I’m at Annenberg, talking about morality, when I hear, “What is that, philosophy? Sounds stupid.” As the stranger sitting across from me begins to tell me that you live and you die and life is just about living the most before then, I ask him what living the most entails if he’s never thought about these important questions. He answers bluntly: “The Count.” It’s his measure of how many girls he’s hooked up with since Harvard began—half a semester ago.
I would have thought it was a joke if he hadn’t begun reviewing the previous night’s expedition with his friend—two hangovers have better memory than one. Boston University party. Six in total, a decent night. Too bad he lost track of his total count after 57.
While few people take casual sex to this extreme, the hook-up culture at college is no rarity; 72 percent of us will hook up before we graduate. This is no surprise. Combine free condoms, distance from home, minimal responsibility, plentiful alcohol, and parties every weekend with the fact that sex just feels good and you have an equation for casual sex. But that doesn’t mean we should. The hook-up culture may seem like an elegant solution to the college life style—reap all the benefits of an orgasm without the commitment of a relationship—but it distorts and perverts our capacity to value each other. So, what’s wrong with two people agreeing to get mutual pleasure from each other without emotional attachment?
Nature thinks a lot. Whenever we hold hands, make intense eye contact, or have sex, we increase the concentration of oxytocin in the brain (sometimes up to 500 percent). Oxytocin makes us trust one another and form deep, affectionate bonds. Furthermore, every touch, every kiss, and every orgasm releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which increases desire for something. When we release it during sex, we want to have more sex. Consequently, every hook-up is an uphill battle against nature—a conscious attempt to detach ourselves from emotions like care, trust, affection, and love by doing the very act which amplifies them. Biologically speaking, casual sex is never casual.
On a less scientific level, the hook-up culture undermines and even prevents us from forming genuine relationships. When people have casual sex, they are consciously acknowledging that another’s body is just a means for self-satisfaction, a basic tool for personal gratification. When sex holds pleasure as its primary motivation, when sex objectifies someone’s body, when sex requires neither respect nor companionship, only desire and a private—but that’s not even necessary—space, meaningful relationships cannot form. Maybe participants in the hook-up culture recognize that there are deeper levels of intimacy than hooking up, but just want to enjoy college while they still can. But how are people supposed to lead up to sex through constant dating if they’ve only learned how to lead up to dating through constant sex? How are people supposed to find a soul mate when they equate trust with sexual reliability, compatibility with pleasure, and love with lust?
During orientation week, Harvard makes an effort to educate its incoming class about the many temptations it will face on campus. Students are required to go to everything from Sex Signals to Extended Orientation workshops on drugs and alcohol. Harvard puts a lot of faith in the decision-making abilities of its students; it presents all of these issues not by taking a stab at what is ethically right and wrong, but rather what is safe and not safe, legal and not legal. Because of this, students confuse normative permissibility with moral acceptability. We ask: Is this physically safe? Is this legal? Okay, okay, at least legal-ish? But few consider: Am I treating this person as a human being ought to be treated? Is this action morally justifiable? If we really are old enough to be making our own decisions, we ought to be mature enough to commit to the reflection necessary for making the right ones.
By participating in the hook-up culture, we reinforce the idea that the emotional energy required for sex is no different from that required for self-pleasure or pornography, we reinforce the belief that genuine relationships come second to an orgasm, we reinforce the notion that sex is just an emotionless, mindless, physical act. But sex is so much more than that. Sex becomes a deep, romantic, beautiful thing when combined with love and trust.
It’s not just sex.
Garrett M. Lam ’16, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Thayer Hall.