The hookup culture: Societal scourge or a boost to feminism? Take your pick, according to the increased media attention unencumbered sexual trysts on US college campuses are receiving.
Hanna Rosin, a senior editor at the Atlantic, wrote a much-discussed piece last year arguing that hookups are indeed not a problem but a benefit to young women — keeping them untethered and able to focus on their professional futures.
Now author and Boston University religion professor Donna Freitas has entered the fray. In her book, “The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled and Confused About Intimacy,” Freitas argues that Rosin’s take on the issue is “misleading” and, yes, even “sad.”
Freitas argues that young men and women may publicly praise the hookup — defined as “quick, ostensibly meaningless sexual intimacy” — but in private they share their ambivalence. Indeed, citing results of a national study of 2,500 college students, Freitas said a large portion of youths — 41 percent of those surveyed — were not only ambivalent but expressed “sadness” and “despair” about such brief intimate connections.
She doesn’t actually oppose casual sex, she just hopes young adults can have an array of options.
And Freitas argues that college administrators, faculty, and parents need to do a better job at understanding and addressing the culture because the values embedded in this world can have psychological effects beyond the college dorm or brief hallway embrace.
“The sheer amount of repression and suppression of emotion required for living in the context of hookup culture teaches young adults (or tries to teach them) not to feel at all,’’ she writes. “In pretending that what happens after dark on campus doesn’t matter, we are failing these young people and fooling ourselves about our roles as educators and parents.”
Freitas divides this straight-forward, well-researched, and eye-opening book into eight chapters describing students’ social life on campus — including details about excessive drinking, “politicians and prostitutes” theme parties, and one professor’s experiment in creating a class on how to plan, execute, and pay for a traditional date.
Freitas explores the pressures on young men who are expected to thrive in this free-sex culture but who she believes may suffer the most from its pretensions. She recounts that even she was surprised that many young men described being stressed and sad about these sexual encounters, feeling great pressure to perform.
“Men lose so much from these cultural misperceptions, maybe even more than women do, because at least women are allowed to speak about these feelings without having to worry about putting their femininity at risk,’’ she writes. “Our view of men and masculinity in American culture is not only deeply flawed and misleading but disastrous for the psyches of young men.”
She writes about virginity, a physical and psychological state of mind that helps some women set sexual boundaries; and she writes about the abstinence movement embraced by conservative religious groups. Freitas asks whether abstinence would have more followers if politics were pulled out of the equation and the movement included gay and straight people as well as youths not interested in saving their virginity for marriage. “Why haven’t we rethought, expanded, and even redefined abstinence to serve a far wider population of teens and young adults?” she asks.
In the end, Freitas argues that colleges and universities should not dismiss the hookup culture as something that occurs in the dark and outside of the educational realm. Instead, she suggests that schools should integrate the study of relationships and sex into the curriculum. This compelling testimony from young people around the country provides ample evidence for why this campus lifestyle should not be ignored.
Jenifer B. McKim is a Boston Globe social issues and business reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @jbmckim. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.