RACHEL LU: When Adults Encourage Self-Destructive Behavior in the Young
Sex has consequences. I realize that admitting this probably marks me as some sort of misogynist, but somehow I can’t help myself. For one thing, I have it on good authority that even in 2013, sex still has something to do with babies. Even before the babies, though, sex is morally consequential. It changes us as human beings, in ways that we are not at liberty to choose. When we allow ourselves to forget that, the fallout can be ugly.
This ugliness was on full display in Kate Taylor’s recent controversial New York Times piece, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” a wrenching account of the promiscuous sexual habits of female undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. In this piece, we are given to understand that today’s college women have no time for boyfriends. Instead they find “hookup buddies” who offer no-strings-attached sexual relationships. The social scene that results is disturbing, to put it mildly. We are treated to the tale of a college freshman who loses her virginity in a one night stand, and returns home exultant because now, having nothing left to lose, she is entirely free for further sexual exploits. Another young woman admits that she “literally can’t sit down and have coffee” with her regular hookup, because they just don’t like each other that much. Some women do confess shame or embarrassment after succumbing to hookup pressure, but in the end their priorities remain clear. Hookup culture, like fast food, enables students to service their bodies while focusing attention on their bright futures.
Before we conclude that the rising generation is entirely lost, we should bear in mind that this account may not be entirely representative. Taylor’s piece is less than ground-breaking; it mirrors themes found in Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, Nathan Harden’s Sex and God at Yale, Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons and many other works depicting modern undergraduate life. However, there is some reason to believe that these portraits may be exaggerated, and that the researchers may have fallen prey to a kind of “Margaret Mead” effect.
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Undergraduates enjoy shocking their elders, and they also enjoy representing themselves as mature and streetwise. These impulses may color their verbal representations of themselves in the context of an interview. Surveys are less apt to entice subjects to exaggeration, and indeed, many survey-based studies present a less grim picture of undergraduate sexual habits. For example, in one 2013 study of nearly four thousand heterosexual undergraduates, only 11% reported having a sexual encounter with someone they had known for less than a week. There may be reason to hope, then, that the lurid hookup culture described in Taylor’s article may be something of a fringe phenomenon.
Exaggeration, however, can itself be revealing of noteworthy cultural trends. Even if a majority of students are not hooking up on a regular basis, they do seem to be familiar with the hookup ethos, and they enjoy presenting themselves as participants whether or not they really are. That suggests that there is something about hookup culture that attracts them and that does, at least in some of its aspects, represent a kind of ideal.
Specifically with respect to women, Taylor’s research mirrors Rosin’s in suggesting that ambitious young women are attracted to two related ideals. First, they wish to make clear that they are heavily focused on their educational and professional ambitions, and that they have no time for serious boyfriends, to say nothing of marriage or children. Second, they enjoy boasting that they are strong and independent enough to engage in casual sex without suffering any negative consequences.
Psychologist Sonya Rhodes underlines both these ideals in a response to Taylor’s piece published at the Huffington Post. Acknowledging that “these can be confusing times for young women,” Rhodes suggests that most will fall into one of two categories. The assertive, ambitious ones will be “emotionally fine” with hookup culture, and will find in it a useful outlet, ultimately enabling them to focus on their careers. In case anyone is worried about “missing the marriage boat,” Rhodes reassures these hard-chargers that this is not a problem. Good husbands will always be available (if wanted) a decade or so down the road, because, “successful women find partners and get married if they want to. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Looking to the second category of women (identified as “pleasers,” “team players” and “followers”), Rhodes acknowledges that hookup culture may contain some emotional pitfalls. Accordingly, she grants these sensitive souls permission to seek real relationships, and to marry by their mid-to-late twenties. “Chances are” they will find a good man by that time.
The missive is charmingly signed, “Love, Mom.”
It doesn’t take an Elizabeth Anscombe or a Flannery O’Connor to read the subtext here. Strong, motivated women are tough enough for casual sex, and they will claim the best prizes in matters professional and romantic. It is the weaker, more sensitive women who settle, in both senses of that term. Rhodes instructs her young readers to “listen to their feelings” and “be true to themselves,” but soul-searching 18-year-olds rarely “discover” that they are B-track material. In effect, Rhodes is telling women that their promiscuous behavior will distinguish them as the cream of the crop.
