Virginia and virginity
Why Off the Hook presents a misguided approach for dealing with “hookup culture”
When it comes to sex in college, everyone seems to know one thing for sure: their peers are having lots of great sex with lots of people, lots of the time.
College today has supposedly given rise to what some have called “hookup culture” — a strange term. “Culture” is an expansive category. The phrase “hookup culture,” neutral on its face, hints at the moral panic that “hooking up” provokes. The thought of people engaging in behaviors ranging from kissing to intercourse outside of a romantic relationship is apparently so alarming that the only explanation can be that these behaviors are products of a different “culture” — an alien system of values, beliefs and practices.
What’s more, the reigning concept of “hookup culture” overstates the extent to which college campuses have become sexual playgrounds. A recent study from the University of Portland found that college students today aren’t having more sex than students 25 years ago did. Indeed, a substantial number of college students are still virgins when they graduate. It is not sexual behavior but sexual attitudes that have changed. A more precise way of characterizing what we call “hookup culture” would be to say that college campuses are often places where the taboo against casual sex is weaker.
The social and sexual conventions of college life have attracted widespread attention. A July New York Times feature about the sex lives of University of Pennsylvania students provided a glimpse of how female students instigate — and enjoy — uncommitted sexual encounters. And at the University of Virginia, a student group called Off the Hook exists solely to combat what its members perceive as the University’s hookup-friendly atmosphere.
Off the Hook hosted a panel last week that featured upperclassmen reflecting on the University’s hookup scene. Their reviews of the school’s sexual climate were not favorable. Most of the panelists spoke about how they had worked to sidestep a supposedly oppressive hookup culture.
Off the Hook is more than anti-hookup. It is also pro-abstinence. The organization’s AtUVa page reports that the group believes that “sex is good, but only in the context of marriage.” The group’s purpose, according to its blog, is to promote an “alternative to the hookup scene.” The alternative it offers is simple: don’t do it.
It is never too late to become abstinent, the group’s AtUVa page declares. But life is hard for the newly chaste. The group advises the students who might seek release through masturbation to exercise caution: the most recent post on Off the Hook’s blog (which does not necessarily reflect the organization’s views) warns readers of the dangers of pornography.
Off the Hook’s members are, of course, free to postpone sex until marriage. There is nothing wrong with taking such an approach toward your sexual life, provided that you have made that choice freely. But we detect an incompatibility between Off the Hook’s stated goal of combating “hookup culture” and its opposition to premarital sex. An inability to imagine meaningful but unconventional sexual partnerships is partially responsible for college hookup habits. Many students choose to hook up because they want pleasure without the time and commitment that a long-term relationship requires. But they do not know how to signal, in respectful ways, that they are interested only in sex. They think they need to be distant and cold to stave off the possibility of a relationship emerging from a one-night stand. Thus the problems of “hookup culture” — a tendency toward anonymity, self-gratification and the risk of using and objectifying others — emerge.
Off the Hook’s abstinence-only message will resonate with people who are already like-minded. But most students — the ones who are actually hooking up — will hesitate to renounce pleasure. For these students, Off the Hook’s proffered alternative is too austere. If the group wishes to serve as a place for abstinent students to share their thoughts and get to know each other — but not biblically — that is a fine goal. But if Off the Hook wants to establish an alternative to hooking up, its anti-premarital-sex stance dooms its project from the start. Presenting such a stark choice — marriage or nothing — prevents the possibility of a middle ground that would minimize harmful effects of hookup culture while taking into account how college students behave.
Off the Hook’s idea for improving the University’s sexual environment is to do away with sexual activity altogether. This plan is a bit like shutting down all banks to improve the American financial system. A better route is to ask: how can we instill attitudes that permit people to pursue pleasure freely, but in a way that minimizes hurt feelings and harm to others?
One possibility is to endorse not casual sex but rather casual romance. Students should be able to imagine low-commitment partnerships that involve mutual respect: a friendship punctuated by pleasure, dates that do not mean the two people are “dating.” These arrangements exist, but many students remain uncomfortable with relationships that resist easy definition.
To correct the ills of hookup culture, we must focus not on the sexual but on the social. Insofar as the problems of hookup culture are problems of respect, a solution must involve encouraging students to treat each other better: to honor the humanity of their sexual partners. A myopic viewpoint that condemns premarital sex focuses on the sexual above the social. Groups such as Off the Hook lose sight of their mission by dwelling, instead, on emission.