What the Hookup Culture and Purity Culture Have in Common

by | May 18, 2022 | Sex, Theology of Marriage and Sex | 23 comments

Hookup culture and purity culture
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What if both purity culture and the hookup culture are teaching people to treat sex with dissociation and disconnection?

Sheila here!

Today I’m proud to turn the blog over to Sam Jolman, a licensed counselor in Colorado who is passionate about promoting a healthy idea of sexuality to Christian men especially. He sent me this excerpt from a longer piece he’s working on about developing a Christian sexual ethic, and I thought the insight was amazing and worth sharing.

As we’ve been talking about attachment theory this month, I see so much overlap here. We’ve taught ourselves not to FEEL–to avoid. And we can never really attach to our spouse unless we learn to let ourselves feel.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

“It’s always nice,” said a college student to professor Lisa Wade, “to have a clean, emotionless hookup.”⁠

Lisa is the author of American Hookup, a whole book dedicated to deciphering the casual sex culture on college campuses.

She writes that possibly the most essential rule to hook up culture is this: Don’t feel it.

Whatever you do on your hookup—from making out to oral to intercourse with anyone from a friend to a stranger—make sure it does not move you. Wade calls it compulsory carelessness.⁠ As another student said, make it “…fast, random, no-strings-attached sex.”⁠ (p. 135). Hooking up should bring no emotions and mean nothing so that it’s no big deal.

Emotions are talked about like an STD. You don’t ever want to catch feelings.

In her book Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein writes:

Catching feelings meant developing an emotional attachment and was, for many girls, something to protect against when hooking up, just as they would guard against catching herpes or chlamydia.

Peggy Orenstein

Girls and Sex

Don’t feel it.

It’s such a bizarre endeavor, an attempt to stop something that seems implicit in the experience of sex itself. Why would you not want to feel it? The body and heart are wired for its pleasure. But then the whole culture would collapse on itself. Hookups wouldn’t work anymore. They would be too moving and invoke too much care and connection to one person. That would be to admit its power over you.

The only way to accomplish this is through alcohol. As Peggy Orenstein points out, “Hookups aren’t just lubricated by drinking; they are dependent on it.”⁠ (p. 117) It turns out, when it comes to sex, it’s really hard to make it not matter without some help. In the words of one freshman girl, “Being sober makes it seem like you want to be in a relationship. It’s really uncomfortable.” ⁠(p. 119)

Andrew, a college freshman put it this way to Peggy Orenstein,

The sex can feel like two people having two very distinct experiences. There’s not much eye contact. Sometimes you don’t even say anything. And it’s weird to be so open with a stranger. It’s like you’re acting vulnerable, but not actually being vulnerable with someone you don’t know and don’t care very much about. It’s not a problem for me. Its just—odd. Odd, and not even really fun. (p. 78)

Peggy Orenstein

Boys and Sex

Andrew can’t admit he struggles with it. He’s following the rules.

Whatever might be said about purity culture— the churches failed attempt at imagining and instilling a strong sexual ethic in our youth— this could be its best summary statement: Don’t feel it.

If it’s sexual desire, you simply cannot trust it.

If you’re a woman, you probably weren’t being modest enough and need to be afraid of tempting a man.

If you’re a man, your desire is probably lust and needs to be confessed and controlled so you don’t become a monster.

Yesterday, in a counseling session, a man said to me, “Growing up in church, you’re trained to feel that all sexual desire is awful and you’re not supposed to feel anything.” This man is laboring to find his body again after suffering the toll of purity culture in his youth. If that weren’t enough, he also suffered sexual abuse within the church. But because we don’t talk about sex, he has only recently begun to name and grieve this pain.

One man wrote to author Sheila Wray Gregoire about the popular sexual purity book Every Man’s Battle, “I can’t say loud enough how much this book made me believe that I was going to grow up and be a monster.”⁠

Purity culture doesn’t go away once you get married. It just changes.

For men, sex becomes a need you must quickly get met by your wife so it doesn’t become lust or an affair. And if you’re a woman, well, there’s really no room for you to want anything. Sex is a duty you need to fulfill to keep your husband from stumbling. Remember, “Don’t deprive your spouse,” is the most important verse on sex in the Bible, which somehow still isn’t about you. In all of this, there is no room for the play of actual sexual desire.

All of this is accomplished with a deep moral fear. Purity culture holds that you actually have purity before God that you need to obsessively keep. It equates purity with hyper virginity. Do not even think sexual thoughts. And it’s all driven by a deep and abiding moral fear. This isn’t the knee shaking wonder that people experience before God or an angelic visitor and are reassured, “Don’t be afraid.”

