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 resumes 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 have a couple of kids.

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 spoon-fed 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 thirties, the worst thing that can happen to you is not to be able to have a baby or find a partner.

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.

Joyless Sex

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 must be. 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 resume. But in the end, without friendship or romance there is not much to write home about. Sharing your true self with others in friendships and relationships 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 out relationships and communities, to a large extent, determine 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 man establishes his worth, but by placing himself 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: that 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.

Ordinary Lives

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 then that will influence our character. Later, if we decide to get married and have children, our spouse and 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 (the sex, the kids, the job, the spouse, the house, the 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. In fact, it is extremely ambitious. People do not accidentally have harmonious relationships, anymore 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 kids, without kids. 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 runs a web site by the same name.


Michael Barberi | 10/23/2013 - 6:16pm

"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 then that will influence our character. Later, if we decide to get married and have children, our spouse and children, and co-workers, who interact on a daily basis with a selfish person, will suffer."

The above statement is a quite a leap and indicative of the tone this article. Painting most young people, many of whom are selfish in these temporal stages in life, as destined to be selfish later in life especially in marriage is both unsubstantiated and absurd. This reminds me of what JP II said when he was the Cardinal of Krahow...that those who practice contraception in marriage will only love their children to the extent they give them pleasure (Krakow Memorandum, February 1968).

In my post graduate school years as a young adult, before marriage, I had the same experiences that most people had at that stage in life. I dated women, had sex and experienced the lonely, missing love that should have accompanied sexual intercourse. This did not mean that I gave up having sex with attracted women who I liked very much. At that time, I longed for both a successful career and a loving marriage together with a relationship with Christ that my family could share together. I can tell you now that marriage was no bed of roses but it grew year by year and had its joyful and sad moments. After 41 years of being married to the same women, who I love today more than when I first married her, I can attest that being somewhat selfish in my early adult life was not indicative of any diabolical evil and selfishness in married life.

Replacing habits of sin and selfishness with habits of virtue takes a lifetime of striving, prayer, guidance from spiritual and moral advisors, weekly Mass, continuing theological education, and most importantly the mercy and grace of God. It also takes a Church who listens to its people and provides a means to further dialogue especially in disagreement.

If the Church wants to turn around the opinions and attitudes of Catholics, especially young Catholics, then the Church needs to find a narrative that is relevant and convincing to the many issues facing the Church today. When a doctrine like contraception fails because it is in tension with reason and human experience or when the clergy sexual abuse scandal leaves bishops who covered up such crimes exempted from any sense of righteous justice, then the Church needs to take some responsibility for non-reception, low Mass attendance, et al.

I have much more hope for the Church and young people than this article implies. Let's pray that Pope Francis will bring about the many responsible changes that are long overdo.

Julia Sinclair | 10/24/2013 - 1:20pm

Thank you Michael, for this comment. I too have hope for the Church and faith in young people. I feel that this piece has a condescending tone, particularly toward women who don't get married young and who make sacrifices to pursue professional lives (that can often empower them to serve their community later in life).

When I was in my twenties, a boyfriend told me I was selfish. I was going to graduate school at night and working during the day, pursuing passions and human rights issues I cared about. He was frustrated because he wanted me to spend more time with him. I loved him and asked my mother for advice. “Am I selfish for taking on so much?” I asked her. As the mother of five children, her answer surprised me. “Now is the time in your life to be selfish,” she told me. “Later, you will have many demands on your time, and will not be able to focus on yourself. I didn’t take enough time after college to develop a professional identity, and it’s something I want for you, so that you can be healthy and happy when you are married with children.” Great advice! I was able to find a partner where we can mutually support our individual careers, our spiritual lives, and our desire to have a family.

Sylvia Simone | 10/18/2013 - 5:22pm

I think having drunken sex in college is much different to being a woman in her twenties who is focused on her career. In fact, a professional life can bring all sorts of opportunities for community and very valuable relationships -- co-workers, creative collaborators, industry mentors. Being open to the world and others who might benefit from one's energy, talents, and dedication might be a calling that is not mutually exclusive to having a partner and family one day. In the metropolis where I live, I feel the pull to be present to so many diverse types of people that in comparison, nuclear families in the suburb, or mothers and fathers who are completely engaged with each other and their children seem closed off to the needs of others.

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