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Hookup culture killing romance with sex

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English poet Philip Larkin famously told us that: "Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles' first LP."

Now, a mere 50 years later, Brooklyn professor Donna Freitas tells us that sex is coming to an end.

Well, not really. Just as Larkin's verse was meant to be a facetious take on the post-Pill increase in promiscuity, so Freitas's title is intended to provoke concern about the negative effects of hookup culture pervading American campuses.

To study the hookup phenomenon, Freitas visited a number of colleges and universities, "conducted an online survey, did in-depth interviews, and collected a series of journals that students wrote for the purposes of the study."

She presents her findings in a clear, well-organized and engaging way, and offers some good and rational suggestions for change. Her book in some ways is an update on what Tom Wolfe found when he researched campus morality for his 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons.

A college hookup is the pairing off of students, usually male and female, and usually at a weekend party in the dorm, for the purpose of sex. It is "purely physical in nature and involves both [students] shutting down any communication or connection that might lead to emotional attachment."

An essential ingredient is alcohol, which flows freely at what is often a theme party, where the young men and women play roles. These are influenced by porn movies, the men acting as business executives or sports heroes and always in authority, the women scantily clad secretaries or nurses or French maids and always submissive.

The sexiness of women's outfits is mostly dictated by fashion marketers, who even have grade-school girls wearing thong underwear.

In hookups, oral sex -- usually the girl giving, the guy receiving -- is the new making out. As Freitas amusingly reminds us, this practice was made popular by the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair.

For men, hookup culture provides camaraderie, and it's important to be involved so that you can maintain your social status. Women take part to avoid being seen as virgins.

Personal reputations are made or ruined swiftly through social media. It is essential to be known as a hookup participant who shows no emotion and wants no commitment.

Hooking up represses romantic feeling, love and sexual desire in favour of greater access to sex. "Women and men both learn ... to be ashamed if they long for love, and embarrassed if they fail to uphold the social contract and do not happen to enjoy no-strings-attached sex that much."

Lack of meaningful intimacy is enhanced by the latest technology. "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."

The hookup culture is reinforced by college administrations, who, at orientation time, give out information not on building relationships but on protecting yourself from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

Freitas discovered that many of those she interviewed wanted more romance in their college experience (though they would never tell their peers this). She seems a little surprised that no one dates anymore, but, as far back as 1973, Joyce Maynard wrote in her memoir Looking Back: "The death of the formal date (with dinner and the theatre, high heels and a good-night kiss afterward) has put a new ambiguity on male-female relationships." In 2006, Seattle's Diane Mapes published a book with the paradoxical title How to Date in a Post-Dating World.

Dating is one of the solutions Freitas suggests for combating hookup culture. Most of those she interviewed admitted knowing nothing about how to approach a person they were attracted to. No wonder they turn to alcohol-soaked hookup parties.

Freitas says abstinence preached by faith-based colleges -- keeping virginity until marriage -- might be worth promoting if it hadn't been politicized by the religious right. A better idea might be to encourage dating and then temporary abstinence while the couple sorts out their feelings for each other.

Freitas points to the great irony in the fact that institutions of higher learning foster critical thinking but never turn that critical thinking upon a student's own life. She advocates at least motivating staff and students to start the conversation about developing relationships and understanding what meaningful intimacy can be.

It is perhaps a significant symptom of how damaging the hookup culture has become that only one of the hundreds of students surveyed by Freitas referred to sex as "making love."

Winnipeg writer Dave Williamson's latest novel, Dating, has been shortlisted for Manitoba's 2012 McNally Robinson book of the year award.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 A1

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