Purity cultures really wants you to stay afraid.

And it works well at shutting people down. Psychologist and sexual abuse expert Dan Allender, in The Wounded Heart, points out that fear and arousal are competing experiences in the body and cannot be reconciled together.⁠ They are not meant to be together. And fear will win out.

What if you’re NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It’s time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Hookup culture uses alcohol. Purity culture uses fear. But the goal is the same: Don’t feel it.

Don’t let your body “…love what it loves,” in the words of Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese.⁠ From wildly different values, both cultures hold that we can actually stop ourselves from feeling it. We can be sexual and not be moved. Like a pinned wrestling match, it’s an attempt at having power over the force of human sexuality.

It’s an arrogant power. It carries no reverence for human sexual design. “Saying we can have sex without emotions is like saying we can have sex without bodies,” says Lisa Wade. So the only way to accomplish this then is through turning off your body. Shutting it down. Numbing it out. Hating it, even.

In reality, the only thing getting turned off is the connection to your body.

Your body is still there, but you’ve disconnected from it. And this traumatizes people immensely. We weren’t meant to live separate from our bodies.

“The price for ignoring the bodies messages,” writes trauma expert Bessel VanderKolk in The Body Keeps the Score, “is being unable to detect what is truly dangerous or harmful for you and, just as bad, what is safe or nourishing.”⁠ (p. 99). This distrust and dissociation of the body leads to putting people in real crisis.

As coauthor Rebecca Lindenbach wrote in the Great Sex Rescue, about her experience of purity culture, “My body became the problem… My body is so dangerous that it can kill boys’ spiritual lives.”⁠ Another woman wrote, “I wasn’t a person, a human, a woman, a sister… I was a walking talking collection of tempting body parts.”⁠ Can you hear the disembodiment?

Yesterday, I also sat with a woman who wept, “I can’t even see myself naked and not flinch.” She was taught repeatedly in Purity Culture to not arouse a man with her body. And even now in marriage, she cannot relax into her own body and enjoy the arousal she brings her husband, nor her own arousal.

Hookup culture isn’t faring much better.

According to American Hookup, one in three college students reports that their hookups were traumatic or difficult to handle.⁠

Let’s be clear that the suffering is not equal between men and women. Writers for both cultures expose something called the orgasm gap—the nearly 40-50% difference in frequency of male orgasm to female orgasm.⁠ Research shows that this is not a biological difference but a purely social construct.⁠ There is not a value on mutuality or female pleasure altogether.

It seems to arise from the darker patriarchal value on male pleasure, where male drive dominates and women’s responsibility is to satisfy. It plays the stereotypes that men are strong and women are attractive.

As mutual pleasure falls away, so does consent.

In The Great Sex Rescue, the researchers found that women who believe the tenants of purity culture, are 79% more likely to have sex out of obligation and 59% less likely to experience arousal.⁠ To her body, obligation sex mirrors abuse. As Peggy Orenstein put it, “It’s the right men feel to sexual pleasure, how dejected and even potentially angry they become when denied it.”⁠ (p. 80, Boys & Sex).

When men are taught that sex is an uncontrollable need, we know why.

Both cultures are guilty of fostering this more insidious rape culture against women, which Lisa Wade describes as, “a set of ideas and practices that naturalize, justify, and glorify sexual pressure, coercion, and violence.”⁠ (p. 206).

All of this strips sexual experience of the wonder and pleasure and reverence it’s meant to hold.

“When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive,” said Bessel Vanderkolk, about being disconnected from our bodies.⁠ And when sensuality goes, so does our sex. Or here is how one junior said it to Peggy Orenstein,

I’ve had two one-night stands in college, and both of them have left me feeling empty and depressed, I have no idea what I gained from those experiences other than being like, ‘Yeah, I had sex with someone.’ There were no feelings of discovery or pleasure or intimate connection, which are really the things that I value. (p. 99)

Peggy Orenstein

Boys and Sex

The solution is the same: We must return to our bodies.

We must learn to live with the inherent vulnerabilities of being a person in a body—especially a sexually alive person. Yes, sex is powerful and it can be a lot to let it bowl us over and undo us.

But if we return to our bodies, we get back our sensuality.

