Column: Don’t blame ‘hookup culture’ for broader social ills

Recognizing the consequences of casual sex is more helpful than avoiding it altogether.

Are you oversexed?

If so, please tell me how, because it seems harder to get laid right now than concerned adults and other do-gooders want to believe. After all, we’re apparently living in a “hookup culture” – in this culture, it’s said, we bone all the time.

In “hookup culture” we apparently juice up with vodka drinks, find some available genitalia and have at it. We do it in dorms, on futons, in public, in private. We do it with acquaintances or with strangers, with long-term partners or with people we date (even on the first date!). We apparently do it without emotion, without a need for connection – just a need to make out, get it in, get off and get out.

All of these descriptions are, of course, intoned with great pathos and reek of concern, even fear-mongering. Parents, moralists and TV personalities seem hell-bent on finding a reason to be alarmed about our generation, and casual sex seems to the perfect storm of moral and social ills to focus on: porn, alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, STDs and strangers! How could you not lose your shit just reading that line?

What’s a parent to do when their sweet angels are shipped off to college and soon find themselves in some mythical frat orgy? What to do when chipper signs encourage your babies to take condoms for free, or when there’s an LGBTQ center on campus, or when it turns out those songs on the radio are explicit? Who’s there to cup your palms over your child’s ears when a university-sponsored speaker talks to them optimistically about porn?

All of this rhetoric about how we’re horny sex machines who oil up with K-Y gel and sugar-free Red Bull is clearly overblown. But it’s not just pearl-clutchers and decaf drinkers who wish we’d halt the breaks with our bathroom blowjobs – in fact, it’s seemingly become sex-positive to shame and discourage casual sex on moral grounds.

Donna Freitas, who apparently had sex in college, says it’s “time to stop hooking up” – she even wrote a book about it just for us. In a column for the Washington Post, Freitas details the conclusions of research she conducted on college students who have engaged in or witnessed hookup culture and its effects.

By and large, Freitas concludes college students feel routines of casual sex have made their sexual engagements too loose, their experiences with intimacy “regretful,” “empty” and “miserable” and that the general culture has increasingly disallowed traditional dating in favor of quick, NSA sex. In a culture that allegedly mandates casual sex above anything else, Freitas claims hookup sex is “fast, uncaring, unthinking, perfunctory” – rather than coming from physical or emotional attraction, hooking up is like “checking off a box on a list of tasks.”

Freitas does bring up admirable points about potential or known consequences of compulsory hookups. In search of intimacy or attention, as a service to someone or through a desire to fit in, people sometimes look to casual sex to provide stability or personal fulfillment. People do develop ideas that a lack of sexual activity indicates a broader personal inadequacy, and potentially feel social pressure to hook up, lest they seem like a prudish outsider.

But I remain unconvinced these consequences mean we must stop hooking up, as Freitas desires. Notions of personal worth through sexual engagement, of sex as service or of sex as compulsory at all are not the fault of hookups, but rather of our broader culture of competition, body fascism and superficial worth. It is not hookups that impel people to seek such validation; rather, hookups become the vessel for previously existing problems.

Of course, hookups change the complexion of how such problems manifest, but these consequences do not indicate an overall failure of casual sex – it’s incredibly over-determined to believe hookups are a category unable to improve through regulation, introspection, transparency or even optimism.

People who choose to hook up are adults, not sycophants without will or agency. Abstinence, as Freitas wants to believe, is not the answer to the ills of casual sex. Freitas concludes her column by arguing, “meeting a student confident enough to say she’s not hooking up and is proud about that is as experimental as it gets,” as if abstinence is an act of bravery, and everything else is thoughtless conformity.

I advocate hooking up if you’re horny and have a partner in whom you have a decent amount of trust. I’m not one to define “right reasons” for hooking up but there are certainly wrong reasons to hook up. We need to resist temptations to create broad, dogmatic ideologies against casual sex in favor of an unrealistic, pastoral image of intimacy, even when the tangible consequences of hookups are known.

Engage in critical dialogues about casual sex without shaming or discouraging those who have it. Denial of desire is no better an alternative to potentially misguided desire, and no better a solution than constructive, supportive conversations.

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