'Coercion and Conformity and Despair': A Feminist Critique of Hooking Up

An interview with Donna Freitas, whose new book about the downsides of casual intimacy comes out this week
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Donna Freitas wants college students to get serious about good sex. But what she sees is a hookup culture that leaves students empty. Author of the new book The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, Freitas taught at Boston University, Hofstra University, and St. Michael's College and is the author of several books. I spoke with her on the phone about why hookup culture is the only option on college campus and why the biggest losers are, surprisingly, young men.


Your book is titled The End of Sex, but college students you spoke to seem to have plenty of sexjust not always in connection with meaningful relationships.

What I never intended to say with that title is that sex is over, or anything like that. I was thinking of it as a provocative way to talk about the meaning or purpose of sex. I have a background in philosophy of religion and gender studies, and when we talk of "ends," it's about ends in themselves, the purpose or meaning or "end" of something. Given current hookup culture, young people need to ask themselves: What does sex mean to me? They're living in the midst of hookup culture and struggling with it, but it doesn't seem to occur to them or anyone around them to ask questions about sex. For me, that's what that title is about. It's philosophical.

Why do you think campus hookups are something we should be concerned about?

When my students are happy, empowered, feeling good about themselves, and their self-esteem is high, I don't worry. When I see them depressed or ambivalent or second-guessing themselves—that sends a red flag. This is where I need to come in, sit and listen to them, and try to respond if I can. Even though most students will say they think a hookup can be good, the culture of hooking up is causing a lot of struggle and ambivalence, and that worries me.

How do you define "hookup culture"?

Three criteria I heard from students were that, one, it involves sexual intimacy—anything from kissing to sex. Some people assume "hookup" means heterosexual intercourse, but that's not the case. It might involve heterosexual intercourse or homosexual intercourse, or it might just be kissing. Two: it's brief—anything from ten minutes to a whole night. It doesn't mean it's a one-night-stand. And three: don't get attached. You're supposed to walk away emotionally unscathed. There's a social contract to the hookup—students know they're supposed to walk away not caring. What tends to be difficult is the walking away and not caring. They find that they're not so good at it. In theory, the hookup is a liberating sexual encounter with no strings attached. And some students experience it as liberating, or like having it as an option. But this is where talking about a culture of hooking up is important. Instead of the hookup being this exciting option, it becomes a norm. Students are limited to this one form of sexual intimacy.

In the '90s, you say hookup culture was "a town" people would visit, but weren't immersed in. Why is it different today?

When I went to college, it was something I could choose, but I didn't have to live within it for four years. When you walk out on your average college campus today, you're living in a culture of hooking up. If you don't want to live in that world, you have to opt out. There are social repercussions for doing that. Some students felt they needed to move off-campus because they didn't want to be part of it. To me that sounds extreme. You should be able to live on campus and not have to worry about it.

How is it different from the free-love movement and second-wave feminism in the '60s?

Even that phrase "free love" implies freedom and choice. The '60s was a response to restrictive sexual norms. You weren't supposed to be having sex, so you choose not to be a part of that way of thinking. There was also a lot of talk about love. Now, all these super-empowered, smart young people talk about hookup culture as if it's coercive. They're compelled to participate. All this sense of freedom is gone. It's not so much they're exercising liberation or responding to something restrictive. They're conforming.

One of my pet peeves is when people ask how feminism is "at fault" for hookup culture. It's absolutely not the fault of feminism. I am a feminist! I am intensely liberal, and have struggled myself. The fact that I'm pushing back on a culture that most people see as a culture of sexual liberation makes me nervous as a liberal feminist. I have to remind myself that when I talk to students, I see something that makes my feminist sensibilities cringe. It's not empowerment and freedom—it's coercion and conformity and despair. That's not what feminism is about.

What other factors affect the way today's college generation relate to each other?

The Internet is one of the things that really feeds hookup culture. It's all go-go-go, do-do-do, and that frenzy of always being on—and always being available—doesn't lend itself to much reflecting away from the social sphere. We're always immersed in it. Hookup culture is about being sexually intimate without thinking. You're not planning something out. A lot of it is about proving yourself socially, and I one thing I hear from students is that they're not necessarily hooking up because they want sexual satisfaction. They're hooking up because they want to tell other people they hooked up. It's this practice that everyone thinks you're supposed to be involved in. The public aspect is huge.

