What we talk about when we talk about hooking up

(Lian Fumerton-Liu/YH Staff)

Since you’re reading this, you’re alone on or around Valentine’s Day. I’m so sorry, unless you’re alone because you’re taking a break from all the sex you’re having. If that’s not the case, I’m here to cheer you up. Check out these hilarious excerpts from Nathan Harden’s conservative polemic Sex and God at Yale:

  • “If there is one thing that best captures the essence of the Yale experience, it would be a YPU party debate.”
  • “Jennifer was that rare mix of the good and the lovely. She was the vegetable and the dessert all mixed into one.”
  • “…naked parties at Yale function as proxy religious rituals in an age of moral relativism.”

How easy it would be to write my review like this! Anyone can locate a book’s most outlandish statements and list them, and despite the easiness of it the review would be well-received. Dismissive laughter is a habit of people on the left and on the right: it’s the Daily Show-ization of political discourse. If you can laugh at something, it’s not even worth thinking about, and it’s more fun to laugh than to think.

Harden wrote thousands of other sentences that are not these, and many of them are worth brooding over. If, after reading the above sentences, you decide not to read SGY, you may be depriving yourself of chances to grow intellectually. One line that actually moved me, as a Yale senior, and a liberal, was this apolitical insight: “You enter Yale overawed by the place. You leave feeling like you own the place.” I even found some of his arguments admissible, e.g. those about the morally and physically corrosive effects of porn consumption. At other times, though, resisting the urge to fling the hardcover across the room was difficult. It was an exercise in taking the other side seriously, which you should do from time to time if only to formulate an articulate objection.

Now to walk the walk. Since this is the “Valentine’s Day” issue, I’d like to focus on Chapter 10 of SGY, titled “Hooking Up.” The two reviews of SGY written by other Yale students, published in The New Republic and The Daily Beast, scantly address this chapter and ignore it (respectively). These reviewers read the book astutely. Both noticed Harden’s unproductive presumption that describing his own visceral reactions to the events of Sex Week will induce the same emotions in the reader. But they didn’t give Chapter 10 its due.

There’s some good stuff on the term “hooking up.” In my high school, and in the high schools of many of my friends from the northeast, “hooking up” meant only making out. Here, Harden writes, “‘Hooking up’ is a broad term that can refer to almost any kind of physical interaction between a guy and a girl. It can be a single kiss, it can be making out for two hours, it can be oral sex, hand jobs, anal sex, intercourse, spending the night together, spending three minutes together—anything, everything, and nothing.” (The heteronormativity shouldn’t have caught you off guard.)

“In the college hookup culture,” he continues, “women often feel pressured to make themselves sexually available to men more quickly and more frequently than they might want to under normal circumstances.” This also strikes me as true, though Harden ignores the voluntarism of women’s participation in the “hookup culture.” And he can be hyperbolic. For example, this is not true: “Actually taking a girl to dinner is tantamount to a college marriage.”

But take in this observation. “It used to be that dating led to sex. At Yale, and many other colleges, sex is most often seen as the first step toward a possible romantic relationship.” It’s now normal for a guy to have sex with a girl a few times, and then ask her out on a date. Does that trigger anything in you?

I was surprised while reading this section to feel a vague discomfort, that yes, considered objectively, there is something strange about treating sex as a sort of pre-date. I was surprised to feel this because it is an unmistakably conservative impulse, that the present seems perverted in light of the past. In general, I don’t find Harden’s conservatism convincing—it’s too patriarchic and religious. But on this point his and my viscera were in alignment. I won’t make the same presumption as him: telling you about my emotions doesn’t make you feel them. In this case, maybe—probably?—you don’t feel the way I do. For you, completely no-strings-attached sex may be a good thing, or harmless at worst. Think about why you feel that way. In my case, my feelings come from a mixture of romanticism, sexual jealousy, and, I admit, paternalism. Two of those things have no place in determining social rules, I think, but the third might.

Harden’s book prodded me to think more precisely about porn, moral relativism, and postmodernism. It didn’t do much to change me politically. But I do have a better understanding of myself and my intuitions that I would not have gained if I had dismissed the book as a social conservative screed. Read at least some chapters of the book, or some chapters of its namesake, God & Man at Yale. But not today. No, today, lonely reader, you should ask someone on a date.

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