Introduction to Hookup Culture – Adapted from Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey
If you’re anything like me, you may have had personal experience with or know people who have experience with what is now labeled as “Hookup Culture.”
According to the rules of the game, you are to feel no reservation at all about having sex with anyone, anywhere, at anytime and above all, you are not to become emotionally attached.
Today’s hookup culture glamorizes impersonal sex but gives no clue as to how to start a meaningful relationship. Why have so many young adults lost the ability to form relationships? In part, it is because the social script tells them that having fun means engaging in physical relationships without emotional attachment.
No relationship, no exclusivity, no commitment. The script is that you are supposed to be able to walk away from the experience as if it did not happen.
Researcher Donna Freitas, after interviewing hundreds of students, concluded that the hookup culture “creates a drastic divide between physical intimacy and emotional intimacy.” It teaches young people not to “reckon with someone’s personhood.”
I’d like to argue that hookup culture actually reflects the same personhood concept that underlies arguments for abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. The same Cartesian dualism is responsible for the “drastic divide” that Freitas described.
The dualistic mentality encourages young people to disassociate their bodies sexually from who they are as whole persons: It is the body over and against their whole person. It devalues the body and drains relationships of their moral and emotional depth.
The biblical ethic frames this idea in a much more positive light by overcoming the dualism by actually integrating the body and the person.
When young people learn how to “reckon with someone’s personhood,” the result is sexual relationships that are healthier and more fulfilling.
Most college students have probably never read Descartes and yet they can describe his philosophies perfectly, which have deeply shaped our Western thinking about personhood. In Rolling Stone magazine, a student named Naomi said hooking up has made “people assume that there are two very distinct elements in a relationship, one emotional and one sexual, and they pretend that there are clean lines between them.”
Mental and Emotional Relationship
Do you recognize the language of dualism? It’s the separation of the body from the person, mind, and emotions with an assumption that there are clean lines between them.
Sexual intercourse, the most intimate of bodily relations has been disconnected from personal relations. Sex is cast as purely recreational that can be enjoyed apart from any hint of love or commitment. All that matters is consent ( as if agreeing to any act makes it in itself right).
Young people have learned the scripts well, even if they don’t like it much. A college student named Alicia says, “Hookups are very scripted… You learn to turn everything off except your body and make yourself emotionally invulnerable.”
Another student, Fallon, laments, “Sex should stem from emotional intimacy, and it’s the opposite with us right now.” A senior named Stephanie chimes in, “It’s body first, personality second.”
Sexuality is treated not as the embodied expression of our selfhood but merely as an instrument for physical release and recreation.
I’ll leave this right here:
Do you see anything wrong or inconsistent with this view according to everything else that the secular vision requires of its social contracts?
Living out the hookup script is not easy. In her interviews, Freitas learned that students have to work hard to disassociate their feelings from their sexual encounters. They find their meaningless sexual encounters disappointing. They feel hurt and lonely. Privately they admit they wish they knew how to do more — how to create genuine relationship in which they are known and appreciated for who they are as a whole person. It is such a good desire in itself, to be wanted and loved, but in this context it becomes disordered. The idea of casual sex is destructive while it is celebrated and normalized in a secular society. In doing so, it cheapens what was always meant to be a richer, more integrated and more robust expression of our whole person.
At the same time, students feel intense pressure not to admit their dissatisfaction with the hookup scene. If you admit you want more from sex, students told Freitas, you will be labeled as needy, clingy , and dependent. It’s as if it’s a contest to see who cares less…
But if you say any of this out loud, it’s like you’re weak, you’re not independent and somehow you missed the whole memo about third wave feminism.
To suppress their emotions, students often turn to alcohol. Many admit that getting drunk is the only way they can go through with having sex with people they do not like or even know. Freitas writes, “Regardless of what students brag about or tell their friends, most are terrible at shutting out the emotional dimensions of sexual intimacy.”
The fact that it doesn’t work rests on inadequate conceptions of human nature.
People are trying to live out a worldview that does not fit who they are. Because humans are made in God’s image, the secular view will never quite match their actual experience. The square peg of their convictions will never fit the round hole of reality.
The secular view is flawed. It’s not about legalism or judgment or intolerance or any of that. It has far more to do with the humility required to admit when our convictions when held up to our experience in reality, do not actually work and worse, harm us and produce pain and heartache.