Do you think the college environment fosters hookups? What about off-campus students, or young people who aren't in school? Do they also engage in this culture of casual sex?

It can happen anywhere, but at college it seems to have a certain potency. Hookup culture at a small liberal arts campus is especially strong—even worse if that campus is in the middle of nowhere. On a small, rural campus, everybody knows everybody else, there are no parents around, there's nowhere else to go, and there's this sense that there's nothing else to do but drink and hook up. It's hard for students to find their way out of that sphere. For students in big city schools with thousands of students, there's hookup culture but there are other cultural options. They may think "if I don't like it here, there's stuff for me in the city." It isn't as monolithic as it is at the small schools, where it seems to dominate everybody's lives.

You write "students struggle in silence with their lack of options for sexual and romantic intimacy." Why can't they talk to their peers about it?

People ask, "If students disagree with hookup culture, why don't they get together and talk about it?" But there's a huge fear of dissent, to the point where it's hard to get my students to disagree with each other, even about a novel in class. There's a sense of pressure to agree on everything. My job was to get them comfortable saying something that may completely disagree with everyone else in class because that is what they truly believe. It's one of the most important things you need to learn at college. The idea that we need to collectively agree is part of what perpetuates hookup culture. Students may privately disagree but would never say it in public because they think everyone else thinks it's great. The stakes are high. The average student wants to fit in.

You compare the hookup culture to the "second shift" of houseworksomething that needs to be "checked off." But don't some students actually enjoy the act itself?

There will always be students who enjoy hookups. But to be good at hookup culture, to survive it, is to shut down emotionally. To be intimately, physically engaged with somebody and able to walk around not caring—the social contract of a hookup—you teach yourself to be callous, to turn off your emotions. Because you're teaching yourself not to care, you're also teaching yourself not to enjoy it.

Students say a lot of this sex "just happens." There's not a lot of agency. Why is there such a disconnect between students' intensions and actions?

That's the million-dollar question. It's really problematic when people don't see their participation of their own volition. There's a lot of complicated territory when people say, "I don't know how it happened." Some of it has to do with the social contract piece. You teach yourself not to care. You're disassociating yourself from the experience and feelings you might have and the person you're with. Students think, "I want to be with someone, but I have no alternative. And in order to this, I'm going to drink a lot of alcohol." So it's kind of a self-medicating thing. The alcohol helps students disassociate from the experience. I often say hookup culture is a culture of pretend. A lot of men and women are performing for each other, even though many don't want to engage in the performance. They'll say, "I woke up one day and was like 'who was I last night?' I don't see myself as someone who would do this."

Hasn't binge drinking always been a big part of college social life?

I don't know that there is any more drinking now, but I wonder if the reasons for drinking have shifted. I want to be careful saying that—drinking has always been that all-purpose excuse for brushing aside that crazy behavior you didn't think you were capable of. But the urgency of the drinking, the self-medicating aspect, drinking to "gear-up," to get ready to do something you don't necessarily want to do, is different. The playful or silly aspect of that seems to be a little bit gone. It's more high-stakes now. The liquid courage is needed for far less playful reasons.

Why does hookup culture need to be discussed alongside sexual assault?

If students wake up after a hookup and say, "I don't know how that happened," or "I found myself in bed and suddenly we were having sex," where is consent in that? Men and women are distancing themselves from their own agency. They're not saying "I told the person no," but they're also not saying, "I consented to this." There's a disowning of agency and consent. Where is sexual assault in hookup culture? What does it look like? We often think of sexual assault in more traditional terms, in terms of acts of consent. Passivity does not imply consent. But there's so much passivity in hookup culture. A conversation around sexual assault has to do with using words. But one of the things that hookup culture teaches is that communication makes you attached. We need to look at the values hookup culture teaches young people about sex.

Does hookup culture have different outcomes for men and women?

