Speaking into the Hook-up Culture

Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf makes a good point about how Christians should talk about sex. He was raised Catholic, but I don’t gather he’s particularly religious himself. Yet he poses the hypothetical: if I were a Christian campus minister, what would I say to a group of college students about sex?


Hello again, everyone. You didn’t expect to spend your first day of college listening to a Christian minister talk about sex…Christianity prohibits certain things, like murder and stealing and adultery. But I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.

The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them.

Say you’re dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can’t help but sense that they’re not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you’d rather go ahead.

If you really try to be good to one another, if you earnestly question what that moral code demands and grapple your way toward answers, you may not always like what your reason and conscience tell you. It may tell you to stop slowly taking that person’s clothing off even though they haven’t said to stop. It may tell you that you need to stay in the room with a friend who’d clearly rather be alone with an intoxicated date. Students are at greater risk of sexual assault at parties where there’s drinking going on. Does that mean anything for your behavior if you’re obligated to be good to your fellow students? Do you stay sober, or drink less and keep an eye on those who drink more, or serve only beer, not hard alcohol, when you host, or throw a substance-free party?

You’ll need to decide. What’s truly best for my classmates, and what does it demand of me?

Some students will become depressed after hooking up with someone who doesn’t reciprocate the emotional intimacy they sought. Does that fact affect you? How? There’s always a chance that sexual intercourse will result in a sexually transmitted disease or the creation of a new life. What does that imply, if anything, about your own sexual behavior as you try to be good to one another?

There are so many situations you’ll face—so many more questions I could pose.

I don’t pretend that confronting these situations with the question, “How can I be good to others?” will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers, though I hope that you’ll keep your hearts open to the possibility. But if you really wrestle with that question in every situation that involves sex, romantic intimacy, dating, hooking up, whatever you kids call it these days—instead of thoughtlessly acting in whatever way most people seem to be acting—you’re much more likely to do right by others, much more likely to be proud of yourselves, and much less likely to remember your time here without the regrets that haunt some people, people who look back at their younger selves ashamed of how they hurt others. You’ll also bring about a community with fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer sexual assaults, less depression—just by trying your very hardest to be good to one another!


Four thoughts:

1. It’s almost laughable to imagine a university allowing any religious person to talk to freshmen about sex during orientation. Instead they force students to sit through drivel that could be straight out of a sexed-up afterschool special, and kick Christian groups off campus.

2. Granting that, it’s a bit silly to make this case, because that’s already how so many Christians talk about sex. Their arguments for avoiding sex before marriage always revolve around what it means to truly love other people well and to keep their best interests at heart. That’s why the pro-abstinence group at Harvard was originally named True Love Revolution. Because of course if you love people, you’ll think carefully about how you engage with them sexually.

3. It’s really good to see a secular(?) person acknowledging the ridiculous level of destructiveness and hurt caused by the hook-up culture. (Friedersdorf is one of the most thoughtful and respectful writers on religion I know.) Last year, I was struck by how much secular culture has changed on this question as I watched one of my favorite TV shows – Quantum Leap. It’s an old sci-fi series from about two decades ago, and the protagonist chastised another character for suggesting random sex, saying that it was wrong to have sex with someone you don’t love. This standard – something that falls seriously short of Christian ethics – seemed so quaint and out-dated, as many of my peers wouldn’t even be willing to say that it’s wrong to have a hook-up. Christian Smith’s Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood is a highly report of a sociological study of many young adults that paints a good picture of how the hook-up culture has proved incredibly damaging to many of them.

4. Friedersdorf concludes by noting that Christians may be saying this, but that others aren’t privy to their conversations. I’m pretty sure I’ve painted something along the lines of this ethic (that opposition to premarital sex stems from love) in every conversation I’ve had about it. The problem is not that Christians aren’t making good arguments; the problem is that our culture is so divided many get their impressions of Christianity from Westboro Baptist church protests and not directly from Christians themselves.

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