The National Catholic Review
What happens when we disassociate love and sex?

In her article in The New York Times, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too,” Kate Taylor describes a world of ambitious Penn undergraduates who put their personal interests and their résumés first. Many have chosen to avoid romantic relationships during college entirely in favor of “hooking up,” no strings attached. As they (and their male partners) describe it, money and status matter; but they don’t just happen—they are the result of hard work. If you want to become the head of the World Bank, you have to put in the hours. Relationships, therefore, become an afterthought at best. The theory is that anyone can find a partner later in life and then have a couple of children.

This situation is troubling—but not because these women want to “put themselves first.” It is important to have a good sense of one’s identity and needs before giving that self to another. The problem is that they seem so miserable while doing it. Much like the sex had by the characters on Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls,” the sex described by the Penn undergrads in the story sounds sort of grim; less like sex and more like work. One woman describes the man she regularly sleeps with this way: “We don’t really like each other in person, sober. We literally can’t sit down and have coffee.” Talking about their hookup, she sounds bored, like the oldest 19-year-old in the world: “[W]e watched TV, had sex, and went to sleep.”

One woman said, “I have to be drunk in order to enjoy it” and reported being barked at to “get down on [her] knees” and thinking, “I’ll just do will be over soon enough.” Because the sex occurs outside of committed relationships and alcohol is involved, hookup culture can quickly lead to a culture of sexual assault.

Without love or friendship, we are left with the language of an economic exchange, the sexual partner as service provider. The women in the story speak of the “cost-benefit” analyses of having a relationship, and the “low risks and low investment costs” of hooking up versus putting the time and energy into a real friendship, which, they argue, may not lead to anything long term.

Surprisingly, these women may be avoiding relationships, friendships and even their own happiness, in order to live up to parental and societal expectations. They are following a script, which for many has been prescribed to them since puberty. It goes something like this: The worst thing that can happen to you between the ages of 18 and 30 would be to have a baby or get married; those are your prime achievement years. You went to a good college and you need to get a return on your investment. Then, in your late 30s, the worst thing that can happen to you is not to be able to have a baby or find a husband.

No wonder college-educated young women are stressed. It is a small window. And both messages are so extreme and so untrue that the result is a kind of constant, low-grade anxiety. But the message persists. When college-educated women hit the age of 30 or 32, they are pressured to suddenly flip a switch and settle down as a loving wife and mother with a great partner and a beautiful home in addition to being an impressive, lifelong careerist. And then they will “have it all.” They will be happy.

There are many problems with this narrative. For one thing, happiness does not grow out of isolation. What struck me most about the Penn undergrads in Taylor’s story was how lonely they seemed. They do not describe having close friendships with men or women, since they see other people primarily as competition. This is not the culture of free love. It is the culture of “cross sex off the to-do list after Pilates and before Marketing 101.” It is joyless.

There is nothing wrong with women and men wanting to have successful careers, and there is a legitimate conversation to be had about how to manage the demands of work and family life, but this is not the conversation these women are having. They are making the objectivist assumption that the only things in life worth doing are things you can put on a résumé. But in the end, without friendship or romance there is not much to write home about. Sharing your true self with others in friendship and relationship is an opportunity for personal growth, and despite the range of opportunities open to women today, it is one they are missing.

In a culture that values individualism and personal choice, we have forgotten that we are social animals, interdependent from conception, and that our relationships and communities determine, to a large extent, the quality of our lives. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in “Caritas et Veritate,” “As a spiritual being the human person is defined by interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that people establish their worth, but by placing themselves in relation with others and with God.”

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell illustrates this point by telling the story of the village of Roseto, Italy. In the 1800s villagers from Roseto migrated to a town in Pennsylvania, where they created a prosperous community for themselves. Traveling physicians noted that, despite eating a high fat diet and exercising no more than normal, no one in the village of Roseto suffered from heart disease. There was also no suicide or violent crime. Rosetans lived long lives and died of old age. Nothing could be found in their genes to explain this anomaly. Researchers finally concluded that their close-knit community must be the source of their good health: multi-generational families living under one roof, neighbors knowing one another and stopping to chat in the street, respect for children and the elderly and everyone getting together for church on Sunday. The medical community had previously made the materialist assumption that only things such as genes, diet and exercise could be the cause of longevity, but Roseta proved what had already been codified in religion and myth: communities and relationships matter.

