Thursday, February 08, 2007

It's Not Really About Sex

It's been a week of sex talk on my campus. Last night some students put together a discussion on the morality of "hooking up." [I want to note that while the talk was really about having sex, the euphemism 'hooking up' was used. This was confusing for me at times, since in my undergraduate experience 'hooking up' never meant 'having sex.'] Anyway, two students asked a decent size audience: is there anything immoral about two people randomly having sex (i.e. not in a committed relationship)? While not a single person in the room voiced a principled moral objection until the very end (i.e. that with sexual activity comes great responsibility due to the possibility of pregnancy), almost everyone in the room (except faculty) acknowledged that those who randomly 'hook up' are ruthlessly judged on campus.

The judgment is referred to as the "look away." The next morning, after a random hook up, if you run into your partner in hedonism at the cafeteria, while you are with your friends, the look away is inevitable. This phenomena is what interested me the most about this talk, which in my opinion, had very little to do with sex, and a whole lot to do with living in a stifling and repressive college culture. You see, the judgment is really not about "oh my God you had sex," rather it is of the form: "you had sex with him? (or her?)"

A rather honest, and therefore insightful, young man pointed out that given that our students hail largely from the upper middle-class, they all grow up with similar values. My colleague, rightfully asked, "what are those values?" And, while we expected to hear something about "no premarital sex" or "don't use people," what we actually heard was that hailing from the upper-class suburbs of New Jersey or New England entails growing up with a deeply ingrained sense that image is everything. At least two examples of this "image is everything" worldview were given: (1) men who do not hook up enough are not manly enough and (2) hooking up with someone not quite attractive enough is bad for your image. What no one said, directly, but I inferred from other things said, was that women who hook up a lot are "sluts," but the converse is not true for men. So, part of this "image is everything" ethos is the entrenchment of very archaic, stifling and sexist gender roles.

I pointed out to one young man that the way he was describing male sexuality among his friends made it out to be a conquest of women as objects for the sole purpose of proving to your friends that you are not gay. He apologized, which I thought was an endearing, if not odd response.

So, the upshot of this "image is everything" ethos on my campus is that almost every day is stifling, painful and full of concern for how one appears. The only time students are free to let go of all that judgment falling down on their heads is at night, when its dark and they are drunk. In fact, what I think I finally understand about our students, after this conversation, is why they drink so damn much. Living in this "image is everything" culture is enough to drive you crazy without outlets. But, the downside of carving out certain spaces and conditions for letting your guard down, is that the sexual activity that takes place in their drunken evenings is pretty bad. In fact, it leads to a great deal more misery the next day when they experience the "look away."

The fun part of sex, and random hook ups, is totally missing. Sex becomes for these students a release of tension or a means of self-abandonment, only the cure is worse than the disease.