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The Hook Up Culture: When Sex Becomes Sport
September 16, 2003
by Jennifer Roback Morse

However the Kobe Bryant case is resolved, there is one thing we do know: whether the sex was voluntary or coerced, Bryant surely intended it to be no more than a hook-up. When he admitted to adultery, he was not admitting to having an emotionally involved affair. Kobe Bryant believes a hook-up with a stranger, while possibly embarrassing, is a forgivable foible, not a serious offense. He evidently expects the public to share this view.

The "hook-up mentality" is one of the legacies of the sexual revolution. The assumption behind that mentality is that sex is just another recreational activity. Yet many college campuses have date rape crisis centers, where female students can go after being traumatized by having unwanted sex, sex that may not have been strictly speaking, coercive.

Popular culture has instructed us that sex has no moral significance. Rape is bad; all other sex is good. If this is true, then why is unwanted, but unforced, sexual activity a crisis? After all, young people eager to impress a member of the opposite sex let themselves get talked into all kinds of things. But we don't have "basketball game date crisis" centers, to counsel people traumatized by going to a basketball game they didn't really want to see.

Imagine this accusation: "my date took me to a basketball game. I consented. It was fun at first, but by the third quarter, it was obvious who was going to win. I wanted to leave, but I couldn't because he had the keys. He insisted on staying until the final buzzer. I felt so violated, my trust so betrayed, I called the police."

Posing this absurd comparison between sex and basketball games helps us see that there really is something unique about sex. The major premise of the sexual revolution is that sex is nothing more than a pastime. But the presence of date rape crisis centers demonstrates that no one really believes this. If sex were really just harmless fun, then being talked into it shouldn't be any bigger deal than being talked into a basketball game. The issue of consent wouldn't loom so large nor be so difficult to discern.

The sexual revolution, given to us by both the Life Style Left and the Libertarian Right, pretends to promote morally neutral sex. But in fact, our modern sexual norms have a very vigorous, if tacit, moral code. For instance, we aren't supposed to feel bad if the guy we slept with never calls back. We are supposed to celebrate the freedom and independence of the hook-up. In short, we are not allowed to assign meaning to our sexual acts.

Yet we keep assigning meaning to sex, in spite of ourselves. We want our sex partner to matter to us, or at least, we want to matter to them. Even the girls on Sex and the City are figuring out that sex is more than a lark. One character has become absorbed by taking care of her baby. She longs for a relationship with the baby's father. Another character describes herself as "lonely, really lonely." But the hook-up mentality doesn't allow us to face up to the deeply embedded fact that we want to matter to our partners.

Either sex is a big deal, or it isn't. If it is really no big deal, then "unwanted sexual activity" shouldn't be particularly traumatic. If sex really is a big deal, with substantial physical and emotional consequences, then we can't very well say that sex is just another recreational activity. Every serious person knows which horn of this dilemma is true.

The reason that sex matters so much is that we give our body to the other person, leaving ourselves physically and emotionally vulnerable. We could get beat up by a date, but the more subtle emotional injuries are much more common. We might feel used or manipulated. We might feel like a chump because the whole experience mattered more to us than to the other person.

When we face up to the deep meaning of human sexuality, we come to a new appreciation of marriage. For within the context of life long love, the vulnerability inherent in sex can become an opportunity for intimacy, rather than an occasion of fear. It makes sense to give ourselves completely to a spouse. But it is utterly irrational to surrender ourselves in the same way, to a mere hook-up partner.

Jennifer Roback Morse joined the Hoover Institution as a research fellow in 1997. She writes about the family and the free society. Her current book, Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work (Spence Press, 2001), shows why the family is the necessary building block for a free society and why so many modern attempted substitutes for the family do not work. Morse received her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Rochester. She spent five years on the faculty at Yale University before coming to George Mason University in 1985. From 1985 to 1996, she was a research associate at the Center for Study of Public Choice and director of the Public Choice Outreach Program and the Diversity Studies Program at George Mason University. In 1996, Morse moved with her family to California, where she pursues her primary vocation as wife and mother, combined with an avocation of writing and lecturing. She now lives in San Marcos, California.

This column first appeared in ToTheSource.

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