Here we see the real tragedy of college hookup culture. All societies have promiscuous women, but most instruct young girls to aspire to something better. If bright, motivated women are taught to see promiscuity as a hallmark of strength and success, it will be the most promising and talented who will be enticed into self-destructive behaviors. This is especially unfortunate because Rhodes has at least one thing right: this is a confusing time in which to come of age, even for those who have been well instructed in sexual morals. Between a weak economy, a weak marriage culture, a tortuous maze of credentialing requirements and mountains of debt on every side, young people understandably find it difficult to assemble all the pieces of a good and fulfilled life. If young collegiate women yearn to be strong and capable, that is a good thing; strength and competence are certainly needed in these uncertain times.
It should be explained to them, however, that emotionless copulation is not a display of strength, maturity or toughness. In truth, nothing more clearly signals immaturity than an unwillingness (or inability) to acknowledge one’s real desires, and accept the consequences that naturally follow on the fulfillment of those desires. True maturity can be shown by shouldering the obligations that real adult relationships involve, or by accepting that it is possible to live without sex if the time is not yet right.
College students seem to be under the impression that they are preparing themselves for adult life. If that is so, they could hardly do worse than to immerse themselves in a culture that dismisses morally consequential actions as meaningless, while promising that real intimacy and emotional fulfillment stand ready and waiting in the not-so-distant future. If young people wish to prove themselves, however, they should be encouraged to do so by showing their awareness that actions have consequences, that choices involve trade-offs, and that physical desires need not always be indulged. These truths will ultimately serve them better than any other kind of credential they could acquire in their early adulthood.
Ambitious and competitive young women may be heartened to hear that they will have ample opportunity to demonstrate their worth in the adult world. It takes a great deal of strength and competence to persevere in a depressed job market. Marriage requires plenty more, as they figure out how to share and compromise, how to secure an income and keep a household running, and how to meet the enormous demands of those needy little people who are the natural consequence of sex. If, indeed, our universities are filled with energetic young women who are anxious to strive for excellence, that is wonderful news. We just need to encourage them to play the right game.
REGIS MARTIN: A Few Thoughts on Hooking-Up
It was the headline that did it—plus the usual catnip to whet the appetite, i.e., a scantily clad coed draped provocatively in dark shadows beneath the letters boldly splashed across the cover of the latest “Sunday Styles” section of The New York Times: “She Can Play That Game, Too.”
That was the warhead, intended as an obvious and unmistakable wake-up call for those of us who may have missed the latest development in what we have all been taught to call the hook-up culture. It seems that we benighted folk have got a lot of catching up to do. Despite what most of us grew up thinking we knew, despite the widespread impression that it is men who tend to lust after immediate and uncommitted sexual gratification, while women long for the permanence of love and romance, it is apparently just not so. More and more, it seems, it is the fairer sex that is looking to hook-up. “It is by now pretty well understood that traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline,” the article reports, “replaced by … hooking-up,” a fairly ambiguous term, to be sure, and one which can mean almost anything, just so long as it spares the partners any of the emotional entanglement of actually having a relationship. That would definitely be a downer (a real bummer, as the kids used to say back in the sixties), indeed the equivalent, as one bright coed put it, of a four-credit class. Who has time for that? Especially in elite colleges and universities where hard-charging women must learn to balance sex and study. “I definitely wouldn’t say I regretted any of my one-night stands,” reported one super-confident coed. “I’m a true feminist. I’m a strong woman. I know what I want.” And so, the article informs us, “she enjoys casual sex on her terms—often late at night, after a few drinks, and never at her place … because then she would have to wash the sheets.” Thank God for female fastidiousness, thus confirming the continuing superiority of women over against those swinish men they choose to sleep with. And, yes, they really do appear equally eager in driving this change, in setting the ground rules for the brave new world of hook-up buddies for which we had all better prepare ourselves.
