By Matthew Stolz ’15
I want to start with a disclaimer. I’ve been thinking a lot about the prevalent mode of sexual discourse and practice (a mode which often gets labeled as ‘hookup culture,’ though I worry that this term is more defamatory than it is descriptive, and I will offer an alternative take a bit later) since I arrived at Harvard a little over a year ago. Still, my thinking, and by extension my writing, are very much works in progress: my conclusions are unresolved, and my ideas feel a bit tentative at times. But this article spurred me to put something concrete on the table regardless of how uncommitted I am. I hope that this post can serve chiefly to clarify what I take to be the stakes of any conversation about sexual culture on elite college campuses without falling into petty condemnation or approbation of the behavior being discussed.
This article is a bit old (published in July of this year), but I think that it presents one of the more thoughtful and well-researched views of campus sexual culture I’ve encountered in popular media. To be sure, Taylor sacrifices inclusivity in order to promote a standard narrative of the sexual norms at an elite university. She pays, in my opinion, insufficient attention to issues of sexual assault and the class backgrounds of her interviewees; her choice of interviewees is unapologetically heteronormative; and she completely skips over base concerns of sexual health, including STIs, access to contraception, and pregnancy. With the partial exception of Mercedes, all of the women she interviews seem to typify the popular image of a Penn student—ambitious, privileged, straight, and well-versed in the language and practice of hookups. In some sense, the article attempts to describe a general trend that can, and should, be criticized for its limited perspective. In this post, however, I want to engage the topic of campus sexual culture on Taylor’s terms, which means that I want to look primarily from the perspective of who she includes and not who she excludes.Taylor opens the article with the story of a woman who frankly prefers hookups to longer-term sexual relationships. Her preference is not in itself interesting or unique, it merely highlights why we have the term ‘hookup culture’ to begin with. What I do find fascinating, however, is how this woman interprets her own behavior. She puts it in terms of “‘cost-benefit’ analyses and the ‘low risk and low investment costs’ of hooking up.” I think that this language points toward an explanation for the new sexual norms on college campuses. Specifically, it implies that an underlying shift in ideology has accompanied, or perhaps preceded, the shift from longer-term sexual relationships to hookups. We rarely discuss romance in such economic and rationalistic terms. Presumably, we date to fall in love, and love has an inherently non-economic valence. Sex is an important factor in most relationships, but it certainly isn’t the only factor. So a shift to a culture of ‘hooking up’ does not simply imply that we’re separating love from sex (and potentially discarding the former). It also implies that we’re approaching sex from a more instrumental perspective. The women Taylor interviews tend to describe sex as a locus of unencumbered pleasure, one that doesn’t carry the unwanted burden of emotional encounter. I want to call this new way of approaching sex an ‘economy of pleasure,’ a phrase that emphasizes the structural thinking behind hookups instead of the act of hooking up itself. Thinking in terms of the economy of pleasure can, I would like to argue, encompass many of the trends that Taylor points out at Penn—the sheer ubiquity of the hookup, the decline in long-term romantic and sexual relationships, and the increasingly competitive atmosphere surrounding elite universities and the job markets into which they feed their students.
At this point, I feel compelled to stop and reflect on the implicit judgments that we may be tempted to employ. I said at the beginning that I wanted to move away from the term ‘hookup culture’ because it is unfairly defamatory. An ‘economy of pleasure’ may feel colder and more academic, but I hope that it doesn’t carry the same connotations of youthful recklessness and moral transgression. I believe that there is an argument to be made in favor of recoupling sex and romance (or, at the very least, resuscitating romance in any form), but I am not yet equipped to make it. For now, however, I want to highlight that I find nothing inherently wrong or destructive about the sexual acts that we normally associate with the economy of pleasure. My critique will instead focus on the ideological forces that underlie it.
In all honesty, I find it particularly difficult to complain about the economy of pleasure in light of the undeniably positive effects of second wave feminism that paved the path for its development. Female students at places like Penn and Harvard now aspire to the same (or greater) academic and professional achievements as their male counterparts. The social norms that ask women to abandon their own career goals for the sake of those of a male partner (by picking up and moving to a city where he finds a job, by deciding to take time off work to raise children, etc.) are fading, and that is undeniably a good thing. In one sense, romantic relationships appear to be a necessary casualty of this form of liberation. As Taylor describes it, “These women said they saw building their resumes, not finding boyfriends (never mind husbands), as their main job at Penn. They envisioned their 20s as a period of unencumbered striving.” If men and women both put professional development at the top of their priorities list, then no one is going to make the sacrifices necessary to develop or sustain romantic relationships through the increasingly tumultuous years following graduation. So a quick version of the story is that romance falls victim to the 21st century’s increasingly formidable demands of personal achievement and gets replaced by the economy of pleasure.
