Hookups and Hope
Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green · December 11, 2008
Frederica comments on a recent interview in the US Catholic with Donna Freitas called Sex, Lies and the Hookup Culture. Is there hope for a turn around in society where romance trumps casual sex? In this episode, Frederica references her essay on the Disney Women and how they have changed over the years.
FMG: Not too long ago, someone mailed me a copy of an article in a magazine called “US Catholic”. This is the November, 2008 issue. And it’s an interview with an author named Donna Freitas. She’s just written a book called “Sex and the Soul”. The subtitle is “Juggling sexuality, spirituality, romance, and religion on America’s college campuses”. In this interview, Freitas talks about the research that she did on college campuses- secular, Catholic, and Evangelical. She herself actually teaches at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, which I think is a Catholic college.
What she wrote about is something that’s been in the news a good bit lately, what’s called the “hookup culture”. She defines this early on in the interview. She says, as she did her research and talked to students, she asked every one of them, what does hookup mean? And she says, “I learned that a hookup is any sexually intimate activity. It could be as innocent as kissing or it could be intercourse, but what defines it is that it is casual, unplanned, with no commitment. It often involves alcohol and little talking.”
So, if you’ve heard this term, “hooking up”, what it means is some kind of sexual interaction, to a greater or lesser degree, but the main thing about it is that there’s no commitment. It’s often done in a context with alcohol, where you don’t have to be making any commitment. You can kind of excuse yourself, because you were drunk when you did that.
What’s interesting, and very encouraging I think, in this article, is that, she says, students really don’t like the hookup culture. It’s everywhere. It rules the day, she said. But students aren’t comfortable with it. She asks students, if they don’t like the hookup culture, what do they want? The reply is “Almost everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, told me they want old fashioned romance. When romance came up, students said it’s talking, just talking, for hours, on a pretty beach, over dinner, under a starry sky. They want communication. With hookup culture, any communication that happens tends to be sexual and drunken. That’s not real, or romantic, to the students.”
She says it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to have sex, necessarily. So don’t get your hopes up too much. She goes on, “But when they have sex, they want to be in love with that person. They want respect. They want someone to know them. They want hundreds of candles lit. And they don’t want to get there right away, they want to have endless nights of romance first.”
She goes on, “There is sadness and remorse that they don’t know how to get what they want.” That was something that struck me, that our culture has paved the way for young people, unmarried people, to have as much sex as they want, any way that they want, at any time, with no commitment. But what we haven’t passed on is how to have a romance. How to indicate to someone that you would like to have a commitment. This author, Freitas, says that they don’t know how to ask somebody out on a date. They know how to get drunk and go to bed with someone, but they don’t know how to show somebody that they like them.
It’s really rather a poignant interview. Donna Freitas says, “My students didn’t know that they could have boundaries other than at sexual assault and rape. They felt they had to go along with behavior that made them uncomfortable.” So, you have to ask, what part of liberation is that, when people feel compelled to go along with behavior that they don’t want, just because they haven’t been given the language to say no or for having a relationship on any other basis.
Here’s an interesting thing. She goes on to say that, “The other piece is that with very few exceptions, guys don’t like the hookup culture either. They don’t want to rack up their number of sexual partners. They feel that it gets in the way of real relationships. But there is a stigma among guys about critiquing hookup culture. Expressing an interest in romance or dating is a mark against them, while hooking up is how they prove their masculinity to other guys. They feel trapped as well.”
So it’s not just girls who are longing for romance, it’s actually guys. They interviewer says, well, why don’t the students just change their behavior? Freitas replies, “The issue is that hookup culture rules the day. The social ethic is so powerful that students are afraid to say anything against it.” Later on, she’s talking about how they don’t know how to go about getting what it is they really want. “They have some sense of what they’d like but they’re nervous to define anything specific because the rule is to be laid-back and casual about sex.”
It’s an interesting article. I guess I hadn’t realized that the hookup culture was so absolutely the law of the land everywhere, and that it was so difficult to have a romance with someone or to indicate to someone that you loved them, or you want to spend time with them, getting to know them, or to date them, or to start a relationship. That that had just kind of dropped out. My husband and I were driving somewhere in the car the other day and listening to Frank Sinatra. During one of those songs, he commented with the old cliched line, “They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.” But I thought about that. It’s true. They don’t write them like that anymore. They don’t write about romance. And especially in those mid-century ballads, there’s such an exquisite sexual tension in those songs. There’s a playfulness about the couple approaching each other and beginning to fall in love and beginning to start a relationship.
It reminds me of an essay that Naomi Wolf wrote a few years ago about how this sexual culture has debased women and essentially brought them down to the level of actresses in porn movies. She contrasted that with her friend who is an Orthodox Jew who lives in Jerusalem, who has such a wonderful relationship with her husband that, not only does her husband not look at half-naked or naked women’s bodies, he doesn’t even look at another woman’s hair. In their culture, the women cover their hair and the only person who gets to see the wife’s hair is the husband. Wolf wrote that this woman’s bedroom is off limits. It’s just a place for her and her husband. She said she could sense such a strong sexual component to the life of her friend and the friend’s husband, something that she never finds in the liberated west.