Well the news was certainly an ice-breaker, let me tell you. Still, while it succeeded in shocking me, I will confess that it carried no surprise whatsoever. Instead it carried me back forty years or more to a moment on an airplane when, hearing for the first time an obscenity spoken by a young woman, I reacted with both shock and surprise. And not without some sense of irony, too, since I’d just finished nine hellish weeks of Basic Training during which that had been pretty nearly the most frequently used word in the entire lexicon of the U.S. Army.
And what if that bright young thing flinging the f-word had only known how witless she sounded in her crass and clueless imitation of soldier-speak, what then? Who knows, perhaps the mortification might have killed her. At the time, however, I was too stupefied to tell her.
The headline in the Times triggered another and very different memory as well, one which carried me at least as far back as the first. It was the fall of 1972, a month or so before Sen. McGovern’s bid to become President imploded before the huge Nixon landslide; and having survived an obligatory year in South Viet Nam, I was finishing out my Army stint in Kentucky. Well just about then the movie Last Tango In Paris made its initial X-rated appearance in art houses around the country. “One of the great emotional experiences of our time,” erupted movie critic Roger Ebert. “The movie breakthrough has finally come,” gushed Pauline Kael, whose enthusiasm so overflowed that she went on to predict a future as legendary for film as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had been for music. (Ms. Kael, incidentally, who was resident film critic at the New Yorker for years and years, exercised an enormous and wide-ranging critical clout, yet her predictions were not always spot-on. Following the McGovern debacle, for instance, she expressed genuine surprise at so lopsided an outcome inasmuch as she and everyone else she knew had all voted for McGovern … How could this be?)
So what was all the fuss about? And why bring it up in the context of today’s hook-up culture? Because, in a way, it all began with Last Tango in Paris, a movie as corrupt and corrupting as anything that had yet been made. Starring Marlon Brando as a middle aged expatriate wandering aimlessly about Paris after his wife’s suicide, the movie shows him stumbling into an empty apartment where, encountering a young woman, played by Maria Schneider, he more or less rapes her, seeking to purge himself of feelings of hurt and guilt over the death of his estranged wife. They thereupon engage, throughout the movie, in a series of endlessly sordid acts of purely anonymous sex, without either one of them ever learning the name of the other. “You and I are going to meet here without knowing anything that goes on outside here,” he tells her. “We are going to forget everything we knew—everything.” No names, only games. Only in the very last frame of the film will he learn hers, when she shoots him dead in the head. “My name is Maria,” she tells him, dispatching him with, one hopes, a pleasure that had otherwise eluded her along the way.
Now that was an ice-breaker. And if you’re looking for watershed moments in movie history, something to mark the real line in the sand separating various epochs of cinematic sensibility, here is your Exhibit A. The age of nihilism began here, and from its fallout one sees the vapor trail of destruction carrying us to the present moment. For what else is the game that she too can play if not an exercise in eroticism stripped of everything personal? Here indeed is a trivialization of sex so total as to flatten out everything save the animal appetites that animate it. No names, only games.
What makes it so heartbreakingly sad, of course, is that it is the woman who all at once appears so cheerfully complicit in all its depersonalizing and debasing aspects. What a bloody erotic mess we’ve made. This is not the world of Jane Austen, whose amusing and elegant satires of relations between the sexes presupposed a standard of not just civility, but an abiding sense of the sacredness of sex. There is no standard here. The young coed, for instance, whose regular hook-up we read about in the article, is not, we are emphatically reminded, anyone she could possibly be interested in apart from the occasional satisfaction she obtains from him in bed. They are not soul-mates, in other words. “We don’t really like each other in person, sober … we literally can’t sit down and have coffee together.” It is only when they are drunk that they can endure the exercise of sheer joyless copulation.
In fact, if it weren’t for the text message she sends to schedule the service, she needn’t even know his name. No names, only games. How will it all end? Probably not, as in Last Tango, with a bang; more like a whimper, I’d say, sounding the depths of the two hollow souls they have become.
Editor’s note: The lead image is a detail from Auguste Rodin’s 1882 sculpture entitled “The Kiss.”