As a pscyhotherapist who continually craves to empower clients with knowledge with which they can contextualize problems and solutions and thus increase awareness, I was eager to hear about Dr. Freitas’ observations from her year of teaching on college campuses and the research, both clinical and anticdotal, that she gathered there. I work predominantly with folks in their 20s and 30s around sex and sexuality and I am always looking for perspective and insight into the origins of an individual’s sexual development both internally and as influenced by a larger social and cultural context. A good book makes you think. It prompts more questions that springboard off the one the author is writing to address. The End of Sex; How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, written by Donna Freitas, a doctor in Religious Studies and author of Sex and the Soul, does just that, which is why despite some shortcomings I ultimately think it is an important book to read.
The primary message in “The End of Sex” is that students, both male and female, feel enormous pressure today to engage in casual sex, a phenomenon which Dr. Freitas terms “hookup culture” where not only are “hookups” the norm, they have effectively replaced dates. Dr. Freitas explains that “hookup” can be defined in many different ways. For some it is kissing, for others it can mean oral sex, and for still others, seemingly the majority, it means vaginal intercourse. As a tangent issue, this could result in the book ignoring students who are gay, lesbian, or trans but I’ll note here that Dr. Freitas makes a vigilant effort in her book to include folks of all sexual orientations in her study and I was both grateful and relieved to see that. Hookup culture was born perhaps as a result of students receive messages from their parents that college is not a time to “tie yourself down” or become distracted by a relationship or perhaps because young women are learning to control their own bodies and sexuality. But because this culture has become the dominant culture, students are now essentially training themselves not to care about sex, not to become attached to the people they have sex with, and not to hope for or expect a relationship to follow. They are teaching themselves that sex means nothing and both it and the greater culture of hooking up are viewed with extreme passivity. Conversation about sex almost is as shut down as it is in an abstinence-only culture because there is little room for meaningful communication around it. Dr. Freitas makes the point clearly and repeatedly that rather than espousing through educational mediums black and white religious or political stances on sex (the mechanics of safe sex from the left, no sex until marriage from the right), we need to help youth learn to pay attention to whatever personal value they place on sex and support them in navigating this complex issue rather than criticizing or frightening them.
The author does not take issue with casual sex and recognizes that sex can be appreciated as a stand alone act of intimacy, pleasure, growth, and exploration. The problem with “hookup culture” however, as the author conveys, is that it demands that each person conform to the same belief system and practices without questioning whether they are actually personal truths or desires. And whether it is a religion, a culture, or a gender setting this precedence, it is not the individual. Other problems with this culture emerge as the book goes on. For example, woman do not seem to have the same power as men in deciding the terms of the hookup and only are instead expected to just “be okay” with it, negating any possibility that this form of casual sex is in fact empowering to young women. Alcohol is also almost always involved in hookups and the acts of casual sex tend to be deeply interconnected with drinking and parties. This is not about two sober, self aware, sexually progressive people having fun and “no-strings-attached” consentual sex. These are young people getting drunk and going along with what they all believe they are expected to do because their willingness to participate in a hookup is a reflection on their social status. In fact in can directly result in increased popularity. This makes sex a commodity. An object or item that can be given, taken, or stolen, i.e. rape, which also loses it’s significance if casual sex is the norm and expectation. The topic of pornography as a widely accessible and utilized vehicle for college students today was also discussed in the book and one can hardly disagree that porn can also create an idea and image of what sex is supposed to look like. Unfortunately, because most main-stream porn is based on male fantasy, sex in hookup culture rarely serves to get the sexual needs of the female participants met and most young women are assumed to take the “prop-loke” and submissive role to their dominant male counterparts. Of course it is not just women that suffer because of this dynamic. Men also are taught that they must fit and fill certain roles and their emotional freedom is just as restricted. In fact, according to the author, the vast majority of men also found hookup sex to be unsatisfying and stressful. Though it was small, Dr. Freitas tried to cast her study sample net wide, including students from both secular and Catholic, as well as public and private universities. But the theme of religion and spirituality is woven throughout the book and intertwined in themes. So here I will admit a bias. Organized religion tends to shut me down mentally and emotionally and when I hear reference to it, I have a hard time listening further. If sex is the conversation theme I jump to the conclusion that puritanical rhetoric is ahead if there is any kind of religions voice included. But while there is no mistaking the fact that religion is part of this book, as it is part of some student’s decisional compass when it comes to choices around sex, Dr. Freitas does a phenomenal job with a hard task and makes sure that the aspect of personal spirituality is only one of many factors being considered by those involved. So know before you read so that you don’t get distracted by wondering where she is ultimately going to come down, Dr. Freitas is not anti sex. She is anti bad sex. She is anti sex dictated by anyone other than the person having it. And her goal in this book is to increase people’s awareness of the inherent flaw in believing that sex must be about any one thing because it relinquishes power and limits a person, a very feminist, actually a very humanist perspective. Indeed “The End of Sex” is ultimately a feminist book and the topics of gender and of power hierarchies run throughout.
