By James Clark ’14
For a number of years, Princeton’s hook-up culture has garnered considerable discussion, and at this point, a significant number of people may be tuning it out entirely. They’ve heard all the arguments against hooking up, they might say, and they don’t appreciate being told how to live their lives. If you are inclined to think this way, I only ask that you would consider anew how high the stakes are. The fundamental ways in which you conceive of yourself and other people can be crucially altered—sometimes in less-than-obvious ways—by sexual decisions made in college, so at least recognize that the debate still matters. Sex changes the way we think about each other as human beings–and sometimes not for the better, as I hope to convince you.
One of my primary criticisms of the hook-up culture, that it objectifies both men and women, is not a new line of reasoning. The customary rebuttal to this charge is that both parties, in mutually agreeing to hook up, have made a decision by their own free choice, and they are acting on it. It is an expression of liberation. I would respond that it certainly is their choice to hook up, but that does not change the fact that by allowing sexual activity to be the product of a chance encounter (probably facilitated by alcohol), their treatment of sex still reduces both of them to mere vessels of bodily sensation, where human individuality is unimportant.
To elaborate on my claim, sexual activity is generally understood outside of the hook-up culture as something special to be reserved for a person one loves or cares about deeply. However, when people think it natural to share sex with many others, then it follows that the personal identity of those engaging in the act becomes much less important, if not completely irrelevant. Few seek to know the true measure of whoever their partner is: where they come from, what they hope for, their joys and sorrows, their inner thoughts and feelings; all of these things are meaningless when sexual pleasure is the sole objective and the only differentiation between individuals is how well a person performs in bed.
In response to my assertion that a flippant treatment of sex precludes the possibility of a meaningful relationship, it could be argued that some people are just looking for sex and nothing else, and they’re frank about it, so relational depth is immaterial. That would be the very definition of objectification, though. As for those who believe regular sexual encounters increase the possibility of finding a deep relationship, I applaud the goal, but I still believe this approach is a damaging way to go about it.
Recall that, ideally, sex is saved for someone in particular. Attempting to find this person by having sex with a variety of people is neither sensible nor beneficial. Rather, sex is cheapened and rendered less meaningful when you go through numerous partners, no matter how sincere your search for the right one is. Even if you do find that person, your relationship with him or her (not to mention your sex life) will never be what it could have been if you had refrained from sex until you met him or her.
In order to see why this is the case, it must be understood that sex connects people not only physically, but emotionally as well, regardless of whether they do or do not ascribe much significance to it. In fact, Dr. Sue Johnson, the Director of the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy and Distinguished Research Professor at Alliant University, writes that “a huge part of our brain is designed…for…emotional connection and bonding,” and “our sexual partner is usually at the top of the list” of people we’re bonded with. A study published in Nature Neuroscience also affirms the bonding nature of sex. According to a summary at True Love Revolution, “sexual activity in both men and women involves the release of powerful bonding hormones that are designed to help married couples stay together permanently and trust each other.” Having sex with each and every person you’re interested in, then, merely serves to injure you emotionally, because leaving someone will not free you from those bonds. Quite the contrary, you will probably feel “a palpable sense of loss, betrayed trust, and unwelcome memories.” If, on the other hand, you refrain from sex until you do meet that special person, you will be able to stop searching and cherish him or her just the same, sparing yourself the struggle to disregard bonds from previous sexual encounters.
Apart from how much it harms you to incorporate sex in all of your attempted relationships, the people you’re having sex with can also be hurt by this practice. As mentioned above, to treat a sexual partner as no different from anyone else after the fact runs counter to our own natural inclinations. Thus, employing sex as a means of facilitating the growth of relationships is emotionally risky and counterproductive for everyone involved.
The current president of the Anscombe Society, Audrey Pollnow ‘13 [full disclosure: Audrey has also written for the Tory], shared with me in a recent interview her own idea of sex:
Good sex means you give yourself to the other person in an important way. If something really horrible happened to them, you could commit yourself to stick through that.
This level of commitment is, at a bare minimum, less likely to materialize if your own attitude is to share sex with whomever might be the one you’re looking for. You may not have a problem with that, perhaps finding Audrey’s vision too limiting or restrictive, but has treating sex as “freely” as the hook-up culture does proven ultimately satisfactory or rewarding? Your answer and subsequent behavior will make all the difference.