With all due respect to our devoted readership among spam websites in Russia and Palau, I think it is time we attract some fresh eyes to this blog by talking about something everyone loves to discuss: the sexual habits of 20-somethings. Before delving into the subject, however, of which Matt Yglesias and Ross Douthat have kindly reminded us with a recent series of posts, we have to enter some basic caveats.
First of all, one comes away from reading most blogs and magazines with the mistaken impression that casual sex, much like affirmative action and the job market, only affects college students at elite institutions. These, it would seem, are the only people who have sex-- or who look for work or are affected by race-based selection criteria. Whenever the "hookup culture" shows up in the national imagination, whether in the hands of hostile or sympathetic commentators, it always relates to young 20-somethings who want to become corporate lawyers or Wall Street gurus, despite the well-established fact that only one percent of the American population will ever receive a professional degree or a doctorate, and only ten percent will ever attend graduate school of any sort. It is worth emphasizing this point, because it tells us that the moral pygmies Hanna Rosin encounters at an "Ivy League business school-party"in the opening of her famous article on the Hookup culture are not necessarily representative of anything beyond their own tiny and hyper-aggressive tribe. In fact, I suspect the reason the opening of that piece works as a journalistic "shocker" and "hook" is because, to most of us, it is so far outside of our own experiences of what constitutes the "norm" of sexual and romantic life. The world it lays bare is as remote to us as an Andean village or the Kalahari desert. We should bear this in mind if we are to avoid both the excesses of frothy-mouthed criticism about "young people these days" and the sort of cheerleading from pseudo-feminists and pseudo-liberals which seems to imply that in our post-sexual revolution world, every young person is a single-minded careerist feeling for that next wrung on the ladder to Big Law or Goldman Sachs.
Okay, but taking the issue with these glacier-sized grains of salt, I do find the ongoing discussion of the "hookup culture" rather disconcerting. This is not because I think this culture is as prevalent as the national discussion makes it out to be. The sexual exploits of 20-somethings at elite schools are always going to be dramatically exaggerated in the retelling, because people are bound to regard them with a mixture of envy and disgust-- much the way our reality TV shows capitalize off their viewer's dual impulse to project themselves into the lives of the super-rich and to deliciously censure whatever they find there.
What I find distressing therefore has less to do with America's complicated socio-sexual realities and more to do with what people, especially on the left, have to say about the "hookup culture" when it is discussed, however chimerical it may in fact be. My concern is with the roles feminists and liberals play in these debates, or at least, the roles in which they allow themselves to be cast: That role is to essentially be the apologists and cheerleaders and in-house counsel for the rising generation of America's knowledge elite: the lawyers, investment bankers, policy wonks, etc. For anyone with a deeper sense of continuity with the history of the American left and the values for which it is supposed to stand, this is a very disturbing trend.
Let's rewind the tape for a minute. The American feminist movement first emerged in its contemporary form out of organized labor and democratic socialist circles in the early 1960s (think of the careers of Betty Friedan or Barbara Ehrenreich, e.g.). It gained special prominence, of course, after the late '60s counterculture, when women in the New Left and hippie movements (which, let us remember, are not interchangeable concepts) began to protest the constricting role they were asked to play in those movements by male comrades (one Black Panther organizer notoriously remarked, for example, that the only position for women in the group was "prone"). But even in this post-countercultural version of feminism, the ties to the older institutions of the American left, especially working class institutions like labor unions, were by no means severed. At any rate, it would have horrified these first-generation feminists to hear the contemporary doyennes of the movement saying things like this-- from Hannah Rosin's essay "Boys on the Side":
"The sexual culture may be more coarse these days, but young women are more than adequately equipped to handle it, because unlike the women in earlier ages, they have more-important things on their minds, such as good grades and internships and job interviews and a financial future of their own. The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relationships that don’t get in the way of future success."
"Armstrong and Hamilton had come looking for sexual victims. Instead, at this university, and even more so at other, more prestigious universities they studied, they found the opposite: women who were managing their romantic lives like savvy headhunters. 'The ambitious women calculate that having a relationship would be like a four-credit class, and they don’t always have time for it, so instead they opt for a lighter hookup,' Armstrong told me."
"We’ve landed in an era that has produced a new breed of female sexual creature, one who acknowledges the eternal vulnerability of women but, rather than cave in or trap herself in the bell jar, instead looks that vulnerability square in the face and then manipulates it in unexpected, and sometimes hilarious, ways. In the fall of 2010, Karen Owen, a recent graduate of Duke University, became momentarily famous when her friends leaked her pornographic PowerPoint presentation cataloging her sexual exploits with 13 Duke athletes, whom she identified by name, skill, and penis size (“While he had girth on his side, the subject was severely lacking in length”). In Owen’s hands, scenes of potential humiliation were transformed into punch lines. (“Mmm tell me about how much you like big, black cocks,” Subject 6, a baseball player, told her. “But, I’ve never even hooked up with a black man!” she told him. “Oh … well, just pretend like you have,” he responded. “Umm ok … I like big, black … cocks?”)"
In reference to HBO's Girls: "In Hannah’s charmed but falling-apart life, her encounters with Adam count as “experience,” fodder for the memoir she half-jokingly tells her parents will make her “the voice of [her] generation.” She is our era’s Portnoy, entitled and narcissistic enough to obsess about precisely how she gets off."
Josh here again: Perhaps what is most bizarre about these pseudo-defenses of the (perhaps chimerical) hookup culture is that they read so much like criticisms. It seems extraordinary, in fact, that anyone with an ordinary moral sense could read or write them without a note of despair.
