Pornography. Casual sex. Crude jokes about sex. Hooking up with no strings attached.
Hanna Rosin's most recent Atlantic article, "Boys on the Side," describes highly intelligent, career-oriented women engaging in all of these behaviors with a mere shrug of the shoulders. In the minds of many driven young women on college campuses across the country, sexual promiscuity doesn't harm anyone. Hooking up has become the new sexual norm for young adults, and according to this norm, students shy away from committed relationships and instead enjoy one-time sexual encounters with no expectation of further intimacy. And, Rosin argues, the sexual liberation of the 1960s that led to the more recent "hookup culture" on college campuses is good for women—it allows women to enjoy casual sex without being "tied down" by serious commitment.
Rosin initially substantiates this claim through interviews with her subjects. Most women who are engaging in the hookup culture report that they don't want to return to the days of chastity belts or even more traditional dating, and Rosin takes these positive reports as evidence that the hookup culture is not only here to stay but is also good for the women involved. She provides no evidence, however, that women who hookup a lot during their early 20s go on to lead fulfilling lives, and she doesn't offer a counterpoint of women who have opted out of hooking up. Furthermore, Rosin offers a few statistics to demonstrate positive trends nationwide when it comes to sexual mores. The rate of teenage girls having sex has declined from 37 to 27 percent in the past 25 years, for instance. And the rate of rape and sexual assault against females has declined by 70 percent nationally since 1993. Both of these numbers demonstrate significant progress for women. Whether or not the positive statistics correlate to the rise of the hookup culture, however, remains unclear.
Rosin's stance on hookup culture hinges on two assumptions. First, she assumes that economic productivity and personal independence are the twin goals of every modern person. Feminists shouldn't decry the advent of the hookup culture, she argues, because it "is too bound up with everything that's fabulous about being a young woman in 2012—the freedom, the confidence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself." Moreover, "[the hookup culture] is not a place where they drown … unlike women in earlier ages, they have more-important things on their minds, such as good grades and internships and job interviews and a financial future of their own." Intimacy, family, and community might be desirable, but only after a woman has established herself as an independent financial entity.
Second, though I suspect she would disagree with me here, Rosin's argument assumes that for women to "arrive," they must become just like men. She describes sexually aggressive women at a business-school party as ones who "had learned to keep pace with the boys," and later as ones who were "behaving exactly like frat boys." Instead of challenging male behavior that demeans women (and men), Rosin capitulates to it. Instead of arguing for men and women to change culture in such a way that the responsibility for pregnancy and childrearing falls on the shoulders of both parents, she simply heralds women's ability to avoid pregnancy through birth control and abortion. And instead of promoting an understanding of human flourishing that includes relationships with trust, responsibility, and love, she succumbs to a truncated and depleted view of humanity that esteems individual work as the highest goal and self-serving love as the highest love.
From a Christian perspective, it's easy to critique Rosin's argument, one that she explores in her new book, The End of Men (a review of which Christianity Today will publish online in the coming weeks). Even if they don't always heed it in practice, Christians at least acknowledge the truth and goodness of the biblical view of human sexuality—that both men and women will honor God and find personal fulfillment in engaging in a sexual relationship with one other person within the covenant of marriage. Christians understand relationships as the core of our humanity, beginning with God's relationship within the Trinity, and extending to humans, who are invited into relationship with God but also into interdependent relationships with one another. Marriage, children, and community are viewed not as problems to be delayed until a career is in place, but rather as blessings to be received. And Christians understand love as, at its core, self-sacrificial, modeled after the love of Christ offered to us on the cross.
In Rosin's view, "Feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture." But women can continue to find their rightful roles in the workplace and within the home without succumbing to the lie that a fulfilling life is one in which financial independence and self-sufficiency are the primary goals. Instead of assuming that women must become just like the traditional norm of sexually active men, the gospel offers a transformative vision of humanity. And it isn't a picture of the 1950s housewife either. It's a picture that challenges notions of traditional masculinity and femininity, including, but not limited to, the sexual norms for both. Yes, it's a picture that calls for chastity for both men and women outside of marriage. But it's also a picture that holds forth the possibility not of sexual liberation, but of true freedom.
Christians have done plenty of finger-wagging about the state of our nation's sexual culture, for the same reasons that Rosin extols it. But Rosin's posture, and the norm it extols, calls for more than rebuke. Christians have an opportunity to offer a different understanding not only of sex, but of what it means to know abiding joy and peace as a full human being. Let's make sure we can both articulate and live that understanding of sex and humanity in a world starving for true fulfillment.