My husband and I were walking across Harvard's campus talking about hookup culture, the Steubenville rape case, and whether we thought there was a connection. I had just read through Donna Freitas' new book The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. Freitas teaches religion and gender studies at Boston University, and has written about sexuality and dating on college campus. She was quoted in a New York Times piece recently commenting on young people don't really date anymore (she commented: “They’re wondering, ‘If you like someone, how would you walk up to them? What would you say? What words would you use?’"). Hookup culture is the atmosphere of meaningless sexual encounters, from making out to actual sex, and it is ubiquitous.
While at Tulane, I lived down the street from Pi Kappa Alpha (the PIKES), which lost its charter in 2008 after pouring boiling water on their new pledges. Technically it wasn't on campus because the University wouldn't allow them to have any campus affiliation, but it wasn't just them, it was the whole block. The first time my mom came to visit me, she took my dog for a walk in the morning and returned shaken after seeing a naked girl passed out in a doorway. Another frat down the street had actually burned down and was boarded up. Yet another would throw racist Dixieland parties where the guys dressed up like Confederate soldiers and got wasted on their frontporch. Like Freitas describes, all of these frats threw endless variations of the "Pimps and Hos" party, the themes of which are essentially derived from porn narratives and provide opportunities forgirls to show up in barely anything. The appeal of frat parties was that underage students could go to them for alcohol, and they especially encouraged underage girls. Frat members would "card" people at the door, often turning away young guys but sweeping in the women. I was told by some older girls never to go to that particular frat on the corner of my street, and if I did go and drank anything anyone handed to me, I should expect to be raped.
Freitas writes that the neither the majority of men nor women feel emotionally gratified by hookups. For both genders, regardless of sexual orientation, hookup culture is simply what they have been socialized into. The gender roles played out at frat parties are learned early. A study looking at the sexualization of young girls in the American Midwest showed that girls are learning to be sexy as early as six.
"It's very possible that girls wanted to look like the sexy doll because they believe sexiness leads to popularity, which comes with many social advantages," explained lead researcher Christy Starr, who was particularly surprised at how many 6- to 7-year-old girls chose the sexualized doll as their ideal self.
In America, sex is either meaningless or it's treated as oppressively, suffocatingly, even absurdly meaningful. In the case of the latter the only people who have strong public boundaries around sex seem to be vocal Evangelical Christians (of course, Muslims have strong religious prohibitions around sex outside of marriage, but we tend to keep to ourselves and certainly we have our own serious issues around sexuality). Because of the ways that Evangelical Christians have advocated for religiously based abstinence-only education, Freitas notes that liberals tend to reject the entire message of abstinence outright. Parents don't talk to their kids about abstinence, and they barely talk about safe sex. As a result, there isn't much of a discourse around abstinence that doesn't involve religion, which leaves out the 40 million atheist Americans out there, not to mention others who aren't interested in arguments around sexuality grounded in religion.
But we learn that sexiness leads to popularity, and sex itself is an extension of that sexiness. Freitas quotes students she interviewed who believed that virginity was a problem to be gotten rid of. Virgins felt left out of the conversation. To others, virgins are amusing, or a challenge, a potential conquest, and virginity something to be "taken." To virgins, virginity is an embarrassing burden. If virginity is a hassle and sex, itself meaningless, is social currency, then what's the point of waiting? (That is, unless you're going to auction it off on The Bachelor, although a closer than reading-headlines-in-line-at-the-grocery-store reading reveals that this fits neatly into an Evangelical narrative).
Even though students aren't waiting, the absence of meaning gnaws. She refers to men as the greatest actors in the game of hookup culture, because even though the majority of men she interviewed called their random encounters sad, regretful, and even shameful, they felt under the greatest pressure to perform the role of "guy" in front of other men. That is, even if they wanted to just talk to a girl, doing so would cause them to lose face in front of the other guys. Not participating in hookup culture is not itself a critique of the culture, but a means of singling themselves out as abnormal.
So a good number of men and women both have these sexual encounters that they don't enjoy, that they go through with because it's what's expected of them, that they get drunk to facilitate in the first place, and that they feel embarrassed about or shameful of. And yet, they consent.
One of the witnesses of the Steubenville rape, when asked why he didn't stop it, replied "It wasn't violent. I didn't know exactly what rape was. I thought it was forcing yourself on someone." This morning I read Emily Yellin's matter-of-fact account of her rape some thirty years ago in The New York Times (Waking Up to the Enduring Memory of Rape), and thought about the connection between hookup culture and rape. She writes:
I didn’t even realize it was rape until four years later, when I was 20, and told the story to a loving boyfriend in college. He helped me see that I had been sexually assaulted, and was there for me as I began to face the truth.
There is a vast gulf between yes and no in matters of consent, which leads me to wonder where this confusion around what rape looks like could come from. When something is treated so meaninglessly as sex, if it can be exchanged for popularity or acceptance with so little fanfare in the hookup economy, and if both men and women endure its meaninglessness with a kind of hollow acceptance of fact, then perhaps someone would indeed be surprised to find out that what they witnessed (or experienced) was rape. If men and women routinely humiliate themselves to fit in to hookup culture, then the humiliation of rape is murky. Of course this hinges on consent. Again, there is a huge difference between two people consenting to have humiliating, meaningless sex, and one person forcing the other against their will to have it. And again, so much of this is happening while drunk, where pretty much everyone is exercising bad judgment, and other people's behavior is silly and stupid and laughable, and standing up to something that might actually be wrong is scary. This, perhaps, is how kids grow up not knowing that rape looks like having sex with someone who is very drunk or passed out.
To be sure, there are people who enjoy consensual, random sexual encounters. There are also people out there encouraging women to give themselves permission to enjoy intimacy in a vulnerable and empowered way, even with strangers, but with an emphasis on consent and safety.
To me, the problem isn't that we're not talking enough about abstinence, it's that we're not talking to young people about good, meaningful sex and the kind of relationships it comes with. Meaningful sex, where a person consents to allow another person past their boundaries, where both are vulnerable to one another, is hard and rewarding work. It involves trust, mutual respect grounded in self-respect, a healthy self-confidence, and a capacity for self-reflection. It is meaningful because it recognizes that being human is an important, meaningful experience. In my community as in some other religious communities, it's sex that is (typically) circumscribed in marriage, but that will of course look differently for people with different beliefs about what relationships can look like.