Let them hook up. It’ll be educational.

Emma Teitel on the educational side of casual sex

Let them have sex. It’ll be educational.

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In 1925, when American anthropologist Margaret Mead was 23 years old, she travelled to the volcanic island of Tau, in eastern Samoa, to study a group of “primitive” teenage girls. Her findings—namely that Samoan adolescents were unusually free with their bodies and their hearts—would make their way into her most famous book, Coming of Age in Samoa, three years later. Mead didn’t fetishize Tau as a modern-day Eden. Rape was frequent. Entertainment was scarce (unless you like weaving fish baskets, I wouldn’t recommend it). But she did laud something on the island: casual sex. “The Samoans,” she writes, “laugh at stories of romantic love, scoff at fidelity to a long-absent wife or mistress, believe explicitly that one love will quickly cure another.” In other words, if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. She suggests that the cloistered West—prudish and purity-obsessed—could learn a thing or two about sex from teenagers on a remote island thousands of miles away.

Apparently we did. It’s been 88 years since Mead set sail for Tau, and in that time, Samoa—Mead’s version of it, anyhow—has made its way to the Americas. Casual sex among unmarried people is no longer taboo. It’s the norm. The average age at which a Canadian loses her virginity is 16. The average age at which she gets married is 31. The notion that, according to Mead, one of the “uniform ambitions” of young Samoan women is “to live as a girl with many lovers as long as possible and then marry” is also possibly the modus operandi of every college girl today, not to mention a contender for the official tagline of HBO’s Girls. In this day and age, unless you are older than 25, exceedingly religious or naturally chaste, second base precedes the first date. Dinner and a movie is something that happens after sex—if at all—and people don’t call. They text.

What Mead found charming about sexual promiscuity in a distant culture, American university professor and author Donna Freitas finds rather dismal in ours. She’s conducted her own anthropological study of sorts: not of sexual Samoan mores, but of her own time and place. Her forthcoming book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy, is an exploration of “hookup culture” on American university campuses— secular and religious, public and private.

What she discovers in interviews and anonymous surveys of more than 2,500 college students across the United States is that dating is in fact dead—she couldn’t find “a single student who cited a long-term, committed romantic relationship that emerged from a traditional dating trajectory”—and young people don’t like casual sex nearly as much as they pretend to. A measly four per cent of those she surveyed agreed that the “the best kind of sex is with no strings attached,” and a massive 59 per cent agreed that “to engage in sex they needed to be in a committed relationship.” The numbers, however, and feelings behind them don’t mirror students’ actions on campus, where binge drinking and sexual posturing reign supreme. “Although many students talked at length about having had sex,” writes Freitas, “few mentioned whether or not they had enjoyed any of it. The act becomes largely irrelevant—it is the fact that they can claim the act that matters most.” Freitas believes college students are missing out on meaningful relationships and good sex. “I want young men and women to have great sex,” she writes. (Who doesn’t?)

There’s nothing wrong with Freitas’s assessment of hookup culture as harmful and vacuous. It’s clear from her research that young adults are suffering when they needn’t be. Yet however right she is about the reality of that suffering, she is deeply wrong about its cure.

Professors, she argues, should open the floor to discussions about love and romance in class. “Those [faculty members] willing to experiment may consider coming up with creative assignments,” she writes. “Have them [students] attempt to follow Aristotle’s ‘mean’ during all of their weekend activities and report back . . . Take advantage of the growing population of students who do volunteer and social-justice work on campus, empowering them to take social-justice ideals and apply them to their after-dark and weekend partying activities.” She even writes favourably about a class at one university in which students are required to go on a date, in rebellion against the hookup-culture status quo. When I pressed Freitas on this—I asked if it wasn’t at all inappropriate to assign dating projects or discuss personal issues in class—she said no. “I do think that faculty have a responsibility to the emotional well-being of students,” she said. “But a lot of academia is not supportive of the personal entering academia.” I can see why.

Casual sex may grate on the soul, but university is not group therapy. Its sole purpose, I think, beyond higher learning, should be to solidify the world’s indifference to you. If you do that keg stand, you will vomit. If you drink that coagulated milk, you will vomit. If you have empty, meaningless sex throughout college, you’ll become an emotional cripple, contract gonorrhea and, most likely, vomit. These are lessons learned through experience, not indoctrination. (If you don’t believe me, try convincing any college-aged person not to do any of the things above.) When you’re 19, freedom of choice is usually a bad idea, but unfortunately, it’s still preferable to the alternative. Just ask Margaret Mead. Almost a century before Donna Freitas pushed for more restraint, Mead was advocating just the opposite: “It must be realized by any student of civilization that we pay heavily for our rapidly changing civilization; we pay in high proportions of crime and delinquency, we pay in conflicts of youth, we pay in an ever-increasing number of neuroses. In such a list of prices, we must count our gains carefully, not to be discouraged. And chief among our gains must be reckoned this possibility of choice.”




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Let them hook up. It’ll be educational.

  1. On your dime, not mine.

  2. It should probably be uncouth at this point to honestly cite Mead without also noting the serious critiques of her work’s accuracy, primarily from Derek Freeman, though Freeman has faced his own methodological critiques (the central question seems to be whether or not Samoan interviewees lied, exaggerated, or joked to Mead about the extent of their promiscuity, and Freeman’s own interviews of these same Samoans decades later).