In the end, happiness requires more than having an impressive title to announce at a cocktail party, satisfying as that may be. True happiness is more than a fleeting feeling of bliss. It requires knowing that your life matters to other people. According to a recent study conducted by Princeton University, 50 percent of our happiness is based on our basic disposition, something that does not change. What is more interesting is that the study concludes that money and status account for only 10 percent of our total happiness after our basic needs are met. Despite living in comparative poverty, the average rickshaw driver in India reports about the same level of happiness as the average American. This is due in part to the conclusion that the remaining 40 percent of our happiness comes from our relationships. The study concluded, “If you want to be happier, improve your relationships.” It also found that people in the United States with an annual household income of $75,000 a year are about as happy as anyone gets. After that, making more money did not mean greater well being, since happiness came from the feeling that you had enough money to spend time with and do things for other people.

But this is a lesson many of us have yet to learn. In the United States we equate an ordinary life with a failed one. Wendell Berry describes the modern marriage in Feminism, the Body and the Machine as, “an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed...a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage in other words, has now taken the form of a divorce.” Berry lives on his family’s farm in rural Kentucky, and his point is simple: If you always have to argue about who does what, you will be unhappy. If everyone just picks up a shovel and does their part, you can do great things. It is not possible to be a good co-worker, spouse or friend if you are a narcissist.

Too often the simple act of being present to another human being is perceived as detrimental to career goals. Taylor, in her article, writes: “Her classmates tried very hard to separate sex from emotion, because they believed that getting too attached to someone would interfere with their work. They saw a woman’s marrying young as either proof of a lack of ambition or a tragic mistake that would stunt her career.”

Of course, every generation tries to correct for the mistakes of the generations that came before. Too often women sacrificed all their passions and interests in order to provide for husbands and children, who were unwilling or unable to sacrifice much in return. But the answer is not to give up on sacrifice. It is to realize that in the best relationships the sacrifice goes both ways.

As Aristotle knew, our characters are formed by what we repeatedly do. We cannot just flip a switch when the time is right and care about other people. If we spend the first half of our lives looking out for ourselves and our careers while treating other people like disposable objects that exist to serve our needs, that will influence our characters. Later, if we decide to get married and have children, our spouse, children and co-workers, who interact on a daily basis with a selfish person, will suffer.

There is nothing wrong with women and men striving for fulfilling careers. There is something wrong with an objectivist narrative, which says that the only things worth doing are self-serving. In this narrative all of life becomes a means. Nothing is a good in itself. Everything becomes instrumentalized (sex, kids, job, spouse, house, income). We spend our lives accruing honors trying to prove that we have value, when what truly makes us happy is to contribute to our communities in a meaningful way, to love and be loved.

In a detached environment, the message from the church sounds impossibly strange, and yet it is one worth remembering: It is not unambitious to want to have a good marriage or close friendships or to get along with one’s family or know one’s neighbors. It is, in fact, extremely ambitious. People do not accidentally have harmonious relationships, any more than they accidentally become secretary of state. They put in the hours, and their practices become their habits and their habits become their virtues and their virtues become their lives.

There are many ways to live a happy and fulfilled life: single, married, with children, without them. Goodness is diverse. But we are made for love and friendship. As Cicero wrote, “Friendship improves happiness and abates misery,” not by scoring us the corner office, “but by doubling our joys and dividing our grief.”

Anna Nussbaum Keating is the co-owner of Keating Woodworks in Colorado Springs, Colo., and is co-writing The Catholic Catalogue, a field guide to Catholic practice and culture. She also runs a website by the same name.

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Michael Barberi | 2/13/2014 - 5:05pm

I don't question that there is some truth in this article, or that what is important to one's happiness in this life (or the next). I question the prevalence of such a philosophy among college students and after-college young adults. In other words, what percent of college students and young college-educated adults believe that marriage is an obstacle to getting ahead in a career, and that loving marriage would severely prohibit achieving happiness, even if it is narrowly defined as a high paying job with career advancement opportunities.

Based on my experience, the key to happiness (and I would say a successful career in many cases) is a loving spouse and family life where each share the similar goals, values and enjoy life with friends and family. I worked my proverbial butt off for my entire working life, and was very successful. If you asked me to name one thing that helped me have both a successful career and marriage, I would say that I was blessed to have married an incredible woman who was my best friend, my psychologist, my lover, my wife, my stability, my happiness. I would add my children also made me happy. All of us are happy only in relationships, not isolated individuals.

As Ms. Keating mentions, there is nothing wrong with wanting to have a successful career and to earn enough money to live a reasonably satisfying life, a life inclusive of a family with or without children. In our U.S. culture getting ahead is competitive and difficult requiring long hours and hard/smart work. The average college graduate today is saddled with a heavy tuition debt and almost half of them do not get employment in the field they want, in a job they have skills for, or in an area of the country they want to live. Many are under-employed and unemployed. They might not be happy with this temporary situation, but this does not meant that a marriage would make things worse. Plenty of professional couples are married and if you ask them if this makes them unhappy or prohibits their career goals in any way, they would tell you 'not at all'. This does not mean that their life is not difficult.

