Emma Teitel on the educational side of casual sex
In 1925, when American anthropologist Margaret Mead was 23 years old, she travelled to the volcanic island of Tau, in eastern Samoa, to study a group of “primitive” teenage girls. Her findings—namely that Samoan adolescents were unusually free with their bodies and their hearts—would make their way into her most famous book, Coming of Age in Samoa, three years later. Mead didn’t fetishize Tau as a modern-day Eden. Rape was frequent. Entertainment was scarce (unless you like weaving fish baskets, I wouldn’t recommend it). But she did laud something on the island: casual sex. “The Samoans,” she writes, “laugh at stories of romantic love, scoff at fidelity to a long-absent wife or mistress, believe explicitly that one love will quickly cure another.” In other words, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. She suggests that the cloistered West—prudish and purity-obsessed—could learn a thing or two about sex from teenagers on a remote island thousands of miles away.
Apparently we did. It’s been 88 years since Mead set sail for Tau, and in that time, Samoa—Mead’s version of it, anyhow—has made its way to the Americas. Casual sex among unmarried people is no longer taboo. It’s the norm. The average age at which a Canadian loses her virginity is 16. The average age at which she gets married is 31. The notion that, according to Mead, one of the “uniform ambitions” of young Samoan women is “to live as a girl with many lovers as long as possible and then marry” is also possibly the modus operandi of every college girl today, not to mention a contender for the official tagline of HBO’s Girls. In this day and age, unless you are older than 25, exceedingly religious or naturally chaste, second base precedes the first date. Dinner and a movie is something that happens after sex—if at all—and people don’t call. They text.
What Mead found charming about sexual promiscuity in a distant culture, American university professor and author Donna Freitas finds rather dismal in ours. She’s conducted her own anthropological study of sorts: not of sexual Samoan mores, but of her own time and place. Her forthcoming book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy, is an exploration of “hookup culture” on American university campuses— secular and religious, public and private.
What she discovers in interviews and anonymous surveys of more than 2,500 college students across the United States is that dating is in fact dead—she couldn’t find “a single student who cited a long-term, committed romantic relationship that emerged from a traditional dating trajectory”—and young people don’t like casual sex nearly as much as they pretend to. A measly four per cent of those she surveyed agreed that the “the best kind of sex is with no strings attached,” and a massive 59 per cent agreed that “to engage in sex they needed to be in a committed relationship.” The numbers, however, and feelings behind them don’t mirror students’ actions on campus, where binge drinking and sexual posturing reign supreme. “Although many students talked at length about having had sex,” writes Freitas, “few mentioned whether or not they had enjoyed any of it. The act becomes largely irrelevant—it is the fact that they can claim the act that matters most.” Freitas believes college students are missing out on meaningful relationships and good sex. “I want young men and women to have great sex,” she writes. (Who doesn’t?)
There’s nothing wrong with Freitas’s assessment of hookup culture as harmful and vacuous. It’s clear from her research that young adults are suffering when they needn’t be. Yet however right she is about the reality of that suffering, she is deeply wrong about its cure.
Professors, she argues, should open the floor to discussions about love and romance in class. “Those [faculty members] willing to experiment may consider coming up with creative assignments,” she writes. “Have them [students] attempt to follow Aristotle’s ‘mean’ during all of their weekend activities and report back . . . Take advantage of the growing population of students who do volunteer and social-justice work on campus, empowering them to take social-justice ideals and apply them to their after-dark and weekend partying activities.” She even writes favourably about a class at one university in which students are required to go on a date, in rebellion against the hookup-culture status quo. When I pressed Freitas on this—I asked if it wasn’t at all inappropriate to assign dating projects or discuss personal issues in class—she said no. “I do think that faculty have a responsibility to the emotional well-being of students,” she said. “But a lot of academia is not supportive of the personal entering academia.” I can see why.
Casual sex may grate on the soul, but university is not group therapy. Its sole purpose, I think, beyond higher learning, should be to solidify the world’s indifference to you. If you do that keg stand, you will vomit. If you drink that coagulated milk, you will vomit. If you have empty, meaningless sex throughout college, you’ll become an emotional cripple, contract gonorrhea and, most likely, vomit. These are lessons learned through experience, not indoctrination. (If you don’t believe me, try convincing any college-aged person not to do any of the things above.) When you’re 19, freedom of choice is usually a bad idea, but unfortunately, it’s still preferable to the alternative. Just ask Margaret Mead. Almost a century before Donna Freitas pushed for more restraint, Mead was advocating just the opposite: “It must be realized by any student of civilization that we pay heavily for our rapidly changing civilization; we pay in high proportions of crime and delinquency, we pay in conflicts of youth, we pay in an ever-increasing number of neuroses. In such a list of prices, we must count our gains carefully, not to be discouraged. And chief among our gains must be reckoned this possibility of choice.”