I have a love hate relationship with Christianity Today’s Hermenutics blog. They post some good stuff, but they also post some real tripe. And some of the stuff they post is outright hurtful to women and a poor portrayal of Christianity. This last is my complaint with Her.menutics’ latest post about hook up culture. Ever since Wendy Shalitt published the definitive reactionary Christian guide to hook up culture, the phrase has become a dog whistle for sanctimonious pearl clutching about women who *gasp* have sex! WITH MEN! And do so without commitment!
OH MY GIDDY AUNT!
Here’s the thing: complaints about hook up culture from conservative Christianity usually follow two lines, both of which we see in the Her.menutics article. The first is that “hooking up” is not God’s plan for sex. That might have some meat to it, and I’ll get to that in a minute. The second, however, is the devastatingly off base “hook up culture and the sexual revolution is about making women act like men.”
That’s not a new argument. “Feminism is about turning women into men” is about as old as it gets. While hook up culture is not synonymous with feminism (there are all sorts of reasons a girl may “hook up,” and plenty of them have to do with reinforcement of patriarchal expectations of women as sexually available public property), feminism – or the movement for women to be seen as human beings with their own desires and agency to act on those desires – enabled the normalization of such a hook up culture.
The culture itself, however, is not anything new. There’s a reason prostitution is called the oldest profession. If you look at the newsletters of The Advocate For Moral Reform from the 1830s, you see early feminists decrying the idea that men can “hook up” (or be libertines, in their parlance) without consequence, but women cannot. Indeed, one of the first issues tells a fictional story about a woman who had been employed in a house of ill repute who finally managed to work her way out of that life and get a respectable job as a servant in a kitchen. The woman had to hide her past as a prostitute in order to maintain her employment and her job could be in jeopardy if a former customer happened to recognize her. The customer – the libertine man – would face no consequences while the woman would likely be back out on the street.
Yes, even in 1834, women were complaining about the sexual double standard. And these were church going Methodist women, to boot.
The sexual revolution of the 20th century, then, was not about “making women act like men.” Rather, it was about removing the double standard that surrounds sexual activity – the double standard we find replicated again and again in rules about sexual activity on private Christian campuses and on Sunday mornings from the pulpit (stories about this will be appearing in my upcoming book; they are too many to list here).
The removal of the double standard does not, in fact, make women act like men, but instead removes judgment for the use of their sexual agency. After all, in order for “men to act like men,” as these arguments presume, they kind of had to have women to sleep with, did they not?*
The sexual revolution, then, removes the stigma that these women faced, and normalizes the culture of uncommitted sexual activity.
And here, Christians of America, is where the first point about “God’s plan for sex” comes in. When you whine and lament hook up culture “turning women into men,” you ignore the much larger significance of sexual ethics. Complaining about women acting like men laments that women have agency to make sexual choices, which is a step way too far.
Instead, I think you have a better argument if you acknowledge that women have the agency to consent and will – quite often – make choices you disagree with. Removing female agency or lamenting the presence of it is not going to make a lot of people happy about your sexual ethic.
I propose a different tactic: acknowledge that women have the same sexual agency that men have. That women have just as much right as men to consent to sex and to experience and explore their sexuality. And then examine why women AND MEN are “hooking up.” Why do we have a culture that prizes unfettered sexual encounters? Have we placed too much baggage on the idea of sex that we created a false dichotomy of unattached or totally married (yes, church, you have)? What role do we play in both minimizing and elevating a biological function?
I think much of the fear and pearl clutching about “hook up culture” and the sexual revolution of women – it’s always lamenting over the women hooking up, always – comes from a desire to have a spectre to blame. If we can simply say the problem is women being encouraged to be “independent” and “act like men,” we have a villain – those “anti-Christian feminazis.” And if we have a ready, available villain at which to hurl our accusations, we don’t have to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we got it wrong, maybe, just maybe, our scare tactics and strict God Forbids-God Allows sexual ethic isn’t translating and never really has. If we have something else, something outward, to blame, we don't have to look at how we might be doing things wrong.
Because God forbid we figure out how to present sexuality as healthy, consensual, AND committed, rather than just saying women who express agency are sluts and virgins are totes better.
God forbid we actually think about how our rhetoric makes women think about themselves and how our current elevation of virginity and purity isn’t translating to a culture that doesn’t get married until their late twenties and faces patriarchal sexualization and objectification day in, day out.
God forbid we actually examine how to make our own sexual ethic work without shame or guilt heaped on the party who expresses sexual agency.
God forbid we actually look inside, rather than just blaming the Enemy.
*Note: This is in heteronormative terms because this is how the original article sees sex, so I'm going off of that. Naturally, there exists an entire realm of sexuality that is not man-woman relationships.