Tuesday, December 16, 2008

From Free Love to Hooking Up

It is not very far from free love to hooking up. After all, hooking up is giving it away for free.

Unfortunately, giving it away for free does not make you a generous person. Nor does it mean that you place a high value on yourself. Hooking up is not the royal road to self-esteem.

Hooking up is not news. Tom Wolfe offered a sardonic definition at the turn of the millennium: "In the year 2000, in the era of hooking up, 'first base' meant deep kissing ('tonsil hockey'), groping and fondling; 'second base' meant oral sex; 'third base' meant going all the way; and 'home plate' meant learning each other's names."

Even though we have known about hooking up for some time now, people still react strongly to each new article, like the recent one by Charles Blow in the New York Times. Link here.

Older people, like Blow, find it sad that young people no longer date. Younger people feel misunderstood and unfairly judged.

In place of dating young people go out in groups-- girl groups and boy groups. When one young person in one group finds another in another group reasonably attractive they chat a bit and go home together.

Many young women insist that this does not man that they are indulging in random sexual encounters. They say that they are choosing partners from a group of friends. If they were hooking up with people they just met, their reputations would be compromised.

This means that the old morality is more resilient than many young people think.

Hooking up may pretend to be a new ritual, but it simply reverses the order of the old dating ritual. When people dated they went out together, got to know each other, developed an attraction to each other, formed a relationship, and consummated their feelings.

In the anti-ritual of hooking up, first, you have sex, then you get to know each other, then you discover whether you like each other, then you develop a relationship, then you go out on a date.

This anti-ritual is displayed in the popular movie: "Knocked Up." There, a random alcohol-fueled sexual encounter leads to pregnancy, to getting to know each other, to learning to like each other, to developing a relationship, to becoming a responsible parent.

So, the goal of hooking up seems to be identical to the goal of the old dating ritual. Yet, since precious few hook ups lead to anything resembling a relationship, the Hollywood ending feels more like an illusion that women use to rationalize behavior that they are not very proud of.

I suspect that if young women did not believe that hook ups were going to lead to relationships, they would be far more parsimonious about handing out sexual favors.

Feminists used to insist, unimpeachable, that women should not be used as sexual objects. Now, postmodern thinking has persuaded them that if two people agree to use each other for sexual pleasure, then no one is being exploited.

According to this twisted mindset, if everyone agrees that something is true, then it is true.

If hooking up is supposed to achieve the same goal as dating, then we need to understand something about the socially prescribed ritual.

Daring is a venerable ritual that allows people to make meaningful connections before they make larger life commitments. It seems to have originated in the West about a thousand years ago in the practice of courtly love.

That elaborate courtship ritual involved a woman what had been left alone while her crusading husband was fighting the infidels and a teen aged boy who was working at a menial job in her castle.

The romantic attachments of courtly love were, by definition, adulterous. Ostensibly, they were not even consummated.

Romance did not die with the crusades. It morphed into other institutionalized adulterous practices, producing the king's favorites, mistresses, and courtesans. As long as marriage was arranged, love and romance were side shows.

The first crack in the system occurred in England in the seventeenth century. There, for perhaps the first time in human history, women were allowed to choose their mates freely. This required a new ritual, a courtship ritual, that could be engaged by unmarried young people. Borrowing from the well-developed romantic practices, it simply changed the focus of courtship from adultery to marriage.

Evidently, courtship morphed into dating. Both rituals tried to give young people a better basis for choosing a mate. Presumably, this was going to make for better marriages, and enhanced marital fidelity. It would also reduce the sometimes lethal confusion over bloodlines and inheritance.

Dating was also designed to protect young women from being exploited by their families and from being used by men.

Dating required that a young man make a public show of interest and a minimal commitment to a young woman. He had to ask her for a date, pick her up, take her out, pay for her, and finally, to escort her home at a reasonable hour.

When a man followed this ritual he made a public commitment to a woman, presented himself as someone who would care for her and protect her, and made a display of respect for her as a woman.

Young people today find this quaint and objectionable. They reject the notion that women need to be cared for or protected.

Modern women can take care of themselves. They want to be independent and autonomous. They can do anything a man can do, and God help you if you do not agree.

This view has a lot to recommend it. In many areas of human experience it is true. The problem arises when a man and a woman engage in an act of coitus.

Think what you will, they are not engaging in the same act. The emotional investment is different; the oxytocin levels are different; the risks are different; the potential consequences are different.

The dating ritual, having developed over centuries through trial and error, takes this into account. To decide one day that human experience should be ignored because it does not correspond to a trendy idea is a dangerous gambit.

Confucius famously said that people should observe rituals whether they understand them or not. But that requires a respect for the authority of tradition, and young people today have been cured of such respect by the time that they start hooking up.

Why do they hook up? Perhaps because they have to make sense of the ritual on their own. After all, most of the young people who hook up eventually start dating, at around the time that they are ready to settle down.

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