Don't Blame 'Hookup Culture': Romance Always Involves Failure and Despair

Whether you're having lots of sex or having no sex at all, navigating intimacy is inevitably difficult

Wikimedia Commons

A couple years back, an old friend from college whom I had almost but not quite dated explained to me why we hadn't. She said she'd decided she wanted to play the field, and didn't want to hurt my feelings.

To which I wanted to say, hey! I was out there in the field! You could have just said, "All I want is sex!" And I would have said, "That's fine!" I'm not proud.

Of course, it's funny now; I've been married 13 years, thank you, and the field no longer matters. But that doesn't quite change the fact that I was in that field for a long time, and it was bleak and grim and blasted with pits of despair—a kind of Mordor of interpersonal inadequacy. I know that college for some is a sexual cornucopia—David Heatley went to Oberlin around when I did, and screwed everything that moved, according to his comics memoir My Sexual History. That Oberlin wasn't my Oberlin, though. While at school, I dated no one; I didn't even kiss anyone, all through college and beyond...until I met my wife, in fact, in my late 20s.

This wasn't a matter of choice. I wasn't saving myself. I was just confused and shy and (I like to tell myself) a bit unlucky. And in some sense, my reserve worked in my favor. I had to wait for someone who was very sure of herself and very sure I was what she wanted. ("I guess I was maybe a little pushy at first," my wife commented. To which I could only reply, "At first?") Also, I got to tell my wife-to-be I was a virgin while we were in bed. She looked about as stunned as if I'd declared I had three penises. I wouldn't give that memory up for anything.

So where does that fit me in the ongoing discussion of the (much-overhyped) current college hook-up culture? Well, David Masciotra, who lamented the "boring, lifeless, and dull sexuality that dominates the lives of too many young Americans" earlier this week here at The Atlantic, might say that I was doing it right. It's true that Masciotra doesn't advocate abstinence, but fulfilling sex with strings attached. Still, in line with his advice, I didn't do hookups; I waited until I was emotionally invested. I had no intercourse without "risk, commitment, and depth," and only intercourse that led to love.

Slate's Amanda Hess, on the other hand, would perhaps see my sexless college (and later) years as linked a culture uncomfortable with sexuality.* In this view, I was the victim of my own internalized Puritanism. She advises my younger self, "Make out, but respect the person you kiss. Ask them out, but respect when they don't want to date you anymore. Or just don't have sex, but respect the people who do."

I guess if I have a choice I'd rather think that my sex life has been right (per Masciotra) than that it's been wrong (per Hess). But really, neither of their discussions fits my experiences especially well. Masciotra emphasizes the banality and emptiness and sadness of hook-up culture—which is fine, I guess, but doesn't really have much to do with the banality and emptiness and sadness of my (sexless) teens and twenties. Not that I was an especially sad or miserable person back then. I'm not given to depression, I had plenty of friends, I was busy and happy in lots of ways. But there was one way in which I was not happy, and it mattered. And the pressure I felt was not really pressure to have sex, or at least not only to have sex. It was pressure to have a relationship. The meaningful romance Masciotra suggests as a salvific alternative to meaningless sex—I was already aware of not measuring up in that regard. For me back then, Masciotra's post would have just been another voice in the cultural chorus telling me I'd failed.

Hess's description of college as a time of sexual unhappiness rings true in some sense, though her alternative world of sexual happiness through respect and choice perhaps less so. I didn't hate anyone else for having sex, and I certainly didn't think women owed me sex. And yet, the result was not, as Hess posits, happy sex, nor, for that matter, happy abstinence. I absolutely agree with Hess that slut-shaming and misogyny are bad in themselves. But I somewhat resent the implication that my inability to sexually self-actualize was a result of my own "negativity" and/or of a refusal to treat my peers with dignity. She and Masciotra have different solutions—more sex! less sex! more respectful sex! more meaningful sex!—but they seem united in placing the moral blame for their unhappiness upon the unhappy.

To be fair, it's hard to see unhappiness without casting blame. Heather Love, in her book Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, talks about this in the context of queer history and queer scholarship. She argues that there's a huge desire, by queer writers and queer activists, to frame gay identity in terms of pride and empowerment. As a result, histories of sadness and loneliness are often pushed aside as aberrations; blips resulting mostly from oppression, and perhaps secondarily from personal weakness. The goal of Love's book is to push back against that consensus -- to, as her title says, "feel backward," both in the sense of remembering lost feelings, and in the sense of embracing retrograde emotions; the sadnesses that the queer community would rather erase or explain away.

I don't for a moment think that my experiences were as painful as the kinds of excruciating bullying and silences and oppression that queer people face. But just because I'm not precisely who Love's talking about, that doesn't mean she doesn't speak to me. Certainly, writing this essay and acknowledging the atypical sexuality of my teens and twenties feels, in a small way, like coming out. Straight men aren't supposed to be virgins into their late 20s. If they are, they're supposed to be ashamed of it—as I am, still, to some extent. I'm quite certain that some readers here will see even such a small confession of deviance as an excuse to ridicule me, or question my masculinity. And, for that matter, the fact that I knew I wasn't performing my masculinity correctly was no small part of why, during my teens and twenties, I often felt sad, and isolated, and wrong, and misshapen.

Of course, lots of people in college—and for that matter, after college—feel sad and isolated and wrong and misshapen. Sex and sexuality and relationships are an intense source of stress for many people. People often talk about college as a time of experimentation and excitement and fun, and it is that for many people. But it's also, if teen suicide rates are any indication, a time of considerable misery.

Pundits are paid to explain how to fix things, so it's not especially surprising that Masciotra and Hess and others see misery as a symptom to be cured, or a problem to be solved. I certainly felt like a symptom and a problem myself, and, now that I'm older it's hard not to look back and say, well, I got married, and that was the solution, and it's all good: learn from my wisdom college students! But...I wasn't any less real back then than I am now, and my sadness then wasn't any less real than my happiness now. Nor, for that matter, is happiness guaranteed forever. At some point, declaring, "It gets better!"—or, relatedly, "I have the answers!"—starts to feel like maybe you're tempting fate.

In that spirit, I'll admit that I don't really know how college students should all start having mind-blowing, non-boring, incredibly respectful, loving sex right now this minute. Nor do I feel qualified to demand that the younger and less wise fulfill themselves on my mark. Instead, the best I can do is to point out that confusion and despair and emptiness and all those backward feelings aren't aberrations or mistakes, and that the people who have them aren't failures. Or, rather, the people who feel that way are failures—just like all the other humans.

This post originally misidentified the author of the Slate article. We regret the error.