The End of Sex

How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy


By Donna Freitas

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Hookup culture dominates the lives of college students today. Most students spend hours agonizing over their hopes for Friday night and, later, dissecting the evenings’ successes or failures, often wishing that the social contract of the hookup would allow them to ask for more out of sexual intimacy. The pressure to participate comes from all directions — from peers, the media, and even parents. But how do these expectations affect students themselves? And why aren’t’t parents and universities helping students make better-informed decisions about sex and relationships?

In The End of Sex, Donna Freitas draws on her own extensive research to reveal what young men and women really want when it comes to sex and romance. Surveying thousands of college students and conducting extensive one-on-one interviews at religious, secular public, and secular private schools, Freitas discovered that many students — men and women alike — are deeply unhappy with hookup culture. Meaningless hookups have led them to associate sexuality with ambivalence, boredom, isolation, and loneliness, yet they tend to accept hooking up as an unavoidable part of college life. Freitas argues that, until students realize that there are many avenues that lead to sex and long-term relationships, the vast majority will continue to miss out on the romance, intimacy, and satisfying sex they deserve.

An honest, sympathetic portrait of the challenges of young adulthood, The End of Sex will strike a chord with undergraduates, parents, and faculty members who feel that students deserve more than an endless cycle of boozy one night stands. Freitas offers a refreshing take on this charged topic — and a solution that depends not on premarital abstinence or unfettered sexuality, but rather a healthy path between the two.



Sex and the Soul

Killing the Imposter God

Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise

Author’s Note

It was while teaching an undergraduate course at a small Catholic college that I first heard students talk extensively about hooking up.* Hookup culture was clearly dominant on campus, and my students were more than willing to discuss the sexual encounters occurring at parties and in the residence halls on the weekends. At first no one complained about this culture—they accepted it as the norm and seemed perfectly happy living within it. Then, about halfway through the term, something changed. It took only one student to admit that hookup culture wasn’t all she’d been told it was, and, what was more, that it made her miserable.* Suddenly, the students who had been speaking about hooking up in the most spirited of terms reversed themselves entirely. They confessed that they had been lying to one another about their real feelings.

This single day of confession changed the direction of student discussion for the remainder of the semester. From then on, my students explored what they felt was the real truth about sex and hooking up on campus. They started to question whether most people were satisfied with hookups as the norm, suspecting that their peers, if given the choice, would prefer to date and have long-term relationships. Their discussions revealed an intense longing for meaning—meaningful sex, meaningful relationships, and meaningful dates, and their corresponding classwork presented a devastating analysis of how and why hookup culture deprives students of the opportunity to fulfill their true desires and to experience sex that is good, while leaving many of them feeling isolated and lonely during their college experience.

The students became so passionate about the subject of what was missing from hookup culture that they created a newspaper to expand the conversation campus-wide. In it, they wrote of how they had learned to resist monogamous relationships in order to avoid being left out of hookup culture. As a consequence, they had become unable to “create valuable and real connections.” They talked of “deserv[ing] more than 3 am–10 am, three nights a week,” from a partner, and of their desire to “go on actual dates, and insist on commitment.” They wondered what it would be like to stop tolerating the hookup as the norm. Was it possible, they wanted to know, to break the cycle of hookup culture and replace it with sex that was “healthier on an emotional, physical, and spiritual level,” and even “meaningful, special, and sacred”?*

The class was something of a revelation to me, and I began to wonder if students at other universities felt the same way. So I designed and launched a national study to find out. In the spring of 2006, I provided more than 2,500 college students from all over the country with three private forums for discussing their spiritual and religious leanings (or non-leanings), and, in particular, how they felt about sex during college. I conducted an online survey; did in-depth, in-person interviews; and collected a series of journals that students wrote for the purposes of the study over a two-week period. The assembled data provided an extraordinarily rich picture of how students experience college today. Much like my own students, the subject they brought up over and over again was hookup culture.

Altogether, seven colleges and universities participated in this formal research on sex, romance, hookup culture, and dating on campus.* Diverse in terms of ranking, geography, economic status, and religious affiliation, these seven schools were chosen for a number of additional reasons, including the willingness of the institutions to distribute the survey, their comfort with the study and their interest in allowing the research to be done on campus, and the strength of the relationships I had formed with my contacts on each campus. I focused on four different types of institutions: private-secular and public colleges (both of which I will call “secular,” for the sake of brevity), evangelical colleges, and Catholic colleges. One of the findings of the study was that hookup culture was dominant—and essentially indistinguishable—at the participating secular and Catholic colleges. At evangelical colleges, however, hookup culture does not really exist. What you find instead is purity culture, an ostensibly heterosexual culture that revolves around waiting to have sex—or in some cases even a kiss—until marriage. The results of my study were published in 2008 in Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses. That book chronicles my initial, general findings about sex, hookup culture, religion, and spirituality on campus (including extensive data from the participating evangelical colleges).

