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It’s always slightly embarrassing to admit you’ve requested an advance review copy of a book mostly to make fun of it and/or get angry at it — even more so when the book in question actually turns out to be much better than you suspected it was going to be at first glance. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by its cover. Or, in this case, its title.

The book in question, this time, was Donna Freitas’ The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy (Basic Books, 2013). Oh, god, no, I thought. Another hand-wringing book about how Kids These Days Are Doing It Wrong. Another book blaming feminism or men or pornography or youth or [insert favorite moral panic here]. Another book where an adult spends an inordinate amount of time focused on the sex lives of teenagers: how much they’re having sex, how they’re having it, with whom they’re having it, and how they are (or should) feel about it when they do.

Yet I was pleasantly surprised. Donna Freitas is a skillful critic who manages to avoid many of the standard pitfalls of such journalistic studies. A professor of religion and gender studies, who also has a background in student life, Freitas’ previous work, Sex and the Soul (2008), examined the role of religion and spirituality in adolescent sexual decision-making. This new work centers the voices of undergraduates themselves, letting them describe in their own words how they navigate the sexual culture(s) of residential college life. Although Freitas does not discuss her research methods in detail, it sounds from the text itself that she collected written surveys, conducted face-to-face individual interviews, and asked study participants to keep a written journal documenting their reflections about sexuality and selfhood. These primary sources inform Freitas’ narrative throughout and serve to make her argument stronger — though not unassailable. I’ll get to my outstanding questions and irritations below, but first let’s talk about what I appreciated about The End of Sex:

  • An insistence on both female and male voices. Too often, books and articles on so-called “hook up culture” (i.e. Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked) focus on women almost exclusively. They take for granted that the hook up is a situation designed by and for men (who, our narrative of masculinity goes, are always ready for no-strings-attached sexual encounters) while women are losing out. Freitas actually admits that this was a narrative she herself bought into before she began her research. But in listening to actual young men, she discovered what sociologists like Amy Schalet have pointed out to us: that young men, like young women, yearn for emotional connection and meaningful sex. Yet they have learned to bury those desires under the shell of masculine bravado.
  • Calling out the gender binary. Freitas does a good job of pointing out how the cultural expectations around male and female sexuality constrain students’ ability to act on their authentic desires. Men, straight and gay, feel pressured to want sex all the time and bury their emotional-relational desires deep; to the extent they acknowledge those feelings, they’re likely to feel isolated without anyone to discuss them with (because all the other men around them are similarly self-protective and silent on the subject). Women, meanwhile, are walking the tightrope of that old no-win situation, the virgin/slut double bind. They’re expected to be willing (but not too willing); sexually ” pure” (but not too pure). Much like the high school “slut” — who may or may not have ever had sex — female college students struggle to manage their reputations in a world where too much and too little are equally derided.
  • Listening to students thoughtfully, and encouraging sexual agency. Too often, books on young peoples’ sexual habits end up caught in a rescue narrative, calling on us to “save the children (from themselves).” Otherwise known as concern trolling. Freitas resists condescension, writing with confidence in young peoples’ ability to change hook up culture from within into something that better suits their needs. Freitas also tries, with middling success, to resist a one-size-fits-all solution to young peoples’ dissatisfaction with hook up culture. While I think she could have gone further with this, that she acknowledged difference at all (including the fact that some students might thrive on casual sexual interactions) deserves a nod.
  • Distinguishing between the cultural narrative and personal reality. She points out that her study participants consistently report that “everyone else” is engaging in casual sex, while they themselves are dissatisfied with the scene and are seeking alternatives. Freitas could have interrogated this dissonance a little more closely, but, again, points for acknowledging that not all (or even most?) students are throwing themselves into a life of no-strings-attached sexual experimentation.
  • Human sexual variety. Unlike many of the writers who have looked critically at the practice of hooking up, Freitas intentionally brings queer students and queer relationships into the picture. One of the students she profiles at length — as someone who successfully resisted engaging in sexual activities he didn’t feel ready for or comfortable with — is a young gay man now happily in a serious, sexually-active relationship. She also notes the way young people report moving in and out of the hook up scene, rather than imagining once they’ve fallen off the deep end there’s no going back.
  • Encourages us to help young people learn good sex. And by “good sex” she doesn’t mean “sex only within marriage” or simply “safer sex” practices — but sexual intimacy that is wanted and enjoyable. Too many of the students Freitas spoke with seemed to feel caught in a cycle of sexual behavior they hadn’t actively chosen to engage in, yet didn’t feel able to say no to. The landscape of sex appears, in their view, to be one of “on” or “off,” where once you’ve said yes one time you might as well keep saying yes again and again — whether you really desire to or not. If this is an accurate depiction, it’s heartbreaking — and points toward the need sexuality relationship education that refuses to reduce the message to “abstinence only,” or public health messages about STI prevention.
  • The problem of alcohol replacing communication. While I question the extent to which all students everywhere depend on alcohol to grease the sexual relationship wheels, where it does happen, I agree with Freitas that it’s a worrying trend. Not only for the usual alcohol-consumption reasons but also because it isn’t serving users’ sexual pleasure and sexual agency well. Students report using the “I was trashed” and/or “my partner was trashed” line to explain away all manner of sexual activities in which consent was dubious at best, and mutual pleasure a distant ideal rather than a lived reality. 

