Soulless Sex

The End of Sex – How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy

  • Donna Freitas
  • Basic Books, 2013; 240 pages, $25.99

If you have read one piece decrying the hookup culture on college campuses, you may feel you have read them all.  Hooking up degrades women, making them feel trapped, vulnerable, and alone.  Hooking up pairs well with pornographic role-playing and copious amounts of alcohol, blurring the lines between drunken sex and sexual assault.  In her new book The End of Sex, Donna Freitas echoes this assessment of the hookup culture on college campuses.  What distinguishes hers from other books is this: she also laments that the hookup culture deprives students of a meaningful sex life.

Unlike many authors on this subject, Freitas argues that the hookup culture “promotes bad sex, boring sex, drunken sex you don’t remember, sex you could care less about, sex where desire is absent, sex that you have ‘just because everyone else is, too’ or that ‘just happens.’”  Students, however, want to have a “a meaningful sex life, even a soulful one.”  Freitas wants students “to feel empowered,” “to look forward to the promise of sexual intimacy,” and “to look back on their experience with excitement and pride.”  The End of Sex, therefore, attempts to provide students alternatives to the soulless sex of hooking up and to advise college professors and administrators how to foster a healthy campus environment towards sex.  Despite Freitas’s seeming philosophical critique, her solutions are less than profound.

The End of Sex is an outgrowth of Freitas’s 2008 book Sex and the Soul, in which she interviewed students at private-secular, public, Catholic, and evangelical colleges about their attitudes towards religion and sex.  The result was a fascinating exploration of students’ deepest longings.  She discovered that students could not reconcile their attitudes about sex and their religious inclinations, that the hookup culture produced some of the deepest chasms.  Freitas notes in both books that the hookup culture predominates the social scene on college campuses, save for evangelical colleges where the purity culture reigns.  For The End of Sex, though, Freitas drops religion as a main theme and focuses on the hookup culture alone.

Freitas rejects the popular argument that the hookup culture benefits students—especially women—by allowing them to focus on school and have an exciting sex life without the hassle of a relationship.  (Hanna Rosin recently proffered this defense in an article for The Atlantic, “Boys on the Side,” and then in her book The End of MenThe New York Times also picked up the line of argumentation, highlighting female co-eds who gush at the ability to meet their late night sex buddy and keep up with coursework.)  To frame her discussion, Freitas first defines a hookup.  First, a hookup is physical but not necessarily sexual: it can include sexual intercourse but most commonly consists of kissing or oral sex.  Because a hookup could mean anything from making out to actual intercourse, students use this definitional vagueness to their advantage.  Women, Freitas notes, deliberately keep the details of their encounters vague.  Men, by contrast, tend to allow listeners to believe the hookup included much more than kissing.  Whatever the content of these encounters, hookups are brief: a hookup can last a few minutes, several hours, or, at most, a night.  Finally, and most importantly, hookups are “emotionally vacant,” purely physical interactions.  Emotion violates the purpose of a hookup.  In short, Freitas summarizes, “a hookup is a sexual act that thwarts meaning, purpose, and relationship.”

Complying with the third element is the most difficult for students, according to Freitas.  Typically students use alcohol to achieve the requisite emotional deadness.  Freitas notes that alcohol transforms “the politest, nicest students into people who commit shocking, reckless, and dangerous behaviors” and is the “ingredient that students turn to in order to overcome their hesitation.”  Almost half of the students Freitas interviewed said they had been drinking when hooking up.  Even if they had not been drinking, students would pretend to be intoxicated, as alcohol absolves them of their sexual decision-making.  Alcohol and the requirement to remain emotionally distant also complicates conversations about sexual assault.  This combination of hooking up and alcohol has students, according to Freitas, “not saying no, but barely saying anything at all, including yes.”

Alcohol lowers students’ inhibitions, and “theme parties” allow them to further distance themselves from sexual decision-making.  They are not themselves; they are role-playing.  Sadly, the pornography industry provides the framework: for instance, party themes consist of Professors and Naughty Schoolgirls, or Superheroes and Supersluts.  Women arrive to parties barely dressed and attempt to fulfill their male classmates’ sexual fantasies.  Theme parties are an oasis of “shame free and guilt-free activity, where students are able to play roles of pimp and whore as if they were acting in a play.”  Leaving the party means leaving behind whatever happened there.

