Emily Esfahani Smith wants to inject a little love into the hook-up culture on college campuses, in hopes that the young liberated folks will begin to take sex seriously.

As a young woman in 2012—and as a feminist—I think that the hook-up culture has the opposite effect as that described by [Hannah] Rosin. Sexual liberation may be indispensable to female progress, but the hook-up culture is not empowering for all women. This isn’t to say that early marriage or abstinence is the solution. But these are not the only alternatives to the hook-up culture, either. There is a middle way: meaningful sex in the context of a non-marital relationship.

It’s this “meaningful sex” that she suggests is the way forward, rather than “back to 1950s-style courtship, parietal rules, and early marriage.”  Sex that’s “founded on friendship, dating, and relationships,” that is.  That’s where we’re headed rather than those backwards notions about “abstinence.”

I mean, I kind of understand the eagerness to stake out this sort of “middle of the road” position on sexual ethics.  It’s the sort of “respectable” social conservatism that allows for everything sophisticated readers of The Atlantic might want–seriousness and purpose without the backwardness of chastity.

Or at least the appearance of seriousness, anyway.  It also presupposes the sort of “make your own meaning” approach to sex that stands beneath the sexual malaise in our culture.  Consider this as a good rule of thumb:  if you have to resort to describing your sex as “meaningful,” then maybe that’s because functionally it’s not.  Meaning isn’t made:  it’s discovered, lived out, revealed to us over the course of our lives.  No writer sets out to write a “meaningful novel,” or no very good writer does anyway.  Because the meaning of things aren’t determined by fiat.  They inhere in things and we respond to them.

Of course, to say that drives one into the possibility that maybe sex has a meaning in our lives that we don’t get to decide.  What that meaning is, of course, might be in question.  The traditional Christian answer, I think, has been to tie sex to marriage, and marriage to babies.  We’re clearly losing the stomach for that one, though, both inside and outside the church.  Still, the advantage of the traditional Christian sexual ethic is that it offers us sex without qualifications:  sex in itself, the meaning given not made, in all its distinctive glory and freedom.

But I’ll let Oliver O’Donovan handle it on the way out:

“To this given connection in our nature between male-female relationship and procreation it is possible to respond in only two ways.  We may welcome it, or we may resent it.  Christian teaching has encouraged us to welcome it.  Christian thinkers have said, in the first place, that the connection is good for the man-woman relationship, which is protected from debasement and loss of mutuality by the fact that it is fruitful for procreation.  When erotic relationships between the sexes are conceived merely as relationships–with no further implications, no ‘end’ within the purposes of nature–then they lack the significance which they need if they are to be undertaken responsibly.

(Is that Oliver O’Donovan anticipating the ‘hook-up culture’ way back in 1984?  Why yes, yes I think it is.)

Update:  Included the right link and deleted an errant sentence.


Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • In the common claims that one encounters at the moment that the hook-up culture or non-marital relationships are empowering to women, I can’t help but wonder whether there is a sort of narcissism at work. I suspect that, all too often, the word ‘women’ in such statements tends to mean the sort of privileged young middle class white women who do subjects like women’s studies in college and watch shows like Girls.

    Has the hook-up and non-marital relationship culture empowered the young girl who has to grow up without a committed father figure present? Has the hook-up and non-marital relationship culture empowered the poor single mother? Has it empowered the woman who is looking for a faithful man who will be committed to her for life and hasn’t imbibed the values of the culture? Has the hook-up and non-marital relationship culture empowered women who are ageing but have no committed partner, or whose partners leave them for a younger model? I would also disagree that such relationships have really empowered the women who claim to have been empowered by them, but the important point is that the consequences of the sexual revolution aren’t distributed evenly within the population and that the people who are most in the position and inclined to pontificate on those consequences are frequently the ones most insulated from them.

    • Alastair, that’s an astute comment, right in line with arguments Ross Douthat has been making over the past few years about the way divorce culture has had a disproportionate effect on lower-classes.

  • Jake Meador

    You could also take this in another direction: Meaning isn’t snatched at and attained in a vacuum. It has a place. There’s a whole web of interdependence and interconnection that is essential to meaning. Put another way, autonomous beings cannot have “meaning.” (I’m reading Berry’s essay “Poetry and Place” right now and it’s all about recognizing the idea of decorum or propriety, which is contingent upon recognizing where one is and how that affects one’s relating to the surrounding community.)

