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Have We Accepted the Hook-Up Culture?

So Easter has finally come, replete with lots of talk about “renewing the face of the earth.”  I can think of no better place to start than with our hook-up culture.

A few people in our guild have been giving this issue the serious attention attention it deserves. Sex and the Soul by Donna Freitas has achieved a significant readership, even outside the academy.  My colleague and friend Jennifer Beste is currently working on an important new project that uses social science data from fieldwork with college students and the the results of their sexual practices. I am working on a new book which, among other things, looks at the hook-up culture through the lens of the Consistent Ethic of Life–focusing in particular on the violence done to vulnerable populations when “freedom” is invoked as a primary sexual good while ignoring the social structures which frame the available choices.

But given how rampant such sexual violence is, and especially given how close it is to the lives of our students,  I’m surprised that more academics are not out in front of the movement critiquing the hook-up culture.

Think about this: MTV’s Jersey Shore is not only the highest rated cable show on American television, it is emerging as a cultural phenomenon and icon. It gets 5-6 times the number of viewers of even very popular cable shows like The Colbert Report–and of course does especially well with the coveted younger demographic.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hook-up culture is not only alive and well on Jersey Shore, it is not clear what would fuel the narrative of the show without it. There is a “smoosh” room which has been designated explicitly for hook-ups, and over which the roommates sometimes fight.  They are constantly hooking-up with people they are dating, people they just met, and (of course) each other. Here are some of the quotes that MTV put on the show’s webpage. If someone is “DTF”, it means they are down to [have sex]:

Who does this girl think she is … You’re not DTF with Pauly? Really, you’re DTF with Mike? That’s absurd, that’s just crazy.

I smooshed a girl in your bed. She was a cougar with tattoos.

Ryder is looking pretty good tonight, but she’s already had sex with Vinny and I’m not really cool with sloppy seconds, so I don’t know what do to with her.

Bosnian Girl: Can we just talk in the room?
Pauly D: I’ll call the cab.

She’s like Triple A.  You call her and she’s there.

This last quote is particularly interesting as it reveals something that at least appears to have changed in our sexual culture: mainstream female sexual practices, rather than critiquing it and resisting it, are now embracing the primacy of the hook-up. The classic public example which signaled the change (though spending 30 seconds at Texts from Last Night will provide all the evidence one needs) was the popularity of Ke$ha’s chart-topping song Blah, Blah, Blah.  In the music video, which includes her duct-taping a man’s face and ripping off his pants, she sings lyrics like this:

I don’t care where you live at
Now turn around boy, let me hit that
Don’t be a little bitch with your chit chat…just show me where your dick’s at

Until recently, those who would draw attention to the kind of harm this attitude brings our culture (and particularly to women and girls), have been thought to be conservative fuddy-duddies; people who just need to find something to do besides being a bedroom cop. But that critique cannot be made of The New York Times‘ Frank Bruni, the first openly gay columnist for that paper, who wrote this ridiculously important Op-Ed which takes an honest look at our sexual culture in light of the new HBO series Girls.  One of the several courageous questions Bruni asks is, “Are young women who think that they should be more like men willing themselves into a casual attitude toward sex that’s an awkward emotional fit?”

Happily (and somewhat shockingly) the secular media continue to provide Bruni with huge, friendly platforms for his message about the hook up culture and women.  In the following interview on Morning Joe, for instance, Bruni was able to drive a fairly honest conversation about how porn is affecting sexual expectations in the hook-up culture:

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It was fascinating to hear Joe Scarborough explain how worried he is that the first young man with whom his daughter will have a date in college will have spent a decade forming his sexual expectations of her by watching (virtually whenever and wherever he wants) hard-core online porn.  He has good reason to worry: the kind of sexual encounter now presumed by our hook-up culture is virtually indistinguishable from a scene in a porn movie. It is (often) anonymous, but certainly impersonal and undertaken without commitment. Its default expectation is that both people will mutually use each other’s bodies for pleasure, sometimes violently, and will almost always involve choice-inhibiting intoxication. Not least, the hook-up culture now has ridiculous expectations for the bodies and clothing of women (and, increasingly, of men) which mirror those of porn stars.

