Hookup Culture an "Aspirin for Loneliness"

by Adriana Watkins


On April 12, a large group of Boston College students filled a Merkert lecture hall. They were there to hear Fr. Paul McNellis, S.J., speak about the landscape of modern college sexuality, in a talk entitled, “The Hookup Culture: Here to Stay?”The lecture came at what McNellis considers an important moment, as the normalization of transient sexuality has made hookups “just one [more] lifestyle choice.”

The talk was addressed to three principle audiences, whom McNellis specified at the outset—those outside the hookup culture who are considering participation, those in the hookup culture who are experiencing doubt, and those who have no plans to join it. The group whom McNellis felt would least understand his lecture were those who enjoy the hookup culture with no current regrets. 


The trend of casual sexuality, once “edgy” and rebellious twenty years ago, “almost seems normal” on today’s college campuses. McNellis noted several popular claims that hookups are compatible with Jesuit spirituality, or that they empower women—he cited in particular Hanna Rosen’s controversial article “Boys on the Side.” These strong affirmations, McNellis said, are motivation enough to examine the reasons why a person turns to one-night stands.


Among the most powerful motivations for participating in the hookup culture is the conviction that the college years are not “real life.” McNellis said many students feel that their actions before graduation will have a relatively fleeting impact on their adult lives. In the name of “self-discovery” and pleasure, then, the consequences of a hookup seem small.


Beyond simple enjoyment, students might use these brief encounters to cope with feelings of emptiness or isolation. McNellis called this tactic “an Aspirin” for human disconnection, and claimed that, at least in theory, “[A hookup] takes the edge off loneliness.”


The professor argued that a hyper-sexual culture may take the edge off of other things as well—edges which were not necessarily harmful. Intensely physical, impersonal relationships “make [a student] immune to being charmed and enchanted.” Says McNellis, “It’s more in control not to be.”


A student active in the hookup scene risks growing so used to temporary connections that he or she develops “emotional and moral cataracts.” If they are later interested in a serious relationship, they may find it difficult to become used to the reality of commitment and the appreciation of the whole person.


McNellis also made the point that, contrary to some feminists’ assertions, women are not empowered by the hookup culture. He said that many female students find the culture debilitating, a perspective best illustrated through individual stories.


One young woman confided that, after many brief physical relationships, “I believed that no man would marry me unless he had had sex with me.” The centrality of sex on the college scene is not a mindset easily dispensed with, and for this student, it began to color her self-perception.


A male student, whose girlfriend pressured him into physical intimacy, admitted, “Now, I just look at every girl the same way.” 


McNellis argued that the hookup culture causes students to lose sight of their peers’dignity. Women are objectified and often forget their dignity, while men avoid maturity, rarely considering the type of husband and father they will likely become in the future.


Despite the grim picture, McNellis expressed a hope that the situation can improve. “[The hookup culture is] the most joyless quest for pleasure I’ve ever seen,” he said, adding that he believes most students desire a deeper human connection. He recommended decreasing time spent on social media and electronics, while increasing time spent in face-to-face interaction.


“The connection you really want is conversation,” he said. 


McNellis’s emphasis on organic, in-person connection recalls Professor Kerry Cronin’s advice in her popular “Save the Date” talk, given every February. Her social philosophy was adapted into a movie called The Dating Project, which played in select theaters April 17.


McNellis acknowledged that the attempt to revive a constructive, respectful dating environment is an uphill battle. He called the culture of hookups, divorce, euthanasia, and abortion “the only moral ecosystem [most of you] have ever known.” This was not a reason to despair, he added. 


“You have to be a better swimmer,” he said.


Featured image by Rev. Paul McNellis, S.J.

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