The often discussed, much maligned, and occasionally defended “hookup culture” bears a name that perfectly captures the boring, lifeless, and dull sexuality that dominates the lives of too many young Americans. It is mechanical, technical, and instrumental. “Hooking up” sounds like something people in a bedroom would do with a desktop computer or DVD player, not something they would do with each others’ bodies. It is a term belonging to machinery, not humanity.
George Carlin said that “language always gives us away.” The term “hookup culture” turns the electrifying mystery of romance—powered by the surge of a smile from a stranger across the room, the heat generated by hands on an unfamiliar set of hips on the dance floor, and the sweet synchronicity of flirtation—into the predictability of an oil change.
In her important, wise, and brave new book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, Donna Freitas, scrutinizes, analyzes, and criticizes hookup culture after spending time on several college campuses interviewing thousands of students about sex, romance, and the social pressure to conform to a culture that, in her words, promotes and produces “bad sex, boring sex, drunken sex you don’t remember, sex you couldn’t care less about, sex where desire is absent, sex that you have just because everyone else is too or that just happens.” The short book, written in the style of an informative and impassioned pamphlet, is painfully accurate in its assessment of the idiocy that passes for sexuality in the dormitory. Freitas’ argument is well-researched and well-grounded, and she is sharp enough to condemn hookup culture on sexual grounds, rather than ethical grounds. Her solutions to the problem, jammed into the end of the book, are rather weak and unpromising, but her indictment couldn’t be stronger.
Based on her discussions with college students across the country, Freitas provides three criteria for defining a hookup: 1) A hookup involves some form of sexual intimacy. 2) A hookup is brief—it can last a few minutes or, at the most, a few hours. 3) (This is the most important part) A hookup is intended to be purely physical in nature and involves both parties shutting down any communication or connection that might lead to emotional attachment.
Freitas describes innumerable stories of what passes for the romantic lives of contemporary college students—vet each through social media, eye each other at a party, drunkenly fall into bed, and escape before any thought of feeling can color the experience with the beautiful, but distractive stain of humanity. Highlights from the book include a young man masturbating into the mouth of a nearly comatose young woman, a young woman blowing a guy she just met because it “seemed like the thing to do,” and countless couples going on “traditional dates” only after engaging in “serial hookups.”
Freitas recognizes that the most lamentable aspect of hookup culture is not, as some social conservatives would argue, that it will lead to the moral decay of a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, but that it is so boring. Christopher Hitchens wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22, that there is nothing worse that boring people. Hitchens was correct, and even doubly so if one applies his wisdom to sexuality. Is there anything possibly worse than boring someone in bed?
Hanna Rosin, in her defense of hookup culture, wrote that it enables young women to seek out their sexual partners like “headhunters” thumbing through the most qualified applicants for an open position at a business, while maintaining freedom to focus their attention and energy on professional pursuits. It is difficult to imagine anything that sounds duller, and it is challenging to consider a more stiflingly narrow vision for a short life.
I teach literature courses at the University of St. Francis just outside of Chicago, and I’ve noticed that students rarely even flirt on campus (a big change since I graduated college in 2007). Freitas told me that she ends every course she teaches with a plea that students, in future classes, “try to look up from the laptops and various devices once in a while, to notice that there was a professor talking to them, and potential friends and romantic partners sitting in the room with them.”
Freitas’s work is important because it offers a third way toward sexual independence and autonomy in an America caught between Puritanism and pornography. Rather than morally condemning college students for promiscuity or telling them to treat romance with the detached analysis of the headhunter, she is promising them that better sex—more fun, excitement, and intensity—is available if they only invest more of themselves than their genitals into the experience.
Freitas writes that hookup culture is, perhaps, above all other things, “ironic.” “While being sexually active is the norm for students,” she claims, “the sex itself becomes mechanical as a result of so much repression of emotion.” She goes onto argue that “college is supposed to be a time when young people get to let go of repression” and that doing so would enable young people to experiences sex that is “good, empowering, and pleasurable.”
Pop culture is in the best position to reframe the romantic approach of teenagers and 20somethings
The importance of Freitas’s message and the urgency of her purpose overshadow the dubiousness of her proposed solutions. She recommends that professors incorporate discussions of hookup culture in their English, sociology, psychology, and philosophy classrooms, and she also suggests that parents take a more active role in steering their children away from participation in the hookup lifestyle. Eighteen-year-olds removed from the restrictions of their home for the first time are probably not eager to accept advice from their parents on when and how to sleep with their classmates. The corduroy jacket-wearing literature professor with a white mustache probably won’t have much of an influence either.
The other flaw in Freitas’ book is that she gives feminism a pass, even while acknowledging that many feminist writers have welcomed the destruction of the traditional date, because such courting rituals “propped up patriarchy,” as one feminist critic quoted in the book put it. The benefits and advantages of feminism are obvious to any reasonable and moral person, but every ideology has a dark side and every action has unintended consequences. It seems legitimate to wonder if feminism has unwittingly equalized the sexual playing field to allow women the freedom to behave with as much recklessness as men, as Ariel Levy argued in Female Chauvinist Pigs.
Professors and parents can intercept these questions, but most college students will probably ignore their answers. Pop culture is in the best position to reframe the romantic approach of teenagers and 20somethings. The shift from the sensuality and sweetness of Smokey Robinson and Motown to the aggression and misogyny of Jay Z and hip hop is one of many pop cultural changes indicating how entertainment reinforces and shapes hookup culture. Freitas convincingly demonstrates how Sex and The City, despite its flaws, depicted sex as fun, exciting, and pleasurable, while Girls equates sex with misery and boredom. It is difficult to determine how much pop culture influences the lives of young people or how much the lives of young people influence pop culture, but a rescue from the mechanical tedium of the hookup seems most likely to arrive on the television, movie screen, or in song, if it ever arrives at all.
Too many young Americans might be too busy and blinded by monetary goals and financial pressures to notice such a rescue, regardless of the form it takes. The prevailing lifestyle choice of Americans seems to be to live as torpedoes. You have a launching point and an ultimate destination, and nothing is going to distract you from your pre-planned course. As The End of Sex shows, and as even Hanna Rosin’s defense of hookup culture reveals, sex is dangerous and subversive to the torpedo mindset because it should involve risk, commitment, and depth. Most threateningly, it could lead to love.