In the No: Freedom and Belonging Will Never Be Found in the Hookup Culture

Radiolab did a series of three podcasts called “In the No” in collaboration with radio maker Kaitlin Priest, whose “mini-series called ‘No’ about her personal struggle to understand and communicate about sexual consent” motivated Radiolab’s host Jad Abumrad to further discuss the difficulties of consent in sexual encounters. He introduces the series saying, “That show, which dives into the experience, moment by moment, of navigating sexual intimacy, struck a chord with many of us…Over the next three episodes, we'll wander into rooms full of college students, hear from academics and activists, and sit in on classes about BDSM.”
Well, let me tell you, they successfully strike a chord. I wanted to hear what kinds of conversations were happening, so I listened to the series. I was extremely uncomfortable listening to parts of it because it was borderline pornographic---if there’s such a thing as pornography for the ears. To bring the listener to a better understanding of the difficulties of a woman being Illustration by Cara Turett ( Photo by Justine Camacho on Unsplash )able to communicate what she doesn’t want, Priest plays reenactments of her own personal sexual encounters (and live footage of another). This is very successful in portraying how men can be pushy, how difficult it can be to say no, all the reasons women may go along with sexual acts they don’t really want to do, and all the gray areas in between “Yes, I want this” and “No, please stop now.” 
I have mixed feelings about this podcast series. On one hand, I am glad that men and women are talking about all of the power dynamics around consent. This is an important conversation. Awareness is being raised. On the other hand, these people do not have a healthy view of freedom, sex, love, power, or friendship. So it is a very unsatisfying conversation.
The podcast is eye opening. But it is also pretty vulgar. Priest hosts an “artsy, feminist sex radio show” and her sexual language is offensive from the start. She claims that third wave sex positive feminism taught her to “adapt the same, ruthless sexual posturing as boys” and that “would allow her to wield some of their power…having slut pride would subvert the double standard and it would force the world to recognize that women’s sexual pleasure is real.” She pauses, and then reveals that the only problem is that she hates casual sex. Instead of investigating more of why that is, Priest tells the world all about her sexual life of masturbation on her radio show. She does say that what she is looking for is love, even though she knows it’s corny. She knows that the sexual revolution has sold her a lie. But she still uses its language. Why does Priest expect more from sex if she uses the “F” word to describe it?
Right away, we learn that even though she is supposedly looking for sex only within a love relationship, Priest is still very casual about her sexuality with male friends. She over-shares. She’s sexually intimate. She wants to cuddle under a blanket and have movie sleep over nights. But then she doesn’t quite know what to do when her friend takes this behavior as signs for more. She sends mixed messages. And yet, as they begin to mess around, she does communicate clearly what she doesn’t want to do---several times. Very clearly. At this point her friend betrays her, acting like so many other encounters she’s had, basically talking her into what she clearly communicated that she didn’t want. She wants to be liked. But she doesn’t want to be consumed.
She is tired of being a means to an end. The end is the man’s pleasure. 
But Priest does not understand how to escape this. Sure, a man should also be thinking about the woman’s pleasure.  But that is not the answer---that happens as a result of knowing the truth about sex. This view of sex, and even her life of masturbation, is all about consumption. She kind of knows this when she is the oppressed, but she just turns it around to making it be about her own pleasure in masturbation. She has settled. She wants good sex but has no sexual identity beyond pleasure. She thinks her standard for good sex is love---but why does she think this? That’s what I would love to ask her. And if this is so, why does she think she will ever find that in the hookup culture?
Sex is a uniting act where two flesh become one. It isn’t consuming; it’s giving. It’s sharing. It is such an intimate sharing that it is exclusive to marriage with one spouse.** You can’t look to the hookup culture for this kind of remarkable intimacy. Kaitlin Priest’s expectation for love and pleasure is too low! As she is busy seeking feminine power and pleasure, she is blind to the sacrificial, sanctifying love that builds in Christian marriage through the years. This absolutely beautiful and glorious love grows beyond the youthful, original attributes that attracted us to one another, to a mature appreciation of the scars that mark its progression. She will NEVER get this from the hookup culture or from masturbation. Within this covenantal, Christ centered love in Christian marriage, sex is an intimate opportunity for growing, sharing, pleasing, learning, teaching, and forgiveness.
Kaitlin Priest is only in her twenties. And although she sees the lie in the third wave feminist movement she is still falling for its premise that people are to be consumed for our own pleasure. That sex is a means to power. And yet she still wants to be that something beautiful that others will want. So she has reduced her own body as a means to get these things: belongingness, pleasure, and power. 
There’s a much bigger issue at stake. 
The hookup culture is supposedly about freedom and autonomy. Priest’s radio show reveals that the playing field is not really equal. But she doesn’t see that the whole premise of self-interest and self-pleasure in the hookup culture is enslaving. Richard Bauckham wasn’t talking about the hookup culture, but his wise words can be applied in this situation:
The contribution of the New Testament’s insights into the nature of real freedom as liberation from enslavement to self-interest and freedom to give oneself for others is also important in this context. The oppressed who long for freedom are not truly liberated from the system that oppresses them so long as the freedom they desire is only the freedom their oppressors have: freedom for themselves, no matter what this entails for others. In such circumstances the struggle for liberation is simply a mirror image of the system it opposes: it becomes ruthless in its self-interest, creates as many victims as it liberates, and produces a new kind of tyranny in place of the old. Outward liberation worthy of the name requires people who have been freed to live for others, and for all others, even for their oppressors. (Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom, 24-25).
In this case, freedom comes in serving our brothers and sisters by promoting their holiness, not by seducing them for our own pleasure. Priest looks for freedom in the hookup culture but cannot find it. She looks for autonomy in masturbation, but it’s unsatisfying because it’s terribly lonely. She too is enslaved by her own pleasure. “Belonging is necessary to true freedom, and freedom is necessary to true belonging.” They are “not exclusive opposites, but reciprocal factors. There is no human independence that is not rooted in a deeper dependence---on nature, on other people, and on God” (42).  Freedom and autonomy don’t go together.
What is more powerful, using our own sexuality to seduce someone, to impose oneself on someone, or in sacrifice to promote the good of our neighbor? This is also where the purest pleasure will be found. And you just might find love as well.
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor's glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. (C.S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory")
** I don't mean to convey that consent is not needed for sex within a Christian marriage. But as one of the interviewees noted, consent is all about what you will let someone else do to you. It's terribly sad to reduce sex to this. And yet, there are plenty of Christian marriages with unhealthy sexual dynamics. I have tried to explain a healthy view of sex above. If sex is a giving and sharing of oneself, that certainly requires the volition of both parties. Without that, we enter into the same issues of violation, sexual assault, and abuse that the mini series was addressing.
Illustration by Cara Turett
( Photo by Justine Camacho on Unsplash )