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.
I wonder if some if this doesn’t merely compound the problem of friendship. It doesn’t seem to me as though friendship is being defined as an end in itself rather than a stepping stone to an erotic end. Conceived this way, a Christian will rightly balk at the idea of friendships among, say, people who experience same-sex attractions. More generally, men and women with opposite-sex attractions will begin to see even their own friends as means to achieving some romantic end.
For Jesus, friendship with the Father and with his disciples implied shared understanding and commitment to a common, higher purpose. One of the reasons our society has lost capacity for friendship is that it has absorbed a materialistic view of the universe which offers no real basis for purpose or meaning. So, you can go shopping together or tailgate together or hook up, but it’s pretty shallow. Or, you can hope that friendship will lead to or enhance a more permanent sexual union. On the other hand, I have observed great friendship dynamics and deep mutual support and loyalty among those who are succeeding together in recovery from addiction of one sort or another. And marriages formed under the authority of and in aspiration to higher purposes seem to foster deeper intimacy or friendship.
One of the problems that I have with the discussion of friendship in the contemporary context is that it seems impossible to detach it from broader socio-economic and political questions that just don’t seem to be given enough place in the conversation. What does it mean to have deep and rich friendship in a culture where we are continually uprooted by education and the economy and where state and economy have atomized society into individuals?
It seems to me that one of the reasons why marriage is increasingly taking a companionate form is because marriage is becoming the only lifelong friendship that many of us can enjoy and take with us in our uprooted existences. Perhaps there can be no true recovery of friendship apart from a robust resistance to the (anti-)culture of liberal capitalism.
And the rise of the hookup culture seems to be another consequence of our uprootedness: it provides short bursts of seeming intimacy without the deadweight that a spouse (with their own socio-economic goals) can represent to one’s career aspirations.
Alastair, these are great comments. That’s a really provocative thought — that the talk of spouses as “best friends” may be tied to our mobility. I’d never thought of that before.
This reminded me of the book Unhooked by Lauren Sessions Step, though I like your additional comments on friendship.
I read Step’s book in 2008, but appreciate its relevance today.