The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy

A friend recommended Donna Freitas‘s The End of Sex to me months ago; at the time, I remember feeling skeptical, thinking that it was going to be a pulpit piece (especially given that the author received her Ph.D. in religious studies from Catholic University) about how sex is ruining college students’ lives.  
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I was sort of right. 

Not in the way I expected, though.  I expected the book to be pro-abstinence; instead, it turned out to be pro-critical conversation and agency.  The End of Sex contains a strong critique of hookup culture as a ubiquitous force that places specific normative markers on the sex lives of university students in the United States; it argues that this culture is so dominant that students feel socially coerced into getting drunk and have meaningless (and uncaring) sex on the weekends, then gossiping and / or bragging about it.  She says that students feel pressured to engage in hookup culture because they don’t have other relationship or sexuality models to fall back on, and that there are social repercussions for not participating or criticizing it. 

For the purposes of this book, Freitas went to seven universities (both religious and secular, public and private) and conducted online surveys and in-person interviews, and had a selection of students maintain journals detailing their relationships.  She touches on the history of hookup culture and spends a chapter defining it: who is involved, what it means, and where / why / how it takes place.  There’s a chapter on the role of alcohol in casual sex and chapters on social expectations of young women and men in terms of sexual identity and gender roles: young women are expected to express their sexuality via acting as an object of men’s desires, while young men are expected to aggressively seek out sex and encouraged to disconnect from their emotions when it comes to sexuality.  She talks extensively about theme parties on college campuses and how these parties promote and perpetuate sexual roles and identities.  The last three chapters of the book are focused on ways to opt out of the hookup culture — namely, virginity pledges, abstinence, and dating.   

The chapter I found most fascinating was the dating chapter; most students that Freitas interviewed said that they had never been on a date; that furthermore, they didn’t even know how to ask someone out.  Students said that for them, dating came post-hookup, if at all.  That they desperately wanted to go out on dates, but didn’t.  Freitas talks at length about a professor at Boston College, Kerry Cronin, who gave her seminar students the assignment of going out on a date (read more about it here).  The students used the class as a justification to ask someone out — as in, “Hey, I have this assignment where I have to go on a date, so, uh, you wanna go out sometime?” — because they didn’t know how to just SAY to someone, “Hey, I like you.  Want to get a cup of coffee?”  There seems to be a strong disconnect between what young people want (or what they’re told to want vis a vis romantic comedies and television shows) and their lived behaviors.   

Of course, the book made me reflect a lot on my college experiences; I definitely didn’t go on dates in university — but I would have loved to.  I never felt pressure to hook up like the students in Freitas’s book say they do, but I did hook up – a lot.  All of my relationships in university started after I’d already had sex with my partners. 

Not to say that Freitas is condemning this practice; rather, she’s encouraging an open dialogue on college campuses about what good sex is and why we engage in the sexual practices, attitudes, and behaviors that we do.  About who we are sexually and what we want from relationships.  She says that university faculty and staff “should be opening up young adults to a broad conversation about the many possible goods of sex and empowering them to ask about its meaning” (p. 11); that students need to be given space for personal reflection and a chance to discuss hooking up as just “one option among many for navigating sexuality and relationship[s]” (p. 186).As a university teacher, I think this is an outstanding idea.  To me, the greatest strength of this book lies in the conclusion, wherein Freitas makes a call to action to folks who work at universities to open a discussion about sexuality, romance, and relationships in their classrooms, on panels, in special programs and lectures, and in freshman orientation.  So often in university, students are taught to analyze and deconstruct theories, but never given the opportunity to discuss real-life applications of theories.  Students should have a space in which they can talk about desire, pleasure, connection, and intimacy — not just the possible negative outcomes of sex, which is what most college campuses focus on.  She makes a very powerful argument at the end of the book that discussions of the personal enhance academic discourse and that conversations about how best to navigate our lived experiences is empowering.          All this being said: I still hook up, and I love it.  When I’m really into someone, I absolutely want romance, intimacy, and connection, and dates where we talk for hours on end are wonderful.  But there’s also something special about getting a text message that says, “I’m going to pop in before meeting my friends on Saturday just so I can taste you.”  Whew.      

It’s important that there’s room for all kinds of sexual connection in our lives. 

I saw the most adorable thing today,

and it was a boy touching a girl’s butt.  In Korea, PDA is highly frowned upon.  I saw a young (straight) couple this afternoon standing at an intersection; the man was lightly grazing his girlfriend’s butt with his fingertips behind her purse so that passersby wouldn’t notice.  I thought it was a really sweet (and kind of subversive!) way to connect in a place where you’re not supposed to make much physical contact with the opposite sex in public.

Relationship Research

I love reading sex and relationship research findings; usually, I come away from them feeling enlightened and even more curious than when I started reading.  However, once in awhile, they leave me feeling completely horrified.  I happened upon two old articles recently that, as a woman who sometimes dates men, left me feeling kind of screwed.  Not in a good way.   (Sorry for the obnoxious heteronormativity of all of this; most of the time, relationship research is aggravatingly only focused on heterosexual couples).

The first, called “Upset Men and the Happy Women Who Love Them,” comes from NPR; it focuses on a study from the Journal of Family Psychology that found that men are more satisfied in relationships when their partners express joy / happiness, while women are more satisfied in relationships when their partners express anger, grief, or sadness.  The idea is that women feel comforted that their partners are willing to share conflict with them in an attempt to connect, while men see the sharing of conflict as a “threat to the relationship.”  I’m already someone who has a freakishly hard time sharing with male partners anything that might be upsetting me in a relationship because I want to be perceived as being easy to be with (I know, I know…), and this study has really just confirmed my worst fears
I was talking to a male friend last night, and he started telling me about an upsetting experience he’d had the night before with an ex-girlfriend; a minute into the story, he cut it off with, “So, I mean, whatever.  It’s not a big deal.  It’s fine.”  I had to say to him, “It’s not fine.  It’s okay to be angry about this.  Feel your feelings.”  Research findings in action!

