Donna Freitas has a Ph.D. in religious studies and teaches religion at Boston University. In The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, she examines the current state of sex on American college campuses. Abraham Morgentaler, M.D., an associate clinical professor of urology at Harvard Medical School, on the other hand, approaches the topic of sex from a scientific standpoint in Why Men Fake It: The Totally Unexpected Truth About Men and Sex.
How has the sexualization of media—from pornography to American Apparel ads, to Fifty Shades of Grey—influenced America’s sexual landscape?
DF: Pornography especially has done a good job of dulling young adults’ sense of their own desire. Men and women learn very early on today how pornography expects each gender to act around sex and how to dress the part, too, to the point where so many college students, when asked to reflect on their behavior and activities, will admit that they’ve never actually spent concentrated time thinking about who they are as sexual beings and what they, personally, would like from sex.
AM: The changes in the sexual landscape over the 25 years of my medical practice are astonishing. Before Viagra appeared in 1998, one never heard the word “penis” in public discourse, and now we hear daily warnings about four-hour erections on television. The Internet has democratized sexuality and sexual knowledge, but creates new challenges. Many normal young men now fear they are sexually deficient because their only source of reference is porn, which primarily shows male actors who are anatomical freaks of nature who can have sex for days.
Michel Foucault argued that attempts to repress sexuality have the opposite effect, bringing it to the forefront of the individual and social mind. What are the obverse effects of today’s embrace of sexuality?
DF: I’m not sure I would call it “an embrace”—doing so implies a voluntariness that I do not see. There is an obligatory aspect of the sexual activity of college students today. Being sexually active within hookup culture is, in theory, supposed to be the benefit of sexual liberation—yet it’s not so liberating when the sex becomes yet another addition to your mandatory to-do list.
AM: The pervasiveness of sexual content in our culture has led to to the erroneous belief that we already know everything there is to know about sex. The opposite is true: we know almost nothing important about sex!—what it is, how it impels us, how it affects relationships. In particular, the absurd yet accepted narrative about men as Neanderthals or Martians persists. The impact of this false knowledge is that women fail to have an accurate understanding of men, and men feel alone.
What does religion have to offer to the cultural discourse on sex?
DF: One of the best things religions offer us today are rituals and frameworks for slowing down and taking time out to think—technology has made it so we’re all living the 24-hour news cycle, and everything is “go, go, go; do, do, do,” often without [us] thinking first. This is especially true for college students—hookup culture is one that thrives on people not thinking about their actions, and going about in a frenzy—yet interest in spirituality among young adults is off the charts. To take the spiritual traditions of Catholicism [as one example]: going on a retreat, learning to take an hour out of one’s schedule for reflection and contemplation, practicing discernment in one’s life decisions, including with respect to sexual activity—all of these practices require you to stop and think, take time to reflect, take time to figure out what you want and desire. The spiritual traditions within religions are fairly pliant, inclusive, and are designed to help a person learn that valuable practice of slowing down amid a culture that never wants to let us stop.
What about science?
AM: Human sexuality has been irrevocably changed by science. Erectile dysfunction pills have forever changed male expectations and performance, and perhaps the expectations and sexual fulfillment of their female partners as well. And we are only beginning to understand the full impact of testosterone therapy in men, particularly the fascinating connection between libido and a sense of well-being. As for religion, let me just say that when a couple has great sex, they often describe it as a “spiritual experience.”
Will society ever become maximally saturated with sex?
DF: Maybe college culture has already reached this point. To see so many young men and women either utterly ambivalent about sex, or fairly regretful, is depressing. While most college students believe that hookups can be good, living in the context of hookup culture over a period of years is exhausting, and for some, emptying. It leaves them wishing for other alternatives.