The hookup culture degrades both women and men.  The culture’s measure of “womanliness” is the ability to be raunchy.  Women think that to please men, they need to dress provocatively.  Men have been accused of perpetuating the hookup culture, but Freitas found that “many men were just as stressed out by the hookup culture as the women.”  Like their female counterparts, men are playing a part, thinking that they must appear sex-crazed and vulgar.  Men and women alike feel sad, ashamed, and ambivalent about their participation in the hookup culture.  They want “long-term relationships, dating, love, and romance” but do not see their sex lives as living up to their deeper desires.  As Freitas reveals, some students have attempted to opt out of the hookup culture—through virginity, abstinence, and dating—to find meaning in sex.

Virginity, in Freitas’ telling, is a nebulous concept, lacking both a fixed definition and any reference to God, religion, one’s family, or the community.  Indeed, virginity is a private definition, “determined by personal experiences, trial and error, and the need to participate or have something to hold back within the hookup culture.”  At most, it provides a boundary for how far a student will go.  But virginity, Freitas believes, is not a long-term solution.  None of the students Freitas interviewed at the Catholic, private-secular, and public institutions said that they were “saving sex for marriage,” and few admitted to even saving sex for love.

Abstinence, according to Freitas, is another way to opt out of hooking up.  Conceptually, abstinence and virginity overlap.  For Freitas, virginity means one has never engaged in any type of sexual activity.  By contrast, abstinence means refraining from having sex and therefore can apply to those who have been sexually active.  Abstinent students have sought support and community through groups such as the Anscombe Society and the Love and Fidelity Network.  These societies seem to be exactly what Freitas wants: groups with a serious critique of the hookup culture, providing a safe space for students who do not want to participate, and calling for meaningful sex.  Yet Freitas is strangely ambivalent towards such groups.  She admits that they have provided an effective counter to the hookup culture, but she opposes these societies’ conservative politics.  Specifically, these groups argue that marriage is the proper context for sex.  Freitas, though, wants a broader understanding of abstinence to include those students who “want to continue to have sex, irrespective of marriage, but who may simply want to rethink the sex they are currently having.”

Freitas has great faith in reinvigorating dating.  Dating “could lead to more students experiencing sex that is good, empowering, pleasurable, connective, and constructive to their self esteem and relationships with others down the road.”  The hookup culture skews the dating culture.  To the extent that students form couples, their relationships usually begin as regular hookups.  Consequently, students usually have had sex before they have had a conversation.  These couples go on traditional dates, once their serial hookups have turned into a steady relationship.  Students do not know how to date; they lack dating practices, habits, or interpersonal skills.  Freitas applauds one professor who created a seminar class that assigned students to go on a date.

Freitas advises professors to encourage students to evaluate critically their own lives and weekend activities.  The texts to guide these conversations are already in the syllabus: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Augustine’s Confessions, and Plato’s Symposium.  But she warns that “‘good sex’ may mean different things to different people.”  Through these conversations, students should see that hooking up is one of the many possible options for a meaningful sexual relationship, and “it is their right to choose which option is best for them.”

If hooking up is as meaningful as long-term dating, or marriage, however, why 200 pages of hand-wringing about how hooking up damages men and women and leads to bad sex?  Freitas’ solution falls flat, because her “meaningful” sex proves to be an empty term.  Her goal is to help students feel “proud” of their sexual decisions.  Despite invoking the classic texts of the Western cannon, Freitas seems more interested in helping students become self-satisfied rather than self-reflective.  The examined life is a critical life.  It can lead to contentment or happiness, to use an Aristotelian term.  It can also easily foster feelings of vulnerability and weakness, as Augustine experienced.

Like the hookup culture, The End of Sex suffers from a lack of soul.  In Sex and the Soul, Freitas presents students as divided souls—attempting to reconcile their sexual longings with their relationship to the divine.  The End of Sex analyzes the hookup culture in order to save students from feeling torn about their sex lives.  Freitas wants sex to be empowering and soulful.  She also wants hooking up to be considered as equally meaningful as a long-term relationship or marriage.  Thus, she condemns the hookup culture only to endorse it in the end.  The sex Freitas offers is still soulless.

Julia Shaw is a writer in Washington, D.C.