The New Breed of Sexual Creature: The Hookup Culture Finds an Advocate

Yet again, the Atlantic (September 2012) delivers another needlessly explicit essay in its ongoing fascination with hookup culture. While past articles explore the demeaning aspects of aggressive sexuality freed from social and religious stricture, Hanna Rosin, author of “Boys on the Side,” mocks the nostalgia of her colleagues’ longing “for an earlier time, when fathers protected ‘innocent’ girls from ‘punks’ and predators, and when girls understood it was their role to also protect themselves.”

Innocence is not a virtue for Rosin, particularly for young women. Recounting a party at an Ivy League business school, she notes the ubiquity of pornography and the prevalence of sexually explicit speech and behavior perpetrated by both men and women, all so common that “I found barely anyone who even noticed the vulgarity anymore.” Forget the innocence of women, the demeaning and degrading is normal, even praiseworthy.

A newly enrolled foreign student expressed surprise, noting that her fellow students must have “hearts of steel” and would be considered desperate, “or a prostitute” in her home country. Rosin laughingly brushes this aside, joking that “we are, in the world’s estimation, a nation of prostitutes. And not even prostitutes with hearts of gold.” But the relevant question is not “how did this happen?” or “what should we do?” or even “how do we make sure this is safe?” Instead, Rosin asks “Is that so bad?”

Many reflections on hookup culture conclude that men have emerged from the sexual revolution holding all the cards, now free to use and discard women without responsibility and with women increasingly obliged to participate in the new mores. Rosin sees it otherwise, noting that the “unbelievable gains women have lately made” make it far more likely for them to have a college degree, a career path, and to make more money than men their age. While contraception and abortion are often touted as key to women’s rise, Rosin treads further, for it is not “just the pill or legal abortion but the whole new landscape of sexual freedom.… To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture.”

Such claims cause one to ask what “feminist progress” means. Presumably, progress has some relation to flourishing, happiness, or the dignity possessed by all persons created in the image of God. Perhaps progress indicates as well society’s growing awareness that the dignity and well-being of those most vulnerable is often trampled by the powerful, and that many women are brutalized because of their sexuality.

Rosin means nothing like this, however. Progress for women means individual “success,” or “a promising future,” or “setting themselves up for a career.” Given that definition, nothing could be more regressive than pregnancy, but since that fate can be avoided or terminated the most pertinent threat is love itself. According to Rosin, it is women who most enthusiastically further hookup culture, and not for sexual pleasure but “to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.” With such an understanding of progress, “an overly serious suitor fills the same role as an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”

The word suitor has its etymology in sequi, “to follow,” as in one who follows or pursues in order to marry. Old literature might give us the image of the bedazzled lover following close at the heels of the beloved, but in contemporary norms a more sinister mood is evoked. A follower lurks about, attempting to capture, subdue; he pursues his prey, and his love is viewed not as that which unites in the free bonds of love, but as cords which bind, pin down, fence in. Suitors are dangerous things, romance a trap, love an enemy. Consequently, we’ve “produced a new breed of female sexual creature,” one who is unwilling to “trap herself in the bell jar” but who hooks up to open “her horizons.”

While Rosin suggests that almost all of the women she describes want to get married eventually, it’s difficult to understand how the grasp of freedom, love, and selfhood evidenced by the blasé approval of hooking up can nourish marriage culture properly understood. In Theology of the Body, John Paul II plumbed the depths of Genesis to explain the spousal meaning of the body with its full freedom found in “the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and—through this gift—fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence.” Just as the Creator wills the existence of each and every person for their own sake, “the interior freedom of the gift—the disinterested gift of self,” occurs when spouses welcome and will each other as they are willed by God; that is, when each wills the other for the sake of the other, as ends in themselves.

But for the “new breed of female [and male] sexual creature,” the entire point, in Rosin’s terms, is always to keep “their own ends in mind.” Never to will the other for their own sake but always to will oneself, this is the anthem of contemporary freedom, although, of course, it is to bind one’s own self with the indestructible bonds of self-imposed slavery and vice.

Such enslavement is particularly evident in the attitude towards procreation and sex acts of the reproductive type. As John Paul II explains, freedom is the power to love, to give of oneself, and to will the other. Intrinsic to willing the other is willing the “spousal meaning” of the body, which in uniting has as its purpose fruitfulness and procreation. Given easy procurement of the pill, one would expect hookup culture to rather easily and without worry engage in genital-to-genital intercourse, for the ancient “threat” of pregnancy is now evacuated; yet hookup culture as catalogued by Rosin and others tends also to be sodomy culture (in all its forms). It’s tempting to think that journalists looking to make a point or shock bourgeois Atlantic readers might exaggerate the point, but not just the writing but also the logic of the culture indicates that refusing and denying the freedom of the spousal gift—in fact viewing the spousal gift as a threat—finds its culmination not in the pill but in sex acts of the non-reproductive type, for even casual and indifferent encounters of the reproductive type carry reminders, hauntings, of the spousal, and such meanings are threats to freedom as currently envisioned.

If love and gift of self—the interior freedom of the spouse—is a threat devoutly to be feared, then all such hauntings must be exorcised, for while the “sexual culture may be more coarse these days,” the young are well trained and prepared to handle vulgarity, for they’ve been trained to reject the gift, “they have more important things on their minds, such as good grades and internships and job interviews and a financial future of their own.”

Created in the image of a Communion of Persons, we are made for communion, the freedom and power to welcome others; we’ve chosen instead the isolation of “more important things” and so find ourselves on our own and always for ourselves. And we cannot allow such training to go to waste, can we?


R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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