Review: Talking about sex and intimacy
THE END OF SEX: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. By Donna Freitas. Basic Books. 231 pages. $25.99.
Donna Freitas’ book “The End of Sex” is one that no one wants to read yet everyone should. What parent would want to read a book that describes the changing culture of college life (and some might argue the coming high school social dynamic) where sex is the central ingredient of a hookup culture in which a sexual encounter has no commitment whatsoever? Most would prefer to live in a “Father Knows Best World” that no longer exists (if it ever did.)
Rather than depicting the romance-driven relationships that are idealized in the media, Freitas draws on research and personal interviews to describe this new reality as one where “sex is fast, uncaring, and perfunctory. Hookup culture promotes bad sex, boring sex, drunken sex you don’t remember, sex you (couldn’t) care less about, sex where desire is absent, sex that you have ‘just because everyone else is, too’ or that ‘just happens.’ ”
This is a culture where bodies are to be used and disposed of; where emotional connections are seen as a hazard to be avoided.
This culture is fueled by alcohol. College campuses are populated by young people experiencing their first taste of freedom and where alcohol is readily available. In one study, 32 percent of students reported having unprotected sex after drinking. Overall, the same study found 55 percent of campus sexual encounters with someone who was not a steady partner involved alcohol. One male student interviewed cited alcohol as the determining factor in the hookup culture. Without alcohol, he said, the hookup culture wouldn’t exist.
Freitas draws a troubling picture. She finds fault with many of the answers currently being offered. Too often the debate is divided along party lines. On one side are those who claim that teaching teenagers about condoms encourages them to have sex, that birth control pills cause abortion and federal funding should never go toward anything related to abortion.
On the other side are those who believe that giving information about sexual mechanics and contraceptives will lead teens to make better decisions.
Freitas argues that what is missed on both sides is a conversation about meaning. What is meant by “sex”? What about different types of sex? Can we even write about that in the newspaper, let along talk with our teens about it? What is the meaning of being a virgin? Does it matter, or is it just something to “get rid of,” “protect,” “lose” or “win”? Is it a state of mind, or a state of being? Is any sex after the first experience meaningful?
These questions are profound, full of value and complex meaning, and they don’t fit well within the 750 minutes of sex education required by state law. Yet they are perhaps the most important. It is here that Freitas urges parents, churches, schools and colleges to place more emphasis.
One of the casualties of the hookup culture has been dating. “Hookup culture has taught college students that they should skip romance and go straight to sex,” Freitas writes. Yet, when interviewed, students said it was the relationship that was most desired. The problem is that students don’t know how to date. They seek to avoid the pain and embarrassment of rejection.
She suggests that colleges add a “How to Date on Our Campus” emphasis during freshman orientation, with simple ideas and advice about how to ask someone out, where to go, who pays. These are the basics that have been lost in the rush to sex but are the building blocks of relationships.
She encourages professors to find ways to add creative assignments to their lectures. (“What do you think Aristotle would say about the party you are going to tonight? We will talk about it on Monday.”)
In a time where the news is filled with controversy about “Plan B,” where legislators can’t agree on the meaning of medically accurate sexual information, “The End of Sex” shines a light on a part of our culture that we would prefer to ignore. It is not a fun book to read as it causes the reader to ask questions about the most personal and intimate parts of our lives and our children’s lives.
It is a troubling book, and it should be required reading for every legislator, college administrator and parent of a college student. It might help us have a vital conversation.
Reviewer Don Flowers is the pastor of Providence Baptist Church and board member emeritus of the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.