Sex, Lies, and Secularism

It’s become an Internet sensation: Duke grad Karen Owen created a mock Senior Thesis offering a faux scientific analysis of 13 hookup partners—complete with bar graphs to quantify and rank the sexual attributes of her “subjects.”

Owen claims the project was a joke. But underlying the humor is an objectified and depersonalizing view of sexuality—one that is disturbingly widespread.

A recent survey in Contexts found that by the end of college, 72% of both men and women have engaged in hooking up, purely physical encounters with no expectation of any personal relationship.

“What makes hooking up unique is that its practitioners agree that there will be no commitment, no exclusivity, no feelings,” explains a Washington Post article.

Hookup partners are sometimes called “friends with benefits,” but they’re typically not even friends. The unwritten etiquette is that you never meet to talk or spend time together, says the New York Times. “You just keep it purely sexual, and that way people don’t have mixed expectations, and no one gets hurt.”

Except, of course, that people do get hurt. The article quotes a teenager named Melissa who was depressed because her hookup partner had dumped her.

Every social practice rests on assumptions about human nature, and the hookup culture assumes that we are fragmented beings—that selfhood is separable from sexuality. As a college student told Rolling Stone, people “assume that there are two very distinct elements in a relationship, one emotional and one sexual, and they pretend like there are clean lines between them.”

In reality the lines are not so clean. A character in a play by George Bernard Shaw says, “When men and women pick one another up just for a bit of fun, they find they’ve picked up more than they bargained for”—because people are not just biological organisms but also mental, moral, and emotional beings. “You can’t have the one without the other. They’re always trying to; but it doesn’t work.”

As a Princeton grad writes in USA Today, in hookups “the emotional detachment doesn’t satisfy the soul.”

The reason it doesn’t satisfy is that it contradicts the purpose for sexuality. Prior to the Enlightenment, nature itself was regarded as teleological (Greek telos = purpose). Morality was the roadmap to fulfilling life’s purpose, the instruction manual to being fully human.

As Western thought was secularized, however, the teleological model of nature gave way to a mechanist-materialist model. Mechanical clocks and automatons had been invented, and some thinkers argued that if wind-up toys can wag their heads and wave their arms moved by hidden gears and wheels, surely the inner workings of living things could be explained the same way.

The moral implications were devastating: For if nature no longer bore signs of God’s good purposes, then it no longer provided a grounding for moral truths.

Nature became “a mechanistic system of extended matter without religious or moral significance,” explains philosopher David West. And because the human body is part of nature, it too was reduced to an amoral mechanism.

This explains why the hookup culture celebrates the mere mechanics of sex, cut off from any emotional or moral commitment. On the “Girls Gone Mild” website, a 16-year-old named Amanda lamented that in a typical high school, “the more detached you can be from your sexuality, the cooler you are.”

A popular book called S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You through High School and College offers a “readiness checklist” that includes, “I can separate sex from love.” To practice alienated, disconnected sex is touted as a sign of maturity.

The good news is that teleology is making a comeback, especially in cosmology. The fundamental constants of nature that make life possible are exquisitely fine-tuned—far too precisely calibrated to be products of chance.

There is no physical explanation why these physical constants are “just right” to support life. It looks suspiciously as though they are products of intention. “Why is nature so ingeniously, one might even say suspiciously, friendly to life?” asks astrophysicist Paul Davies in the New York Times. “It’s almost as if a Grand Designer had it all figured out.”

The return of teleology reaffirms that morality rests on what the Declaration of Independence calls “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

This is a morality that would never justify a cold, calculating mentality that objectifies sexual partners as mere “subjects” of detached observation. It is a holistic morality that reintegrates sexuality into our identity as whole persons in whole relationships.

This is the fifth in a series based on Nancy Pearcey’s just-published book, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning.