Three 20-something women trying to figure out what it means to be lay, Catholic, and modern all at once.

March 24, 2009

Countering the Hook-Up Culture

As I prepare my high school senior students for commencement, I am trying to help them to grow eager for all that awaits them at college. I paint them a picture of my own experience: I find myself in a cozy sweater and jeans, a mug of coffee in hand, under my favorite tree between the library and the chapel on campus. With me I bring three people - a real, live friend to study with, and two people whose words I will read and decide whether or not they will be kindred spirits or people with whom I will engage in a continual debate...on this particular day Dante and Kant...Dante who has become a lifelong friend and Kant someone whom I keep at an arm's length. I explain to my students that there is no other time in one's life in which you have this luxury of learning...not only about the world around you, about the world that came before you, but most importantly about yourself. You pick and choose the ideas and people, the characters and ideologies that you want to make your own. You live, eat, and recreate with your friends...discovering things about yourself that you never knew and things about others that you couldn't dream of. I paint the exciting picture of a college atmosphere of the the dining hall, the classroom, the intramural fields, and the places on campus where meaningful moments happen.

But what do I tell them about relationships? What do I tell them about the hook-up culture? When I was in school the end of "dating" and the beginning of "hooking-up" was just taking off, and now it's the accepted norm. I never felt pressure to go back to my dorm with a guy because 1) I was known on campus as someone that you dated and didn't attempt to seduce and 2) I tried not to put myself in those situations. But some of my friends did find themselves tempted and some found themselves convinced that it was better to "hook-up" then to be single or feel unattractive.

The thing is, my students are experiencing this already. What was just beginning to be the norm in college is now the norm in high school...there are very few relationships...if they do exist, my students feel even more pressure than ever before to have sex within the first month or so. And so I'm not sure how to broach the subject (I feel "if" is already long gone because to ignore it would be tragic). I have taught them sexual ethics and spoken about it in bits and pieces before, but I'm not sure how much to get into as their teacher.

I continually promote Wendy Shalit's two books The Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue and Girls Gone Mild: It's Not Bad to Be Good. Some of my students laugh at me while others have voiced appreciation for this. In a culture where there are so many sexual options, we're told that there really are are either liberated or you're not, and if you're not, then you are not a sexual human being.

Robbie George and John B. Londregan recently addressed this issue: universities that promote acceptance for different sexual orientations, experimentation, and "hooking-up" also need to provide information and options for those who are living chastely. Young men and women who are more interested in dating and sexual intimacy in its virtuous (note, not prudish) form are without anywhere to turn and are led to believe that they are somehow alone or misguided about what sexuality is. Why can't university students be educated on the "lifestyle choices" of those who choose chastity? It seems that if the chaste way is no longer the norm, then it at least needs to be safeguarded and respected as a viable option.

I feel so incredibly blessed that in my college years I learned about myself: my body-image, my beliefs, my sexuality from peers, friends, professors, priests, and people like Dante, Kant, Doestoevsky. I was privileged to discover who I was meant to be. I pray that my students will also discover this about themselves, and that "hooking-up" should be more akin to scaling a wall or rockclimbing or something...pick by pick, foot by foot, moving up towards something greater than what presents itself in the immediate.


Susan Walsh said...

I really appreciate your thoughts on the topic of hooking up. I blog about this very issue at I became interested (and then obsessed) with the culture and its implications when my daughter was in high school. Now she is a sophomore in college and finds it very difficult to navigate. Like you did, she has a rep for not hooking up, and it leaves her without many male admirers, that's for sure. Anyway, check out my blog. You may find it a bit, er, risque - my approach is not to question the morals of hooking up, but rather to encourage girls to be smart about it by respecting themselves and insisting on respect from guys. I've only been blogging 4 months, but have built a nice following - girls seem to be able to relate.

Edith Magdalene said...

This is a great post, Julian. I also don't really know what to do about this. I find that being a grad student at a large public university, the students I encounter are already far into in the hook-up culture. There's a good community here of students who seek more. Usually students are so broken...that's the way they come to here and the way I encounter them. I've never read the books you recommend -- I tend to go with Dawn Eden's "The Thrill of the Chaste." That's a favorite of mine, because I think so many modern women can relate to it.

I love Susan Walsh's most recent blog post on Samantha Jones. It's hysterical. But I think shows like Sex and the City are indicative of something so wrong. I don't know about you, Julian -- but most women I went to high school with worship the ground the Sex and the City girls walk on. They emulate their every move. And that's really problematic...

I do think it's important to know the moral basis of why the hook up culture is wrong. But Susan Walsh has it right when she says that women should respect themselves and insist that men do too. And you know, that's not too much to insist upon. With that respect, women will hold more power than they realize. said...

You sound like a wonderful teacher; I wish I had had someone to help me understand the benefits of college.

Re countering the hookup culture: Morals aside, you can provide some scientific grounds for choosing not to hook up. As researchers learn more about oxytocin, their findings indicate that this neurochemical is central to trust and love.

Oxytocin is released in the brain during sex and orgasm, where it combines with dopamine to make us feel bonded to the sex partner. Nature's idea seemed to be that a couple having sex would stay together to raise their children.

Unfortunately for young people, the boys' higher testosterone levels both make them more anxious for sex and less susceptible to the bonding effects of oxytocin. Because estrogen enhances oxytocin's effect, girls tend to feel much more bonded after sex -- even if they thought it was just a hookup.

This sudden bond can make a girl feel lonely, heartbroken and devastated after hookup sex.

So, it's not just a question of following an arbitrary-seeming moral code (although morale codes are good and necessary, too), but of protecting one's feelings.

Angela Miceli said...

I think that is onto something there, Julian. In our culture, whether we like it or not, the morality of sexuality is often much neglected. People are more concerned with their own subjective feelings. "It's my body and I can do whatever I want with it." Sometimes, we just have to meet people where they are. So perhaps an argument that appeals to personal feelings is an in, a start. Then introduce the more philosophical (and perhaps, dare I say moral?) questions such as "What is my body?" "Why do I have it?" "Why does it matter what I do with my body?" Gotta get those wheels turning too. It cannot just be a concern for one's own feelings and emotions that ultimately will change their minds and hearts...

virtualredhead said...

I am so, so, so tired of the notion that women are, still, supposed to be the sexual "gatekeepers"--as if it's physically beyond the reach of a man to keep it in his pants.

Case in point, Steve Harvey's recent book, "Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man." Bizarre cookie metaphors aside, Harvey basically chides women who "give it up" too soon (inside of 90 days, according to Harvey) for acting "desperate."

More here: Steve Harvey Wishes You Weren't Such a Slut

tk said...

I am fascinated by your treatment of this difficult & agonizing, yet critical topic. I would invite you to check out Donna Freitas' article (which may be more of a help to your students)

In the meantime, keep blogging & praying.

continued lenten peace,

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