23 August 2013

Review: The End of Sex by Donna Freitas

The full title is The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy. I read this partly as a warning (I’ve got a teenage daughter), and partly as research (what do young adults really think?). Note that The End of Sex isn’t written from a Christian perspective, and some of the content is pretty edgy.

The End of Sex is based on a survey of 2,500 undergraduate students at seven US colleges, undertaken in 2006, including public, private, Catholic and conservative evangelical Christian colleges. She notes that sexual behaviour is similar at most schools, with the exception being a ‘purity culture’ prevalent at the conservative Christian colleges. As well as the paper survey, the author also undertook personal interviews with several hundred students to provide more in-depth information. The author is unjudgemental in her approach to teens and sex, which was apreciated.

The first thing I learned that was hook-ups are not exclusively sexual. They can be anything from kissing to full sexual intercourse. It seems the key is that it’s a game: the social contract of the hookup is that it is temporary and physical, with no emotional connection and no intention to form any kind of relationship (although the author points out that often backfires when one partner—usually the woman—wants something more). Safe sex, in this context, is when one can walk away without an emotional attachment.

There is also a disturbing view that virginity is an unfortunate barrier to get over as quickly as possible (despite her finding that 21% of college seniors were still virgins—a later section categorised abstinence as Replication, which has the unfortunate implication that no true Democrat would be a virgin). What was sad was the view that virginity was not socially acceptable, and the implication that peer pressure is a major factor driving sexual behaviour. There was also a discussion about ‘technical virginity’, which almost contradicted the discussion on losing virginity. It was interesting to note that many of the students (male and female) claimed to dislike the hookup culture, despite actively participating.

These statistics seem to say either that college students are constantly acting against their own personal beliefs or they are lying about their attitudes and actions. I’m not sure which is more disturbing. Are we raising a generation who are too afraid of peer pressure to act on their beliefs (which doesn’t bode well for their ethics in the workplace). Or are we raising a generation that have no beliefs? There is also a discussion around the virtual absence of dating on many college campuses, and the corresponding lack of relationship skills among students. It struck me that romance is the top-selling fiction genre, yet romance novels are about developing relationships through dating: the very opposite of the hookup culture. I’d be interested in knowing what these college students are reading!

There some issues with The End of Sex. A study of 2,500 students undertaken seven years ago may or may not be representative of the problems. The End of Sex says Christian colleges have a ‘purity’ culture, but then ignores these colleges in the commentary. And it doesn’t address what happens when people graduate from college: do they continue to hook up, or do they learn to develop meaningful romantic relationships?

Who would I recommend The End of Sex to? I honestly think it’s going to tell a lot of people what they already know: college students spend a lot of time at parties, a lot of time having sex, and are losing the concept of relationship as a result. It’s also very American and focuses on those living on campus: those students who live at home during college may have a different experience.

But there are two groups I would recommend The End of Sex to: American who are considering what college to send their kids to (the commentary certainly explains the popularity of Christian colleges among conservative evangelicals), and anyone who feels they need a better understanding of youth culture. The End of Sex certainly provides that.

Thanks to Basic Books and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

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