Those who reject the college hook-up culture and defend the ethic of sexual integrity are frequently accused of being idealists. “How can you expect all young people to abstain from all sex before they get married? It’s ridiculous to demand that of young people. Wake up to reality,” the accusers might charge. They are right to recognize that it is an elevated expectation, and that people in reality will doubtless fall short of the ideal. But are they right to say that these people are divorced from reality? Since few want to be grounded in something other than reality, let us look honestly at it and determine whether the college hook-up ethos of casual sex is not the result of illusion instead.
Having sex is a huge emotional investment; it’s false to think otherwise. Therefore, having sex with someone to whom one is not married is like investing in subprime mortgages, or trusting his or her money with Bernie Madoff. Why? Because there is a very good chance that the relationship with the person he or she is engaging in sex with will end, and that they will lose their entire emotional investment. Anyone who has ever been through a breakup knows how painful this can be. The more serious the relationship, the more painful the ending—which is why it’s not a good enough excuse for engaging in sex that individuals have been dating for a long time and imagine they might get married eventually.
One cannot say that he will engage in the act and separate himself from the emotional attachment inevitably paired with it. It is well established that the act of sex is a powerful binding force. It releases certain chemicals in one’s brain, almost like a drug high, and that high is associated with the person with whom one is engaging in sex, thereby causing one to become particularly emotionally attached to him or her.
Some may think it possible, then, to have sex with many, many different partners, and thereby refrain from developing any emotional attachments whatsoever. (Yet the resulting ill effects of this are even worse, including a complete apathy towards others and an inability to connect with them). From my observation, sex rarely plays out like this anyway, even in the college hook-up culture. There are very few Hugh Hefners in the world, though many pretenders. Because of that, in most cases, individuals who experiment with casual sex end up experiencing confusion, disappointed expectations, and disillusionment.
I use the word disillusionment—being freed from illusion—deliberately. Many of us live in illusions. Our expectations of the world, not excluding sex, are often highly unrealistic, due to the false images, stories and facades surrounding us. Consider this: when was the last time you saw a character in a movie stop, just as a sex scene was heating up, to put on a condom? I cannot think of a single instance aside from Knocked Up, in which the condom is essential to the plot. Otherwise, regularly showing this somewhat awkward, unsexy moment would break the illusion of sex operating in a vacuum.
Other examples of illusory scenes of sex operating in a vacuum include the man who is depicted as timelessly satiated after having sex with a beautiful woman he has just met or the college that is portrayed as the land of laissez-faire sex, with no strings attached. These scenes presented in pop culture perpetuate illusions for their consumers by consistently leaving out the less savory aspects and consequences of casual sex—the break-ups and falling-outs, the disenchantment, the eventual feeling of emptiness.
An example from literature, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, shows the disillusionment experienced by one who bought into the illusion of sex presented by the popular culture surrounding her. In this book, the title character Emma Bovary is a woman who is dissatisfied with her drab marriage. Under the influence of romantic novels about dashing counts who sweep ladies off their feet, she has an entirely illusory conception of what a good romantic relationship should be. Involved in affairs with two men over the course of several years, she thinks each new relationship will bring her happiness. For a while, Emma experiences the happiness she seeks, or at least the semblance of it. Eventually, however, her first lover cruelly disposes of her when she starts to get too attached to him. And ultimately, with her second lover, “She was as sated with him as he was tired with her.” Despite their passion at the beginning of the affair, “Emma was finding in adultery all the banalities of marriage.”
Emma was a victim of illusion. She was deceived about what would make her happy by the clichés of the conventional stories she consumed. Similarly, the cliché stories and ideas presented to us today in pictures, movies, books, shows, and even video games deceive many. Yet, just as in Madame Bovary, reality will fail to live up to the illusion promised to these people by the stories presented to them. And their being freed from illusion—disillusionment—won’t come without its fair share of pain.
At times it is hard for bystanders to recognize that pain, furthering the deception that casual and uncommitted sex is free of heartache (and other previously established negative outcomes). Yet the reason it is difficult for outside observers to realize the falsity of the illusions is often because the individuals trying to act out modern stories and ideas about sex in their own lives either mask the negative outcomes or are not immediately aware of them.
This furtherance of illusion suggests two things. The first is that those who do not have direct experience must be all the more diligent as observers. If one truly wants to be grounded in reality, he should carefully observe what is actually going on around him, and considerately contemplate his actions, rather than heedlessly buy into whatever conventional illusions society bandies about.
The second thing this suggests is that those who, after careful observation, choose to uphold principles of sexual integrity are, in fact, exhibiting the most honest response to reality through recognizing the full picture—a view complete with a sense of long-term consequences to actions. Though accused of being deluded idealists by individuals who are themselves victims of seductive illusions, it is they who choose to uphold principles of sexual integrity that are truly wed with reality.
Special Thanks to Joseph Kuhne. Joseph is a senior at the University of Notre Dame and hopes to pursue a writing career after graduation.
 Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Translated by Mildred Marmur. New York: Penguin, 1964. 272.