Opinion guest column

Wingless Cupids

How college hook-up culture undermines the possibility of love

“Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man, and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to whir.”  — Zarathustra, from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra

One needed only turn on the radio last year to hear Ed Sheeran sing the refrain of modern college love: “I’m in love with your body.” This phrase is the distillation of contemporary college students’ understanding that their own romantic desires are something primarily physical — that our natural love of beauty is simply directed toward and satisfied by sex. To be in love is to be in love with a body.

Our belief is supported by our scientific view of the world.  We understand ourselves primarily as the product of evolution, which means we have embedded within us a need to reproduce, and we therefore understand our attraction to beautiful people as an the expression of that biological need.  As a consequence, we cultivate a culture which supports our ability to have as much sex as we desire, with friends or strangers, and which allows us to be entirely open about those encounters — a hook-up culture.

But hook-up culture has done a disservice to college students by undermining our ability to experience romantic love fully. In particular, the way hook-up culture undermines the privacy and intimacy of sex makes it difficult, if not impossible, to feel our deepest longings, and to have the kinds of relationships that would satisfy them to the extent possible for a human being.

We must return to our first experiences with beauty in order to understand this claim fully. If we reflect on the experience of seeing a beautiful person, we notice that our thoughts are not simply led to sexual fantasies. Rather, we feel, if only momentarily, as if our ordinary concerns — like classes, our career, arguments with friends and family — do not bother us anymore. We begin to daydream about the beautiful person and to imagine falling in love with them.  At its root, our natural love of beauty points toward love, not just sex.

In this first experience with beauty, our longings and the path to satisfying them seem unclear to us, but when we fall in love, the two become crystallized in our minds. First, we recognize that deep down we long for a great happiness, which far surpasses any other happiness we have ever felt before; second, that we desperately want this happiness to satisfy all of our needs, so that it makes us invulnerable to the ordinary problems of life. Most importantly, we feel certain that both of these conditions are possible through a relationship with our beloved. When in love, we therefore find ourselves totally consumed with thoughts of our beloved, and we feel compelled to do everything in our power to be with them.

The experience of falling in love makes us aware of a great longing in our soul, for perfect happiness and an end to our troubles, and our soul presents love as the only path to satisfying that great longing. But we did not choose to have a longing for perfect happiness, nor did we choose love as the means to satisfy that longing. Rather, by analyzing our experiences, we discovered that we are the kind of being that has a great longing, and that therefore feels compelled to pursue love. In a similar fashion, when we are in love, we discover that our soul not only demands a relationship with our beloved, but that it also makes demands on the characteristics of that relationship.

In particular, we feel that the love we have for our beloved is incomparable to any other feeling or attachment we have ever had or ever will have for another human being, and that because of the unique character of our attraction, our beloved is set apart in our mind from everyone else.  Similarly, our soul demands that our beloved loves us in the same way. We want to be distinct from the rest of the world in the eyes of our beloved, and we want them to love us better than anyone else they ever have or will love. We want our relationship to be something private and unique, which sets the two of us apart from the rest of the world. Importantly, only if our relationship meets these conditions do we think that it could possibly satisfy the intense longings which drove us to pursue love in the first place.

Further observation of our desires makes clear that we are especially sexually jealous. Our beloved can have other friends, but the thought they might sleep with someone else is unbearable. In fact, the thought that our beloved might even want to sleep with someone else is painful to us, which suggests that we not only want the act itself to be private, but that we also want the desire to be private. Sexual desire then appears to be the particular manner in which we want our beloved to love us differently than they love anyone else. Further, sex is the activity that is only shared between the lover and beloved — the private activity that sets the two apart from the rest of the world.

Through these observations, we have come to see that the necessary demand which our deepest romantic longings make on us is that our love be private and unique, and that this kind of privacy and uniqueness is rooted in sexual privacy, even if it is not limited to sexual privacy.  Therefore, our initial attraction to physical beauty can only be transformed into love if we believe that it is possible to have a relationship which is private and unique in this way.

The danger of hook-up culture, then, lies in the way it undermines the privacy of sex. It changes sex from the kind of experience that can only be shared between two intimate lovers to one that can be had with strangers, without any expectation or hope that it will lead to more. As such, sex loses its status as a special activity, characteristic of love, but instead becomes an itch which needs to be scratched, like the need to eat or use the bathroom. Consequently, because the thing which above all could indicate that we were special and different in the mind of our beloved no longer makes us special, we doubt that we could have the kind of relationship that is truly unique and private. We begin to see every relationship as one among many we and our beloved will have over the course of our lives.

So, precisely because hook-up culture makes us doubt the possibility of the only kind of love that could satisfy our romantic longings, those longings are dampened and less capable of transforming into the full intensity of love. The attraction to beauty which points us toward the body no longer compels us to satisfy the great need in our souls. Until the two needs, that of the body and that of the soul, become linked again, we will remain incapable of feeling our deepest longings, or of recognizing that the ordinary goods of life cannot satisfy them; we will remain unaware of our true nature and our true needs. The cupids in our souls still love the body, but they have lost the wings to lift us to the loftiest heights of love.

Ian MacFarlane is a member of the MIT Class of 2018.