In this book I both reiterate and refine some of those initial findings, but more central than this, I focus in greater depth on the data I gathered on hookup culture. Hookup culture is a complicated phenomenon and I believe it deserves a book of its own.* Many students resist defining their hookups with specific, sexual content, so even a basic understanding of the term “hookup” requires a certain amount of analysis. The gender and sexual identity politics of hookup culture are also complicated, as are the personal experiences of those who participate in it.

My research into hookup culture has continued—and expanded—since the publication of Sex and the Soul. Over the course of my study I have learned about almost every aspect of this topic on college campuses today. Even more importantly, I have been afforded an extensive, inside look at hookup culture that few can claim, including fellow researchers and journalists who have written on the topic. Professors have taught Sex and the Soul across disciplines from education and sociology to psychology and religious studies, with some developing entire courses around the subjects I covered. Higher education professionals working in student affairs departments have used the book for professional development and to justify new programming on their campuses, and offices of campus ministry have devoted retreats to discussing how my findings might affect their work with students. I have lectured at dozens of educational institutions across the United States, from small colleges to huge universities, in rural America and in major cities. These lectures have given me the opportunity to informally continue the conversation on sex and hookup culture with thousands more students as well as concerned faculty, staff, and university administrators and their colleagues.

Taken together, these experiences have deepened my understanding of how students manage to find meaning (or not) within hookup culture. I have learned from these visits that hookup culture continues unabated, and that many, many students struggle in silence with their lack of options for sexual and romantic intimacy. These experiences have solidified for me not only what is at stake for students during their university experience, but also what is missing from their discussions both inside and outside of the lecture halls.

One of the things I have learned from the reaction to Sex and the Soul, however, is that hookup culture is not inevitable. Parents, professors, university administrators, and the students themselves are capable of finding—even driven to find—meaningful alternatives. Over the past few years I have been lucky enough to witness the incredible effort that higher education personnel are making to respond to the needs of the students in their care. I have met professors who are deeply concerned about their students beyond the classroom, and I have been amazed by the dedication and creativity they bring to the task of navigating the waters of this culture in which their students are immersed.

I hope this book will help to keep the conversation around hookup culture moving forward. But more importantly, I hope that my suggestions for dealing with hookup culture will enable educators, parents, and students alike to respond productively to a problem that can sometimes seem monolithic. Over the course of nearly twenty years of teaching, I have never seen young women and men struggle with any other issue the way they are struggling with hookup culture. I care deeply about those living, breathing bodies sitting in front of me in the classroom, and feel a responsibility to take action as best as I can. I am not interested in legislating over their lives, but in finding the various frameworks necessary to promote their empowerment from within. My greatest wish is to help make available a set of diverse structures through which students can make the best, most informed choices they can about their bodies and their lives.

*For anyone familiar with my book Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses, published by Oxford University Press in 2008, the story that follows—about why I set out to interview college students about their sex lives and religious leanings—will sound familiar. Some of the data and student commentary I refer to in this book comes directly from Sex and the Soul—but for the purposes of taking a more focused and exclusive look at hookup culture. It was necessary for me to refer to those findings as well as subsequent, relevant data in order to introduce new readers to my study, open up new arguments about hookup culture, and ground my recommendations about how to respond to hookup culture.

*For the full story about my class, please see the preface to Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), xiii–xx.

*My class’s one-issue newspaper was entitled Dateline SMC. These quotes came from two front-page articles, “Weekend Cinderellas” and “Is the Red Solo Cup Keeping Us Solo?”

Although hookup culture is not exclusive to colleges, as it exists both before and after the university years, I chose to study institutions of higher education because of my many years of experience teaching on college campuses as well as living and working on them for various departments of student affairs. The college campus provides a unique type of community in which young adults live on their own; it also provides a setting in which hookup culture thrives. Some students do not encounter hookup culture until they go to college. The vast majority of college freshmen are already acquainted with it from high school and even middle school, but the residential college campus is nevertheless where hookup culture intensifies for them. It begins to dominate their social lives and intimate relationships at a level previously unknown to their experience.

*Both the names of the participating institutions and the names of students have been kept anonymous to protect the privacy of everyone concerned. The assurance of privacy also allowed me to create conditions in which students could discuss the topic of sex on campus honestly and openly. The online survey sample was about two-thirds female and one-third male, and the interview sample was about 55 percent female and 45 percent male. Approximately 5 percent of the total population identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and the students were distributed about evenly across each of the four college years. The vast majority of the students identified themselves as white/Caucasian (about 85 percent), most reported they were Christian (20 percent Roman Catholic, 32 percent evangelical Protestant, and 19 percent mainline Protestant), and they had come to college from 45 different states. Of the 2,500 students surveyed at the seven participating schools, 111 were randomly chosen from 534 volunteers to engage in extensive one-on-one, face-to-face interviews, all of whom I met in person and with whom I spoke on their respective campuses. Each of these students kept an online journal for a period of two weeks to chronicle their thoughts about the topics I was studying.

