The often discussed, much maligned, and occasionally defended "hookup culture" bears a name that perfectly captures the boring, lifeless, and dull sexuality that dominates the lives of too many young Americans. It is mechanical, technical, and instrumental. "Hooking up" sounds like something people in a bedroom would do with a desktop computer or DVD player, not something they would do with each others' bodies. It is a term belonging to machinery, not humanity.
George Carlin said that "language always gives us away." The term "hookup culture" turns the electrifying mystery of romance—powered by the surge of a smile from a stranger across the room, the heat generated by hands on an unfamiliar set of hips on the dance floor, and the sweet synchronicity of flirtation—into the predictability of an oil change.
In her important, wise, and brave new book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, Donna Freitas, scrutinizes, analyzes, and criticizes hookup culture after spending time on several college campuses interviewing thousands of students about sex, romance, and the social pressure to conform to a culture that, in her words, promotes and produces "bad sex, boring sex, drunken sex you don't remember, sex you couldn't care less about, sex where desire is absent, sex that you have just because everyone else is too or that just happens." The short book, written in the style of an informative and impassioned pamphlet, is painfully accurate in its assessment of the idiocy that passes for sexuality in the dormitory. Freitas' argument is well-researched and well-grounded, and she is sharp enough to condemn hookup culture on sexual grounds, rather than ethical grounds. Her solutions to the problem, jammed into the end of the book, are rather weak and unpromising, but her indictment couldn't be stronger.
Based on her discussions with college students across the country, Freitas provides three criteria for defining a hookup: 1) A hookup involves some form of sexual intimacy. 2) A hookup is brief—it can last a few minutes or, at the most, a few hours. 3) (This is the most important part) A hookup is intended to be purely physical in nature and involves both parties shutting down any communication or connection that might lead to emotional attachment.
Freitas describes innumerable stories of what passes for the romantic lives of contemporary college students—vet each through social media, eye each other at a party, drunkenly fall into bed, and escape before any thought of feeling can color the experience with the beautiful, but distractive stain of humanity. Highlights from the book include a young man masturbating into the mouth of a nearly comatose young woman, a young woman blowing a guy she just met because it "seemed like the thing to do," and countless couples going on "traditional dates" only after engaging in "serial hookups."
Freitas recognizes that the most lamentable aspect of hookup culture is not, as some social conservatives would argue, that it will lead to the moral decay of a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, but that it is so boring. Christopher Hitchens wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22, that there is nothing worse that boring people. Hitchens was correct, and even doubly so if one applies his wisdom to sexuality. Is there anything possibly worse than boring someone in bed?
Hanna Rosin, in her defense of hookup culture, wrote that it enables young women to seek out their sexual partners like "headhunters" thumbing through the most qualified applicants for an open position at a business, while maintaining freedom to focus their attention and energy on professional pursuits. It is difficult to imagine anything that sounds duller, and it is challenging to consider a more stiflingly narrow vision for a short life.
I teach literature courses at the University of St. Francis just outside of Chicago, and I've noticed that students rarely even flirt on campus (a big change since I graduated college in 2007). Freitas told me that she ends every course she teaches with a plea that students, in future classes, "try to look up from the laptops and various devices once in a while, to notice that there was a professor talking to them, and potential friends and romantic partners sitting in the room with them."