To Love without Philosophy: Love and Lust in the Bubble

Some grad student in a struggling American Studies department is going to have a field
day in thirty years. He’ll be researching the sexual culture at the turn of the millennium and
chance upon the “Love and Lust in the Bubble” series. The Daily Princetonian has been running
these largely anonymous articles since the academic year began, and seeing as they’re the best
thing to happen to the paper since they went daily in 1892, I doubt the Prince will stop printing
them until they’re really scraping the barrel’s bottom.
So I expect that this grad student of the future will be excited to get his hands on the
articles because they’re such an unusual source. As I said, most of them are anonymous, so
they’re not motivated by personal fame or presenting a refined public image. At the same time,
they’re extremely public and nothing like a private blog or personal diary. They don’t fit into the
news section or the opinion section. If the grad student had to describe them to his dissertation
adviser, he’d probably call them “anonymous creative nonfiction with moral messages.”
The topics of the articles run the gamut from the failure of a long-distance relationship
to a traumatizing rape in a foreign country to regrets about freshman year hookups. The thirteen
articles in the series are personal stories, but it’s impossible to escape their moral dimension.
Very few of them broach the topic of whether the hook-up culture is immoral (except “Nearing
Nice”), but each has a moral even if the authors hesitate to give the moral any universal weight.
This might be the most refreshing part of the articles and probably what that future grad student
will most enjoy. I can see him relishing these personal stories about people’s struggles with
relationships and non-relationships. None of the articles could be taken as a comprehensive,
point-by-point critique of Princeton’s sex and relationship culture, but they do convey
dissatisfaction, the kind of dissatisfaction which is felt and not just theorized into existence.
What’s most surprising is what’s missing. These aren’t triumphal stories about sexual
liberation. The four authors who focused on the hookup culture were jaded about it. The author
of “Falling out of hooking up” remembered that “there were many nights, though, when I
couldn’t sleep from cringing at those memories.” She didn’t regret her hookups though because
“without them, I would have never realized how much I hate the hookup culture here.” The
author of “Liquid courage” conveyed her frustration at “the great Princeton divide” which
separates those who drink from those who don’t. These authors aren’t just repeating slogans.
They’re doing what happens when a civilization forgets common sense. They live by touch and
tell their friends what’s good and what burns.
Even the stories about coming-out were ambiguous and didn’t fit neatly into the political
narrative of gay pride. One student upon declaring his homosexuality immediately felt frustrated
when his best friend and romantic interest denied his advances and his identification as gay.
Another student could only admit her sexual attraction to her best friend after drinking, and even
then it was a “half confession.” I don’t know how that grad student will handle these stories in
thirty years. Will they frustrate whatever tidy narratives of sexual liberation he’s come to believe in? These stories have little to do with social stigma. The anxiety of these students comes from denied advances and the awkwardness they have to navigate in friendships they want to take in one direction and their friend in the other.

Yet the most surprising thing to our future grad student may be the complete absence
of any narratives by chaste students. There have been thirteen articles, but none of them are
about struggling with living chastely or having a non-sexual romantic relationship (at least
35% of men and 47% of women at Princeton are virgins according one ‘Prince’ survey http:/
/www.dailyprincetonian.com/slideshows/213/expand/). Religion has been completely absent
from both the “Love and Lust” articles and from the op-ed discussion they’ve fueled, which is
surprising considering how important religious belief can be towards motivating sexual behavior.
It seems that religious and chaste students (not necessarily coterminous groups) just haven’t felt
the need to write these articles, which brings me to the next question for that American Studies
grad student to ponder: Why did anyone write these articles?
When it comes down to motive, the only one that makes sense is moral. People took
risks, made mistakes, or found love, and now they want to help others because they wish that
something like “Love and Lust” had existed their freshman year. The first article comes right out
and says it:
“[T]here are plenty of wide-eyed freshmen who will make every rookie mistake that there
is to make. I want to talk to those freshmen. I want to tell them, if you like hooking up,
if you think it’s fun and exciting, then good for you. But if you wake up lonelier each
time, if the memories keep you up at night or if you ever wonder before, during or after
the experience, ‘What am I doing here?’ then I would like you to know that I have been
where you are. I now understand that it is okay to brush yourself off, admit that you made
a few mistakes and then move on in a different direction.”
Another writer takes a similarly moral tack: “Maybe that’s the real tragedy of the hookup culture,
for both guys and girls: the creation of a third category of relationship between ‘boyfriend’
and ‘friend,’ a vaguely defined and haphazardly executed territory of genuine attraction without
genuine attachment.” Another concludes her article with good common sense: “Sex — whether
it’s with your boyfriend, drunk at a frat party or with a stranger in a car — doesn’t have to be
considered rape to warrant our caution, care and attention.” And another does similarly: “Of all
the things I learned in my freshman year, dating someone as wealthy as he was left me with at
least one life lesson: The next time I go on a date with someone, I’m paying.” This seems to be
the point of these articles: stories with moral lessons for freshmen by their elders. It’s really a
touching enterprise.
Ultimately, the articles are about making sense of a sexual culture through lived
experience. A series of op-ed debates sprung from the series after Dave Kurz penned his piece
“Why coffee dates trump DFMOs,” which came across as something between another “Love and
Lust” story and an editorial. The only difference was that it appeared in the opinion page and
announced its moral so frankly in the title. Instead of being read in the same vein as the “Love
and lust” stories, his sparked a months-long op-ed controversy. Seven articles came out arguing that Kurz portrayed women too passively, left homosexuals out of the picture, and generalized too much from his own experience. The controversy expanded to the hookup culture in general with a defense of hookups but a criticism of the hookup culture, a criticism of both hookups and the culture (which, full disclosure, I wrote with Audrey Pollnow), a criticism of op-ed theorizing about hookups, and a criticism of the criticism of op-ed theorizing. All of this is beside the point (except my article of course). The real interest is in the “Love and Lust” stories; these are what the future grad student will read because nobody wants to live in a world of theory, and nobodywants sex to be a part of an ideology.

What makes these stories rise above moralizing is that they convey a yearning for
meaning. And this is the most poignant part of the series: the authors want to know what they’ve
learned just as much as they want to teach others. They want whatever sorrow or joy they just
went through to make sense, to have a beginning, middle, and end. And if they can’t fit the
past year or two of their life into a plot, then at least they try to fit it into a coherent vignette
(like “Harboring half-confessions”). None of these stories are theory. Rather, they give empty
concepts substance through the material of real life. For example, Jessica Ma, in writing about
her acceptance of a relationship, gives substance to the value of commitment. This faithfulness
to experience is exactly what will draw that future grad student to these stories of personal
revelation.
Yet, what’s so tragic about the series is that until we find a culture that works, people
will keep having to fumble in the dark, seeing what works and what hurts. Ultimately, the morals
we draw from “Love and Lust” articles are just heads-ups about what works and what hurts. I
dismissed theory earlier, but at its best, theory is also a guideline that tells us what generally to
avoid and what generally to pursue. We all need theory now so that we can reshape our culture
until we have a system of beliefs, practices, and norms which allow us to flourish without
theorizing, to care without justification, and to find love without philosophy.

By Ben Koons ’15

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