A friend recommended Donna Freitas's The End of Sex to me months ago; at the time, I remember feeling skeptical, thinking that it was going to be a pulpit piece (especially given that the author received her Ph.D. in religious studies from Catholic University) about how sex is ruining college students’ lives.
I was sort of right.
Not in the way I expected, though. I expected the book to be pro-abstinence; instead, it turned out to be pro-critical conversation and agency. The End of Sex contains a strong critique of hookup culture as a ubiquitous force that places specific normative markers on the sex lives of university students in the United States; it argues that this culture is so dominant that students feel socially coerced into getting drunk and have meaningless (and uncaring) sex on the weekends, then gossiping and / or bragging about it. She says that students feel pressured to engage in hookup culture because they don’t have other relationship or sexuality models to fall back on, and that there are social repercussions for not participating or criticizing it.
For the purposes of this book, Freitas went to seven universities (both religious and secular, public and private) and conducted online surveys and in-person interviews, and had a selection of students maintain journals detailing their relationships. She touches on the history of hookup culture and spends a chapter defining it: who is involved, what it means, and where / why / how it takes place. There’s a chapter on the role of alcohol in casual sex and chapters on social expectations of young women and men in terms of sexual identity and gender roles: young women are expected to express their sexuality via acting as an object of men’s desires, while young men are expected to aggressively seek out sex and encouraged to disconnect from their emotions when it comes to sexuality. She talks extensively about theme parties on college campuses and how these parties promote and perpetuate sexual roles and identities. The last three chapters of the book are focused on ways to opt out of the hookup culture -- namely, virginity pledges, abstinence, and dating.
The chapter I found most fascinating was the dating chapter; most students that Freitas interviewed said that they had never been on a date; that furthermore, they didn’t even know how to ask someone out. Students said that for them, dating came post-hookup, if at all. That they desperately wanted to go out on dates, but didn’t. Freitas talks at length about a professor at Boston College, Kerry Cronin, who gave her seminar students the assignment of going out on a date (read more about it here). The students used the class as a justification to ask someone out -- as in, "Hey, I have this assignment where I have to go on a date, so, uh, you wanna go out sometime?" -- because they didn’t know how to just SAY to someone, “Hey, I like you. Want to get a cup of coffee?” There seems to be a strong disconnect between what young people want (or what they’re told to want vis a vis romantic comedies and television shows) and their lived behaviors.
Of course, the book made me reflect a lot on my college experiences; I definitely didn’t go on dates in university -- but I would have loved to. I never felt pressure to hook up like the students in Freitas’s book say they do, but I did hook up - a lot. All of my relationships in university started after I’d already had sex with my partners.
Not to say that Freitas is condemning this practice; rather, she’s encouraging an open dialogue on college campuses about what good sex is and why we engage in the sexual practices, attitudes, and behaviors that we do. About who we are sexually and what we want from relationships. She says that university faculty and staff “should be opening up young adults to a broad conversation about the many possible goods of sex and empowering them to ask about its meaning” (p. 11); that students need to be given space for personal reflection and a chance to discuss hooking up as just “one option among many for navigating sexuality and relationship[s]” (p. 186).As a university teacher, I think this is an outstanding idea. To me, the greatest strength of this book lies in the conclusion, wherein Freitas makes a call to action to folks who work at universities to open a discussion about sexuality, romance, and relationships in their classrooms, on panels, in special programs and lectures, and in freshman orientation. So often in university, students are taught to analyze and deconstruct theories, but never given the opportunity to discuss real-life applications of theories. Students should have a space in which they can talk about desire, pleasure, connection, and intimacy -- not just the possible negative outcomes of sex, which is what most college campuses focus on. She makes a very powerful argument at the end of the book that discussions of the personal enhance academic discourse and that conversations about how best to navigate our lived experiences is empowering. All this being said: I still hook up, and I love it. When I'm really into someone, I absolutely want romance, intimacy, and connection, and dates where we talk for hours on end are wonderful. But there’s also something special about getting a text message that says, “I’m going to pop in before meeting my friends on Saturday just so I can taste you.” Whew.
It’s important that there’s room for all kinds of sexual connection in our lives.