Don't Blame 'Hookup Culture': Romance Always Involves Failure and Despair

10 posts

Noah Berlatsky (future sissy maid)

A couple years back, an old friend from college whom I had almost but not quite dated explained to me why we hadn't. She said she'd decided she wanted to play the field, and didn't want to hurt my feelings.

To which I wanted to say, hey! I was out there in the field! You could have just said, "All I want is sex!" And I would have said, "That's fine!" I'm not proud.

Of course, it's funny now; I've been married 13 years, thank you, and the field no longer matters. But that doesn't quite change the fact that I was in that field for a long time, and it was bleak and grim and blasted with pits of despair—a kind of Mordor of interpersonal inadequacy. I know that college for some is a sexual cornucopia—David Heatley went to Oberlin around when I did, and screwed everything that moved, according to his comics memoir My Sexual History . That Oberlin wasn't my Oberlin, though. While at school, I dated no one; I didn't even kiss anyone, all through college and beyond...until I met my wife, in fact, in my late 20s.

This wasn't a matter of choice. I wasn't saving myself. I was just confused and shy and (I like to tell myself) a bit unlucky. And in some sense, my reserve worked in my favor. I had to wait for someone who was very sure of herself and very sure I was what she wanted. ("I guess I was maybe a little pushy at first," my wife commented. To which I could only reply, "At first ?") Also, I got to tell my wife-to-be I was a virgin while we were in bed. She looked about as stunned as if I'd declared I had three penises. I wouldn't give that memory up for anything.
So where does that fit me in the ongoing discussion of the ( much-overhyped ) current college hook-up culture? Well, David Masciotra , who lamented the "boring, lifeless, and dull sexuality that dominates the lives of too many young Americans" earlier this week here at The Atlantic , might say that I was doing it right. It's true that Masciotra doesn't advocate abstinence, but fulfilling sex with strings attached. Still, in line with his advice, I didn't do hookups; I waited until I was emotionally invested. I had no intercourse without "risk, commitment, and depth," and only intercourse that led to love.

Slate 's Amanda Hess, on the other hand, would perhaps see my sexless college (and later) years as linked a culture uncomfortable with sexuality .* In this view, I was the victim of my own internalized Puritanism. She advises my younger self, "Make out, but respect the person you kiss. Ask them out, but respect when they don't want to date you anymore. Or just don't have sex, but respect the people who do."
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I guess if I have a choice I'd rather think that my sex life has been right (per Masciotra) than that it's been wrong (per Hess). But really, neither of their discussions fits my experiences especially well. Masciotra emphasizes the banality and emptiness and sadness of hook-up culture—which is fine, I guess, but doesn't really have much to do with the banality and emptiness and sadness of my (sexless) teens and twenties. Not that I was an especially sad or miserable person back then. I'm not given to depression, I had plenty of friends, I was busy and happy in lots of ways. But there was one way in which I was not happy, and it mattered. And the pressure I felt was not really pressure to have sex, or at least not only to have sex. It was pressure to have a relationship. The meaningful romance Masciotra suggests as a salvific alternative to meaningless sex—I was already aware of not measuring up in that regard. For me back then, Masciotra's post would have just been another voice in the cultural chorus telling me I'd failed.

Hess's description of college as a time of sexual unhappiness rings true in some sense, though her alternative world of sexual happiness through respect and choice perhaps less so. I didn't hate anyone else for having sex, and I certainly didn't think women owed me sex. And yet, the result was not, as Hess posits, happy sex, nor, for that matter, happy abstinence. I absolutely agree with Hess that slut-shaming and misogyny are bad in themselves. But I somewhat resent the implication that my inability to sexually self-actualize was a result of my own "negativity" and/or of a refusal to treat my peers with dignity. She and Masciotra have different solutions—more sex! less sex! more respectful sex! more meaningful sex!—but they seem united in placing the moral blame for their unhappiness upon the unhappy.