If Ms. Keating is asserting that the so-called hook-up culture, characterized by college students with a disproportionate and irresponsible utilitarian attitude, is rampant in college life today across the U.S., then we do have a significant problem on our hands. Nevertheless, my intuition tells me that some of this exists but I would be highly surprised if it represented the overwhelming majority.

Some college students may believe that marriage is a bad thing during their 20s or early 30s, but people mature. The solution, in part, may have its roots in the family, setting a good example for children, but then leaving decisions in life to young adults to struggle to find their own solutions that most of us have learned. Life is messy and it can be ugly. I am more optimistic than the negative assessment of this article, but I am also not naive.

If we have a significant problem, What should we do about it? Is it the government's role to solve this problem, one's church, family or the individual? Disappointingly, Ms. Keating does not propose a solution. Neither do some of the commenters who merely chastise the U.S. culture, broken or single families, the entitlements of government and political parties.

Anne Chapman | 2/13/2014 - 7:51pm

Michael, your intuition regarding the true extent of this seems to be on target. See story at link here -

This is anecdotal, but I will note that all of my own children had long-term romantic relationships in college, lasting from 2 to 4 years (graduated between 2000 and 2008). None married their college romance, but I don't know that this is any different from my generation. Romance is not dead on campus, and even in my generation only a couple of college friends married their college sweethearts. Most of us did not want to jump into marriage right after graduation, and that seems to be the case with this generation also. Since the divorce rate is lowest among those with college degrees who married at an older than average age, it does not seem that this trend among college students is something to be too worried about.

Michael Barberi | 2/13/2014 - 9:05pm

Thanks Anne for that article.

Another point not mentioned is that it is perfectly normal and quite frequent. By that I mean that most students and young adults (in my opinion) believe that pre-marital sex in a casual dating relationship (in a hook-up or a dating relationship of a few months) is indeed devoid of "something"….namely, true love that makes sexual relationships meaningful. I don't think today's college students or young adults believe that casual sex is unitive as sex with a spouse or in a serious loving relationship that might lead to marriage. I also believe that most students are not having unbridled sex as Keating article seems to imply.

I don't think I am an anomaly when I say that during my single years after college, I would only date and have sex with someone unless there was some redeeming value in the person I was attracted to….meaning that unless I felt that the relationship had a reasonable change that it would blossom into something serious, I would not date them merely to have sex. This I tend to believe is the what most young people do. This does not mean that at some time during college or young adult years people don't have casual sex. It does mean that young adults do indeed mature and adopt a better sense of morality.

I tend to agree with the article you posted. I think many people exaggerate the consequences of the so-called hook-up culture. However, I do agree with Ms. Keating that we should all strive to be responsible individuals and educate our children and ourselves about living our lives based on good moral principles as best we can.

I also agree with you, that the so-called trend among college students is not something we should be overly worried about.

Anne Claahsen | 2/8/2014 - 11:34pm

This is an interesting article, but completely misnamed. I was hoping for something quite different, an article actually about separation anxiety.

Tom Wilson | 2/7/2014 - 12:39pm

If 40% of children are born to unwed mothers and the divorce rate is as high as reported, what percentage of children these days have any idea of how to develop a loving, healthy relationship with the opposite sex? Children of divorce actually learn the opposite. Add to that the prevalence of households in which both parents work, and children spending most of their days in competitive career-prep (school), it's not wonder college undergrads are the way they are.

So what does the government do? It promotes single-motherhood through subsidies, promotes divorce by child-support laws and no-fault divorce, and disconnects procreation from marriage through redefining marriage for homosexuals. Add to that the twisting of the law to present pornography as free speech and allowing sex in TV and the movies, nearly all of which is between unmarried couples. But, hey, we're all happier because we are all free to do whatever we want with whomever we want, right?

Anne Chapman | 2/12/2014 - 2:03pm

This post has little relevance to the article - which is about a subset of highly-educated elite. These young women are not those who are giving birth as unwed mothers. And, given the reality that they are part of the educational elite, it is likely that they have experienced less divorce in their own families than has the average person because the odds are higher that they come from families with advanced levels of education, as well as higher incomes than average, and thus more marriage stability. The lowest divorce rate in the country is in Massachusetts - home to many educated "elites" who did not marry young, and the highest rates are in the "bible belt", where educational levels are lower on average, and age at marriage is younger.