A woman wrote to Sheila Wray Gregoire, “I finally understood that sex was a God-sanctioned way to experience a complete, ecstatic loss of control mixed with intense, overwhelming pleasure. And it completely blew my mind.”⁠

Even in the hookup culture people are recognizing the difference being fully present makes. Lisa Wade found that her students who engaged in sober sexual experience had very different experiences too. “They talked about having sex while sober in these reverent tones, like it was an amazing unicorn: it was meaningful in a way that drunk sex was not.”⁠ (p. 117)

When we allow ourselves to be truly vulnerable–as commitment in marriage facilitates–we usher in this returning. If we forsake our numbing shame and fear and drugs, we get back our play and our risk and our openness and our pleasure. We can truly know another and be known. We get back the awe that’s mean to make us grateful for being sexual beings. We can be changed by our sexuality, if we feel it.

So add this to your sexual ethic: Make sure everyone is feeling it.

Sam is a professional therapist with over 15 year of experience in narrative focused trauma care. He specializes in men’s issues, couples counseling, and sexual abuse recovery. He writes regularly for his blog on topics of sexuality, spirituality, and mental health. He loves helping people heal and find freedom amidst the plots of their lives.

He lives in Colorado with his wife and three young sons, the people that inspire his writing and ideas the most. Together, in their pop up camper, they are exploring the best camping spots in Colorado. Sam goes to therapy, mountain bikes, and can be found trying to catch his breath on the floor of his local CrossFit gym.

Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Sam Jolman

Sam Jolman.com

What do Hookup Culture and purity Culture have in Common

What do you think? Have we been taught not to feel? How can we overcome this? Let’s talk in the comments!

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  1. Codec

    You keep reccomending books that seem like great reads. Thank you.

    So to use a pop culture comparison.

    Girls are taught that they are Rogue from X-Men that their bodies are literally dangerous to touch so do not approach. Men on the other hand are taught that they are something like Go Nagai’s famous character and manga Devilman. A character that goes from being a gentle young man to a violent sexually charged anti-hero who is constantly on edge. A character that actively struggles to be a heroic person despite his violent tendencies and introspective nature.

    • CMT

      Can I just say my nerdy little heart loves a good superhero reference and I deeply appreciate your ability to relate everything to marvel or anime (although many of the latter references go over my head sadly).

      I would point out that with a character like Rogue, we are meant to see how isolated and lonely she is and empathize with her. The really screwed up thing, whether you’re talking about hookups or purity culture, is when people are supposed to accept that kind of disconnection and dissociation as normal.

      • Codec

        The fact that we are supposed to look at characters like Rogue, The Thing, Spiderman, etc and be able to relate to them is why Marvel in the 60s through mid 80s and several of their tv shows in the 90s are still so beloved. They are human stories.

        You can root for Gambit and Rogue to overcome their own insecurities pain and loneliness.

        You can see that the Fantastic Four as a disfunctional family.

        You can see how anger and abuse shaped The Hulk and conversly why Bruce does not like being the hulk compared to his cousin Jennifer Walters who not only had her life saved by the same gamma blood that ran in her cousin but can now express herself as the confident person she wishes she was.

        Good stories do not need to force relatability. The relatibility comes from the story being good.

  2. Jane Eyre

    I’ve noticed the similarity for a while now. When church culture tells men to just stick it in us, and tells us to shut up and be grateful that we have a good man, it is weirdly similar to the hook-up culture that tells us to just let men stick it in us and assume any resulting pleasure is our lot in life. There’s entitlement to pleasure with no understanding of accompanying responsibilities.

    If a husband can’t learn his wife’s body and what turns her on, he’s as bad as some rando in a bar.

    • Codec

      Honestly as a man the idea of just stick it in and be done with it sounds pathetic. As in sad. That sounds incredibly lonely. It sounds like your using a person rather than your hand.

      It is such a sad and lonely vision.

      • Jo R

        That’s great that you recognize it SOUNDS lonely.

        Now try to imagine EXPERIENCING it for two or three DECADES.

        Thank you for speaking up, Codec.

        • Codec

          That sounds awful. There is no cennection, no play, no novelty, no humor, none of it.

        • Andrea

          Yeah, at least in hookup culture the two randos never have to see each other again. But having meaningless hookup-like sex day after day with a spouse… I feel like the negative effects would be even worse because it’s a long-term situation.

          I’ve mentioned before on this blog about reading The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, how her description of ignorant 1940s French countryside virgin brides reads like it could be describing today’s purity culture American megachurch brides. There is another line, about bad married sex, that also strikes me as applicable to today’s post: “The woman is all the more terrorized by the fact that the strange operation she is subjected to is sacred; and that society, religion, family, and friends delivered her solemnly to the husband…” Beauvoir describes the cognitive dissonance a bride feels between the solemnity of the church service that sealed her marriage and the animalistic act she is subjected to afterwards. And when you think about the pornographic view of married Christian sex that was promoted by the likes of Driscoll and still is by the the likes of Gary Thomas, there truly is a contrast between how solemnly we (pretend to?) regard marriage and how we sexually degrade the women in it.

