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The Cheap Trade

A recent article in a popular Christian magazine took colleges to task for failing to separate the sexes. The author, a Christian professor, railed against his university for allowing co-eds to share the same dormitory and stay in each other’s rooms all night. He said that the university was failing to act in loco parentis with such permissiveness. He also claimed that boys and girls running amok in one another’s dorms resulted in a phenomenon called “hooking up.”

“Hooking up” is the twentysomething version of the one-night stand. It occurs when a man and a woman who are aren’t dating make out or have sex. They are usually friends, though sometimes they just met. Often, copious amounts of alcohol have been consumed. Such encounters seldom signal the beginning of a committed relationship. At best, the couple goes back to being “just friends” the next morning. At worst, they’re embarrassed, chagrined or wondering through a hangover why there’s a stranger in their bed.

I first heard about hooking up when I was a college freshman in the late ’80s. The upperclassmen at my school swooped in, swiped every interesting girl in my class and took them back to their rooms for hook-up sessions. Not only did it ruin any shot I had at a love life, it taught me that most people didn’t date in college. They hooked up with strangers in their dorm rooms and then acted as if nothing happened. This was the kind of crap that passed for romance.

When I arrived at college, there was one “experimental” co-ed dorm. During the week, men were banished for the women’s dorms at 10 p.m., midnight on the weekends. By the time I graduated, there was only one single sex dorm (a women’s dorm), and men and women were allowed in each other’s rooms 24 hours a day. As a result of these changes, guess what happened to the frequency of hooking up?

Nothing.

People were hooking up just as much when men and women had their own curfew-protected dwellings. It was a little harder, but not much. All you needed was a “cool” RA or a lover who was willing to hide in the closet when the “not cool” RA came to check the room. Rush the visitor out the back door before dawn, and hooking up was no problem. In fact, it was more appealing. Getting away with hooking up made a guy feel like Neo hacking into the Matrix. When people could come and go as they pleased, I got the sense they didn’t enjoy it as much.

Not that I disagree with the professor who thinks college administrators have lost their minds. I hated having women in my dorm. I didn’t want to worry about the girls when I was trying to relax or study. And, given my roommate’s penchant for locking me out of the room when I went to take a shower, I would have preferred that the ladies had their own crib. Separate dorms also send a message that the university respects privacy and at least pays lip service to sexual morality. However, people don’t hook up because of easy access; they do it because they don’t have the patience, courage and self-respect to pursue genuine intimacy.

When I became a therapist in a university counseling center and found that hooking up was still alive and well, I resolved to find out why people preferred it to dating. The first thing I realized was that the sexual revolution and changing gender roles made the rites of courtship antiquated. The man used to be the pursuer and the woman the pursued. He was expected to prepare for a career in college, and she was expected to find a husband. Not anymore. The upside of the sexual revolution is that women now get the respect they deserve (most of the time) as scholars and achievers. However, the dating model hasn’t adapted. Rather than modifying dating to accommodate modern gender roles, college students often chuck the whole process and cut to the sex.

Though it’s becoming harder to delay gratification, it’s becoming easier to delay commitment. College students, male and female, often begin a career before they get serious about relationships. The demands are also higher. A bachelor’s degree carries the same weight that a high school diploma did 50 years ago. College students need advanced degrees or extra work experience in order to stand out. This leaves less time and energy for dating. However, the needs for intimacy (not to mention blood-boiling hormones) still cry out for attention. Hooking up provides temporary relief of these needs. Just like drugs and alcohol, it meets a short-term need while diminishing the capacity for genuine fulfillment and damaging the person. In this sense, hooking up is the crack cocaine of intimacy.

But the most insidious thing that keeps hooking up alive and well is a poor foundation for closeness and self-esteem. As rates of abuse and divorce continue to increase, fewer adolescents entering college experience stable, loving families as children. This results in young adults with low self-esteem who believe that relationships are volatile and fleeting. Making matters worse, feelings about identity and intimacy solidify during late adolescence and early adulthood. People are figuring out who they are, what makes them loveable and what fulfills them in relationships. If you doubt your value or the security of relationships, hooking up becomes very alluring.

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Physical intimacy provides a tangible, immediate sensation of being important to someone else. When you’re making out, it feels like you’re loveable. It doesn’t matter if you just met the person or if it’s someone who annoys you when the sun is up. Sexual closeness tells your brain that genuine intimacy is occurring, whether it’s true or not. Hooking up provides temporary relief from loneliness and anxiety. It’s so powerful that you could lock college students in single-sex dungeons and they’d still find a way to get their hook-up fix.

Yes, Christians do this, too. They might be less prone to brag about it, but they hook up all the time. So what are Christian singles to do? The answer sounds simple, but it’s not: date.

Somehow, dating has gone awry in the Church. We don’t know how to approach it anymore. Old courtship rituals are too formal, and Sex and the City-style carelessness violates God’s plan. Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity inspired a fluttering resurgence of courtship among evangelicals, but the restrictions were too many for some. At the other extreme, Christians fall into the world’s pattern of kissing their way through opposite-sex friends until they find one they might want to date. Whatever happened to dinner and a movie? What about asking someone out and the slow build-up of romance? Maybe Christians have grown impatient like the rest of the world. Maybe their sexuality scares them into having “friends” instead of boyfriends and girlfriends. But if singles are going to meet their needs for intimacy and avoid the quick and dirty hook-up, they need to date.

The technique is easy. Ask someone out. Respect yourself enough not to kiss someone unless they’ve earned it by spending time with you and expressing serious interest. Be intentional about making plans with someone you like. That’s the easy part; the hard part is having patience and courage. You need patience to find someone special enough to kiss. It takes patience to delay physical intimacy instead of making a “booty call.” You need courage to tolerate the uncertainty that dating involves. It takes courage to talk about feelings instead of playing tonsil-hockey.

But Christians are lucky in this regard. If you’re looking for a source of patience and courage, He lives inside your heart. God will not only sustain you, He can love you like no one else can. “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him” (Psalm 103:11). If you trust Christ, He’ll remind you of your importance and value. The Guy became a human being, lived in poverty, died a grisly death and fought His way back from the dead because He’s nuts about you. That’s the kind of love you deserve, love that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Give God a chance to remind you of that. It will reveal hooking up for what it is: a cheap trade for unconditional love. It’s settling for less. Once you see yourself as God does, you’ll settle for nothing but the best.

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