The issues raised in this article really have nothing to do with your post.

Tom Wilson | 2/13/2014 - 8:18pm

Nonsense, Anne. The sexual intimacy problem cuts across all socio-economic classes, across all political bents, notwithstanding what you say about Massachusetts (I suspect that the differences are not statistically significant).

Anne Chapman | 2/14/2014 - 1:04pm

There are different reasons for avoiding intimacy and marriage. This article focuses on a particular socio-economic group primarily because of the fact that some young women are now treating sex in the same casual way that men have always done (boys will be boys), and also that some young women are postponing marriage and motherhood in order to advance their educations and careers - a pattern men have often followed in the past as well. The reasons for the avoidance of committed sexual intimacy in this socio-economic group are very different than those of the unwed mothers of the inner cities or Appalachia or even of the unwed mothers among blue-collar workers increasingly bear children and live together before marriage. The young women at Penn are very unlikely to have children before marriage unless they are among the tiny group who don't ever wish to marry but do wish to be mothers.

You seem to be trying to twist the focus of this article to suit your concerns about problems in a different demographic group in order to put forth your opinion that the problem of unwed motherhood can be simplistically reduced to government policies that you believe promote unwed motherhood. The young women at Penn (who represent a particular socio-economic group) are not having children out of wedlock.

You also might be interested in this article at Religion News service:

"Generally, religion, religious belief and religious activities are thought to strengthen marriages,” said co-author Jennifer Glass, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It appears that the cessation of education, early marriage and early parenthood, you’re set up for relationship conflict, financial stress and dissolution.”The study, titled “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding the Impact of Conservative Protestantism on Regional Variation in Divorce Rates” in the American Journal of Sociology, analyzed county divorce statistics and information from a study of religious congregations, divorce statistics, information on the religious breakdown of local areas and a national survey.

Another interesting study indicates that the parents of today's young adults seem to encourage later marriage rather than earlier.

Another summary -

.... our society really has two very separate divorce rates, a lower rate (by half) for college-educated women who marry after the age of 25 and a much higher rate for poor, primarily minority women who marry before the age of 25 and do not have a college degree. .. But.. to use that kind of generalization, i.e., one simple statistic for all marriages, grossly distorts what is actually going on.....The key is that the research shows that ... education, specifically a college degree for women, began to create a substantial divergence in marital outcomes, with the divorce rate for college-educated women dropping to about 20 percent, half the rate for non-college educated women. ... the non-college educated women marry younger and are poorer than their college grad peers. These two factors, age at marriage and income level, have strong relationships to divorce rates; the older the partners and the higher the income, the more likely the couple stays married. ...[among] college educated women who marry after the age of 25 and have established an independent source of income, the divorce rate is only 20 percent!.... the women who marry younger and divorce more frequently are predominately ... from poorer environments. ..... society would do well to find ways to reduce not just teen pregnancies but early marriages among the poor and develop programs that train and educate the poor. Those will not only delay marriage but provide the educational and financial foundation required to increase the probability of a marriage being successful. Early marriage, early pregnancy, early divorce is a cycle of broken families that contributes significantly to maintaining poverty."

There is a great deal of raw data about marriage and divorce rates available at the website of the Centers for Disease Control. You can compare divorce rates in Massachusetts with those in Arkansas etc

Marie Rehbein | 2/14/2014 - 3:36pm

What a very good response, Anne. It is the trend among people with higher education to discourage early marriage, and the behavior described in the article is only one way some young single adults respond. It might be worthwhile to determine -- for the sake of those who worry what this world is coming to -- how many young single career focused adult women and men simply lead celibate, or close to celibate, lives. We might see a difference there also between the less educated and the more educated. I would be disinclined, however, to believe that education by itself is the difference maker and believe, instead, that those who are interested in longer term goals, of which education is a part, are more likely to put off sexual activity as well. Isn't this like the test of kids' abilities to not eat the sweet treat in exchange for collecting on a better treat?

john andrechak | 2/11/2014 - 3:35pm

Mr. Wilson, First, I as read your response, it is nothing but anecdotes that support your claim that many women have children out of wedlock to gain government assistance; good to confirm that, thank you. As far what promotes divorce, research by Dr. Jennifer Glass, soon to be published in the Journal of Sociology shows direct causation between the high divorce rate in Red States to the conservative/ evangelical protestant culture; lack of sex education, restricted access to contraception, early marriage, and emphasis on the family model of a single (male) wage earner. This scientific study explains the higher rate of divorce in conservative regions of the nation.