I was surprised by what men thought in private versus how they acted in public. To be a guy seems to never show vulnerability, to hide your true feelings. We worry in our culture—rightly—so much about girls. We don't seem to worry as much about young men. But our most at-risk population seems to be young men. I don't say that lightly. I have a gender studies background and have done so much work on women and girls and empowerment—but I think young men are the most at-risk. The greater distance between who you truly believe you are, who you want to be, and who you are in public—that's what puts you at risk. You're alienated from your support network. No one knows who you really are. To be a guy in college is to hide. There are exceptions, but I think guys are better at hiding than girls are. Girls are allowed to express themselves emotionally. They're allowed to say, "I'm hurting." Guys are never allowed to say, "I'm hurting."

How do gay students on campus fit into hookup culture?

I heard lots of young men who were gay complaining about the hookup culture. It wasn't different if you were gay or lesbian or bisexual. One of my most interesting conversations was with a lesbian who said that within hookup culture, everybody assumes that there's going to be girl-on-girl action. So many women are pseudo-lesbians in college. If you are a lesbian, not just once but for life, no one really believes you—you have to prove yourself. You never know if the partner you're with is just having her crazy fling to show everybody that she's so cool and she can do this. There's distrust. If you wanted to have sex with someone you love, it's tough, because to prove you're a lesbian you need to hook up with a lot of other women. That was one of the most jarring differences I heard about hookup culture—how it affected her sense of identity, her sex life, and changed the stakes for her.

Many women, including Hanna Rosin, argue that hookups empower women by offering sexual independence. What do you think about this?

Rosin's argument in The End of Men is really interesting. It makes a lot of sense. It's the hookup stuff where I get off. One critique is that she talked to women at parties when they were drinking. My number one rule was not to talk to students in groups, let alone at parties. All you're going to get is the performance. I don't see hookup culture as an empowering culture. I see it as a culture of pretend, where you're distancing yourself from what you truly want. It's a culture that limits choice. I'm not saying hookups should be banished, but I would be psyched if students saw a hookup as one among many options for sexual expression. When it's the only one, empowerment goes away. I also don't think we can define independence as rejecting a relationship. To put those things on opposing sides is problematic. What we need to do is figure out how our society can better accommodate relationships for both women and men.

You say a return to dating might help students figure out what they want out of relationships. But what if no dating culture exists?

I think dating culture is disappearing, to a degree, because of hookup culture. That would be okay if it didn't bother people so much. When I hear, "Oh my gosh, how did I get here," and "I feel so bad about myself, I feel empty, I feel lonely"—all the sadness, you worry. Students in college feel like they're missing something. No one is asking them out.

How should we view the religious response to the hookup culture?

First and foremost, with respect. The evangelical youth's "purity balls," and "abstinence only programs" are ridiculed in the mainstream press. While I can make a really solid critique of a purity ball, while I can go to town on it, I also recognize that there are many young women who have grown up in a particular culture, and might really thrive within that culture. If they're thriving, I'm not going to go ridicule them. That doesn't mean it's working for everybody. I think that liberals and conservatives are similar on the issue of sex—we're all trying to tell people what they should do. The problem is when one group decides what's the best for all people. Where are the programs working? Where are the students thriving? And where are they not? Just because it's a different point of view about sex than mine doesn't mean it's wrong.

Can you talk about how your own religious background has informed your views on sex?

I grew up Catholic. I learned all sorts of things about the "don'ts," "don't do it" being number one. I find the Catholic Church's teaching oppressive around sex. But it also made me ask a lot of questions and search for other responses. While I rejected a lot of what I learned, I appreciate the curiosity it gave me about such things. It wasn't a loss; it was just a challenge.

Did you discover anything in your research that you want to follow up on?

I want to look at conservative groups on mainstream campuses. They're the only organized, active response to hookup culture. I think that publicly they've been dismissed or looked at as quaint, weird, problematic. It's a missed opportunity. And it's disrespectful. One term that makes my pro-gay-everything sensibilities cringe is "sexual integrity." They talk about it in terms of waiting to have sex until marriage, marriage being between a man and a woman. But I do wonder about that term. Is it something we need to explore? If we unhook it from marriage and heterosexuality, it would be a really good term to think about. When we think about integrity we think about dignity and humanity and good things that most of us can get behind.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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