Now, I don't think there's anything wrong intrinsically with "good grades and internships and job interviews and a financial future" or that these are illegitimate objects of pursuit, but they are should be regarded as means to living a good life, not ends in themselves. It seems to me the good life they make possible for women (and hopefully, for men too) would have been regarded by earlier generations of feminists as having something to do with forging more genuine and egalitarian relationships with other people, with pursuing social justice or equality or some goal which is larger than oneself, or with expressing one's individual personality and talents with authenticity (distinct from mere self-gratification-- more on this is a minute).
Then there is the implicit assumption, most evident in the third and fourth block quotations above, that it is somehow an achievement if women act more like frat boys and if frat boys are degraded in the way women are routinely by the media, pornography, etc. How could this possibly have become such conventional wisdom among feminists, of all people? It is a sad fact that "objectification" has fallen out of the feminist's lexicon, though it used to be a mainstay, and I suspect it has to do with the fact that "objectification" appeals to a deeper and more universalizable moral principle than simply gloating over the successes of whichever gender one happens to belong to. It is also hard to see how one might refer to objectification with regard to the actions of Hugh Hefner but not to see that leaking a Powerpoint in which a man's genitals are "scored" is little different. Rosin also doesn't seem to even vaguely consider the possibility that the Powerpoint described above might have been a source of embarrassment for the guys whose penises were being publicly measured as much as for the woman. Even if Owen was able to pass the incident off with jokes (and I don't really see the purported "punch line," btw, but what do I know?), there were clearly other people affected. In the article as a whole, Rosin doesn't seem to regard the men engaged in the hookup culture as anything like human beings with their own emotional vulnerabilities and needs. Here's Rosin's idea, for instance, of what "non-privileged" men are like (presumably a category which runs the gamut from total deadbeats to men working any ordinary middle-income job): he is "the kind of disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal [his girlfriend's] credit card."
All of this is a betrayal most obviously of American feminism's traditional sympathy with the underdog, the working class, and those otherwise left behind in the rat race. It also runs counter to the moral universalism of early feminism. Rosin seems to have imbibed a bit too much of Monsieur Foucault and Herr Nietzsche in her apparent insistence that gender politics can only be discussed as a question of who has got the upper hand and for how long, rather than one of fairness and equity.
At an even deeper level than all of this, however, I think the role that cultural liberals and feminists play in these debates reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be on the side of individual expression and freedom from enforced gender norms. On the most basic level, they are guilty of taking a good thing too far. Just because it is a good thing to broaden the range of opportunities and roles available to people, that is to say, does not mean there aren't universal values to be realized in the course of each human life (among which forming deep bonds with other people-- deeper than a "hookup"-- is certainly one).
But this is something most liberals and feminists will admit when pressed (after all-- it is the only way for them to avoid falling into self-contradition-- if there are no universal values, then why liberalism? why feminism?). Rosin, for instance, buries this refreshingly humane observation in the final lines of her article:
"Young men and women have discovered a sexual freedom unbridled by the conventions of marriage, or any conventions. But that’s not how the story ends. They will need time, as one young woman at Yale told me, to figure out what they want and how to ask for it. Ultimately, the desire for a deeper human connection always wins out, for both men and women. Even for those business-school women, their hookup years are likely to end up as a series of photographs, buried somewhere on their Facebook page, that they do or don’t share with their husband—a memory that they recall fondly or sourly, but that hardly defines them."
But more than simply going "too far" toward freedom from traditional restraints, it seems to me that feminists like Rosin have set out in a direction which will carry them away even from their purported goal. The fundamental tenet of feminism and cultural liberalism, in the form of both which I embrace, is that to restrict women and men to prescribed roles is a profound waste of human potential. That given the diversity and individuality of humans, there is so much lost and wasted and stunted by forcing each into a destiny that does not reflect who s/he really is. This does not mean there are no human universals. On the contrary, it means that the only way for everyone to participate meaningfully in the full realization of those universals-- of the potential for creativity, of the capacity to love others, etc.-- is to express her/his true self. If instead, as some conservatives and neo-traditionalists urge, everyone is socially pressured to conform to certain roles-- to be a male breadwinner instead of a stay-at-home dad or to be a mother instead of a single woman who is able to devote more time to a demanding but necessary occupation-- then we are not contributing to the realization of the social values of traditionalist, we are stifling them. We are hobbling people's ability to contribute to them in the way that is most expressive of who they really are, and hence most efficacious.
But what we are dealing with here in the hookup culture, to the extent it really exists, is not a loosening of conventions or a freeing-up of roles. It is a hardening of yet another constricting set of expectations about the proper way to spend one's time. G.K. Chesterton once made this point in an essay arguing against the Hannah Rosins of his day: the questions of sexual libertinism or what-have-you are not a matter of defending or abandoning convention, but of dropping one convention for another. From the anecdotes quoted by Rosin, are we quite sure that these conventions, if adopted, are less constraining, allow a greater scope to the expression of individual personality, than other alternatives we might float? Are there not alternatives available to us beyond going back to the days of '50s- style dating culture? We are not talking about turning back the clock here, but of turning it forward.
What we need now is a feminism which genuinely values diversity and autonomy, and the role both play in generating the social capital and institutional continuity which help our society to function. We need a feminism which returns to its essentially countercultural role as a voice for social criticism, not one which vindicates the conventional attitudes and aspirations of frat boys and sorority girls at your typical ivy-covered campus. We need a feminism which tries to genuinely broaden the range of options deemed socially acceptable by conventional morality, and getting the message across to the world that people can take on atypical roles in life without damaging the social fabric. None of this entails imposing the most limiting and constraining and stunting roles yet devised on women and men as the only "norm": that of being mere accumulators of utility-- sexual machines with vacant heads and missing hearts.