So those are the good parts: This is a thoughtful, evidence-based study that centers the voices of the population Freitas is studying (male and female students of all orientations in four-year residential colleges). It resists gender stereotyping and heterocentrism. It also, for the most part, resists reactionary solutions such as calling on students to “wait until marriage,” or suggesting a (female) “return to modesty.” Instead, Freitas encourages educators and adult mentors to give students the cognitive and emotional tools to critically engage with their own sexual cultures, evaluate their sexual values, resist sexual activities that make them unhappy, and create sexual relationships (whether fleeting or long-term) that will bring them physical and emotional pleasure and satisfaction. There is little in this agenda that I would argue with.

Still, there are some outstanding questions I have about the way Freitas frames the problem of hook up sex and some of the solutions she has offered. In brief:

  • Blaming the usual suspects. In trying to identify where “hook up culture” comes from, Freitas relies in part on a number of usual suspects: pornography (for teaching poor sexual scripts), online social networking (for supposedly robbing young people of interpersonal skills), the pervasive use of alcohol by college students (see above), and the changing “rules” of relationship formation (without a “dating” template, and without clear gender roles, how and when to make the first move?). I find all of these unsatisfying in their explanatory power, though I’d agree that some of them are concerning in their own right. 
  • If hook up culture is a story about other students, how many young people are actually participating? I was confused by the fact that Freitas repeatedly pointed toward the way the majority of her interviewees were unhappy with the dominant campus cultural narrative of hook up sex, yet a) pointed toward everyone but themselves engaging in it, and b) even when they did report participating it, were doing so to a limited and unhappy extent. I kept wondering: if hooking-up-as-a-way-of-life is always something that someone else does, how much of a reality is it, really? To what extent is it a story we tell ourselves about college culture because we fear/envy college students and — since at least the turn of the twentieth century — have continually imagined their lives were sexually hedonistic? If students themselves have inherited this cultural narrative of college promiscuity — and thus imagine everyone around them is leading a much more sexually wild life than they are themselves — that’s definitely a cause for concern. But not equivalent to students actually engaging in said behaviors.
  • If students are so unhappy, why don’t they get off the merry-go-round? I admit my blind spot here: I attended college between 1998-2005 as a part-time undergraduate who only spent three semesters in on-campus housing (when studying on, paradoxically, off-campus programs). I was never steeped in student culture, generally interacting with peers in class and limited extracurricular activities. So perhaps I had greater social independence than most undergraduates to pick and choose the aspects of college culture to engage in. Living in my hometown, I still had the social networks of long-term friendships, extended family, church, and workplace to fall back on when it came to “opting out” of aspects of student culture I didn’t like — whether it was opting out of conservative evangelical chapel services or drink-fueled parties! Still, if students are truly expressing unhappiness with the college scene in such great numbers as Freitas suggests, why oh why are they not revising it? Students are, after all, the primary creators and perpetuators of student culture. 
  • The “her hands caressed” problem. I was having a conversation with a couple of fellow erotica writers recently in which we were joking about the problem of limbs with volition. You’re proofing a piece and you realize you’ve got someone’s hands or lips acting independently of the person who, in fact, controls the action. I felt like Freitas often fell into this trap with regards to hook up culture, writing about it as of this culture were an entity with independent agency. Cultural discourses, it is true, can exert powerful pressure on individuals and populations … but, usually, they only exist because someone benefits, or thinks they benefit, from maintaining that particular cultural narrative. The discourse of gender difference, for example, has vocal proponents who believe that men and women are essentially different. They have something at stake (religiously, relationally, or otherwise) in a vision of gender difference. Who are the defenders of hook up culture? By Freitas’ account, not the students themselves! And school administrators, faculty, and parents seem shocked by accounts of its existence. So what accounts for the rise of “the hook up” as something which young people feel they must engage in or at least contend with? This question went unanswered in The End of Sex.