*Purity culture among evangelical youth is also complex and deserving of extensive attention. Several recent books on the topic engage it at length, including Christine J. Gardner’s excellent Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns, which traces the politics and expanding popularity of purity pledges among youth.


The Second Shift of College

AMID THE SEEMINGLY ENDLESS PARTYING on America’s college campuses lies a thick layer of melancholy, insecurity, and isolation that no one can seem to shake. College students have perfected an air of bravado about hookup culture, though a great many of them privately wish for a world of romance and dating. And yet they soldier on. By all appearances, graduating college with sex on one’s social resumé is as important as it is to have a range of activities, internship experiences, and a solid GPA on the professional one. In today’s college culture, sex is something students fit into their schedules, like studying and going to the gym.

College students learn from the media, their friends, and even their parents that it’s not sensible to have long-term relationships in college. College is a special time in life—they will never get the chance to learn so much, meet so many people, or have as much fun again. Relationships restrict freedom—they require more care, upkeep, and time than anyone can afford to give during this exciting period between adolescence and adulthood. They add pressure to the already heavily pressured, overscheduled lives of today’s students, who, according to this ethos, should be focusing on their classes, their job prospects, and the opportunity to party as wildly as they can manage. Hookups allow students to get sex onto the college CV without adding any additional burdens, ensuring that they don’t miss out on the all-American, crazy college experience they feel they must have. They can always settle down later.

Students play their parts—the sex-crazed frat boy, the promiscuous, lusty coed—and they play them well. But all too often they enact these highly gendered roles for one another because they have been taught to believe that hookup culture is normal, that everyone is enjoying it, and that there is something wrong with them if they don’t enjoy it, too. What could be better than sex without strings? Yet, in fact, many of them—both men and women—are not enjoying it at all.

Hookup sex is fast, uncaring, unthinking, and perfunctory. Hookup culture promotes bad sex, boring sex, drunken sex you don’t remember, sex you could care less about, sex where desire is absent, sex that you have “just because everyone else is, too,” or that “just happens.” It’s the new, second shift of college: the housework, the domestic labor that everyone needs to pitch in and get through because it simply has to get done. The more students talk about hooking up, the clearer it becomes that it has less to do with excitement or even attraction than with checking a box off a long list of tasks, like homework or laundry. And while hookup sex is supposed to come with no strings attached, it nonetheless creates an enormous amount of stress and drama among participants.

Today’s younger generation learns quickly and learns well that the norm is to be casual about sex—even though so many of them don’t fit this “norm.” Parents and educational institutions unwittingly promote this idea. Because we worry about the perils of casual sex among teens—unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and, for some constituencies, sin and God’s disapproval—the very people who should be mentoring young men and women about the pleasures and joys of good sex instead focus on its dangers. Sex education in high schools, in both its comprehensive and abstinence-only forms, tends to favor the how-to’s or the why-not-to’s of sex. This limited approach is often reiterated in first-year college orientations, which tend to concentrate on birth control, STIs, and sexual assault. Rather than empowering teens and young adults to make informed decisions about sex, these sex-educational methods often reinforce the idea that hookup culture is the norm, that everyone is doing it, and that all students can do is protect themselves against its worst excesses.

The average college student, like the average adult, wants to have a meaningful sex life, even a soulful one, even if that requires having less sex or, for a time, no sex. But the path toward this goal is dimly lit. This leaves students fumbling all the way up to their senior year, sensing that something is missing from their lives, yet with no idea how to find fulfillment or who can help them in their search for it. Universities may be doing a good enough job facilitating safe sex for those who genuinely enjoy hooking up. But many students today are graduating college either unhappy or ambivalent about their sex lives, and unable to imagine a more fulfilling alternative. At the center of their unease is the four years they’ve lived within hookup culture.

BUT WHERE DID HOOKUP CULTURE come from? I’ve been asked this again and again during the question-and-answer sessions at my lectures. As yet, there are no true historians of hookup culture who can trace the exact evolution of the practice and back up their claims with data.1 We do, however, have a number of snapshots of hookup culture during particular years or months. Some have been provided by journalists who have gathered anecdotal information, such as Laura Sessions Stepp, who in 2007 wrote the first book-length treatment of the subject, entitled Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both, which focused on women’s experience. In Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, a more academic work than Stepp’s, Kathleen Bogle offered a history of hookup culture. She did not, however, provide a satisfactory answer to how it arose and how it gained so much ground, before moving on to discuss the results of her study on hooking up at college. Bogle’s history of dating begins with the “calling era,” moves on to the more traditional date and “going steady,” and has the hookup emerging amorphously out of changes wrought by the women’s movement and the sexual revolution.2

Hookups have existed throughout human history, of course, but what is now happening on American campuses is something different. College has gone from being a place where hookups happened to a place where hookup culture dominates student attitudes about all forms of intimacy. The hookup has become normative, and hookup culture a monolithic culture from which students find little chance of escape. It is the defining aspect of social life on many campuses; to reject it is to relegate oneself to the sidelines of college experience.