Taylor gives a nod to Susan Patton as a standard bearer of the intergenerational complaints against the economy of pleasure, and her argument serves as a useful entry point into a critique of the economy of pleasure. Patton’s argument is undeniably logical, even if unsavory. She is right to point out that if women continue to prioritize professional development over relationships, they will end up missing out on relationships. She is wrong, however, to limit her scope to women. Why doesn’t she ask men to put career goals on hold in order to follow a partner around the country as they hop around grad schools and jobs? If you value family and romance, you should entertain pursuing them alongside economic ambitions regardless of your gender. I think that Patton is right to ask students to critically reflect on the ambitions that they have absorbed along the trajectory to elite universities, but by asking women specifically to reevaluate discounts the fact that they have not historically had the privilege of making such a choice at all. In response, I think that a proper way of critiquing the economy of pleasure is to look at the values it imports for all genders instead of bemoaning its consequences for women in particular.
My basic argument is that the economy of pleasure limits human potential in much the same way that oppressive gender roles limit women’s potential. To start, it’s fascinating to note that the women that Taylor interviews seem to have traded one extreme of gendered thinking and behavior for another. They have cast off the dreadful pressures of the “Mrs. degree,” but they have traded it for the aggressive, instrumental, traditionally masculine mood of competitive striving. Taylor describes how another of her interviewees gets totally caught up in this logic: “For A., college is an endless series of competitions: to get into student clubs, some of which demand multiple rounds of interviews; to be selected for special research projects and the choicest internships; and, in the end, to land the most elite job offers.” The economy of pleasure is, once again, not just about hooking up. It is also about interpreting romance in the same terms that we use to interpret internship offers—what am I going to get out of a relationship? Is it an optimal use of my time? Will it help me position myself for a desired job, grad school track, etc.?
I want to emphasize that there is nothing inherently wrong about striving for social standing through choice internships and elite job offers, just as there is nothing inherently wrong about desiring romantic connections. The danger comes when elite college students think that they have to immerse themselves in one mood at the expense of the other, or when they let the language and patterns of thought of one mood infect the other. As I hinted earlier, this danger is especially salient for women, whose choice is wrapped up in a history of oppression and struggle. And, for full disclosure, this is also the point where my thinking becomes more tenuous and less definitive. I want to argue that we should resuscitate the connection between sex and romance because the sexual culture of our campus is slanted too steeply toward the economy of pleasure, thereby limiting the ways in which we can grow and mature while in college.
Consider these quotes from the Penn students.
“A relationship is like taking a four-credit class.”
“I don’t want to go through those changes with you. I want you to have changed and become enough of your own person so that when we meet, we can have a stable life and be very happy.”
“No one wants to be tied to someone that, you know, may not be the person they want to be with in a couple of months.”
In my mind, the most dangerous aspect of the economy of pleasure is that it instrumentalizes human relationships in a way that does profound violence to their promise. Comparing the time commitment of a relationship to that of a class or discussing romantic partners as if they are moveable vessels of social capital ignores the fact that when we talk about relationships we are talking about real human beings. To engage in romance is to open yourself up to the possibility of truly encountering another person, to clear the ground to change and be changed, to discover who you are as a social creature. These sorts of potentialities obviously cannot be translated into the currency of college courses or professional development. Love is not an economic calculation, and it has no place in the economy of pleasure. I worry that the authors of the above quotes are needlessly closing themselves off from one of the more beautiful facets of the human condition. Yes, professional aspirations are important, but internships and hookups can only teach us so much about who and how we want to be. If we let the economy of pleasure convince us that these are the only paths to self-realization, then we may tragically ignore the potential lessons embodied by the people closest to us. And if we aren’t in love with the people we’re having sex with, then how can we ever expect to be in love with the people we eat in the dining halls with or share suites with or take classes with?
I do not, of course, mean to make a blanket prescription of romantic relationships for the sake of everyone’s moral development. There is no correct way to navigate any stage of life, and many students will legitimately decide that they want romance to play no part in their sexual experiences. I do, however, want to warn against the economy of pleasure’s categorical prejudice against romance. To consciously and thoughtfully opt out of romance is reasonable, but to refuse to even consider it just seems tragic. My vision of an ideal campus sexual culture is one that clears as much ground as possible, one that opens many doors to potential sources of value and self-realization. An economic approach to careers and sex is one such legitimate value, a romantic approach is another. The key virtue of such a vision, however, is to keep possibilities open in a way that the economy of pleasure does not.