The Last Taboos

What we all think about, but never talk about

Hooking Up Is Hard to Do

The hidden perils of uber-casual sex

A gigantic naked female thigh on a rumpled bed dominates the front page of The Style Section of a recent Sunday’s New York Times. Underneath, a headline screams “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too.” The women of the University of Pennsylvania have spoken: hooking up is the new normal, and it has their enthusiastic support. Soulless, unrelated sex-on-demand is no longer just the province of frat boys. Young women—highly achieving, ambitious, seemingly smart and sensible ones—are enthusiastic advocates and entrepreneurs of the trend.

I’m not buying it.

“We don’t really like each other in person, sober. We literally can’t sit down and have coffee,” informant “A.” tells the gullible reporter, who takes what she says as sociological fact without considering that what college students think they feel and what they really feel often have little in common. She and her peers talk of the “low risk and low investment costs” of sleeping with men who arouse so much contempt along with prurient interest that the women never have sex in their own beds with them “so I don’t have to wash my sheets.” Is she kidding? Is misanthropy the new misogyny? Is intimacy dead for this generation?

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The risks and the costs of a constant diet of anomic sex are only these: not learning about love, or yourself, or about any of the things you only learn by experiencing passion, tenderness—and loss.

“A” explains that she can’t have an actual romance because “I’m always busy and the people that I am interested in are always busy too.” And she wants men to do all their changing before she deigns to get involved with any of them so she won’t have to lug a relationship around as she climbs the corporate ladder in her twenties. Since when did being busy preclude connection? Everybody I knew at in the Sixties at The University of Chicago—not renowned as a party school—was extremely busy. I was majoring in Philosophical Psychology, studying ancient Greek, Russian civilization, and poetry, and my two (consecutive) boyfriends were getting PhD’s, but we still seemed to have plenty of time to make each other happy and very unhappy. Both of them were ultimately unsuitable. One left me under devastating circumstances; the other, whom I ultimately left, wanted to marry me. With a struggle, I realized he was not for me. I went on to marry a far more suitable and available man whom I am still with after 33 years. I didn’t have the illusion that the Penn women seem to have that I was entirely in charge of my fate in late adolescence. How do you know how you’re going to change, what will matter to you later on? Both my college loves had motorcycles and were expert folk dancers, attributes which, though they were vital to me then, are no longer.

Without these experiences in the formative years, you cannot learn first hand about what makes a relationship work. Theirs is not a brave new world. It is a depressing and desperate one, not liberating in the slightest, a caricature of feminism and of freedom. I pity these young women for never knowing heartbreak, because they’ll never use their hearts.

Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City for 40 years, is the author of 5 books on taboo topics.

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