The Hookup Culture and Its Discontents


The End of Sex is a frustrating book. Author Donna Freitas, a self-described feminist, has written a thoughtful and richly-researched study of how the sexual culture on contemporary campuses shortchanges many college students. She draws from a rich data base, namely, a multi-year survey of students at different colleges supplemented by the author’s own experience in residential or student life. Yet Freitas’ recommendations–based around a call for faculty and administrators to guide students more in such matters–would almost certainly make things worse, given the professoriate’s ideological alignment.

Freitas detects three basic characteristics to hookup culture: some form of sexual intimacy; which is brief, lasting no more than a few hours over a single night; and which is intended to be purely physical, not anything approaching emotional attachments. “If a person brackets all emotions and feelings of attachment,” she argues, “a hookup becomes an efficient form of sexual interaction. Today’s students tend to be overcommitted and extremely busy, and they don’t have the time (or at least are socialized to believe they don’t have the time) to get serious about any one person,” leading to a practice that “creates a drastic divide between physical intimacy and emotional intimacy.”

Freitas argues that a hookup culture as a “normative” campus experience is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the last decade, hooking up was seen, at most, as one of several lifestyle choices, but not the dominant one. She shows that the expansion of the hookup culture has in large part been fueled by alcohol–an “unbelievable amount of drinking that goes on among the students after dark.” In her discussions with students, “the relationships between drinking and the party scene, and between alcohol and hookup culture, was impossible to miss.” Less convincingly, she posits a link between the hookup culture and both student theme parties and pornography.

Drawing from anonymous surveys and follow-up interviews with a smaller group of surveyed students, Freitas concludes that while students seem to accept hookup culture, actually most are deeply troubled by it. They long for more meaningful commitments, rather than simply casual sex. Media, friends, and parents, she discovers, reinforce a troubling norm that long-term relationships in college aren’t possible.

Lisa Mogilasnki is precisely the type of student about which Freitas writes. The Harvard sophomore recently penned an op-ed for USA Today expressing her discomfort with the alcohol-heavy hook-up culture, noting that it can pressure female students in particular into behaving in ways they otherwise would not. “Hookup culture,” Mogilanski wrote, “seems like a perversion of what human relationships ought to be. Its distinguishing feature is its lack of discretion, except on the dimensions of physical attractiveness and proximity. Its participants seek out anonymity, creating taboos like ‘dormcest.’ They implicitly acknowledge that their actions are never really emotionless, at least probably not for both people.” In the end, she contended, the culture leaves both genders feeling “equally impoverished.”

The most interesting chapter of Freitas’ book traces the fate of the Anscombe Society, a student group formed at Princeton in 2005 “dedicated to affirming the importance of the family, marriage, and a proper understanding of sex and sexuality.” The group urged creation of a Princeton Abstinence Center, and members told administrators that they felt stigmatized for their views on campus. Despite skeptical, and at times almost hilariously hostile, coverage in the local and national media, Anscombe enjoyed a considerable level of support from Princeton students, since they appeared to be about the only entity on campus challenging the assumptions of the hookup culture. Similar groups sprang up at other Ivy League schools. To Freitas, this development shouldn’t have surprised anyone: an audience exists for such groups, not merely among socially conservative students “but also among students who are uncomfortable with hookup culture for a variety of personal reasons.”

At the same time, however, their basic principles limited the appeal of socially conservative, religious groups like Anscombe. On most campuses today, relatively few students, even Catholics or mainline Protestants, consider it reasonable to adhere to their religious denomination’s view of appropriate sexual activity. According to Freitas, while “God isn’t much of a factor in the average college student’s decisions about sex, their peers are a factor–indeed, a major factor.”

Moreover, by linking their opposition to the hookup culture to an opposition to same-sex marriage (the group’s mission statement celebrated sex only in “its proper context: that of marriage between man and woman”), Anscombe and like-minded organizations alienated the “larger, silent majority of students on most university campuses who are not happy with hookup culture but would never align themselves with such politics.” (A recent Washington Post poll showed more than 80% of voters under 30 support same-sex marriage.) On this matter, Freitas argues that Anscombe reflects the more general perspective of influential abstinence theorists, such as Mark Regnerus, who also are well-known for their anti-gay activism. Anscombe’s anti-gay-sex agenda also provided an excuse for Princeton president Shirley Tilghman, a paragon of political correctness, to dismiss the group’s broader concerns altogether.

To avoid the type of difficulties that Anscombe faced, Freitas proposes encouraging faculty and administrators to help students use “tools” for assessing problems with the hookup culture and its symptoms, even to aid students in finding “meaningful alternatives” to the hookup culture. But as recent examples show, this idea is extremely problematic.

Take, for instance, an ambitious, highly public, attempt by Duke faculty and administrators to give students the “tools” to improve campus culture. After his cancellation of the 2006 men’s lacrosse season, Duke president Richard Brodhead created a “Campus Culture Initiative,” designed “to evaluate and suggest improvements in the ways Duke educates students in the values of personal responsibility.” The move garnered widespread support from “activist” faculty members; History professor and former Duke provost William Chafe argued that “the events that we know took place reflect underlying realities of student culture, at Duke and at American colleges and universities generally, that cry out for attention.” Among the events that Chafe purported to “know” at the time he penned his op-ed: that something “happened” to false accuser Crystal Mangum. The Campus Culture Initiative final recommendations were almost a caricature of political correctness, coupling a demand to de-emphasize athletics with a call for a new required course taught mostly by the infamous Group of 88.

It might be, of course, that the pedagogical and ideological alignment among Duke’s administrators and “activist” faculty is unusually pernicious. It might be that at most campuses, faculty and administrators wouldn’t exploit the cause to advance a form of far-left Puritanism. But I very much doubt it. The experience of Delaware’s Residential Advisor program, so ably exposed by FIRE, mirrored that of Duke’s Campus Culture Initiative.

In the end, then, Freitas’ offering is a depressing one. It identifies a major problem in contemporary campus culture. But the book not only offers no meaningful way of addressing the problem, it recommends a solution that would have far-reaching, harmful effects in empowering the worst excesses of politically correct faculty and administrators.

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, and co-author, with Stuart Taylor, Jr.,  of  “Until Proven Innocent,” a detailed account of the Duke lacrosse non-rape case.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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2 thoughts on “The Hookup Culture and Its Discontents

  1. This author of this article has already admitted defeat. By making the assumption that living by one’s supposed religious principles is unattractive and unfeasible, and by denigrating the sort of conservative morals that produce the outcomes the author of the article appears to desire, the author abandons any hope of actually achieving those outcomes.
    The author appears to adhere to the same progressive, moral relativism that spawned the campus culture. If no behavior can be labeled wrong, if nobody can be shamed, then nothing can be prohibited or effectively discouraging.
    More dispiriting is that these students appear to be coming into college with the progressive agenda already fully internalized through more than 12 years of progressive schooling and the “guidance” of morally-adrift baby boomer parents (or parents of subsequent generations).

  2. It seems to me that we should be teaching people to resist peer pressure and to assume personal responsibility for choices well before entering college. Male and female alike.

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