On a typical college campus, everyone has something to say about hookup culture. Some students view the hookup as a form of liberation, shattering the last vestiges of sexual mores upheld now only by religious institutions. Others set up an alternative culture, seeking spaces where sexual purity is considered the coin of the realm.
In both cases, the hookup is assessed fundamentally as a sexual phenomenon. Yet, as Donna Freitas has demonstrated in The End of Sex, the root cause of the hookup is less about a promiscuous attitude toward sex and more about an inability to communicate and thus commit. Afraid to share the deepest dimensions of one’s life with another person, one seeks out a pseudo-communion through uncommitted sexual activity.
For this reason, attending only to sexual ethics will have little effect on healing the hookup culture. Working with students who operate within the framework of Catholicism’s sexual ethics, I have discovered that many of these students still suffer from the fear of communication and intimacy endemic within the hookup culture. They may refrain from sexual activity outside of marriage, but they still succumb to a persistent fear of commitment, terrified to commit themselves to loving another person beyond a couple of months.
“The very basis of the hookup culture dictates that each person is essentially only there for him or herself,” one of my female students expressed. “I, along with many people my age, want to learn to love properly…but it’s frankly difficult in a culture that prizes self-gratification and expediency.”
In studying marriage in my undergraduate class on the sacrament, my students see the possibility of a commitment that is oriented toward communication. As one student commented about marriage, “the good brought through marriage corrects the reductive and objectifying gaze of the hookup culture, bringing you to grow in joy and freedom through the true encounter with the other.”
My undergraduate students see in the traditional “goods of marriage” an antidote to the fear of communion characterizing hookup culture. The goods of marriage are expressed most clearly in Augustine of Hippo’s De bono coniugale (On the Goods of Marriage). For Augustine, marriage is a restoration of the original friendship between man and woman. Through the union of husband and wife, a communion is established that serves as the basis of society.
Although many scholars focus on Augustine’s account of sexuality, it is the goods of marriage that matter most in the text. Marriage depends upon the good of fides, or a fidelity in which husband and wife alike can depend upon a monogamous bond of mutual love that extends beyond the stormy vicissitudes of the affections. Marriage promotes the good of proles, the birth of offspring which relocates the love of husband and wife (including their sexuality) into a broader narrative. Sex is no longer about passion alone but is concerned with the creation of communion across generations. Lastly, marriage establishes the good of sacramentum, the indissoluble bond of mutual love that cannot be erased. A communion is established outside the will of the individual couple, now norming their whole lives to the permanence of nuptial communion.
These goods of marriage were understood later in ecclesial history as “natural” goods available to every person no matter their religious identity. Whether one shares an Augustinian account of love, educating young men and women in the goods of marriage may serve as a medicine against the fear of communion at the root of hookup culture.
A formation into fidelity begins importantly with an education into the nature of love. Young men and women need to recognize that love is not dependent merely on the movement of affections. Rather, love is an act of commitment to a particular human being that involves our memory, our understanding, and our will. Whether one is talking about romantic love or friendship, love establishes communion between human beings. Happiness for men and women is dependent on dwelling in communion with one another, learning to share a life with one another. And it is through the virtue of faithfulness, of true commitment to the good of another person, that communion is established.
A formation into the good of offspring requires a counter-cultural approach to education. Education, at present, focuses on personal and thus individual achievement. Our public institutions laud those who achieve success in law, business, politics, science, the arts, etc. But these same institutions find family life to be a mere ancillary task of the modern person. Sure, you could raise a kid. Or, you could be a partner in a law firm. Education, whether public or private, should uphold the reality that human existence is always generational. We are not isolated individuals seeking out conquests on our own but relational beings already in communion with both the past and the future. We have received life and an entire tradition from those who have come before us, establishing a communion not breakable by death. Likewise, we have a responsibility to establish communion with future generations, to pass on what we have received for the flourishing of our children.
In some ways, it may seem odd to speak about the virtue of permanence in marriage and family life. We are formed into the predominant narrative, primarily through the cult of celebrity relationships, to see every marriage as in flux. We fall in love, we fall out of love, then go our separate ways. Such an approach to love erases the communion at the heart of social life. To foster the virtue of permanence necessitates a deeper appreciation of lifelong love. Marriage is that communion of love between a couple that makes it possible to share every dimension of human existence with another person: living and dying, rejoicing and suffering. It is that permanence that enables children to see the possibility of authentic solidarity, of a social obligation to one’s fellow citizens that extends beyond the self.
In sum, the hookup culture is merely the symptom of a much larger problem. It is a fear of communion endemic in late modern life where the individual alone is responsible for his or her own happiness. Healing hookup culture through the goods of fidelity, offspring, and the permanence of the bond of love will not only serve as a valuable medicine to those young adults suffering from the carnage caused by a dread of authentic intimacy. It will also serve as a balm for a society that has forgotten its vocation to solidarity. Or as one student expressed to me, “Marriage is that self-gift…which draws the couple out of themselves for a lifetime.”
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Liturgy and an associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame.