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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > September 2012 > Savvy Headhunters and the Hookup Culture
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Savvy Headhunters and the Hookup Culture

By Very Rev. Robert Barron

I first came across the term “hookup culture” in Leonard Sax’s thought provoking and disturbing 2005 book, Why Gender Matters. But the phenomenon itself I found beautifully depicted in a novel published a year earlier: Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. As Sax specifies, the hookup mentality—prevalent among even some very young people but especially among university students—dictates that casual sexual encounters involving absolutely no expectation of relationship, or even psychological engagement, are perfectly acceptable. Sax, a psychiatrist specializing in family therapy, learned of the hookup world from the veritable army of young women suffering from depression and anxiety who were streaming to his office. And through the figure of Charlotte Simmons—an innocent girl from North Carolina who utterly lost her way morally and psychologically at a prestigious university where casual sex and drugs were far more important than learning—Wolfe showed the debilitating effects of this self-absorbed and hedonistic culture.  

Now it would seem self-evident that such permissiveness, though prevalent, is morally problematic and something to be decried rather than celebrated. But peruse an article titled “Boys on the Side” in the most recent edition of “The Atlantic” in order to find a dissenting opinion. According to Hanna Rosin, the hookup mentality is, in point of fact, a great boon to women. She allows that lots of books and studies have pointed out the dark side of the hookup culture, the deep frustration and humiliation that can follow from transient sexual encounters, but she insists that steady questioning of typical young women today would reveal that none of them really wants a return to traditional morality. She argues, “For most women, the hookup culture is like an island they visit, mostly during their college years and even then only when they are bored or experimenting or don’t know any better. But it is not a place where they drown.” Why aren’t they destroyed by this sexual licentiousness? Rosin explains, “The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don’t get in the way of future success.” One might think that prevalence of casual sex would produce women who are sexual victims, but Rosin contends that precisely the opposite is the case. Young women who choose a variety of sexual partners and who assiduously steer clear of pesky relationships are “managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters.” Instead of being manipulated by powerful men, young ladies are happily becoming adept at manipulation. And here is Rosin’s grand conclusion: “The hookup culture is too bound up with everything that’s fabulous about being a young woman in 2012—the freedom, the confidence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself.”

Now I would like you to concentrate on that last statement. Notice how every virtue that Rosin cites—freedom, confidence, self-reliance—is a subjective disposition. No one in his right mind would contend that those attitudes are anything but good, but they are good precisely in the measure that they order a person to some objective value that lie outside of his subjectivity. We savor freedom because it is the condition for the possibility of pursuing the good in a responsible way; we think that confidence and self-reliance are worthwhile, because they enable one to achieve the good easily and joyfully. But if the question of the objectively valuable is bracketed, then those subjective dispositions lose their orientation and devolve, in point of fact, into something quite destructive.

What struck me throughout Rosin’s article was the complete absence of a reference to the objectively valuable in regard to sexual behavior. The purpose of sex? The meaning of the sexual act? The proper ethical, or dare I say religious, setting for sexuality? Never mentioned—and apparently irrelevant. All that seems to matter is that young people—especially young women—have the opportunity to define themselves sexually however they want, to “manage” their sexual activity “like savvy headhunters.” Can I suggest that that last phrase is telling indeed? When the realm of the objectively valuable is marginalized, the subject will inevitably fall back on herself, stewing in her own juices. And let’s be honest, left to our own devices, the vast majority of us will do what is most convenient and most selfish. (The Church, by the way, refers to this natural tendency toward self-absorption as the principle effect of “original sin.”) In the arena of sexuality, the one-sided stress on freedom and self-reliance will lead, in very short order, to manipulation, domination and indifference to relationship. But when the sexual impulse is ordered according to the objective values of love, commitment, marriage and the call of God, then it is transfigured into something radiant and rare.

The hookup culture is all about sexual freedom. However, it would be wise to remember a line from Bob Dylan, “Freedom, just around the corner from you/ but with truth so far off, what good would it do?” Sexual liberty without objective value produces a lot of savvy headhunters, but they will wind up in Dr. Sax’s office suffering from a deep sadness of the heart.

