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:
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.