    Not the most major point, but it just oddly stands out to see an unquestioning citation of Mead to start an article in 2013, as if her work on the Samoans is an unquestioned anthropological gospel truth. Her work is too contestable to be cited without at least a caveat.

    • But her work too conveniently supported the thesis of this article, so Teitel seized on it. Thanks for providing more background on the study.

    • Hi Nigel,

      Thanks for your comment. I am aware of Freeman’s work, which is why I referred to “Mead’s version” of Samoa: “Mead set sail for Tau, and in that time, Samoa—Mead’s version of it, anyhow—has made its way to the Americas.” The piece is about competing philosophies, not the veracity of anthropological field work. I didn’t think a longer caveat was necessary. But thank you for your input and for reading.

  3. more on topic, an interesting article by Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon about a similar book, but with a more nuanced and interesting point than Freitas:

    “It looks like a kind of full acknowledgment of desires, which can be a
    really vulnerable experience, and one of the things I argue in the book
    is that so much of the training that young women and young men have had
    in terms of how to be successful and get what you want and go out and
    get a degree and get a career, are all very much about being agentic in
    the world, and they’re not necessarily about knowing desires that make
    you feel vulnerable”

    http://www.salon.com/2013/03/03/finally_a_nuanced_look_at_hookup_culture/

  4. as a health care professional, I don’t endorse or recommend the message of let these young people learn the tragic consequences of life through experience, instead of learning from other’s mistakes and trusting the information provided by those who have been trained to help them avoid serious health issues, I’ve seen far too many problems associated with this philosophy, preventative measures and promoting that will always have a better health outcome for all involved. Now will this age group continue to take risks and learn by sad experience? Of course they will, the difference is whether I promote that lifestyle, or do my best to provide information and education to help them avoid serious damage to their (and possibly their partner’s) health and quality of life, or do I promote “casual sex” because that’s “educational”

    • I think that’s an interesting point of view that is missing in Emma Teitel’s article: health education. As a man who came of age in the ACT-UP era, the ONLY thing that mattered was “Safer Sex” — condoms were absolutely compulsory. In the face of hostile government and health care providers, gay men produced one of the most swift and successful behaviour modification programs of the century. Now, a generation later, the backlash, and fetishization of “bareback” anal sex — also among Christian straight students, young women who believe they maintain their virginity if it’s only in the rear. My point, I guess, is that I agree with Emma Teitel that the love and romance and casualness you figure out for yourself, but Safer Sex health education should be absolutely compulsory — in other words, I don;t care what you do, but do it safely.

  5. The simple fact that she is talking about two completely different ways of living and of social interaction makes her articles completely empty. How can you even compare the two, for one the Samoan Women are of high standing importance and use sex as a way to feel empowered and also to learn about themselves. Young Women in Americas reasons seem to be entirely different and the fact that they are probably always intoxicated is also a whole other story. I feel like intimacy is a sacred thing and so many people are loosing the importance of sex and why it is so important to share it with someone you love and who loves you. Having sex with someone you love is the most fulfilling experience you could ever have and knowing that you have the rest of your lives to explore your love is wonderful. I think what needs to be looked at is why people don’t seem to be able to have a healthy strong relationship. What has this generation lost and will they ever be able to find it?

  6. The ultimate value that seems to be made in this article is something about ‘choice’. I guess this has something to do with some understanding of ‘freedom’. In an age that understands freedom as license we are seeing this ages’ people desiring to do anything, anywhere at any time. Sometimes this is tempered with the caveat of ‘as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone’. However, everything one does affects all else. John Donne was one who realized this and wrote accordingly; ‘No one is an island’. Milton likewise wrestled with this issue and wrote about the difference between ‘freedom’ and ‘license’. Sadly, in our age no difference is recognized and people go about doing anything and suffer many ill consequences. To argue that this ability to chose to do anything and experience the consequences is ‘educational’ is to transform the idea of education. Education no longer means to raise up, rear, develop and mature. Education is now interpreted from a mindset infused with ‘license’ and is nothing more that events and consequence.

  7. No you di’int. No you did not just begin a post on sexuality with the widely discredited fraud Margaret Mead.

  8. I am one of the women from this generation of promiscuity. I am happily married now with 2 children, and have to say my relationship with my husband is much stronger because I experimented in my late teens and early twenties. We have an amazing intimate connection and I am unashamed of my body or my flaws around him. My friends and I were always safe with the partners we chose. We were not intoxicated (on most occasions) as another commenter suggests. I believe that my friends and I felt free to be with who we wanted for as long as we wanted without strings attached.

  9. Does it matter that Mead’s findings were largely fraudulent? That she often led her subjects with leading questions, backed up with the promise of favors or rewards? That she completely missed the Samoan penchant for fanciful yarn-spinning, particularly where gullible Westerners are concerned?

    That all subsequent studies discovered that Samoans were more or less as hung up on premarital sex as all the rest of us and for good reason, unwanted illegitimate children, STD’s, hereditary rules, etc, never seems to enter in discussions on casual sex, let alone the loneliness and alienation felt. People believe what they want to believe. This isn’t journalism, it’s activism.

    BTW – Kinsey’s work was crap too.

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