To be fair, it's hard to see unhappiness without casting blame. Heather Love, in her book Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History , talks about this in the context of queer history and queer scholarship. She argues that there's a huge desire, by queer writers and queer activists, to frame gay identity in terms of pride and empowerment. As a result, histories of sadness and loneliness are often pushed aside as aberrations; blips resulting mostly from oppression, and perhaps secondarily from personal weakness. The goal of Love's book is to push back against that consensus -- to, as her title says, "feel backward," both in the sense of remembering lost feelings, and in the sense of embracing retrograde emotions; the sadnesses that the queer community would rather erase or explain away.

I don't for a moment think that my experiences were as painful as the kinds of excruciating bullying and silences and oppression that queer people face. But just because I'm not precisely who Love's talking about, that doesn't mean she doesn't speak to me. Certainly, writing this essay and acknowledging the atypical sexuality of my teens and twenties feels, in a small way, like coming out. Straight men aren't supposed to be virgins into their late 20s. If they are, they're supposed to be ashamed of it—as I am, still, to some extent. I'm quite certain that some readers here will see even such a small confession of deviance as an excuse to ridicule me, or question my masculinity. And, for that matter, the fact that I knew I wasn't performing my masculinity correctly was no small part of why, during my teens and twenties, I often felt sad, and isolated, and wrong, and misshapen.

Of course, lots of people in college—and for that matter, after college—feel sad and isolated and wrong and misshapen. Sex and sexuality and relationships are an intense source of stress for many people. People often talk about college as a time of experimentation and excitement and fun, and it is that for many people. But it's also, if teen suicide rates are any indication, a time of considerable misery.

Pundits are paid to explain how to fix things, so it's not especially surprising that Masciotra and Hess and others see misery as a symptom to be cured, or a problem to be solved. I certainly felt like a symptom and a problem myself, and, now that I'm older it's hard not to look back and say, well, I got married, and that was the solution, and it's all good: learn from my wisdom college students! But...I wasn't any less real back then than I am now, and my sadness then wasn't any less real than my happiness now. Nor, for that matter, is happiness guaranteed forever. At some point, declaring, "It gets better!"—or, relatedly, "I have the answers!"—starts to feel like maybe you're tempting fate.

In that spirit, I'll admit that I don't really know how college students should all start having mind-blowing, non-boring, incredibly respectful, loving sex right now this minute. Nor do I feel qualified to demand that the younger and less wise fulfill themselves on my mark. Instead, the best I can do is to point out that confusion and despair and emptiness and all those backward feelings aren't aberrations or mistakes, and that the people who have them aren't failures. Or, rather, the people who feel that way are failures—just like all the other humans.

Niccolo and Donkey

Arranged marriage in teens with no premarital or extramarital sex is best. One sex partner unto death and without birth control, pornography, sex toys, or any other perversions. Nor should they talk about sex except with each other.
This is the only way to have sex without the sorrow and stress.


Intense, deep romance is more exciting but the hangover is far worse than that for a casual dickin'.


I agree with the author that the expectation that romance or sex is supposed to be some paradise that "we" must be missing out on is a fantasy, where it comes from I don't know. I remember that the titillation of teen movies was a big influence when I was a pre-teen, and I think those and similar things are actually some of the building blocks of sexuality for today's youth, where expectation and arousal are introduced at age 11, but values are forbidden until you "chose for yourself" at age 16-20. But once you see the statistics that amoral Americans don't actually have much sex, it becomes apparent that intimacy, strong feelings, and strong values are actually very very important for real eroticism, including rotten kinds, as without taboo there is no forbidden fruit.

Angocachi my church elders have informed me that before I get married there is church counseling, including a meeting where sexual obligations and rules are hammered out ( :confused: ), which seems bizarre to me, although it might just be a euphemism for expressly and privately forbidding sodomy and other stuff.