The key to understanding the secular ethic is that it is based on a materialist view of nature. It tells us that our bodies are products of purposeless, amoral Darwinian forces and therefore they are morally neutral.
The implication is that what we do with our bodies has no moral significance. The self is free to use the body any way it chooses, without moral consequences. We live at the height of the autonomous self where morality is based on pleasure alone. Yet, pleasure is a fickle God.
What does an amoral view look like in practice?
This bleak, one-dimensional view of sexuality assumes that sex is merely a physical urge — that there is no deeper, more wholistic yearning to connect with another person. As we’ll see in the next few parts of this series, modern science and neurobiology will actually back up the claim that our bodies and our brains are wired for more than this.
Anonymous perfunctory encounters are enough to “get your needs met.” I hear this sort of script all of the time from women we work with through The Pearl Projects, from plenty of girlfriends of mine, and I’ve been hearing it since high school back in the early 2000’s.
We’re told sex is just a natural appetite, just like eating. When you feel sexual hunger, you satisfy it. It is a dishearteningly low view of sexuality.
Sexual hedonism gives sex too little importance.
As much as free sex is viewed in terms of freedom, the result of our hyper-progressive autonomy and boasts of its total abandon of all formerly imposed patriarchichal morality-structures, it is a shockingly low view of the human person, for both males and females.
It treats the body as nothing more than a physical organism driven by physical urges. It treats sex as strictly physical, isolated from the rich inner life of the whole person. Thus it deprives sex of its depth by detaching it from its meaning as self-giving between a man and a woman committed to building an entire life together.
Under all the hype about sex as fun and games is actually “a fundamental despair” about the body, explains catholic writer (and former lesbian) Melinda Selmys. “Beneath all the pageantry of free sex and self-love, there is a fundamental belief that the body doesn’t mean anything, that it is insignificant in the literal sense: signifying nothing.” Therefore, what you do with it has no moral significance.
“You can do anything with it that you’d like,” says Selmys. “You can pleasure it with a vacuum cleaner or…you can give it away to anyone for any reason. It’s just a sort of wet machine, a tool that you can use and exchange for whatever purpose suits your fancy.”
When scientists and philosophers decide that nature is just a vast machine, that has implications for morality.
Christians are often slammed for attempts at legislating morality, calling for the separation of church and state and yet that is a total underskirting of the plethora of ways that the secular morality itself is expressed in its full-breadth as legislation, imposed on all.
As a result, as Selys concludes, you must implicitly accept that “your body is not you, it is just a shell, or a juicy robot, that the real you — the disembodied ghost — controls.”
The Environmental Dualism
In the literature on the ecology movement, it is often asserted that Cartesian dualism has alienated us from nature, leading us to mistreat and pollute our environment, including our bodies. Yet we rarely make the connection to morality. The same dualism has alienated many people from their bodies, leading them to mistreat their bodies sexually.
Somehow we get it when it comes to the environment itself but we totally miss the principle when it comes to our own bodies.
As Meilander says, the environmental movement has taught us that we should “not treat nature as simply an object over which we exercise dominion.” Yet many people are “strangely unconcerned when we objectify and instrumentalize the body.”
Identifying The Root Issue
Feminists often complain that sexual hedonism objectifies women, which is true. But the problem runs much deeper: It objectifies the human body itself.
- Donna Freitas, The End of Sex (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 168-75.
- Freitas, End of Sex, 31, 177
- Janet Reitman, “Sex & Scandal,” Rolling Stone, June 1, 2006
- Nancy Jo Sales, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,'” Vanity Fair, September 2015.
- Kate Taylor, “sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too,” New York Times, July 12, 2013.
- George Bernard Shaw, “Too Good To be Good: A Political Extravaganza,” Plays Extravagant (London: Penguin, 1981), 93.
- Singer, Practical Ethics, 2.
- Naomi Wold, “Casual Sex Finds a Cool New Position,” The Sunday Times, January 12, 2013.
- Melinda Selmys, Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexualkity and Catholicism (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2009), 85.
- Meilander, Bioethics, 20.
- Alice Owens, “My Rape Convinced Me That Campus Hookup Culture Is Really Messed Up,” Verily, July 6, 2015.
- Miriam Grossman, Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Revelas How Political Corectness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student (New York: Penguin, 2007), 3.
- Juli Slattery and Dannah Gresh, Pulling Back The Shades (CHicago: Moody, 2014), 46.