    • That’s an interesting line of thought, Jake. Take it further.

    • I also think that we should also challenge the notion that the meaningfulness of an action is about the strength of feeling attached to it. Some of the most meaningful actions that we perform are those quietly and frequently repeated, those actions that form deep and lasting passions, commitments, and character, resting firm below the ephemera of fleeting emotion (I tried to argue this position at more length here).

  • Great piece. The recent work that’s helped me in framing the issue with my students is the notion of covenantal sex put forth in Tim Keller’s “Meaning of Marriage.” Sex is a covenant-creating and covenant-sustaining act that promises fidelity, loyalty, exclusive, whole-life sharing with the other. Sex has that meaning outside of marriage, in a sense, because biologically it still functions the way it’s supposed to–bonding and knitting together two into one. It just turns out we’re lying. We’re making promises with our bodies that our hearts have no intention of keeping. Ironically, what Smith wants is, in some ways, worse. In the hook-up culture everybody knows you’re lying. When a boy says, “I love you” after a day, the girl knows this is a completely unserious use of the word. After a few months, she may fall for it and be wounded all the more when it’s not true. Smith’s “meaningful” sex can be sadly more dangerous because it more plausibly presents itself as the truth, all the while still being a lie. I just think of Harry Frankfurt’s distinction between lies and bullsh*t–the latter being worse than the former because of it’s, ironically, more dishonest relationship to the truth.

    • That’s a good point about wanting us to “lie” with our body and not be honest about it. JP2 on the truthfulness of the body would also be a good place to turn for this discussion, I think, but Keller is also very good on this point.

  • Can anything be truly meaningful if we have to make up our own meaning as we go along? Does the meaning even mean anything?

    • No. I’m increasingly convinced that meaning is given and discovered, not made. We’re not that powerful as creatures.

      • Steven

        If this were facebook, I’d hit the like button!

  • So……………………….

    • This is a good question. I’ll probably take it up some in January, as I’m going to revisit some of the arguments about gay marriage (where this is a frequent objection to traditionalist views).

  • Reminds me of a Salon piece I read yesterday by an anonymous female 20-something. Her mother had taught her to wait to have sex, not until marriage, but until she was in love. Until is was “meaningful.” The only problem, the author discovered, was that she ended up enduing every situation with meaning–she ended up “falling in love” with every guy who wanted her and then hating herself when the “meaningfulness” wasn’t reciprocated. This led to an eventual crisis where she committed to separating sex from love–to seek it apart from meaning and simply in context of fun–which in turn led to all sorts of experimentation.

    All that to say that in her particular case, the search for meaningful sex outside of marriage actually led to a hook-up culture, not away from it.

    • Hannah, you spend all that time describing an awesome-sounding article and NO LINK!?! : )

      Seriously, sounds great. Please do pass along the link when you get a second.


      • I thought about linking to it originally, but it’s a pretty unabashed apologetic for how a threesome helped her “separate love from sex.” I was hoping to get by with a synopsis since having grown up fundamentalist, I am still dogged by the irrational fear that my mother has direct access to my online history and wouldn’t entirely approve of my reading the piece in the first place.

        If you can, it’s worth reading (despite the obvious objectionable elements) especially when paired with a second Salon piece about why a man who was raised Christian rejected a similar opportunity because, despite having disabused himself of the notion of God, he couldn’t entirely escape Lewis’ The Four Loves. (And no I do not regularly google “Salon and threesome”–just in case that was ever in question.)




        • Heh….it’s Salon! I should have figured there would be some crazy twist. And sure enough!

  • Maranatha John

    Interesting perspective. I think sex has more meaning when it’s performed in the context of marriage; when done outside this distinct profile it loses it’s meaning, as the connection that is formed between the participating parties is seen as mere fruit of pleasure which qualifies for any form of decadence. If you’re not yet married, I wanna recommend “All About Fornication” by Dag Heward-Mills. And if you’re already married, you can also check it out “Model Marriage” in addition to the first book. I’m certain it’ll be a great read and transform you life.

    Be blessed :)

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  • I’m just noticing your affinity for Oliver O’Donovan. And I share it.