Here are three things that I think are true:
- Sex is good (if you need to be convinced of this, I’m not sure it’s worth your time to read the rest of this article).
- Sex is still good outside of marriage or a long-term committed “relationship.”
- Hook-up culture, to the extent that there is such a thing, is bad.
Maybe these statements are obvious. But I put them next to each other to illustrate a broader point: Hook-up culture is bad because sex is good. Too often, discussions of hook-up culture reduce the question to an either/or: Either sex is good, in which case the hook-up culture is good; or sex is bad, in which case, put it away and wait until marriage.
I don’t think this is a particularly helpful way of thinking. Note that the either/or formulation above hinges entirely upon one’s judgment about whether sex outside of a relationship is good. But like any action or interaction, sex takes place within a particular cultural context, and it seems entirely conceivable that a good thing could be made bad by the culture in which it takes place. My goal here is to move beyond the sex negativity that pervades opposition to the hook-up culture and to gesture towards a critique of hook-up culture that is, at the same time, a defense of (non-committal) sex.
(I should note that I’m dealing primarily with heterosexual encounters, these being the only form of hook-up culture that I can, shall we say, reflect on first-hand. A closer analysis, taking into account sexuality, race, class, gender identity, etc., is necessary if we are to adequately address our narrowly heterosexist assumptions about a monolithic “hook-up culture.”)
In lieu of a concrete definition, let’s consider some characteristics of hook-up culture. Kim Humphrey, a doctoral student in the philosophy department, offered the following three characteristics of the hook-up culture in an incisive paper given last weekend: Hook-up culture 1) eludes definition, 2) disregards pleasure and 3) devalues communication. A paper by Theology Ph.D student Conor Kelly uses another four markers: 1) a lack of commitment, 2) an acceptance of ambiguity, 3) a role for alcohol, and 4) a social pressure to conform.
What I want to focus on is the social dimension of hook-up culture. In a hook-up culture, sex becomes a story we tell, not just an experience we have. Sex is a social act, a way of demonstrating ("To whom?" one wonders) that we are who we’re supposed to be. Perhaps this is a strategy of dealing with the ambiguity of defining hook-up culture itself: we do not know exactly what hook-up culture is, but we know we’re supposed to know, and our participation becomes a way of masking our lack of knowledge, proof that we understand the social expectations of our sexuality well enough to enact them.
This shapes the way that sexual stories get told, but it also influences sexual interactions, along with societal expectations about sex, sexuality and gender. For lack of space to rigorously consider this question, let me just suggest this: Hook-up culture tells men to want sex at all costs, while giving women contradictory messages about what sex means and how to “perform” sexuality. Or, at a minimum, hook-up culture reinforces these norms already present in the broader social environment.
I certainly don’t want to discount the possibility that hook-up culture can be experienced positively by women and men (though we should distinguish between a hook-up as non-committal sex which can be subversive and liberating, and hook-up culture writ large). But my suggestion is that hook-up culture is not the simple “sex=good” equation that some take it to be, but rather a complicated web of social expectations that, far from overcoming a problematic set of gender/power relations, actually replicates them. Hook-up culture turns sex into social capital, transforming an intimate experience with an Other into an instrument for proving something about oneself; namely, that I am the “I” the dominant culture demands I be.
Let me be emphatically clear about what I am not saying: I am not saying that, because women want commitment while men want physical gratification, hook-up culture is bad because it fulfills male sexual purposes. I am saying precisely the opposite: Women and men both have the agency to express their sexualities in an active, enthusiastic, life-giving way, and I see no reason to posit any “inherent” tendency towards desiring or disdaining commitment along gender lines.
A final thought: Sex need not be committal, but surely it should not be casual. Casual sex is about me and not us (here a pronoun broad enough to refer to married couples and one-night stands alike, because the casualness of sex has little to do with the level of commitment involved). Sex is embodied dialogue, and that is not a casual act. Dialogue means two sets of words; two overlapping, interlocking bodies with desires, sensitivities, histories and secrets that collide in a single moment of space and time. Perhaps to be this body with needs, fears and stories is what it means to be a person.
Hook-up culture invites us to forget that our partner is a person, and that is a bad thing precisely because sex is such a good thing when people do it together. We don’t have to love our partners in any sense, nor does our dialogue have to deliver any particular message (“I physically enjoy having sex with you,” for example, works just fine), but we do a disservice to everyone involved when we forget that we are people and we are doing a thing together.
And quite frankly, when sex is more simultaneous monologue than attentive, responsive dialogue, it is worse sex; and while I recognize that we may not all have an interest in cultural criticism or gender theory, surely we can get behind the notion that a culture that promotes bad sex is a culture we must oppose.