  • What about young people not living in dorms on four-year residential college campuses? This is not really a criticism, since any research investigation has its limitations, but I found myself wondering throughout this discussion of hook up culture how generalizable it might be. I pointed out above that my own non-residential status as an undergraduate insulated me somewhat from campus culture. Surely this is true for others as well. Is the hegemony of hook up culture, as reported by Freitas’ subjects, isolated to certain types of undergraduate campuses? (She acknowledges, for example, that it is not so present on evangelical Christian colleges.) What is it like at community colleges? In trade schools? Art schools? Not in college at all? Are there certain populations within large campuses more immune or resistant to hook up culture than others? (i.e. commuter students, international students, students involved in sports? drama? politically engaged? religious students? students who have previously experienced a serious relationship?) I feel like the differences among students is often lost in Freitas’ narrative, subsumed under her urgent sense that all students experience the relentless pressure of hook up culture’s (disembodied) demands.
  • She blames (in part) technology for young peoples’ bewilderment about how to get to know potential romantic partners outside of drunken make-out session. I feel this is a simplistic cop-out. I am, admittedly, biased: my wife and I were introduced via email and spent a lot of our get-to-know-you time via chat and email. We both hate the telephone; for the six months before we moved in together (initially as roommates), I would get up extra early on workdays to catch her online before she had to leave for work; I did my homework after she went to bed, so we could talk online until she shut her computer down for the night. All of this internet connectivity supplemented and facilitated the things we did together in person: walks, movies, lunch at the campus cafeteria, sitting next to one another in class, theater and concerts, shopping excursions. In non-romantic life, I have sustained key relationships, from childhood through into adulthood, by “virtual” means: through postal correspondence, email, blogging, and other social networking tools. Thus, it is difficult for me to take seriously the argument that virtual communication somehow impedes… communication.
  • Why is “dating” the main solution offered to the problems of “hooking up”? Toward the end of The End of Sex, Freitas suggests that students might benefit from relationship education (yes! I agree!) and points toward a professor at Boston College (a Catholic university) who teaches a popular 1-credit class on relationships in which one required assignment for all students (regardless of gender and sexual orientation) is to take a romantic interest out on a date during the semester. The date assignment was, according to the professor, a terrifying and bewildering one for her students — although they also expressed appreciation that they were forced outside their comfort zone in order to pass the class. Freitas’ suggestion is that the structure of the date, however terrifying it is to initiate, provides a safe framework for getting to know a potential sexual partner without being wasted and without the pressure for instant sexual contact. I appreciate her point, but I also wonder why she overlooks the fact that more informal friendships can evolve into sexual relationships in healthy ways — and the more problematic aspects of dating culture that we don’t necessarily want to resuscitate? When I ran a draft of this blog post by my writing group, several members recoiled at the date assignment, not only because it felt intrusive to them, but also because their experience with dating wasn’t so hot either. As one member observed, “My son just graduated a small residential college where going on a date was extremely normative. This not only did not stop hooking-up and/or drunken sex, it also didn’t seem to improve relationships. It also really strengthened rather restrictive gender norms (who asked who, who paid, etc).” Another concurred, pointing out that her “dating” relationships had suffered from many of the same problems as more casual encounters. Perhaps, we mused together, the problem is not the hook up, per se, but rather misogyny?
  • What about “hanging out”? My wife and I were friends and roommates first, an intense relationship that evolved into courtship over a two-year period, and eventually into a sexually-active, committed partnership. We never formally “dated,” yet we weren’t hooking up either. Instead, we were good friends who eventually acted on the sexual possibility we both felt in our relationship. A third member of my writing group suggested that between “the date” and “the hook up” there’s this thing called “hanging out” — where you connect in the student lounge over pizza and a Walking Dead marathon and discover you fit together really well, in more ways than one.  “Hanging out,” at least in my experience, also carries a lot less baggage in terms of gender-based expectations for behavior. In my informal friend survey, “hanging out” seems to be an option for straight as well as queer couples, so I wonder why it’s invisible in Freitas’ narrative. Particularly when it has the potential to offer the best of both worlds: getting-to-know-you time without excessive alcohol or the pressure for immediate sexual activity.

In the end, Freitas’ The End of Sex is an addition to the literature on hook up culture that is better than many, despite its limitations. I devoutly hope it signals the beginning of a (dare I hope?) sea-change in the way we talk about relationship culture in the twenty-first century. As I finished this review, Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon.com offered up a lengthy interview with author Leslie Bell, who has recently published (yet another!) book on hook up culture, Hard to Get: Twenty-Something Women and the Paradox of Sexual Freedom. Clark-Flory enthuses that Hard to Get is “a nuanced look at hook up culture” that refuses to either downplay its pitfalls or deny its pleasures. That one’s on order at my local public library, and I’m looking forward to reading (and reviewing) it soon.

cross-posted at the family scholars blog.