On the Side of “Boys on the Side”

It was around Veterans’ Day, 2003, when Larry Flynt announced he had photographs of former POW and memoirist Jessica Lynch cavorting — I believe that was the very word the news services used — topless before a group of male soldiers. Very much to its credit, the greater share of the American media and public cleared its throat and turned its head. Lynch seemed like an extraordinarily nice and honest kid. The international spotlight had sought her, not the other way around. Why let some slimy opportunist ruin her big moment?

But as the story unfolded, I had a thought, one I wish some respected pundit had weighed in to affirm. It went something like this: Why wouldn’t Lynch have cut loose to her heart’s content? She’d enlisted in the army because she couldn’t land a minimum-wage job near her hometown of Palestine, West Virginia. For her, survival had come to depend on risking her neck. Facing such stark choices is bound to kill off prissiness and scruples. Life’s nasty, brutish and possibly short. If exhibitionism happened to be her kink, there was no practical reason not to go for it.

This connection between tough-mindedness and sexual adventurousness returned to me the other day, while I was reading Hannah Rosin’s Atlantic article, “Boys on the Side.” Rosin’s subjects are young women who seek sexual gratification as unapologetically, as singlemindedly, and with as much aversion to emotional involvement, as men have traditionally done. Far from auditioning potential life partners, these women are still unsure what, exactly, they want their lives to look like. According to Rosin, they find “an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.”

To many Catholic and socially conservative readers, Rosin’s piece must read like the mocking whisper of a Japanese soldier in some B-movie about Guadalcanal — “GI, tonight you die!” — a provocation to break cover and attack. My own reaction has been a little different. Before I can even begin thinking in terms of approving or disapproving, I have to admit to myself that what these women are doing takes character, guts. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes balls.

Participating in the hookup culture is not for the faint of heart. It means testing your mettle against a pool of equally determined competitors night after night after night. That requires self-confidence, and enough emotional armor to protect the ego from the sting of rejection and the heart from infiltration. It also requires a certain detachment from the self, a willingness to view your feelings and desires objectively and prioritize according to the realities of the moment. In Letter 81 of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the Marquise de Merteuil illuminates just how much reflection and — damn it — work an intelligent and sensitive woman must undertake in order to transform herself into a commodity in a tough marketplace. “Having descended into my own heart, I studied the hearts of others in it,” she brags. If the ROE in 18th-century Grenoble differed from those in 21st-century America, the principle is the same: life’s tough. Only the strong survive.

I might be going out on a limb here, but it seems to me that this pre-disillusioned outlook, this suspicion of romantic love, are the very same qualities that can bear a woman through a Catholic-style marriage. What, the guy’s turned out to be a creep, a jerk, a bore? You stopped laughing at his jokes after your third kid was born? Write it on your T.S. slip and send it to the chaplain — this is a Sacrament and a social convention, not a Caribbean cruise. Besides, you don’t belong to Michele Bachmann’s church; it’s not like you have to submit to the guy.

Not long ago, a friend of mine, a deeply religious wife and mother, confessed to me that, several years into her marriage, she’d found herself falling in love with another man. She still loved her husband (who was not a creep, a jerk or a bore); the attraction she felt toward his rival was grounded in something much more substantial than marriage fatigue. It was only after weighing faith and family against the ecstasy of romantic fulfillment at length, and in the cool light of reason, that she chose the former over the latter. It strikes me that her dispassionate analysis of the relevant factors, and the analyses carried out by Rosin’s hooker-uppers, are really very similar. The only difference is in the underlying value structures.

Granted, the distance between a value structure that prizes license and autonomy and one that prizes restraint and interdependence is enormous. It’s even possible to see them as opposite poles. But what seems to be shrinking is the mushy middle. In another Atlantic, piece, “All the Single Ladies,” Kate Bollick talks about how growing up with “the post-boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else” had made her into a conflicted serial monogamist. She’s not a hook-up artist; still determined to find “someone I really like being with,” she sounds too delicate for that. Her justification for autonomy, too, sounds comparatively precious. Rather than valuing it for its own sake, as Rosin’s subjects apparently do, she explains, “something was missing” from each of her relationships. It’s more an avoidance of one thing than a conscious dedication to its opposite.

Part of the difference may be generational. Bollick is about 40; the women in Rosin’s piece, college-aged. Newsweek has called Millennials “the screwed generation,” because they suffer “stubbornly high unemployment rates” and face “mountain of boomer- and senior-incurred debt.” In Jessica Lynch’s case (and others), it might have added “war and all its traumatic after-effects.” Unlike Bollick, these people never had the luxury of supposing that good things would come to the deserving. Good vibes? Good lovin’? Fugheddaboutit. It makes a kind of sense that generation screwed would equal generation screwing.

Rosin does caution readers against making too much of the hook-up culture. Citing sociologist Paula England, who collected data from 20,000 subjects, she points out the median number of yearly hookups for college students comes to a modest five. A quarter of college students skip on hooking up altogether; it’s another minority, whose members make the Borgias look like Bob and Penny Lord, who skew the data. For the majority, Rosin writes, “the hookup culture is a place to visit freshman year, or whenever you feel like it, or after you’ve been through a breakup.” She also points out that over 74 percent of the students surveyed had had a relationship that lasted more than six months.

Nevertheless, hooking up remains a real option, and seems to attract particularly hardheaded and ambitious people. As we Catholics consider the practice from a distance, I think it’s important for us to remember that the women Rosin describes picking up guys in bars, and the ones patiently driving kids to RCIC, may, like Thomas Aquinas and Friederich Hayek, according to the individualistic Paul Ryan, bear a close family resemblance under the skin.

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