In my personal experience as a university student in the early to mid-1990s, the hookup was one of many available forms of relating. Hookup culture was like a town everyone knew about and knew how to find. We also knew who lived there permanently and partied there exclusively. Most of us would visit hookup culture and its accompanying parties a number of times during college, if only to see what it was like. But we weren’t immersed in it throughout our four years—or, at least, we didn’t have to be if we didn’t want to. The landscape for navigating one’s romantic and sexual life was much broader and more diverse and included traditional dates and long-term romantic relationships as well as hooking up. (There was also the possibility of opting out of all of it.) But even in the mid-1990s, hooking up could still mean making out at a party and exchanging phone numbers, with the thought of turning the make-out session into an opportunity for a relationship. It didn’t necessarily ride on the notion of unattached intimacy both during and afterward, and it wasn’t an end in itself.

Between 1997 and 2003, I lived on campus as a professional in student affairs departments at two major universities, one Catholic and one private-secular. More than anything else, student alcohol abuse was the major issue. My colleagues and I dealt with it on a regular basis with the students in our residence halls. Hookup culture existed then, too, but it didn’t dominate the social lives of students the way it does now. I witnessed couples heading out on dates, knew of long-term relationships that were kindled early on in a student’s first year of college, and listened as students chatted about their various social exploits and romantic aspirations. It wasn’t until my last few years living in the halls that student behavior became more extreme, and the drunken hookups more obvious because they began in the hallways, stairwells, and elevators in my building. But still, among the students with whom I came into contact for all sorts of student-affairs department reasons, conversation about hooking up was fairly minimal. You might hear the term once in a while, but it was not the thing that everyone was talking about constantly. Today, it’s almost the only thing.

One can only speculate as to the reasons that hookup culture has come to dominate college campuses in the early part of the twenty-first century. During the 1980s and 1990s, the threat of AIDS loomed over all sexual encounters. Today’s generation has a difficult time understanding the threat of AIDS, given advances in research and medication. The widespread availability and social acceptance of pornography is yet another factor that may contribute to the rise of hookup culture over the past decade. The ubiquitousness of pornography is changing the attitudes of young adults about sex, their expectations for their partners, and their understanding of desire, gender identity, and how one enters into various types of sexual intimacy.

Moreover, the campus culture—along with the wider culture—has become more superficial with the advance of technology. A frenetic go-go-go and do-do-do pace, increasing in the midst of an economic recession, has put young adults under ever more pressure. They are competing with each other for fewer and fewer jobs, but burdened with greater and greater expectations of success. Such pressure can breed stress, anxiety, and even selfishness, all of which are aided and abetted by technologies that allow us to text rather than call, and to interact superficially and efficiently, with broad swaths of “friends” and followers, through Facebook and Twitter, rather than engage in meaningful interactions face to face with other human beings. This pace and pressure coincide with the attitudes toward others fostered by hookup culture. Rather than looking at the people right in front of us, we look at our phones, preferring to touch a screen rather than the hand of a partner. Instead of engaging in conversation with those sitting next to us, we text, email, and chat with people nowhere near our bodies. We have become more excited about interacting with the various technological devices at our disposal than about developing relationships with real people, even our own children. This prioritizing of technology over in-person interactions does not teach us how to value the life and body of another human being, or what it means to treat others with dignity and respect. Instead, it promotes the idea that in-person relationships are cumbersome and time consuming—better to be dealt with online, or, even better, not at all.3

ONE OF THE MOST RECENT contributions to the cultural conversation about hookup culture comes from journalist Hanna Rosin, who, in her book The End of Men, argued, among other things, that the perfunctory nature of sex during a hookup is essential to support a wider landscape of sexual liberation and empowerment among today’s young women. Ambivalent sex is useful, Rosin said, because it does not tie a young woman down—it allows her to focus exclusively on professional aspirations. “To put it crudely,” she wrote, “feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”4

Rosin’s argument is fascinating, but, based on my research, I believe it is also misleading. It is true that the existence of hookup culture allows young women to put off relationships. Yet it doesn’t simply allow


On Sale
Apr 2, 2013
Page Count
240 pages
Basic Books

Donna Freitas

About the Author

Donna Freitas writes both fiction and nonfiction, most recently, Consent on Campus: A Manifesto. She has lectured at nearly two hundred colleges and universities about her research on college students. She lives in Brooklyn.

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