The problem with the hookup culture

hookup culture

The concept of the “hookup culture” has grown into a social norm in our society. It used to be a given in the college environment and now this phenomenon has become entrenched into the social scene of everyday Americans.

Psychiatrist Leonard Sax has studied the hookup culture and explains it in great detail in his thought provoking book, Why Gender Matters. Additionally, the hookup culture is articulated beautifully in a novel published a year earlier: Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. The hookup mentality is prevalent among young people. It dictates that casual sexual encounters involving absolutely no expectation of relationship, or even psychological engagement, are perfectly acceptable and good. Leonard Sax, a psychiatrist specializing in family therapy, learned of the hookup world from the veritable army of young women suffering from depression and anxiety who were streaming into his office. Sax came to the conclusion that it was the hookup culture which caused his patients this internal depression. This idea is also articulated by Tom Wolfe in his description of Charlotte Simmons—an innocent girl from North Carolina who utterly lost her way morally and psychologically at a prestigious university where casual sex and drugs were far more important than learning. Wolfe showed the debilitating effects of this self-absorbed and hedonistic culture.

The first problem with the hookup culture is it is philosophically bankrupt. What the hookup culture does is it takes sex from two people giving themselves to each other to create life to now two people using each other to get pleasure. So, sex goes from giving life to now getting pleasure. Now, this is nothing new as this idea has its roots in the sexual revolution of the 60’s. However, the hookup culture takes this idea to a new level where sex in its most pure form is not in giving life, but in getting pleasure. At least in the 60’s people knew the pure form (sex to give life) was still the ideal standard. Today, this has been utterly reversed.

The concept of giving and getting is rooted in a cause and effect nature. Everyone likes to get something –  whether presents or pleasure. However, before you can “get” something, someone has to give it to you. In order for you to get, there needs to be giving. The giving is sex in its pure form – sex to give life. Any philosopher will tell you the cause is always greater than the effect. So, in a cause and effect relationship, giving is always greater than getting.  However, in the hookup culture, this idea has been totally reversed – the effect is now greater than the cause. Now, getting  pleasure trumps giving life. However, the ironic logic is that before one can get pleasure of “hooking up” someone first had to give that person life – and this came forth through sex in its pure form (to give life).

The other flaw with the hook up culture is it takes away the humanity of a person. The two elements essential to get a human being is body+soul. We have a physical body and we also have an immaterial soul through our thoughts, ideas, and conscience. When a person uses another person in order to get sexual pleasure, that person is treating the other person as an object. Now, a person becomes an object for one’s desire. Thus, the soul has been taken out from a person and a person now becomes merely a physical object in which you can use. The hookup is akin to my 5 year old playing with a toy (an object) and dismissing the toy as soon as the toy fails to bring him any pleasure. In the hookup culture, as soon as a person has ceased to bring one pleasure, they are shoved aside like an old newspaper. Thus, the human element has been removed. No wonder women are becoming depressed, the hookup culture in which they live in is using them like a disposable object.

woman with men

It would seem self-evident that such permissiveness in the hookup culture, is morally problematic and something to be decried rather than celebrated. But an article titled “Boys on the Side” in The Atlantic glorified this very hookup culture. According to the author Hanna Rosin, the hookup mentality is a great plus to women. She acknowledges that lots of books and studies have pointed out the dark side of the hookup culture, the deep frustration and humiliation that can follow from transient sexual encounters, but she insists that steady questioning of typical young women today would reveal that none of them really wants a return to traditional morality. She argues, “For most women, the hookup culture is like an island they visit, mostly during their college years and even then only when they are bored or experimenting or don’t know any better. But it is not a place where they drown.” Why aren’t they destroyed by this sexual licentiousness? Rosin explains, “The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don’t get in the way of future success.” One might think that prevalence of casual sex would produce women who are sexual victims, but Rosin contends that precisely the opposite is the case. Young women who choose a variety of sexual partners and who assiduously steer clear of pesky relationships are “managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters.” Instead of being manipulated by powerful men, young ladies are happily becoming adept at manipulation. And here is Rosin’s grand conclusion: “The hookup culture is too bound up with everything that’s fabulous about being a young woman today—the freedom, the confidence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself.”

Look at that last statement. It is a total echo of the old-religion of self-worship. Her grand idea is that the self becomes the authority of all. Notice how every virtue that Rosin cites—freedom, confidence, self-reliance—is a subjective disposition – based on the person. No one in his right mind would contend that those attitudes are anything but good, but they are good precisely in the measure that they order a person to some objective value that lie outside of the person. In other words, these virtues don’t come from the self, they come from a source outside of the self.  We savor freedom because it allows us to become the person we were created to be (see here for article). We think that confidence and self-reliance are worthwhile, because they enable one to achieve the good easily and joyfully. But if the question of the objectively valuable is taken away, then those subjective dispositions lose their orientation and devolve into something quite destructive. In other words, Rosin wants the person to be a god – to make the person’s reality become the actual reality. However, this clearly is an absurdity because what we want to be true and what is true are two different questions. What you want to be true (subjective question) does not determine what is true (objective question).

Rosin’s article is a standard contention in the pop-culture. Namely, that the sexual revolution that brought about the hook-up culture has been a huge upgrade for women.  Upgrade for women? If sex is now in the form of using the other for the self, then women would be on the front line to be used as an object. How does this help women? If your used as an object you’ll feel depressed and have a disdain for the men that use you. No wonder the pages of women magazines brim with mournful titles like “The Case for Settling” and “The End of Men”? Why do websites run by and for women focus so much on men who won’t grow up, and ooze such despair about relations between the sexes?

depressed woman

If casual sex for woman is such a net positive why is it that the depression rate for woman has shot up the last 20 years. An article in WebMD indicates that while in the U.S. roughly 15 million people suffer from depression “the majority of them are women.” (see here). The article goes on to say, Depression in women is very common. In fact, women are twice as likely to develop clinical depression as men.”  Or how about what is known in sociology as “the paradox of declining female happiness”? Using 35 years of data from the General Social Survey, two Wharton School economists, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, made the case in 2009 that women’s happiness appeared to be declining over time despite their advances in the work force and education.

What struck me throughout Rosin’s article was the complete absence of a reference to the objective question in regard to sexual behavior. The purpose of sex? The meaning of the sexual act? The proper ethical, or dare I say religious, setting for sexuality? Never mentioned—and apparently irrelevant. All that seems to matter is that young people—especially young women—have the opportunity to define themselves sexually based on what they want to be true – they want, to “manage” their sexual activity “like savvy headhunters.” Can I suggest that that last phrase is telling indeed? When the realm of the objectively valuable is marginalized, the subject will inevitably fall back on herself, stewing in her own juices. And let’s be honest, left to our own devices, the vast majority of us will do what is most convenient and most selfish. In the arena of sexuality, the one-sided stress on freedom and self-reliance will lead, in very short order, to manipulation, domination and indifference to relationship. But when the sexual impulse is ordered according to the objective values of love, commitment, marriage and the call of God, then it is transfigured into something radiant and rare.

The hookup culture is all about sexual freedom. However, it would be wise to remember a line from Bob Dylan, “Freedom, just around the corner from you/ but with truth so far off, what good would it do?” Sexual liberty without objective value produces a lot of savvy headhunters, but they will eventually wind up in Dr. Sax’s office suffering from a deep sadness of the heart.

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