Thursday, December 24, 2009

# 8 - Hooking-up

It was the decade when...

No one had "sex" anymore.

Note: College and Grad students, feel free to submit this essay as your own for a course in "Contemporary Neologisms and Hegelian Philosophy."

The Hookup: A Dialectic Analysis

In the aughts, one expression has surged in popularity, especially among the young. One expression embodied, in itself, a shift in the culture's sexual mores. This shift, I hope to prove, could not have occurred without the expression, the language facilitating the needed symbolic restructuring that social pressures demanded. Eventually, so common was the expression's use that it itself began to alter behavioral patterns, as opposed to merely accommodating them.

I am, of course, talking about "hooking-up," the aughts' catch-all term for any casual sexual interaction. By deconstructing the subtle ways in which the word functions, we can analyze both how behavior dictates language and, reciprocally, how language dictates behavior. A dialectic analysis allows us to trace the evolution of the expression and its widespread integration in society.

Employing the dialectic concepts of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis we can trace how "hooking-up" became such a dominant phrase in our collective vocabulary. In a traditional dialectic, within each thesis is a contradiction which leads to the antithesis -- which then brings about synthesis.

What was the thesis here? As the 21st century approached, a generation was coming of age that had never lived through the sexual revolution of the sixties or the gender politics of the seventies. Women were equals to men prima facie; they no longer had greater pressure to get married than men and were actively discouraged from having children at too young an age. Concurrently, sexual interactions outside of marriage were by now the norm, safe-sex education and the pill rendering the activity consequence-free for those responsible enough to take precautions. The result was a society where casual sex, of one sort or another, was becoming more and more prominent.

And here we arrive at the contradiction. Even though social pressures were creating a need for loose and easily-disposable romantic detachments, the lexicon of terms to describe this variety of sexual behavior was wanting. Options of expression were limited and inadequate. There was a severity to saying that you "had sex." The disclosure was too invasive, too clear, too forward. It was even worse to "make love" when obviously you were doing no such thing. Expressions with a more casual feel were tainted by a misogynistic cant: "Get laid," "scored," "hit a home run," "got some," "nailed her" (which is almost impossible to imagine or make sense of with the opposite pronoun, continuing a tradition of male-centric slang descriptions of sex)," are but a few examples. They all share a view of sex as conquest, a vantage point almost always masculine in perspective. Suddenly these terms began to sound as antiquated as "free love." There simply was no word to express the new sexual politics of the 21st century.

What kind of language would be required to accommodate these new social pressures? It would have to be gender neutral, for one; women as much as men were engaging in this casual sexual behavior, and it sometimes involved two women or two men. It would have to deflate the importance of sex, making the activity as mundane and routine as walking the dog or getting a latte. It would need to maintain a certain level of discretion, allowing people to discuss the topic without admitting much in the way of specifics. And finally, it should allude to easy detachment. "Hooking-up" was the perfect candidate.

Already an expression in common - though different - usage before the aughts, to "hook-up" with someone meant little more than to meet them in person. It was inevitable in retrospect that the word would get re-appropriated to imply, now almost exclusively, some sort of sexual interaction. This re-appropriation was the anti-thesis to the contradiction created by a vocabulary and social climate that were deeply mismatched. "Hooking-up" could mean anything from a stolen smooch at a party to full-blown intercourse. In either case, one was not inclined to press the point further and inquire just what a person meant when they said they had "hooked-up" with someone. "Hooking-up" was a catch-all; a phrase allowing people to both confess their intimate behavior to others and simultaneously reveal almost nothing. The verb "to hook" was the perfect symbolic image for interpersonal connection in the aughts. Hooking implies easy unhooking. Other verbs in the vicinity carry with them a deeper sense of permanence: to link, to join, to latch, to meld. Hooking, with its intimations of tenous permanence, was the ideal metaphor for sex in the aughts.

As the phrase caught on we reached the synthesis point in the dialectic. From first accommodating new social realities, the phrase began to proactively create them. "Hooking-up," as an expression more than an activity, normalized casual sex to such a degree that inhibitions against such behavior were slackened to the point of non-existence. "Hooking-up" became an expectation, a fully integrated aspect of modern life for the young. Language, not merely expressing our ideas, actively sets the coordinates of our social reality, creating culture, not just defining it. There needs to be a stabilization between external behaviors and internal representations of such behaviors, these representations being embodied by words and expressions. The relationship is a two way street. The important thing is that they not get too misaligned; such tensions, as seen in the early aughts, can lead to dramatic change, both within a individual and society as a whole.

Does "Hooking-up" have a half-life in our collective consciousness, or is the notion here to stay? I suspect the former. The synthesis of the dialectic that brought us to this point may itself be a new thesis with its own internal contradictions. The cagey ambiguity at the center of the expression - its failure to express much at all - implies a certain retrograde prudishness that we still hold with us. There is something dishonest about "hooking-up," something delusional. "Hooking-up" takes away the sex from sex, neutralizing its awesome power. We still feel anxiety about the broken down gender roles and sexual negotiations that the modern world foists upon us, unable as we are to integrate a truly coherent sexual ethos into a world where procreation can be accomplished in a lab and men and women share social equality (in theory if not practice). "Hooking-up" may not, in the final analysis, resolve this neurotic predicament. It's a temporary solution to a long-term problem: the human animal.

You AUGHT to remember...

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