Hook-Up or Shut Up

"Hook-Up or Shut Up," review of Sex and the Soul, by Donna Freitas, Wall Street Journal, 29 April 2008.


However high-minded their courses may sound – “Mirror of Princes,” say, or “The Political Philosophy of Aristotle” – college students today enter a low hook-up culture when they leave the classroom. In case you don’t know, a hook-up is a brief sexual encounter between two partners who don’t necessarily know each other before and who don’t necessarily want to know each other after. And it’s free. The sort of transient sex that once was available to men only for money can now be had, without paying, from college women – as long as the man is a fellow student and minimally artful about his approach. If he is thwarted in one overture, he may try another with a reasonable prospect of success.

No doubt lurid anecdote and popular myth cause us to exaggerate the actual frequency of campus hook-ups: Most college students do not share in these delights. But most students also believe that “everyone does it,” even if the individual student, for some reason, cannot locate a partner. Thus an active minority sets the tone and makes hooking up a “culture.” When there are no sexual boundaries, either official or informal, the standard becomes the extreme, and all students feel the pressure to appear more promiscuous than they are. The traditional double standard of sexual conduct – more restrictive for women than for men – has been replaced by the single standard of the predatory male.

In “Sex and the Soul,” Donna Freitas, an assistant professor of religion at Boston University, acutely describes this “liberated” campus culture and wisely analyzes its effects. She is especially concerned to measure conduct and expectation against the inner life of students, including their religious feeling or “spiritual” selves. Over and over again she finds a conflict that does not resolve itself happily.

According to one feminist professor of health – the head of a recent Harvard committee on student sexual relations – sex on campus should be “mature, respectful and life-affirming.” But, as Ms. Freitas shows, it usually is not. Instead it degrades both women and men. Women lose their sense of having a choice, to say nothing of “autonomy,” the supposed goal of sexual liberation. They feel compelled to offer a hook-up when they really want a date without the expectation of sex. And yet they fear “getting a reputation” for doing just what they are expected to do. “I felt a lot of regret . . . ,” one female student tells Ms. Freitas, speaking about a hook-up experience. “I felt that I kind of just gave myself.”