Posted: 9/12/2012 12:00:00 AM by Word On Fire | with 7 comments

You know I look back on the music of the 60's and 70's and most of the greatest songs are about young people wanting to give their lives to each other, whether in marriage or not. There has definitely been a cultural shift here. Rosin is best as an observer because the state of things she describes is in fact true in many circles, though not the whole story. The objective social reality that Rosin describes is college. I was until recently a young man part of that objective reality and I can tell you that the head hunters are a rough bunch to be around. The Feminist narrative has in some sects turned into the mantra of "you can have everything." Just pointing out the conflict that what a woman wants may cause pain to others is unfortunately lost in the discussion. Thank you for your article Fr. Barron. I just read Rosin's most recent book "The End of Men" and I have to be honest, this issue still gives me much anxiety.
10/5/2012 8:11:37 PM
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I agree with your last statement, Fr. Barron. I am a woman, too, and we always have this need to be loved until the end, to be cherished, to be told each day that we are loved. And well, loving demands mutuality. With freedom comes responsibility. Isn't it that our body is the temple of Love. And always with Loves comes respect. so, let us continue to pray that Love will enlighten the hearts of our young ones today.
10/8/2012 5:12:18 AM
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Brian A. Cook
Don't young people still want to find love? Don't young people still want to find justice and peace?
10/10/2012 4:58:15 PM
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Robert Roeder
Why is there nothing in this article about hooking-up being a mortal sin, punishable by hell fire? I can assure you that this fear kept me in the state of grace in my courting years during which the devil worked overtime. This fear also factors into my not missing Sunday mass in 82 years.

Why, or why, do we rarely hear the words sin, hell, devil, damnation preached from the pulpit or in writings like yours?
10/11/2012 3:05:12 PM
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Dear Fr. Robert,
Thank you for your tremendous homilies Cathy
10/13/2012 6:30:51 AM
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Dear Fr. Robert. thank you for your insightful homilies and the
tremendous wordonfire youtube clips/talks. I wish I had them when I was growing up I might have made some of the mistakes that I did in my youth had I had proper mentors in the Catholic faith but thankfully with the help of people like you I have moved on. You have been keeping me company long into the night while I listen to your wonderful wordonfire pieces, as I complete my thesis. You inspire me and give me so much hope in the beautiful teachings of the Catholic Church when so many want to put them down, to the extent that I sometimes despair for my children and the difficulties they will have to endure in practicing their faith, even to the point of questioning myself as to whether I should have raised them in the Catholic faith because of all the negativity they have to contend with from the media mostly, but often in their colleges that call themselves Catholic, where lecturers allow a free for all in the classroom on the subject of the Catholic Church, allowing all kinds of diatribe to be used by their students while they(lecturers) do not make any effort to speak the truths of our faith. Why these lecturers choose to teach religion instead of another subject I would like to know.Many of these lecturers have their own liberal agendas, believing women should be priests and opposing views on the teachings on sexuality by the Catholic Church which so very obviously lead to ordered society.While lecturers allow students to rubbish Catholic Church teachings they do little to teach the truth,and as you well know propaganda is one of the great weapons of war. Anyway thank you! thank you! for your solid and inspiring talks, they really help, I promote them as far as possible to all I know. I wish there were more lecturers who like you would set the world on fire, teaching with love and firm convictions in their faith. We are so blessed to have you in the Catholic Church, and I thank God for your effective presence.You make me proud (in the good sense) that I am a Catholic, knowing the truth it teaches, even in these times when many try to knock it but as you say so aptly said in one of your youtube pieces why would one be derogaory and negative about someone/thing else down unless they felt insecure and inadequate about themselves. May God continue to bless you in a very special way now and always. With much gratitude and love Veronica.
10/13/2012 7:29:13 AM
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"In the arena of sexuality, the one-sided stress on freedom and self-reliance will lead, in very short order, to manipulation, domination and indifference to relationship."

Exactly. Well put, Fr. Barron.

In other words, does this mean that when savvy headhunters (a la Hanna Rosin's suggestion and description, and with her blessing) get outplayed, outmaneuvered, and outhunted by a savvier headhunter, then the woman in question has no business complaining that she deserves better (and in our supposedly gender-indifferent society where gender is supposedly just a "cultural construct," what happens when women abuse other women)? ...that "this is the way the way the world works," so she'd "better suck it up and deal"? Why, then, should women's rights and women's dignity even matter at all, therefore, or are both of these things going to be predicated and centered on essentially taking advantage of anyone-- men or women-- that gets in the way of one's "freedom"?
11/5/2012 5:02:38 PM
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