          • Codec

            I have a lot of disagreement with Sartre and Beauvoir on a lot of things, but here she does have a point. What is worse though is that you have works like The Song of Songs or even in french literary tradition chivalric romances so having no knowledge on the subject comes off as incredibly jarring.

          • Andrea

            Same, I’m not into their polyamorous lifestyle (if it can even be called that, since she admitted after his death that she was only fooling herself), but the chapter called The Married Woman in The Second Sex has eery resemblances to today’s purity culture/ignorance.

            I wish I could somehow get evangelical women who are now waking up after having been told bad things about feminism all their church life to read some of these secular feminists and see just how much they have to offer and why the leaders of our churches are so scared of them.

          • Codec

            You can learn from anybody.

          • Chris

            Andrea, I would encourage you to read another French author of that same period: Irene Nemirovsky’s book “The Fires of Autumn”. Oh the parallels between France of the 1920s and 30s and the hookup culture and rape culture of college campuses today. In short, which ever sex has a minority in a given population sets the rules. So in the interwar period of France, the gender ratios were screwed up because so many young French men of marrying age were killed in the first world war. On most college campuses today, we have at most 40% men. So they are forcing women to compete on mens terms. It is at engineering universities where you see the least sexual assaults. Why? Because women are the minority and this forces the men to compete with each other on the women’s terms. Ironically, what drives hook up culture and rape culture is not the presence of men……it is the absence of them.

            On a historical note, the ways that the major waring powers dealt with the absence of young men after the first world war is fascinating history. The British told their young women to get a job because they were going to die alone and childless. The Germans married off young women to older widowers and mail brided them off to North America and the German colonies in Africa and South Africa and the French dealt with the man shortage by what best can be described as loaner arrangements: wives loaning husbands to sisters and friends so they could have children too. Its a truly sad period of history but also truly fascinating.

  3. CMT

    “fear and arousal are competing experiences in the body and cannot be reconciled together.⁠ They are not meant to be together. And fear will win out”

    I needed this today. Just to be reminded that I’m not crazy or deficient.

    • Sam Jolman

      I’m glad these words found you today. I am sorry for the circumstances that made you need them.

  4. Charlotte

    I agree with and appreciate this post very much! However, as an avid Mary Oliver fan, I have to point out that her poem, “Wild Geese” is very badly misquoted here. She did not say to not let the body love what it loves at all. These are her actual words, and they’re quite the opposite:

    “You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.“

    As I know this blog is a place that appreciates accuracy, I wanted to make sure this beloved author is quoted accurately!

    • Sam Jolman

      Charlotte, I’m glad we share a love for Mary Oliver. I agree completely with your understanding of the poem, one which hung on our bedroom wall for many years.

      So let me clarify my use of her good words. Maybe I wasn’t clear. I am saying purity culture and hookup culture are trying to go against the nature of the body, against Mary’s words, against the bodies inclination to love what it loves. I am certainly not trying to say Mary Oliver opposes the body’s loves.

      That is precisely why we hung it on our bedroom wall. To bless our bodies loves. It’s helped my wife and me heal from purity culture messages.

  5. Bethany Margason

    This blog reminds me of a documentary I had watched a while back. It is eye-catching and very accurate. It’s called, Liberated:the New Sexual Revolution. It’s about looking into the hookup culture of spring break and college students. It’s on Netflix.

  6. Synokia

    Dear Sheila and Sam,

    Thank you!

    As a young woman who was impacted and affected by purity culture, I am grateful to see the level of candor and sensitivity with which the issue of sex (especially female pleasure) is treated here on this blog.

    The truth really is that both men and women suffer terribly from both cultures. They (these cultures) turn what was meant to be a mutual delight to drudgery or a transactional exchange which usually ends up falling short of the intimacy and vulnerability that both men and women need to experience sexually fulfilled lives. I would have never thought to compare the two, but seeing them both in juxtaposition reveals that they are indeed working from the same baseline. Thanks for exposing this.

    I have had to be unlearning a lot of things, and I’m not even married yet. Perhaps, I am thankfully not yet married, else it would be a whole lot more difficult to unlearn certain things. Learning how to develop a healthy relationship with my sexuality as a Christian, not seeing it as an enemy but as an ally has been a difficult journey, but one I know will be worth embarking on. I have been left with a strong point to adopt into my sexual philosophy- make sure both persons are feeling it.

    Continue working to correct the misconceptions and errors surrounding the gift of sex and sexuality.


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