This week has felt like a flashback to 2008. That year a handful of pro-chastity books hit shelves and Lori Gottlieb published her article in the Atlantic titled "Marry Him!: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough." Now, roughly five years after that outpouring of hand-wringing over how women use their vaginas, there’s been an explosion of unsolicited advice about how women should marry young. On top of that, there was the release Tuesday of a new book out about the perils of hookup culture, Donna Freitas' "The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy."
For those of you who missed all this noise, or have until now intentionally avoided it, a recap: Last week's viral sensation was a letter published in the Daily Princetonian, which encouraged female students at Princeton to find a husband before graduation. The letter, written by Susan Patton, a 1977 Princeton grad and mother of two sons currently attending her alma mater, inspired plenty of mockery -- but some took it seriously, including a writer at Slate and at the Daily Beast. Respectively, those pieces were titled "Marry Young" and the slightly more reasonable "You Should Get Married as Early as Possible, but No Earlier." Just to be clear, these messengers include a divorcee, a happily wedded woman who herself waited to tie the knot, and a married millennial who is, like, super-jazzed about her "family cellphone plan and Netflix account." Not the most ideal spokespeople for the marry-young cause.
That brings me to Freitas' book, which upon first glance seems to offer a similar prescription for young women. In reality, she stands apart from these other commentators: She isn't advising women to marry -- quick! -- before it's too late. Her concern is that hookup culture is limiting and doesn't allow young people enough romantic and sexual choices. The former Boston University professor identifies as a feminist, but also as "a Catholic despite it all," and is particularly interested in the influence of religion on young people's sexuality. (She previously wrote "Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses.") She isn't against hookups. What Freitas objects to is the fact that many of the students, male and female, that she interviewed for her book reported being unsatisfied with casual sex and yet felt that they had no other options for intimacy.
I spoke with Freitas by phone about the now infamous Princeton mom, the importance of sexual experimentation and why she believes straight young men are largely hooking up for other straight young men.
What do you think of all the talk this week about how women should marry young?
Here’s what I would say: I don’t think there’s any “should” with regard to marriage or relationships in general. My interest always with the students I’ve worked with is trying to figure out, “How do you feel about wherever you are in relation to relationships, dating, romance and sex?” If you’re good with that, great. If you’re struggling, that’s when maybe we need to have a conversation or maybe you should take a step back and change your direction.
I asked every college student who participated in interviews, “Do people talk about marriage on campus?” and “Do you think about marriage?” I have to say that was one of the questions that got wide-eyed responses. There was a “no way” or “marriage is really far away” response. They were very interested in relationships and love, though. That's true for students I interviewed at Catholic, private, secular and public universities.
At evangelical colleges, however, it’s a whole 'nother story. There is a very vibrant culture of early marriage that is promoted and supported. I have two observations on that: For some students, they love it, they thrive within it, it really suits them. For other students, it’s a trauma and they’re resisting it and they feel angry that it’s been forced on them. They wish it wasn’t the status quo for their peer group. That’s why I say that it depends on the person. I don’t think we can say early marriage is a good idea for everybody. It might be a good idea for some people and that’s fine, that’s great, if it works.
I’m always very careful with trying to say I don’t have a problem with hooking up. I don’t want it to be off the table for college students. I have a problem with the culture of hooking up that prescribes it as virtually the only means for sexual intimacy. Because then you’re advocating a norm that’s oppressive. It’s just on the other end of the extreme from “people should only be dating.” One of the things I really struggled with was the [reaction to my recent Washington Post Op-Ed, which was headlined "Time to Stop Hooking Up. (You Know You Want To.)"]. My original title for that article was, “In Defense of Sexual Experimentation.” I didn’t even see the headline they gave it until it was already out. I never would have approved that headline! The real message is: Hook up if you want to, but only if you really want to!
So, for those people for whom hooking up is not enjoyable or satisfying, how do they resist that cultural norm?
Well, they don’t, which is why I have conversations where I suggest that we impart some dating skills so that they have some choices. Part of what gets them really stuck within hookup culture is the fact they talk about how they don’t see alternatives because they don’t know what they are. They feel like they don’t have any relationship skills and freely admit that they don’t know how to date. It makes them anxious because they don't have any examples around them about how to do this. Also, we live in a culture now where if you talk about wanting to go on a date people respond by saying, "Oh, what are you celebrating, the 1950s?" There’s this scorn for wanting to date, which I find problematic.
Whenever there’s a norm being enforced, especially with regard to sexuality, you’re narrowing choice. People feel stuck within it. The best thing you can do is open up the options.
You talk a bunch in the book about how unsatisfying casual sex is for a lot of the young people you interviewed. Is teaching them how to have more satisfying sex part of your aim?
Yes! I wrote a little bit about temporary abstinence in that Washington Post article. I think of it as sex-positive abstinence -- as in, taking time off of hookup culture to think about what you want from sex, because so many students I talk to have never even thought about what they want from sex. No one’s ever asked them. No one’s ever empowered them to think, “Well, what would good sex look like for me? Which circumstances would it occur in?” I think it’s really good for college students to give themselves space to think about what they really do want. There’s no point in having sex if it makes you unhappy.
Did you notice a gendered aspect to all of this?
Yes. Most people expect young women to complain about hookup culture and really want relationships. I would say that is pretty true, though I would also say that they feel very passionate about retaining the option to hook up, even if they complain about hookup culture.
But I think it was the men who surprised me the most, and who continue to surprise me during lecture visits to college campuses. I went into the research assuming, like most people do, that men would be living it up in hookup culture. I was surprised by men who said the same sorts of things the women did. However, what was distinct about the men was they felt they could never, ever say that out loud, whereas women felt they could complain about it in public. Men felt they would risk their masculinity in doing so. Participating in hookup culture is far more about proving yourself on campus to other men than about having sex.
So, you disagree with Hanna Rosin’s argument that it’s young women driving hookup culture?
Both women and men are engaged in perpetuating hookup culture -- but not because they love it or because it serves them or makes them feel empowered. Both men and women are perpetuating it because they see no way out of it, because it's what everyone around them is doing and they feel compelled to conform to this, because they feel like they don't have alternatives, and most of all because they know the wider culture around them, from peers to the social media to movies and TV, expects them to be into it, has told them they are lucky because of this, and that they should live it up while they have the chance. They don't want to be seen as not normal.
I don’t see hookup culture as empowering to either gender. I think it should be an option, but that it appears to men and women as their only option is a problem. Empowerment requires choice.