Much of Western culture has reacted to the sexual oppression of the past by celebrating human sexuality, and this was a necessary and welcome change. But when what we celebrate is mere sexual choice—without examining and critiquing the social structures which lie beneath—we ignore another kind of sexual oppression in which the vulnerable get deeply and seriously hurt. In particular because women are most often the victims of this consumerist-driven sexuality, it is noteworthy that more academics are not driving the resistance against the hook-up culture. This is particularly troublesome given that, in other contexts where vulnerable or minority populations are being hurt by physical and structural violence (especially when it is driven by consumerism), academics often stand up in large numbers to be counted as energetic opposition against concepts of “freedom” that are unaware of or unconcerned with social structures.

Whatever our politics (and whatever our gender), our culture’s sexual practices are desperately calling out for renewal–and as an Easter people all of us must do a better job answering that call.



  1. Well-said, Charlie. And timely. I think we have long overlooked the harm that “sexual freedom” has done to the present generation – particularly in its supposition that if we are trully “sexually free” then obviously (!) we MUST be having sex in any way shape or form. Not to have sex is not to be “free” but to be inhibited, repressed, prudish, and so on.

    And that has really hurt women, and men, both.

  2. Once Catholicism places an absolute prohibition on something (premarital sex, same-sex relationships), it seems to me it has, to some extent, at least, excluded itself from further conversation. What is the answer to the hook-up culture? Virginity until marriage. How must a gay person live his or her life? Celibately. How must people make decisions about sexuality? By following God’s command that there must be no sex outside of marriage.

    • But, David, why should that follow? If someone believes that there should be an absolute prohibition against say, usury, are they necessarily excluded from conversation about how to create lending practices that are more fair to the most vulnerable? (Don’t forget there is also a distinction in the Catholic tradition to be made between a moral principle and the best way such a principle gets applied in public policy.) Furthermore, concern about the hook-up culture just isn’t about sex outside of marriage, but what the hook-up culture brings to marriages as well. (Lack of intimacy, pornography, marital rape and sexual violence, cheating, and more.)

  3. Charles,

    It seems to me that very often the Catholic Church takes an absolutist position and sticks with, claiming that to do otherwise would be to send “mixed signals.” The Church will not say, “If you are going to have sex outside of marriage, at least use condoms to prevent STDs, or at least use some form of birth control so there will be no children out of wedlock.” The Church will not say to gay men, “Don’t engage in homosexual acts, but if you do, practice safer sex.”

    I am not saying Catholic ethicists and other concerned Catholics have no right to speak out on these issues. But it seems to me that within Catholicism there is an emphasis on “technical violations” when it comes to sexual morality. The most mature, loving, mutually supportive relationship between same-sex partners is condemned because homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” I am not saying your concern or the concern of many about the hook-up culture is not genuine, but it would be understandable for many people to look upon this concern with skepticism when it comes from within the Catholic Church, because it’s simply more of the same.

    It seems to me that Catholic sexual morality begins with a “technical” approach to sexuality. If something is wrong, it is because it violates “natural law.” I think ethical arguments for most people are convincing when the focus on what good or harm is done by behaviors. But in Catholic morality (as frequently presented), the good or harm to other human beings as the result of various behaviors is quite secondary. I remember reading something Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Australia that the Church needs to frame sexual morality more in terms of offenses against fellow human beings rather than offenses against God. That makes sense to me.

  4. Charlie–

    I appreciate the post, although I can’t help but be somewhat concerned that Mr. Bruni, with his frequent, ill-informed anti-Catholic editorials, is the spokesperson for this. After all, people have been concerned about this for decades.

    This discussion, as David Nickol’s comments illustrate, frequently can become derailed when it is posed in terms of an “absolutes versus situation ethics” frame – the frame that was certainly the dominant one of 1960’s Christian moral debates over these things. There is scant evidence that the more lenient morality of liberal Protestantism and/or post-Protestant humanism has somehow “done better” – indeed, the very existence of this culture seems like fairly strong evidence for the defenders of absolutes!