Another challenge I had with this book is that though the title is juicy, the book is clinical. It reads like a long journal article and is difficult to classify, something I learned as soon as I started to look for it in the sex section of the bookstore but was redirected to the college survival area. Wonderful ideas and perspectives are included throughout but it’s definitely heavy on the research, especially in the first few chapters, and it feels a bit dry. Case stories are included but provide no real personal or human connection because no one student is described in enough detail for us to care about them. There are probably many reasons for this, the strongest of which is that it is extremely hard, especially as a woman, to get your ideas heard and respected if there isn’t well documented evidence to back it up. Another is that it was simply not the point of this book to pull us in in that way. The book serves to educate us about a phenomenon that exists and in doing so provide social commentary. But I yearned as I read it for something more. Something that felt personal. Wisdom that could extend beyond the scope of the books particular message. Dr. Freitas did indeed show us that hookup culture is leaving a generation unhappy and sexually unfulfilled, but not necessarily how or why it does and how that results in confusion about intimacy. It feels a bit like there is a step missed.
Dr. Freitas kept her sample to college kids in their late teens and early twenties and though clearly that was the group she was the most familiar with and had the most exposure to, her wisdom held that true in that this was the predominant time and place in life in which kids learn about and explore with sex and that there is widespread and very real phenomenon of an expectation for and a dominant culture around hookup sex on college campuses. Knowing this, I tried to let go of my concern that kids not attending college were being left out of this discussion and also that most kids start developing beliefs about and experimenting with sex long before college, which makes a more global commentary challenging. I also tried to let go of my desire to hear more about how the experiences of these sample students impacted their future practices. Again, beyond the scope of what this book covers. Dr. Freitas kept her sample to college kids in their late teens and early twenties and though clearly that was the group she was the most familiar with and had the most exposure to, her wisdom held that true in that this was the predominant time and place in life in which kids learn about and explore with sex and that there is widespread and very real phenomenon of an expectation for and a dominant culture around hookup sex on college campuses.
“The End of Sex” paints an unflinchingly bleak picture. Though they are brief and seem a bit secondary, the author is careful to propose solutions to the problem within the educational system that include a new and improved sex education class taught be teachers who are able to engage in further public or private dialog with students thus expanding on the notion that college is a time to develop critical thinking skills in all areas and not just as it pertains to future job prospects. She described and encouraged one teacher’s assignment to simply go on a date that was; not with a friend, did not involve alcohol, was not to a movie (as this makes genuine conversation and getting to know the other difficult and, did not include physical or sexual contact, a remarkably simple and effective way of helping students recognize that there were alternatives to hookup culture. Ultimately her hope is that once educators, parents, and the students themselves have an increased awareness of the dominance of hookup culture and its shortcomings, they can start to think and talk more honestly and openly about it and make personal decisions about their sexuality from an informed place. As a therapist who sees this challenge continue on with clients into adulthood, especially as it pertains to struggles with intimacy, I could not agree more.