It was her first time. We were high school freshmen. And he’d taken what he wanted from my friend in the backseat of a car. Probably not unlike the rest of the girls he’d had casual sex with.
I don’t remember how long it was before he broke up with her. But he took her heart with him.
I remember feeling a little stricken there at 13. There’s something in all of us that hurts for that girl who decides she’s cool with her first time being in a Chevy with the school gigolo. Yet now, as the parent of a daughter one year away from that age, I wonder who was looking out for my friend.
Was there anyone to tell her she was worth more than the casual sex he took from her?
A friend recently told me she met a guy on Tinder. And I had questions all over again. What keeps the casual-sex culture from fizzling out? I’ve been even more curious thanks to Suzanne Venker’s article from The Federalist (“Ladies, Stop Trying to Have Sex Like Men”.
What’s in it for the girls, if 83% of females prefer a traditional relationship to a noncommittal, sexual one? How does it work to pursue extreme intimacy in one sense, and yet stay emotionally distant?
“An Engine of Female Progress”
So I’ve dug in a bit to the “whys” propelling the hookup culture. Were noncommittal guys somehow looping women into frequent casual sex?
Apparently not. Several authors indicate that women largely propagate the hookup culture. One article in The Atlantic insists the hookup culture, “an engine of female progress,” is a byproduct of feminism: The hookup culture is too bound up with everything that’s fabulous about being a young woman … the freedom, the confidence, the knowledge that you can always depend on yourself.
In the article, women articulate the values of “sexual adventure” and independence, as well as liberty from shame and the constraints of relationships and emotion, not to mention traditional virtues.
But ultimately, according to the author, a one-night stand doesn’t impede a woman’s future success.
Afraid to Feel
So it follows that the paradigm of casual sex would involve minimal emotional connection. In the Seattle Times’ article, “How Hookup Culture Makes College Students Afraid to Feel,” one professor’s research reported the characteristics of a successful hookup:
As much sexual attraction as possible — and very little eye contact. The participants should limit the casual sex to a few encounters. Stir up no romantic or emotional connection.
And they should expect a vague and brief depression to follow their encounter.
“Tenderness is seen as weakness, and students don’t want to be weak,” the professor explains.
It’s here a few pieces of the puzzle start to come together. The beauty of the hookup culture, for its participants, is that they don’t depend on anyone else … because commitment and dependence has all the usual trappings: someone who might get in the way of your success, your dreams.
Someone who could hurt you.
In that sense, participants (90% of whom report they would like to be married someday), find the hookup culture to be self-protective.
They see attachment, too early in life, as something to fear.
When Women Want Casual Sex
There’s a stranger in my bed/ There’s a pounding in my head/ …Is this a hickey or a bruise?
—Katy Perry, “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”
There’s a certain method to the madness as we consider the ways women have been emotionally wounded in the sexual revolution. During the tidal wave of #MeToo, women disclosed how the ways in which the revolution blurred boundaries and did away with traditional moral standards—rather than delivering on the promise of freedom—had actually victimized them.
I’ve heard heartbreaking stories about women approaching campus health centers for birth control only to return a few months later for antidepressants. I’ve read girls’ comments along the lines of “I have sex to get him to like/love/commit to me” (sex has become the introduction, rather than a consummation). I’ve heard of their contests to see who could get laid the most, for prizes as exhilarating as a toaster. And I know of young women’s betrayal like the high-school valedictorian Olivia (mentioned in the article from Suzanne Venker): “Why do they tell you how to protect your body from herpes and pregnancy, but they don’t tell you what [sex] does to your heart?”
Denying the heart
Something here sinks in my gut like a stone. Have women traded the denial of their dreams for the denial of their hearts? Does casual sex still mean they truly “win”? Or have we traded one pathology for another?
If, according to Time magazine, women are less likely to climax in casual sex—what motivates women toward sex outside of the physical pleasure? Many women just long for an intimate exchange with someone. Even when something whispers, You’re being used.
So can two people make sex both detached, yet intimate?
A recent letter published in The Cut echoed what many women are feeling:
If one more guy asks me for “something casual,” I’m going to throw something. It’s gone beyond just being exhausting. I’m angry.
…I was always so painfully aware of the fact that the only reason these guys were talking to me was because I was letting them sleep with me. It wasn’t like we were friends. It wasn’t like they liked me as a person, or thought I was interesting … I felt like a sex doll.
We as Americans are all about listening to our hearts. But the hookup culture of casual sex ignores our hearts all together—men and women. It denies us as holistic human beings. And it pretends our souls are not welded to our bodies.
It’s how casual sex cons anyone. Venker cites Jordan Peterson:
People treat sex like it’s casual. It’s not. Sex is unbelievably complicated. It’s dangerous. It involves emotions. It involves pregnancy. It involves illness. It involves betrayal. It reaches right down into the roots of someone. You don’t play with something like that casually. Well, you can, but you’ll pay for it.
Ancient views on casual sex
To ancient Christians in Corinth, many of whom were converts from the goddess Aphrodite, the apostle Paul puts it this way: Do you not know that he who unites himself … is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”… All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body(1 Corinthians 6:16, 18 NIV). He goes on to elaborate that Christians’ bodies are actually quite connected to the Spirit of God Himself. Because He dwells in them (6:19).
But to be fair, the sexual ethic Paul was indicating was that of lifetime monogamy: Where two people give and take not only their bodies, but their entire lives. It’s a morality in which if one was going to take someone’s body, they were claiming responsibility for that person’s finances, emotional state, relationships with family—the works. And as that love grows more whole, more perfect, it drives out fear (1 John 4:18): the dread that this person will only use or abuse me, or that this relationship will only function as long as I perform satisfactorily.
Lauren Winner, American historian and Duke professor, writes “the disordered, faux sex that goes on outside of marriage is not really sex at all”—not unlike how the “wilderness” theme park is a fake rendition of wilderness.
Sex was, and is, part of complete, whole-person nourishment.
Committed = Trapped?
Perhaps the stereotype of that lasting connection of monogamy is a trapped man or woman, the proverbial ball and chain. But I guess this is the part where I tell you I’m #oneofthose: a lifetime, one-man woman. He’s not just giving me his body. I get his life. He not only wants me, but wants my family and my career and my hang-ups and my bad days. He’s the diametric opposite of a fair-weather, getting-what-I-want fling.
In some ways, I did set aside dreams. Because love uncovers beauty in sacrifice. And in other ways? My dreams got a turbo-boost with a man who advocated for me. And helped me unearth aspects of myself I would have never known or appreciated. I get more than a lover. I’m loved.
What if in looking for sex , we looked for … marriage?
More and better sex
Statistically, I’m not alone. According to a study quoted by the National Review, married couples have more sex than single people. Additionally, the study found, “highly religious couples ‘enjoy higher-quality relationships and more sexual satisfaction compared’ with mixed or entirely secular couples.”
Could commitment and genuine, sacrificial love give us wings rather than chains? Could married sex and married commitment be better than what casual sex offers?
When I think about speaking to my preteen daughter about casual sex, my mental conversation involves something like this: You and your sexuality are worth more.
Surely she is more than her sexuality. Surely we can do more than take from one another. Someday soon I will look in her brown eyes. I will tell her, Wait until someone can give you his life. Don’t just steal parts of him for yourself and refuse to care for the rest.
And don’t let anyone rob you of yours, either.
Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.