    The more important frame is evidently the problem of private/public. The definition of sexual behavior as private – except in cases of sexual harrassment – is simply unsustainable, as Wendell Berry argues in his essay “Sex Economy Freedom and Community.” Why do we now lack community standards which would have, in the past, prevented something like Jersey Shore from existing and disseminating its view? The simple answer is that we have eroded the moral capital of community in favor of an absolutization of the right to consensual sex as a purely private matter. And as for who is speaking out and claiming that this will place a heavy burden of suffering particularly on women, I really cannot help but point out that it was Pope Paul VI in 1968 who indicated that this would likely be a consequence of widespread acceptance of birth control.

    Berry maintains (rightly, in my view) that sexuality, like economics, cannot be handled purely by public edict or by private choice. There has to be community. And Berry sets his sights (again rightly) on those community invaders who, claiming free speech or enlightened liberation, serve to break down community norms of respect and restraint. I do not really see how this problem is addressed unless the problem of the privatization of sexual choice is addressed.

    Your post deserves more response than this, but it’s a start…

  5. I am not sure I would frame my comments as “absolutes versus situation ethics.” I would see it more along the lines of “this is wrong because God says so” versus “this is wrong because these harms will come of it.” I don’t imagine that contributors to Catholic Moral Theology would object to giving reasons why, say, extramarital sex is wrong rather than just saying “God says so,” so I am not sure there is an argument here.

    I think the Catholic Church has failed to convince a great many people of the concept of “intrinsic evil,” particularly when it comes to sexual matters. Why, for example, it should be seriously wrong for a husband undergoing fertility treatment to masturbate to provide a sperm sample is something I can’t understand. And how the concept of “human dignity” is compatible with making a married couple come into the lab to have intercourse while the husband wears a condom with holes in it so a sperm sample can be obtained I really can’t fathom.

    I don’t think any morality can be successful if people can’t in some way sense what is right and what is wrong rather than (or in addition to) repeat some kind of technical argument.

  6. Somewhere in what I am saying there are ideas struggling to get out, but I am not sure they are making it!

    Perhaps I can sum up what I am thinking by saying that perhaps statements based on authority may have been sufficient in the 1950s, but for a great many people—perhaps the majority of Catholics—”the Church teaches X, Y, and X” is not sufficient to get people to accept X, Y, and Z. No doubt I have told this story before (if not here, then definitely somewhere else), but I was in a very bright high school class, and the teacher (a Christian Brother) presented us the some material in one class (no doubt it was on sexuality, but I honestly don’t remember what the topic was) and we raised one argument after another that the teacher couldn’t deal with. To his credit, he said he would do more research, so a week or so later he came armed with a number of documents and more arguments. Again, the class argued, and he said, “Well, I can’t explain it, but this is what you have to believe.” I am somewhat surprised that often when I tell that story, there are words of sympathy for the teacher. It was good of him to do more research the first time around, but being told, “I can’t explain this, but it’s what you have to believe” was perhaps the lowest point in my Catholic education.

  7. Hi David–

    I appreciate your comments, and I certainly think that agents of the Church do a poor job explaining the Church’s teachings here. My concern is the leap to the idea that the teachings are being imposed via authority (“because God/the Pope said so”). I would emphatically point out that this is not the case – the Church offered reasoned argumentation for these views.

    I would clarify one thing, however. You say that the argument is not “absolutes versus situation ethics,” but then say it is about “God say so” versus “harm done.” But this seems to me to be “absolutes versus situation ethics”! The Church’s teachings (on a lot of things) cannot be defended on the sole criteria of harm done. Instead, the argument is most commonly given in terms of a recognition of truth – or in Benedict’s more ecological terms, “the grammar of creation.” The Church assumes there is a sexual grammar, and while identification of individual instances of harm (maybe akin to individual failings in writing?) may be difficult, if one “wrecks the grammar” eventually one will not be able to communicate at all. I think the assumption of Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate is that we are currently “wrecking the grammar” ecologically, economically, and sexually – even if my visit to the local supermarket, via car, to buy chicken SEEMS harmless (or the harm seems vanishingly small), the system in which I am speaking in a bigger problem.

