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.