[Editor’s Note: Timothy P. O’Malley is director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where he also serves as the academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He researches in the areas of liturgical-sacramental theology, catechesis, and spirituality. He also holds an appointment in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his latest book, Off the Hook: God, Love, Dating, and Marriage in a Hookup World.]
Camosy: The term “hookup culture” is in broad use today, but it isn’t clear that everyone means the same thing by it. How are you using this term?
O’Malley: Like secularization or liberalism, the hookup culture can easily be used as a symbol representing every perilous thing about the modern world: libertine sexual practices, the decline of the family, and a departure from significant institutional commitment.
Certainly, the hookup culture involves sex, a fear of commitment and fertility, and a rejection of the institutional structures that once facilitated “falling in love.”
But the root of the hookup culture is a fear of communication and thus communion, of an intimacy that transcends the flesh-to-flesh encounter. The hookup is intentionally ambiguous. It could mean anything from a drunken make-out in the corner of a dorm room at a party to trolling Tinder for a sexual encounter with a stranger in a bar.
Young men and women desire communion, but they’re afraid of it. They’re afraid to reveal to one another the vulnerabilities that are part of falling in love with a flesh and blood person.
And thus, they engage in a sexual encounter as a way to experience a chimera of this communion, confident that a mere “flesh-to-flesh” encounter won’t have lasting effects.
Though the dominance of hook-up culture has made sex more overtly transactional, this shift overlaps with a different trend: young people having less sex than their parents did at the same age. What are we to make of these two overlapping trends?
In reality, the flesh-to-flesh encounter has lasting effects. Many young people have turned to the viewing of pornography, an anti-liturgy that forms men and women alike in a phantasmal view of what actual sex involves. In Pornland, men can perform whatever sexual acts they want with women. Women, who based on the myth of porn, are sexually compliant in each and every situation.
In reality, a flesh-to-flesh encounter involves caring for a particular human being. You don’t just have sex with this woman or man. You help them move their stuff from apartment to apartment. You hurry over to console them at the death of a parent. You become involved in a life, in the history of a person.
And the fact remains that many young men and women are incapable of such communion. Pornography has disconnected the link between sex and friendship in the minds of many men and women. It has reduced the encounter to an economic exchange. At the same time, men and women have ceased attending to those basic human skills that are part of love: face-to-face conversations, commitment to friendship, and even courtship.
In other words, it’s easier to watch porn alone at home, then to take someone out on a date. And thus, the decline of actual sex is linked once more to the inability to communicate with a real, living, breathing human being.
In response to the problems of hookup culture, especially when it intersects with rape culture, most of the secular responses have involved “consent” as the primary value to uphold. For many reasons, this kind of response is unlikely to succeed. How does your book offer a different vision?
Consent is a partially effective medicine in our age. Insofar as men and women are reticent to communicate, forcing conversations about sex is at least a step forward. “Are you open to this form of intimacy?” is better than the current type of communication sent via text message, “U awake?”
But consent won’t solve the rape culture per se insofar as it still reduces one’s partner to a sexual object. It still forestalls authentic communication. It relies upon a sense of reason that is not found in sexual encounters. In “consenting” to this or that sexual act, often in the midst of passion, can we really recognize what we’re committing ourselves to? An intimate encounter with another person that changes how I relate to this person forever? The possibility of new life?
The approach that my book takes is to recognize that marriage offers a peculiar medicine for the hookup culture. It actually underlines the importance of consent in the sacrament of marriage, the commitment to a lifelong fidelity that establishes a permanent communion between spouses.
Only in this context, where one takes seriously the commitment to the person, to one’s beloved, is it possible to heal hookup culture.
Certainly, there are marriages where rape happens. Where the effects of the hookup culture remain in place. One cannot deny this. But the sacrament of marriage provides a vision of radical, self-giving love that is contradictory to such a culture.
It is based in a fidelity, a friendship that must orient each and every sexual encounter with one’s spouse.
Your focus on marriage seems deeply counter-cultural, especially with a younger generation delaying marriage longer than any we have seen in recorded history. How do you navigate this challenge–both in your book, and in your course at Notre Dame?
I was surprised about how interested students were in talking about marriage. Catholic marriage in particular has seen precipitous declines over the last seven years, roughly 14 percent. I suspected that my course on marriage would top out at 40 or so students, mostly those who were uber-Catholics. Instead, it has 150 students and a waiting list of another 50.
As it turns out, students are interested in marriage as an institution. They want to know how to permanently commit to another person. They want to understand how sacramental grace functions within marriage, how it heals and sanctifies natural love. They want to find a place to talk about the myth of a certain romantic vision of love, one that often results in absurd heartbreak and sorrow. And they also don’t want the hookup culture.
Men and women alike come to my office hours and say, “I don’t want this anymore.” How do I move from random sex to commitment?
In my book and in my course, I offer a way forward. I provide a vision of marriage not as an overly sacralized view of love. Instead, I show how Christian marriage is the gradual transformation of natural love, the sanctification of the mundane. Yes, it’s an institution.
But, it’s an institution that allows for the education of children, for a long-lasting faithful friendship, and one where in the end “sex” is not the most important part.
And it’s an institution that in the end saves men and women, knitting their story of love into the divine narrative of love unto the end.
It sounds like there might be some changes coming to the Church’s marriage formation practices if we are going to respond adequately to hookup culture?
Formation for marriage has to change. Often, you hear the pope and other clergy speak about the need for a catechumenate for marriage, a process of formation that is a lot more than a test, a couple of sessions with the priest, and maybe one or two classes on Natural Family Planning.
That was probably enough when Catholicism permeated a culture. But, it’s not enough today.
I believe that a liturgical-sacramental formation is the way forward, rather than an exclusively ethical one. Young men and women hear ethical exhortations against hooking up with a sense of guilt. But when they first learn to encounter the mystery of love revealed in the Scriptures, the mystery of love that they are to become through marriage, they develop a new imagination about the possibilities of nuptial love. They learn to want something more in this encounter.
Something like serious spiritual direction is necessary for marriage formation. I often meet with students thinking about marriage, asking them the hard questions that few do. Where did your understanding of love come from? Are you really communicating, or are you lying to yourself about what you want out of this relationship? What is the effect of pornography on your relationship? How does your attendance at Mass affect how you treat your spouse-to-be?
Mentorship of practicing married couples, even in the midst of dating, is essential to couples that struggle with authentic communication.