    Having said that, I’d further conclude that the disagreement is about “aspects of the sexual grammar” – that is, to take the easiest example, contraception by a married couple with children is not actually grammatical incorrect. Charlie’s post suggests that the “grammar” of certain cultural forms is so “wrecked” that it is an urgent necessity for the Church to speak out, in concert with others. I think the interesting work to be done now is to have the conversation about the grammars: for the magisterial Church, there is evidently a connection between the disconnection of the procreative (=contraception) and the eventual slide into the hook-up culture; others believe that contraception can be used prudently (“grammatically”), without sliding into a culture where anything goes sexually. I think that’s a really good conversation to have. It is evident that, on an individual level, there is plenty of evidence of married couples who use contraception, and it is difficult to suggest that they are somehow secretly yearning for destructive sexuality! But that example presumes that sexual matters can be dealt with entirely on an individual, private level. That’s the assumption I question above. I don’t think that’s possible. I assume that the use of contraception (either way) is ultimately a question that must also involve the common good and the question of how you form and shape a common sexual culture.

  8. Interestingly, Pope Benedict did indeed suggest that gay people should be practicing safer sex if they are going to have sex at all (the condom controversy from a past interview.)
    I have to say that when I was younger I did indeed reject the Church’s teaching on sexual matters, and its authority to teach. After 20 years of learning the hard way from my own experiences that the Church was quite wise, I now find it very easy to accept Church teaching on the basis of authority alone.

  9. Great post, Charlie, and I especially appreciated many of the comments here (esp. Cloutier’s). I think one of he crucial issues at hand is where we view sex in the hierarchy of needs. In so much of our culture, it seems to be akin to water, air, food, shelter, etc. Catholic tradition, in contrast, does not class it amid these basic human needs. I was just reading the 1954 Notes on Moral Theology from Theological Studies, and even back then Fr. John Connery worried about an exaggeration of the sex instinct (promoted by Kinsey) that deemed chastity impossible “or at least bad for mental health.” The change in attitude toward non-marital sex is linked to this, and obviously has been facilitated by contraception.

    As society has become more pornified, it’s become a bigger struggle to have a counter-cultural perspective with a positive view of sex and chastity. And this seems only to confirm for people the “fact” that chastity is impossible. But with voluntary mortification of the senses (especially limiting media that occasions sin and shapes one’s world), I think chastity is possible. I’ve been encouraged by the powerful witness of many Catholic couples/families who don’t imbibe the hook-up culture.

  10. To David Nickol, Catholics don’t consider the objective immorality of fornication or homosexual acts simply rules of the Church, but as a matter of the natural law, as coming from God and inherent in our being. We also see Sacred Scripture as an authority on the matter which we have no authority to oppose. So, the idea of these as negotiable is simply off the table. They are always objectively gravely wrong, though subjective guilt may vary.

    In one of your comments you say “it seems to me that within Catholicism there is an emphasis on “technical violations” when it comes to sexual morality.” I think you have to consider the nature of chastity, in order to realize that it does not simply operate on technical rules but actually corresponds to a right ordering of our nature and relationships. Although for us fallen humans there is a learning curve and often needs to be a process of gaining the habit of the virtue of chastity, those who love chastity don’t experience its practice as full of “technicalities”. Generally a sincere person knows whether or not they are practicing continence, or whether or not they are entertaining a lustful thought beyond the first movement, or keeping custody of their eyes. The conjugal chastity of married people is a little more complex, I am not married but it seems to me they generally can come to an intuitive understanding of when they are loving and respecting one another and keeping intact both the unitive and procreative aspects of the marital act.

    The dialogue with the world comes in the form of explaining why be chaste. As a 33 year old woman I have deep experience and perspective on how much harm comes from unchastity and often people understand the natural law more readily when they consider just how badly everything goes wrong when it is violated. Why be faithful. Why the great respect for life. In our day there is even a need to explain why men and women are not simply interchangeable. We should be developing quite a rich and living catechesis and apologetics of virginity and marriage. At the same time able to witness to the so greatly needed experience of conversion and healing and of the mercy and goodness of God, such as the great work Dawn Eden is doing, which is also of a high theological quality.

