex and alcohol. Students "pre-drink" before going to parties because they want to be numb enough to do things that they would not do if sober. At some level they know that engaging with sexual behaviors of various sorts with strangers and casual acquaintances is demeaning. They brace themselves to do these things because they "know" that this is what "everybody" does at parties.
Oddly enough, however, Freitas is, in the end, unwilling to aspire to a world where no one hooks up. Rather, she wants to create an environment in which students see that "the hookup is just one option among many for navigating sexuality." Freitas is so invested in the young adults' right to choose that she does not want to take hookup sex off the menu. What she wants to do is add more healthy options to that menu: dating that involves getting acquainted without (or before) having sex; waiting to have sex until one is invested romantically in one's partner; deciding to abstain from sex for an indeterminate period. Freitas succeeds in making hookup sex look bleak indeed, yet she seems to think that a reflective person might make a clear-eyed choice in favor of it, and if so that's just fine (for them). The only menu option she dismisses is saving sex until marriage. This option, she says, "is extreme to the point that students cannot imagine living it, nor do they wish to."
Much to Applaud
The End of Sex is a follow-up to Freitas's 2008 book, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses. Much of the interview material and survey results in The End of Sex are taken from research done for the earlier book. Freitas conducted that research while a professor of religion at Boston University, motivated by student comments about their social lives that she heard during class discussion in her courses. Sex and the Soul focused on a contrast between the sexual conduct of Christian students who attend evangelical colleges and Christian students who attend secular or Catholic colleges and universities. Freitas found that without the social support provided by a campus community where widely shared values link sex with committed relationships, Christian students participated in campus hookup culture as frequently as their non-Christian peers.
In The End of Sex, Freitas ignores the evangelical college context and concentrates instead on analyzing and counteracting the hookup culture on secular and Catholic campuses. She briefly discusses some student groups that are striving to provide social support for refraining from sex until marriage. She gives such groups mixed reviews—endorsing their resistance to the hookup culture but finding their ideals too restrictive and discriminatory toward gays and lesbians.
What does The End of Sex have to offer the Christian reader who has already read Sex and the Soul? One answer is the insights contained in two chapters that examine, respectively, the "construction" of the "college girl" as porn star and the male "party animal." Chapter Four, "Learning to Play the Part (of Porn Star): The Sexualization of College Girls," explores the irony of theme parties which enact male pornographic fantasies in a post-feminist world. The payoff for guys in showing up to a "Doctors and Naughty Nurses" theme party is fairly obvious, but what are women who aren't being paid as escorts or actresses doing there? "There is a clear desire among many women students to dress in a certain manner that, outside of the 'safety' of a themed event, would garner them a permanent reputation as 'whore' or 'slut.'" Playacting, like alcohol, provides plausible deniability—"It was just a party." How many post-college Christian women have shown up for a lingerie party with the same kind of shrug and wink?
Chapter Five, "Why We Get Boys Wrong: The Emotional Glass Ceiling" is even more bracing. "The stereotype that men are animals and will act like animals until a woman civilizes them is not only exploited by popular culture and the broader media. It's also the kind of rigid view of gender common to evangelical books that give advice about dating, purity, courtship, and marriage to teens and young adults. Much of this literature teaches young men that they are naturally sexual predators." Freitas advocates substituting another message: "acting like a guy" is not innate; it is a learned and destructive mode of being. Arming young men with that message can help them resist being warped by male stereotypes.
There is much in The End of Sex to applaud. Freitas has opened up a space where those she interviews feel free to say what they really think. We need to listen, especially when what is said isn't pretty. Freitas is in favor of helping young adults find the freedom to abstain from bad sex and figure out what good sex is. Amen. Those of us who think that good sex is not just romantic sex but covenantal sex will not think she's gone far enough. She stops short because she thinks covenantal sex is too difficult and too unpopular an ideal. Christians can agree that it is an ideal that may be impossible—but not apart from grace.
Caroline Simon is professor of philosophy and interim dean of social sciences at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She is the author of Bringing Sex into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity (InterVarsity Press).