MAKE PEOPLE WONDER WHAT KIND OF SEX YOU ARE HAVING. The message displays proudly across the first slide of Professor Kathryn Lofton’s presentation for her popular class, “How to Build an American Religion.”
As Lofton later explained to me, each of her lectures explores a different, necessary element of religion-building. On this particular day in February, Lofton confronted her students with the inextricable relationship between religious movements and sexual practices. How often, in characterizing a religion, do we examine its subscribers and ask ourselves, “What kind of sex are they having?” How often does the Catholic glorification of virginity and disparagement of casual sex, for example, shape our perception of Roman Catholicism? Perhaps more interestingly—how does Yale’s hookup scene (arguably, its predominating sexual practice) shape our understanding of its culture?
After hearing of the presentation from various friends in the class, I visited Lofton’s office in search of justification for her inclusion of Yale hookup culture in a class on religion. During our discussion, Lofton emphasized the examination of sexual culture as indicative of spiritual purpose rather than merely a system of externally classified “right” or “wrong” practices. By referring to Yale and a media frenzy surrounding “hookup culture,” Lofton invited her students to observe firsthand the ways in which a sexual culture necessitates thorough analysis. Yale, after all, is an exclusive community not so dissimilar in form to American religious communities like the Shakers. “There’s no greater secret society at Yale than Yale itself,” Lofton reminded me. Of course, a quick Google Search will immediately reveal articles about the sexual performance of Yale men or sexual misconduct at Yale parties. Of course, people are wondering about what kind of sex we’re having.
Let us then build an American religion. Let us indulge the idea of Yale as some sort of generously defined religious cult or community, and let us claim that 9am walks of shame through Cross Campus or an embarrassingly intimate exchange on the floor of Toad’s Place suggest something about Yale’s spiritual purpose. Is this a naïve exercise? The prospect that hookup culture merits anything other than sometimes-shameful, sometimes-humorous acknowledgment, seems, well, idealist. Yet, to my surprise, Lofton quickly established a glaringly clear relationship between Yale’s “religion” and its sex life.
What, then, are the commandments followed by Yale students? How do they encourage noncommittal, unpredictable sexual encounters? Lofton explained this phenomenon rather easily—“There is no human being on earth who is more devoted to maintaining as wide an array of choices as the Yale College undergraduate….There is also no human being on earth who is more nervous about being bored and uninteresting as the Yale College undergraduate.” Perhaps our sexual practices have thus revealed our first commandment—thou shall remain open to all and every possibility. Easy. Carve it into the stone above the wooden doors of Sterling Library.
From informal observation of the Yale student body, it certainly seems like a campus devoted to possibility. I still refuse to fully decide on one major. For many of my friends, deciding between Yale and other universities proved near-impossible. In my seminar-style discussion sections, my classmates explore every possible interpretation of a text. Generally speaking, Yalies do not excel when it comes to narrowing down their options.
So that was it. The straightforward, highly plausible connection between spirituality and sex at Yale. Our hookup culture represents our emphasis on intellectual freedom and possibility, our defiance of “one” correct answer. We explore sex in the same, uninhibited way that we explore ideas. Impressive.
When I presented the correlation between hookup culture and intellectual exploration on campus to Professor Lofton, however, she looked at me quizzically. “Does a Yale College student believe that their primary purpose here is to expand intellectual horizons? Or are they overtly/covertly being instructed to increase their professional futures?” she asked. I paused. Are we really free? Do we really want to be?
Professor Lofton continued. “Any person who wants to truly expand their intellectual horizons must get lost. Must get confused. Must fail….I would again want to ask and think with students whether they feel there is a space in their lives as college students where they can stumble, ask questions, be vulnerable without violent cost? Those are questions that are as meaningful to one’s sexual life as they are to one’s intellectual openness.” In the same way that Yale’s academic culture allows students to pursue professional success under the guise of intellectual exploration, its hookup culture encourages students to “explore” sex while accompanied by an emotional safety net. You must succeed at everything that you commit to, so why commit to something that only invites another opportunity for failure?
“In all that making of an ideal, nerd-meets-capitalist possibility self, are you ever really letting go? Are you ever really letting a math problem stymie you…for days?”
Maybe we only pretend to let go. Maybe we don’t. Personally speaking, I never let a math problem stump me for more than 48 hours before I go to office hours. But I can’t speak for everyone in this quasi-religious Yale community that I’ve conjectured.
As we further discussed the idea of hooking up as a means of defining rather than questioning an established identity, I realized that, despite the ridiculous stories that circulate campus, these types of sexual encounters actually present a highly serious way of re-establishing who we are. Gender, race, and class play undeniable roles in the choice of a sexual partner. How do we create a sense of collective organization through the people that we have sex with? What is this social order and what power relations does it contain? Lofton prompted me to carefully consider these questions, stating, “Hookup culture is a perfect companion to competitive college admissions unlike anything in human history, in which college is no longer understood as a place of experiment and play, but of furthering the identity that you have so carefully and strategically forged.” Yale hookup culture presents a group of people who performed similarly well in a competitive college admissions process with an opportunity to carefully navigate a social order and achieve a sense of collectively defined “success.” This is not the sort of game that encourages authentic loss, confusion, or failure.
Despite these points, I would not argue that hookup culture serves simply as some cold, calculated arena in which its gladiators strategically mitigate loss and advance social standing. Hooking up, after all, is an activity driven fundamentally by inherently messy and complicated sentiments of desire. If I had to tell you exactly why it’s happening on campus, I’d probably say it’s because Yale’s administration housed a large group of horny twenty-somethings within a five-block radius of each other. And by no means do I think that the practice must stop.
I would, however, dispute the notion that hookup culture is the free, unfettered space that people make it out to be. Due to its inability to promote authentic failure and confusion, hookup culture does not completely fit Professor Lofton’s definition of true “exploration.” So where does this leave us? What commandment has sex at Yale taught us to carve onto Sterling’s sacred exterior?
To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that Yale is a religion that depends fundamentally on conflicting commandments. Imagine Moses descending Mount Sinai with a list of contradicting rules etched carefully onto two stone tablets (Rule six: Thou shalt not commit adultery. Rule six and a half: Thou must fly to Bora Bora with your neighbor’s wife every Christmas break). For obvious reasons, this version of events is not compatible with our current understanding of Roman Catholic sexual culture.
When students simultaneously pursue freedom and crave security, however, conflicting commandments may dominate Yale culture. We etch our code of conduct on a dry-erase board because we feel like we should have rules, but we change our minds every day. We pursue something that appears free while knowing deep down that it isn’t. And in our dark, secret craving for security, questioning our sexual motivations terrifies us. Reliving an embarrassing hookup is much more fun at Olmo on a Sunday morning when you can choke on your bacon egg and cheese and recount the look on his face. It’s harder when you analyze the encounter while lying in bed alone on Sunday night. Making people wonder about the kind of sex that you are having is easy. Forcing yourself to wonder, in a deep and authentic way and separate from the reactions of others, is much more difficult.
My last question for Professor Lofton solicited her advice for the typical Yale student navigating hookup culture.
“I would assume that a lot of the time talking with friends includes considerations of academic life and professional futures. If sexual life is not being considered alongside of that, I think that’s a missed opportunity…seeing as how conversations about politics, professional life, social identity cannot be divided from who you are as a person who seeks intimacy, deserves pleasure, and has the right to vulnerability. How can you raise questions of sex with your friends so that it’s not only about identity, not only about acts, and not only about securing the ‘right’ thing?”