  11. ELIZD,

    Thanks for your response. You say:

    Catholics don’t consider the objective immorality of fornication or homosexual acts simply rules of the Church, but as a matter of the natural law, as coming from God and inherent in our being.

    Yes, I know. That’s the problem! 😛

    It seems to me that “natural” law has very little to do with nature as we know it, and a great deal to do with a whole system constructed by the Church that often pays little attention to how normal, health people live life. Let’s take masturbation. I believe Aquinas considered it the must unnatural of vices, because the reproductive organs were reserved for procreation, so in some real sense, it was “better” for a man to visit a prostitute than to masturbate.

    Now, what do we see in nature? Masturbation is common in the animal kingdom. We also know that most mental health professionals find masturbation to be normal and healthy in most people, especially adolescents. Interestingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a balanced (or perhaps somewhat self-contradictory) view:

    2352 By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”

    To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.

    So something that is an “intrinsically and gravely disordered action” can be done with a “minimum” of moral culpability. Of course, that is true of basically anything, but you don’t find the same “disclaimer” in discussions of murder or homosexuality.

    This statement of “natural law” simply ignores nature: “”The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” As I mentioned above, it is considered wrong for a husband undergoing fertility treatment to masturbate to give a sperm sample. This simply doesn’t make sense to me. It strikes me as a purely “technical” rule that if taken as a model for, say, eating, would wreak havoc with a normal diet. If eating is for nutrition only (as many have pointed out), zero-calorie diet drinks would seem to be immoral—all the pleasure of a sweet drink with none of the calories. May I not have my Coke Cherry Zero at lunch today?

    While it goes without saying that human behavior is certainly not to be modeled on animal behavior, there is a real question in my mind as to whether normal, adaptive animal behavior such as masturbation and heterosexuality, can be “intrinsically evil.” One would think, from a Darwinian viewpoint, that widespread normal animal behaviors could not be “disordered,” otherwise they would lead to extinction. I think sexuality in animals and in humans has to be looked at much more broadly than being solely about reproduction.

  12. David,

    Since you mentioned the issue of masturbating for purposes of a sperm sample twice, I just wanted to point out that a sperm sample can be obtained post-sex, in the privacy of the bedroom. Getting a sample does not necessitate masturbation.

    And to be honest, I for one have serious reservations about habitually spending money to purchase non-caloric food and drinks. I think it’s my grad-student mentality still at work. When one has limited amounts of money to purchase food, why spend it on food with no calories? And when so many people are starving, how do we justify such use of our resources?

    Also, I do think at work here is what constitutes “natural.” Is the fallen human state “natural” (and thus sins “normal”) or does the “natural” human state, despite the fall, retain an orientation to a supernatural end? I don’t see any reason to involve non-human animals in this discussion of “natural.”

    One other note that masturbation was not normalized and labeled as healthy until very recently in human history – the late 1960s and early 1970s. Prior to that, such “self-abuse,” as it was then called, was very seriously criticized.


    It is extraordinarily difficult to imagine how there could have been an “unfallen” human state to fall from. The Catholic Church has been edging away from Adam and Eve and “monogenism” for many decades now. It is unclear to me how to salvage the concept of Original Sin.

  14. To Thomas- I feel that your experiences in rejecting Catholic teachings on sexual ethics common; sometimes lessons need to be learned the hard way, with the support of personal experiences.

    It seems to be a trend, illustrated throughout Donna Freitas’ “Sex and the Soul”, for young adults, Catholics included, to compartmentalize rather than integrate their faith into everyday life, and this concerns sexual ethics as well, and participating willingly into the hookup culture. I think that part of the problem is finding it difficult to approach and address sex and sexual ethics with young adults, who may not be willing to either listen or care, opting instead to make their own decisions, which may or may not be in line with Church teaching. Instead, the more attractive route is to participate in the hookup culture which seems glamorous, scandalous, and dangerous all at the same time.


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