'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

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.

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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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