Erotic passion is the most overwhelming aesthetic and emotional experience that man is capable of experiencing, save perhaps for the sin of wrath (and its function as a catalyst for vengence). It can only be tempered by reason - and thus is the tragedy of Romantic love. Romantic love cannot abide the demands of reason. This was most eloquenty described by Anglo-Saxons (ironically) - Emily Bronte and DH Lawrence.

The reason why Romantic love is not experienced by Americans is because they have divorced sex from passion - its merely an impulse towards satiation within the Liberal conceptual horizon. Its tantamount to eating or sleeping - or its a source of transgressive delight pursued to alleviate boredom.

Actual erotic passion is extraordinarily destructive - and its exclusively the domain of youngsters who have not yet had their will softened by age and tragedy and the development of reason. People who lament the ''boredom'' of marriage have never actually experienced it - their lament is not that of a prodigal, its that of one who covets things he has observed from without or learned of secondhand.

I believe the greatest ascetics, in history and and present, were men who were destroyed from within by their own passion for a woman, whose sublime beauty and sensuality prompted them to forego all else to capture her as a sacrifice, and whose obsession therein only led to ruin.

Bronze Age Pervert

I'm not reading the article. Only coming to say there's a big difference between the despair and longing involved in 19th century or courtly romance, and the alienation, anxiety, and loneliness of today's youf, who are from what I can see totally pissed-dry, unable to enjoy even sex, and have never felt transports of passion and romance. Allan Bloom describes them very well in one chapter of his book, they're totally pissed dry.


With humanity getting more and more atomistic, its only a question of time before sex is completely outdated and people start satiating their sexual desire with artificial surrogate: just like "gaming" substituted the survival instict, "chatting" substituted real communication, TV prayers substituted actual act of religious extasy and feeling of mystical unity with the rest of people and God, so will "porning" probably substitute love and sex.

As soon as all manual labor is machinized, the need for people to even get out of their homes will disappear. Each person will become a closed monad of Leibnitz. No physical connections of any kind. Just quiet slumber, from birth till death.

The triumph of mankind.

Bronze Age Pervert
I negged you because the part about arranged marriage in the teens, the suppression of sex to the extent you get an unerotic, ugly culture, is actually an Oriental barbarism and has never really been part of Western culture in the same way. Yes in Italy and some other places girls are promised in marriage young, but even the ancient Greeks, who were (rightly) the most disdainful of women among Europeans or Westerners, recognized a difference between themselves and Orientals; so that Aristotle says the Greek will rule his wife as in a republic, and not keep her as a slave.

I also believe that families giving girls in marriage for practical (usually financial) benefit is very dysgenic, just look at India and the wimpy, weak men of that hole of a subcontinent and their ugly women. This is because the practice you talk about is most firmly entrenched there. By contrast places where women were able to exercise some choice about who will father their children led to a stronger and more virile population (and I include in this both ancient Northern Europe and parts of Afreaka, as well as some of the Amerindians). Of course the best way is to have breeding practices set by a culture with a self-conscious eugenic and aesthetic policy, as was common among the ancient Greeks, see what Burckhardt says about the Ionians, and I'm quoting myself from previous post now:

This society was possible because,

I don't know anything about the Greeks I didn't see in My Big Fat Greek Wedding and 300, and I write off your interest to the homosexual face of that country.

I agree with you about the dysgenic effects of arranged marriage . But surely you agree that this system is the least stressing and sorrowful, it's also the most romantic. Love is strongest and purest between people who don't chose each other and can't be rid of each other; between siblings, parents and their children, and soldiers. Choosing for yourself opens the door to regret and unchoosing. It's better to have your spouse chosen for you by those who have authority over you and your best interests in mind.

The dysgenic effects of it should be addressed by some eugenic measures. Many arranged marriage based societies enacted manhood and womanhood rites to keep the undesirables from getting a shot at reproduction... and they would put these people in some other honorable capacity, their chastity an attribute of their divine or special niche.

Anyhow, that wasn't my concern. I was merely comparing the misery of our sexual freedom to societies that don't entertain any of that nonsense about personal liberty and fucking who you please.