As a professor, one of the things I get to see is how students deal with an increasing level of choice. This sometimes means that I get to see kids who blossom, finding interests and capabilities that they might not have explored in a world of fewer opportunities. On the other hand, it also sometimes means that I get to bear witness to what Northrop Frye meant when he said that you may be free to step off a cliff, but immediately afterward, you will find your options have sharply diminished.
Some of these opportunities and choices are sexual, often manifesting in the casual, no-strings sexual encounter known as the “hookup,” and this brings us to several posts I ran across over the past 24 hours. At the Chronicle of Higher Ed., there’s a report (link courtesy of Nathan Harden at Phi Beta Cons) that explores the emotional effects of a collegiate hookup culture. U of Virginia prof Steven Rhoads reports:
For the past 12 years, I have taught a course on sex differences to college juniors and seniors. When we talk about relationships and sex itself, most of the men, sometimes sheepishly, indicate that they enjoy hookups—but the vast majority of the women are unhappy with them. Time and again, women see their girlfriends’ post-hookup traumas, even if they themselves manage to avoid such outcomes. If the men call again, it’s often just for another hookup. But as soon as the women push for a real relationship, the men break it off.
Women don’t want sex for long without an emotional connection, a sense of caring, if not real commitment, from their partners. As one student wrote in a paper for my class, “We are told not to be sexual prudes, but to enjoy casual sex, we have to be emotional prudes.”
But the culture of casual campus sex yields more than emotional sterility and yearning. The Anchoress points us to a piece by Joseph Bottum, about a young woman whose life is changed dramatically by a freshman hookup:
[S]he was good enough to get a minor riding scholarship to a school off on the other side of the state, joining the rodeo team of one of those big land-grant state universities that engulf midwestern and western towns. And she lasted less than a year. Three, four, maybe five months before she dropped out and turned up at home again, pregnant.
Not pretty enough to be a real target, her youth and her innocence were attractive enough to get her seduced and abandoned. She knew enough not to have an abortion—the pro-life creed is almost the only one that kids get, anymore, even out in the rural areas—but she didn’t have the sense or the character to keep it from happening in the first place, and nobody else was looking after her.
Now this raises the question (and I think it’s a fair one) of whether it is the job of a college or university to “look after” the students in this manner (at least at state institutions — many private ones like mine see morality as part of their missions). In loco parentis seems to be a moribund idea. And of course, part of the feminist project (and as the father of a daughter, I’m grateful for the opportunities that feminism has provided) has argued for sexual liberation for women.
But that liberation should be more than Frye’s freedom to step off the cliff. And it seems that is what we have now. While representing itself as liberty, what the hookup culture brings us is libertinism. This is only possible because the hookup culture treats sex merely as a physical act, a release of hormones, a reliever of stress, or in Spider Robinson’s phrase, “a genital sneeze.”
But sexuality has to be more than that if we are to regard our partners as something other than a commodity. The hookup culture masks the need for emotional connection and the vulnerability that are part of a sexual relationship. But when you wear a mask long enough, your face grows to fit it, and too many of our students have grown into the mask, shaped by a culture that commodifies sexual partners as so many masturbatory aids.
In actual practice, in Mondoville and elsewhere, when that mask is stripped away, what is left is the pain of deformity: the depression and emotional deadness of Rhoads’s students, or the irretrievable dreams of Bottum’s ranch girl. In actual practice, we can’t divorce freedom from consequence. And even beyond pregnancy, it would appear that those consequences are felt more acutely by young women.
“So what would you have us do, Professor? Go back to the 1950s? Revive the scarlet letter?” No. Those eras came with hypocrisies of their own, and even if we could put the genie back into the bottle, I see no need to revisit those mistakes. Nor do I put much faith in government programs, whether abstinence-based or not.
While I don’t claim this as a panacea — I don’t believe in those — I think a necessary step is for parents (and especially the parents of daughters) to teach their kids to value themselves. Not in the “special snowflake” self-esteem orgy of the past few decades, but as people who realize that they are worthy of respect, and that they (and others) have been created with intrinsic dignity. We need to teach our kids that we open our souls to one another when we open our bodies.
Perhaps if we can do that, the freedom to step off the cliff will look less enticing.