So I think there’s something to that, that as we’ve gone with what an advertising, sell-you-everything-all-the-time culture would think we’d want, which is nothing but sex all the time, with no commitments whatsoever, there is something that’s being left out. And this generation of college students- when somebody asks them, they’re willing to talk about it, that what they want is to be loved. What they want is to be cherished.
I’ll wrap up- I got an email recently from a student who’s writing an article about women in the Disney cartoon movies. Many years ago I wrote an essay in which my daughter Megan and I, when she was 19, we went through all the Disney cartoon movies and compared the princesses to see what was different about them. Did she have a high voice or a low voice? How did she dress? Did she have a childlike appearance or did she have a womanly appearance? So we compared all these women of Disney, and this essay is on my website, http://www.frederica.com. It remains one of my favorite things to have written. It was a lot of fun to research that. That was before the Disney princesses became so merchandised and marketed to little girls- 2, 3, 4, 5 years old. The Disney princesses are really pushed on them now. So from time to time I do get letters from people who are writing articles about the women of Disney or the Disney princesses. And this recent one said that she was interested in the fact that in the more recent Disney movies, that the woman is tough. The woman is strong. The last sentence of her email to me was, “Thinking back to the Disney princesses, do you think that if the women of Disney were more dominant, like the women of today, they would be more appealing to the audience?”
And what I thought about that, the way the question was phrased, “would it be more appealing”, I think about my granddaughters and I think about the little girls that I know in that age range. When they dress up, they don’t want to dress up like Pocahontas. They’re not dressing up like Mulan. They don’t want to dress up like the tough, dominant (as she says) Disney women. They dress up like Cinderella. What they’re looking for is not an opportunity to be strong and tough and brave and dominant and push the boys around. What they want is to be cherished. They want to feel special. They want to feel that the person that loves them, loves them specifically, out of all the world. That she is the little girl who is most precious to her mommy and daddy. That she deserves to be a princess and she deserves to be loved for who she is. I think that that is just an innate human need. It’s not just little girls, although we do see it with them, with their choice, with wanting to be treasured, special; with wanting to be loved for who they are and their uniqueness. I think that’s just a basic human need. And, I see a ray of hope in this interview with Donna Freitas, because these students do keep telling her that that is what they want. They want relationships. They want romance. They want to be loved. And we have not told them how to do that. That has just vanished from our cultural discourse as it became all about sex. I think that there is good hope here, because I think that that is such a basic human need: to be loved for who you are. I think it’s gonna come back. I don’t think you can keep that down forever.
I think it will come back, but probably not in the form of a religious revival or a moral revival. It’s not going to be going back and turn back the clock to the Ozzie-and-Harriet kind of household. It will take a new form, but it is going to be that very same ancient desire that humans have, to be loved for who they are uniquely and to experience romance and to experience loving relationships. Not just sex.
Everybody wants to be loved by somebody. Everybody wants to be special. And no matter how much free hookup sex you’re having, it’s not meeting that deeper need. So as I say, I think it’s going to come back. I don’t think it’s something that conservative Christians can force to come back. In fact, I think the one thing that conservative Christians could do is stall it, or make it take longer, if we cheer it too loudly as it begins to return. It isn’t going to look like everybody opening their bibles and falling on their knees. I don’t think it’s going to take that kind of moral or religious form. But it will just return, that desire for romance.
This need to be cherished, this need to be loved, both men and women, for who you are, is something that is very profoundly rooted in the human being. And we have denied for a couple of decades now that there’s a difference between men and women, and that that difference is a wonderful thing. Vive la difference! as the French say. The difference between the sexes is a wonderful, and heady and delightful thing, because, as I like to say, that’s where life comes from. That’s where new life comes from. That’s why the fact that we’re opposite sexes is so thrilling. It’s something literally written in our genes, in our deepest sense of what it means to be alive, which has to do with the difference between men and women. In courtship, in love, in treasuring, and cherishing each other.
So in my best case scenario I would think we will be returning to fidelity and to monogamy and to lifelong commitment, to emphasizing the differences between the sexes, because those differences are so delightful and so life-giving. Red-blooded American marriage is going to come back. The marriage that is so deeply rooted in nature. This biologically sensible, ecologically sensible, heterosexual marriage is gonna really have a comeback. It doesn’t matter whether gay marriage is legal or not, heterosexual marriage is always going to be a different kind of thing. If gay marriage is legal, people will evolve ways of talking about A marriage and B marriage. They’ll never really be the same thing, because the biological charge of heterosexuality just sets it apart, puts it in a different ecological world.
So just to sum up, I think that there is hope. Reading this somewhat depressing article by Donna Freitas, who has written—what’s the title of her book again? “Sex and the Soul”, about the hookup culture on college campuses. To see that students are dissatisfied with that is, I think, a very good sign, so I’ll be very much looking forward to seeing what happens next.