In my last post, I mentioned the frequently heard claim that friendship plays a diminished role in contemporary Western culture because we have elevated romantic love unduly. Here’s Paul O’Callaghan: “We live in a society that exalts erotic love as the supreme fulfillment available to human beings. How can friendship compete with the sizzle of sex in the arena of public attention?”
Growing up in a conservative evangelical subculture and later attending an evangelical Christian college—where the phrase “ring by spring” was repeated not entirely tongue in cheek—I’m sympathetic to this claim. From my vantage point, it does seem that romantic love, with its promise that each partner will “complete” the other and be the other’s “best friend,” has displaced or minimized other forms of love in a way that’s problematic, not least within historic Christian theology itself. So when I read books with subtitles like “Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church,” I’m inclined to agree.
But having just read Donna Freitas’ new book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, I’m struck by how different my vantage point would be if I were a college student today and were not on an evangelical campus. Consider this passage from Freitas, from a chapter entitled “Why We Get Boys Wrong,” about (Catholic, private, and secular) college campus culture:
Men do indeed know how to brag to their friends about how great the sex is on campus, and how great the theme parties were where women showed up dressed in whatever “whore” image the boys had dreamed up this time. And the men do engage in no-strings-attached hookups whenever they have the chance. But for a man to complain about hookup culture, to express that what he really wants is romance and candlelit dinners, to know and be known, or to say that he wants to be in love when he has sex—is to risk his masculinity entirely, and any hope of a normal social life with it. Almost universally, guys remain silent because of this, even when they are deeply, profoundly wounded.
In all of my research and visits to campuses in the past several years, I have found that men are the most talented actors of all within hookup culture. They have been taught to appear sex-crazed and reckless, even if what they really feel is something else. The idea fostered in American culture that young men are hypersexual is largely false, and therefore a destructive stereotype to maintain. It not only perpetuates hookup culture on campus but also stunts the ability of young men to grow emotionally. It teaches them to silence their real feelings and desires, which also keeps them from finding fulfilling romantic relationships. Men lose so much from these cultural misperceptions, maybe even more than women do, because at least women are allowed to speak about these feelings without having to worry about putting their femininity at risk.
This usefully complicates the standard line that romantic love has eclipsed friendship. According to Freitas’ research, many college-aged men would say that it isn’t the “sizzle of sex” that they’re pining for; it’s friendship (albeit of a romantic sort). An idealized, hoped-for kind of friendship has, in a way, eclipsed hooking up.
Freitas concludes her book by talking about the fascinating work of Kerry Cronin, director of the Lonergan Institute at Boston College. In 2005, Cronin began leading a one-credit seminar on dating, and that effort has now turned into a campaign to roll back some of the ill effects of hookup culture and reimagine the possibility of asking someone out for dinner and conversation. Cronin requires her students to ask someone out and then spend several hours talking, rather than going to a movie or scheduling the date so late that it turns into just another hookup.
What especially interests me about this is that it almost turns on its head the conventional story about friendship. Rather than rejecting it, many young people are hoping it might exist, somehow, even though they haven’t quite found it yet.