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.

  • http://mliccione.blogspot.com Michael Liccione

    Well Max, the single college gal hooking up and the Catholic mom toughing out her marriage are both certainly both “detached.” But surely the former’s detachment facilitates using people and is thus bad, while the latter’s facilitates loving people and is thus good. Detachment is morally neutral in itself; its value consists less in what one is detaching oneself from than in what one is detaching oneself for. Or do you know all that already, and I just missed the point?

    [I'm not convinced everyone does know that. There's a tendency, among the unreflecting, to see these two types as belonging to completely separate species. Some people who do reflect will nevertheless light into the college kids for lacking self-control, or allowing their emotions to govern them. I'm saying THAT misses the point.]

  • kenneth

    There is nothing new under the sun at all with hookup culture except that women are rejecting the absurd Victorian Era binary model which said women must either be asexual Madonnas or “fallen.” People today are just more honest and un-ashamed of being human and having and satisfying human urges. Strict adherence to traditional mores means remaining a virgin until at least your late 20s (the earliest age even feasible for stable marriage these days), and then remaining monogamous with that person for upwards of 50 years! There are people who are willing and wanting to do that, and bully for them, but it’s not for everyone.

    Nor is it the case that most non-chaste people are looking to avoid relationships at all costs. They realize that not everyone will be “the one” but that it’s ok to celebrate and enjoy the interaction for what it is. Catholics most assuredly are not considering the practice “from a distance.” They are at least as well represented in hookup culture as they are in the general population or in any other human subculture.

  • helena

    I can’t help but think of that quote from Helen Gurley Brown about good girls go to heaven and bad girls go everywhere. The truth hides in plain sight in that statement. Why would anyone, male or female want to go everywhere? As if to say-hook up all over the place, people are interchangable, you will never feel differently about one, prefer one, or react differently to one, they and you, are all replacable. That is hell- and that version of the human, promoted by her, is patently false-she sold it yet didn’t live it herself. She stayed with the same guy but everyone else wouldn’t want that… no, we like being nameless- faceless and having nameless faceless meaningless sex. This is just the dumbest thing ever.

  • Pearty

    I think this is an illustration of the two sides of the Manichean coin: its stark dualism leads one to adopt either a fierce asceticism or conversely to unbridled pleasure seeking. Two very different outcomes based on the same principle. To suggest, however, that a Catholic wife and mother remaining faithful to her promises and not indulging her passions is akin to a nihilistic slag detaching herself from her emotions in order to satisfy her disordered sexual appetite is an insult to chaste people everywhere.

    As for young people: there’s something noble about falling into sin when governed by the emotions. There’s clearly a good being sought: intimacy, acceptance, whatever. The thought that emotions have nothing to do with it frightens me no end.

  • Tim in Cleveland

    Maybe these girls should pull up their knickers and concentrate and what college is for in the first place: drinking.

  • Thomas R

    “the earliest age even feasible for stable marriage these days”

    I think that depends on where you’re living, etc. States with “average first marriage age” in low 20s tend to have more divorce, but I don’t know that it’s absolute. It also doesn’t necessarily mean early-20s is too young to form a stable marriage. Plausibly those states have more teen marriages that lead to higher divorce and lower marriage age.

    There’s only been one divorce in my immediate family. Most of us who have married did so before age 25 with many doing so before age 22. Four of my five sibling have married.

    As for the Victorian thing that went out long ago if it ever existed at all.

  • Ray Bones

    When I was 12 or 13 and getting slammed by the detonation of hormones typical at that age, I was completely obsessed with the idea of sex. My pals and I, that’s all we talked about.The girls in our neighborhood were completely safe; we were good Catholic boys scared witless by the prospect of acting on our “human urges” (thank you, kenneth, above).

    Fear of the Lord as a governor on our urges ended about the same time as twin beds on TV. But should I really expect that my daughters will sleep with 20 men – oops, boys -before they graduate college, and consider that normal behavior? By that time maybe their performance against that benchmark will be part of their transcripts.

    We should be outraged at the morality of the “hookup culture”. “Human urges” are not invincible. All things are possible with God, but, without God, nothing is possible. Life’s just one urge after another.

  • Ted Seeber

    I submit that the ONLY reason late 20s is the earliest for a stable marriage is artificial, economic, and systemic and has NOTHING to do with human nature.

    If Living Wage Jobs were available for 10 year olds, there’d be nothing wrong with teen pregnancy at all.

  • deiseach

    And nobody at all has commented on how it is apparently perfectly normal to cut off a part of your psyche in order to accommodate work and career?

    That naturally these young women don’t want to be distracted from the all-important task of getting a good education to get a good degree to get a good job, where they will devote all the hours possible outside of actual physical collapse to The Firm instead of a lover, family and being a human?

    That, ladies and gentlemen, is the true monstrosity (and not the eternal question of lust, which of course fallen human nature has to struggle with). We are talking about sacrificing one’s very self to Mammon, not to Moloch or Asmodeus.

  • deiseach

    Also, going by Irish experience, if you want to change cultural attitudes to marriage so that late marriage and chastity are both attainable, have a catastrophic experience like a famine.

    Before The Great Hunger, the Irish (like the rest of Europe) married young and were fertile. Afterwards, marriage was delayed until later in life and only a couple of the children could hope to attain it – the new necessity for a woman to have a dowry to make her an attractive prospect, or a son to have enough land or a good trade to support a family, meant that there were plenty of sixty year old bachelors and spinsters in living memory.

    Yes, an event that will reduce your population by around 50% (first through starvation and disease, then by emigration and whittling down) so that, one hundred and sixty years later, the population is still not anywhere like the peak it once achieved – that will solve the question of late or early marriage and the importance of career versus family life for you!

  • JenniB

    As excellent as this article is in many ways, I have to say that I reject the notion that young men are – or were in some nostalgic past – constantly on the make for sex without commitment. It simply flies in the face of what we know about history, and my personal experiences teaching young men. The adolescents in the alternative school where I taught desperately wanted to be chivalrous. They wanted someone to defend and die for.

    But of course feminism has made all of that seem bad.