The study that really freaked me out was one I read on one of my favorite websites, The Science of Relationships; it’s from the journal Psychological Science.  It found that women were more attracted to men who gave them high ratings on Facebook than men who gave them “lukewarm” ratings.  Good news for nice guys everywhere!  Despite what pickup artists say, you don’t have to denigrate a woman to get her to like you!  Buuuuut then it goes on to say that women were even more attracted to men who didn’t rate them at all.  If a woman had no indication of how the man in question felt about her, she was more likely to be attracted to him.  As in, uncertainty leads to desire.  Esther Perel discusses this phenomenon really beautifully in her book Mating in Captivity: “Excitement is interwoven with uncertainty, and with our willingness to embrace the unknown rather than to shield ourselves from it.  But this very tension leaves us feeling vulnerable.”  She’s right; part of what makes new relationships so exciting — and so scary — is diving heart-first into your feelings, not knowing whether or not they’ll be returned.  It’s a huge risk — one which a lot of people aren’t willing to take.   

The author of the article offers this advice to male readers: “The less information she has about how you feel about her, the more uncertain she will be, the more she’ll think about you, and the more she’ll like you. At some point you’ll probably have to tip your hand and let her know how you feel, but if you can keep her waiting a bit (italics mine), it might make her more attracted to you.” 

Edit: When I first read this article, I was really angry that the author had suggested that readers should purposefully keep someone who has allowed her (or him)self to be vulnerable hanging on the line emotionally.  I found it to be manipulative — one of those games people are always saying that they don’t want to play.  However, in the context of an already established relationship wherein desire is waning, distance and uncertainty can be a really powerful tool in re-establishing eros.  More on this when I finish Perel’s book… 

The sex thing is already out there.

I had this really weird moment at a party last night where I realized I was the last woman standing in a house full of drunk guys (all friends), and then most of my friends proceeded to hit on me.  And not in any kind of subtle way.  Like, I actually had to say the sentences, “Why are you licking my face?  Stop it.  That’s gross,”and “I can’t give you a lap dance because your wife will brutally murder me.”

It reminded me of this conversation from the movie When Harry Met Sally:
Harry: You realize, of course, that we can never be friends.
Sally: Why not?
Harry: What I’m saying is… and this is not a come-on in any way, shape, or form, is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.
Sally: That’s not true; I have a number of men friends and there is no sex involved.
Harry: No you don’t.
Sally: Yes I do.
Harry: No you don’t.
Sally: Yes I do.
Harry: You only think you do.
Sally: You’re saying I’m having sex with these men without my knowledge?
Harry: No, what I’m saying is they all want to have sex with you.
Sally: They do not.
Harry: Do too.
Sally: They do not.

Harry: Do too.
Sally: How do you know?
Harry: Because no man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive; he always wants to have sex with her.
Sally: So you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive.
Harry: Nah — you pretty much wanna nail them too.
Sally: What if they don’t want to have sex with you?
Harry: Doesn’t matter, because the sex thing is already out there, so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.

Of course men and women can be friends; I consider myself very lucky to be friends with some incredibly good-hearted, honest, open, dependable, and hilarious men.  That being said, some pretty uncomfortable things get said when large quantities of alcohol enter the equation.  By myself as well; I’ve certainly been the culprit of saying inappropriate things to female friends when drunk and then having to apologize later on.  Maybe I should just start wearing a watch with an alarm clock on it that signifies it’s a good time to leave… 

Update: It’s a couple years old, but I just read a funny and relevant article from Scientific American about this topic.

Happy Endings

Back from vacation!  Woo!  Back from white sand beaches and blue-green water and beautiful – stroke – delicious fish!  Wait a minute… blerg.

So I was lying in bed in a dorm room in the Philippines a few weeks ago, trying to sleep, when my roommate came in very respectfully and quietly.  A few moments after he lay down, we heard two drunk guys coming down the street, talking loudly; they were stopped by someone with a feminine voice asking them if they wanted a massage.  At three-thirty in the morning.  “Six hundred pesos for one hour,” the masseuse said.  “Ah, yes,” said the guys.  “Maybe.”  The masseuse continued: “Maybe you’d like a special massage?  If you want a happy ending, of course, it costs more.” 

At this point my dorm mate and I both bolted upright and stared at each other, mouths agape, not believing out ears.  If we could hear this conversation, then no doubt everyone in our hostel and everyone in the guesthouse these guys were staying in across the street could also hear the entire conversation.  My dorm mate looked out the window: “They’re ladyboys!” he exclaimed.  He recognized them because they’d been hitting on him all night at the bar. 

“Okay, okay… wait,” said the drunk guys.  A couple of minutes of silence passed before they came back and gave money to the masseuse.  “Two people,” they instructed.  Then: “Room four.”  And just in case the masseuse or the entire neighborhood didn’t hear them, they repeated: “ROOM FOUR.”  As a friend of mine later put it, nothing was lost in translation.  I wanted nothing more than to knock on their door the next morning to ask how the massage went, but my better judgment regarding manners told me that might have been a bit tacky (but SO MUCH FUN). 

Mountains and beaches are beautiful and all, but moments like this are the reason I travel.