No, No. No One Is Charlotte Simmons.

12 May

Originally posted at Iqra’i.

I have no quibbles with the thesis of Phoebe’s prof-crush piece — that just because an attraction to an authority figure can’t be realized sexually doesn’t diminish its sexual nature — but given that she admits that her assessment of hookup culture (“When there is mutual interest, nothing is holding anyone back”) is derived from the media rather than direct observation, I figured I’d offer a corrective from a school whose men can occasionally be more assertive than its squirrels.

Setting aside the obvious objection — that crushes very rarely proceed so rationally as to jump ship at the first sign of improbability of fulfillment — the fact remains that hookup culture isn’t a monolith that engulfs the entire student body and whips it into near-bacchanal. (I love Tom Wolfe as much as the next person, but I Am Charlotte Simmons was downright irresponsible in perpetrating this stereotype, and it’s time real live college students stood up and said it.) In fact, it seems to have very particular second- and third-order effects among those who don’t get involved, and instead position themselves in reaction to the ready availability of casual sex.

It seems apparent to me that one of the biggest problems with hookup culture is the way it compartmentalizes interpersonal relationships, turning sex into an aerobic activity rather than an expression. One of the effects of this is that the everyday campus atmosphere probably winds up feeling less sexually charged than it would if people had a healthier, more integrative attitude toward sexual relationships. So it’s ironic that the hookup refuseniks (most of whom, I find, tend to be guys) are explicit champions of this same compartmentalization, insisting that sexuality is an unnecessary use of their time and that they ought to be focusing on more lasting and transcendent things. This may just be where I go to school, but I know plenty of guys like this. And no, none of them are considering seminary; they’ve just instrumentalized their college experience to satisfy particular personal goals and cut out anything unnecessary, and welcome the categorization of physical relationships — even romance of any kind — in the latter.

(There’s also a variation on this, which recognizes sex as a separable biological urge and therefore permits hookups under the logic that they’re “filling a need” — but won’t allow the student to hook up with anyone he might develop a lasting interest in, because that would constitute distraction. I know it’s perverse, but it’s also equally reliant on the divisions hookup culture imposes and on disdaining the side of that division it reveres.)

But the Bacchae and the refuseniks intermix freely in other settings — and as Phoebe mentioned, the dance floor isn’t the only way a crush is developed. Is it so unfeasible that even someone active in hookup culture could develop an interest in that adorable neo-Platonist in her seminar, only to find out that they don’t go to the same parties (whether he is a proper refusenik, a romantic or just a conscientious objector)? Not only does she have to figure out how to charm him the hard way, but she has to contend with the (not negligible) possibility that he thinks she’s a slut. Would it be less “pathetic” to get over it? Possibly, if sexual satisfaction is the end goal. But readily available, compartmentalized sex seems like a silly thing to be chasing, especially with women who often feel we have other “needs” to attend to, like being brought flowers and taken out to dinner. If we also want what he wants, or what we think he wants, maintaining a crush on him — hopeless or otherwise — vindicates our own past promiscuity by reveling in the “purity” of unrequited attraction as we first knew it.

There are also plenty of other reasons why sexual desire, even mutually felt, can’t be fulfilled in college. Most relationships spend more time being complicated than uncomplicated these days, which leaves people in a state of attracted-to-other-people-but-loyal-to-just-one for weeks or longer at a time. The assumption (more hookup-culture fallout) that sexual involvement ruins an otherwise healthy friendship can keep mutually attracted friends apart. And, of course (as Phoebe herself should know!), there are TAs — young enough to be single and even likely to frequent the same bars, with that frisson of authority that is so key to the professor crush. (This is the other point Phoebe misses: the allure of the professor-student affair isn’t pedagogy, but the mystery and suggestive power that comes from the unequal power dynamic.)

To be honest, I think these weird convolutions — which usually result in an over-valuing of purity among anyone not going out every Saturday — are worse for campus cultures than hookups themselves. But don’t count the crush among its casualties just yet.

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