Anne Claahsen | 2/8/2014 - 11:33pm

The government does not "promote single-motherhood through subsidies." Single mothers are at high risk for homelessness and they struggle to take care of the children that some caddish male left them with. It is not the government system that encourages single motherhood.
"Promotes divorce by child-support laws"? What is wrong with child support laws? Is it wrong that a father or mother should support their child even after the parents have parted ways? Child support laws are to ensure that the child is taken care of, that the mother (or father, which is seldom the case) does not bear the full financial burden of the child's upbringing and education.
It is a peculiar myth that government should inspire virtue. It adapts to the character of the culture, not the other way around. It is equally mythical that the world is currently worse right now than it ever has been before.

Tom Wilson | 2/9/2014 - 12:30pm

I don't disagree that government adapts to the character of its culture; what it should do instead is to let the bad choices of people play themselves out. When the government "adapts" through such things as subsidies and changed laws, it then becomes a promoter not an adapter. It is no myth, for example, that many single women in poor communities intentionally have children that they know that they cannot afford and know will not be supported by the father (many have children from multiple fathers) because they know the government will send them a check.

john andrechak | 2/9/2014 - 12:47pm

Mr. Wilson, What supporting evidence do you have that "that many single women in poor communities...?" What vetted investigations, studies, legitimate surveys? Quantify many, if you would; so far what you wrote appears to be the typical anecdotal story conservatives have been using for years. decades, when it comes to social programs. From Reagan's "young buck buying steaks with food stamps" to Ryan's "culture of dependancy."

Tom Wilson | 2/10/2014 - 12:48pm

Mr. Andrechack - As a former researcher in the objective sciences and a witness to the twisting of data to achieve a desired conclusion, it might not surprise you that I hold social science "research" in low esteem. What kind of study would you propose that would encourage those who receive government checks to risk those checks by answering questions against their interests?

70% of children in Black urban communities are born to unwed mothers. If you would like to believe that there are unmarried fathers in the households of those single women, and/or that if those women did not have the promise of government support and that their children would be subject to illness and starvation, that the out-of-wedlock birth rate would be as high as it is now, then you might want to adjust the red tint in your shades. I've lived in communities where government entitlements are a way of life; talked with the very savvy recipients of benefits and overheard many of their conversations. Anecdotal evidence, yes. Unbiased? Absolutely. Government safety nets without termination dates or reciprocation creates cultures of dependency. Heck, even the CBO recently spoke about how ACA subsidies will result in people not working because working would jeopardize their health care benefits. Where were its studies? Common sense.

Marie Rehbein | 2/12/2014 - 3:29pm

Sure, there is a system, and so people educate themselves -- or become educated -- with regard to the ins and outs. However, the level of support the system provides is not something to which one aspires. Do the people you "overhear" forego other options in order to stay in the system? In other words, could they work from home and earn enough to support their families or work out of the home and earn enough to pay someone to take care of their children?

You might have misunderstood the CBO's assertion that people will not work if they can get affordable health insurance without having the employer provide it. I personally know married women who would have rather stayed home to raise their children, but who kept working because without those jobs, their families would have no health insurance. This development is not a bad thing. Raising children is worthy work.

john andrechak | 2/11/2014 - 1:35am

"Republicans attack Social Security for encourage people to quit working before death! Repeal and replace!"

William Atkinson | 2/9/2014 - 3:25am

"single mothers are high risk for homelessness" what a way to use words to make an issue of misfortune sound like its a horrors of horrors, are you saying 70% of single mothers are living on the streets, dare say its not as drastic as you say. There is no way single mothers should live on the streets, and don't forget there are single fathers also, who have greater difficulty using the system to care for their children. Get real and tell the truth, families now make up the minority of child support; especially start with the making of outcast in society and especially churches of single parents, how they are looked at as degenerates and sinners. Look at all the church organizations who frown on single parents belonging to their elite clubs, mostly for married church going men.
Try and get a local church to baptize or allow single parents to go to communion, the elite religious proper women stare and look down on single mothers and fathers and don't want them sitting in the pews next to their fur covered channel 5 adorned odoured selves.

Christian McNamara | 2/7/2014 - 10:52am

Bravo! This should be required reading for every high school senior in the country.

Because of my wife's career I spend a great deal of time around students at elite universities. While they're smart, talented and often quite charming people, they always leave me with a sense of unease for reasons that I've never quite been able to put my finger on. I think this essay pretty much captures it...their every move and thought seems instrumentalized to the pursuit of career advancement. And I have little doubt that most of them would agree with the statement that an "ordinary life is a failed one."

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