When I met him at a book signing in the fall of 2010, Tucker Max had spent ten years drinking, hooking up, and writing about it. What started as a college bet and emails among friends eventually became the creation of a genre, "fratire." His tales of drunken sexual escapades made him the second author ever to put three books on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list at the same time, and in 2009 he was nominated to Time's list of most influential people.
I was invited to the book signing by two of Max's fans—both women in their mid-twenties. Jessica, a waitress at a bowling alley diner, texted me that day, telling me how excited she was to finally see him in person. Max had included his personal phone number in his film, and she'd been texting with him. Later on the night of the book signing, he invited her to his hotel room.
We entered the bookstore and joined the crowd huddled at the bottom of the grand staircase in the centre of the store adjacent to the children's section. A recent college graduate beside me told me that she loved Tucker Max because he "says what the rest of us are thinking but don't say."
Jessica agreed. In Max she found someone who shared similar attitudes about sex. "Sex is sex, regardless of who it's with," she explained. "You can make it mean something if you want it to mean something, but other than that, if you just want it to be a f***— excuse my language—then it's not gonna mean anything, and you don't have to call that person the next day. That's what makes us human. Every other animal in the world only has sex to procreate, but we have the freedom to just use each other for our own personal gain."
Max was, not surprisingly, good looking—tall with a distinctive jaw, short blonde hair, and blue-grey eyes. But as he talked, I noticed something surprising: he seemed bored.
When a young woman asked if he needed any new material for his books, everyone laughed but Max. He told her that "hooking up is fine" but the only way she would make it into one of his books was if she did something crazy and original. "Do any of these assholes want to read about what's gonna happen with us? If not, it's not gonna make it in the book."
In response to a question about whether he ever wanted to marry, Max, age thirty-five at the time, explained that hooking up gets old.
I mean being single when you're twenty-four is awesome. Being single when you're fortyfour is kind of lame. . . . You go through different stages of your life. I fully expect to [get married]—I mean, Christ, how much more ass do I need? . . . There comes a point where it's like, "I've done all this. It's not fun anymore." . . . I definitely want a wife and kids, family, and that kind of stuff.
I expected Tucker Max to be a revolutionary, enthusiastic and subversive. Instead, he just seemed tired.
Many young adults today also express a complicated disillusionment with casual sex.
Of the seventy-five white, working-class young adults (ages nineteen to thirty-six) that my husband David and I interviewed for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, about a third reported either some disapproval of or mixed feelings about premarital sex. Others said positive things about waiting until marriage to have sex, expressed regrets about premarital sex or past instances of casual sex, or believed that sex should only happen within the context of a committed or loving relationship. Few shared Max's cavalier attitude toward sex.
Mike, a twenty-seven-year-old divorcé in a cohabiting relationship, thought that when you have sex, you "spiritually marry." "Sex is not like Hustler's logo, 'Relax, it's just sex.' That's wrong. It's this epic, amazing thing," he said. When he was in high school, he attended an evangelical youth group and got a purity ring tattooed on his wrist. And even after losing his own virginity before marriage, an unwanted divorce, and a subsequent cohabiting relationship, he still believed "purity" was the best way.
"Keep purity as your goal until marriage," he would tell others. "There's nothing wrong with that and that's really romantic. That's everything that it's cracked up to be. To go the other road is not everything it's cracked up to be at all. So based on experience, it's like purity is the way."
Arianna, twenty, wondered if she should delay sex with the next guy she actually cared about. She really liked the last guy that she had been "talking to," but after they had sex he clarified that he didn't want a relationship with her. "I wish I wouldn't have had sex with him at all," she said.
Natasha, twenty-eight, acknowledged that she had "been there, done that" with casual sex, but regretted it because in her experience sex "changes things."
Adam, twenty-eight, who had been sexually active with multiple partners before marriage, said that if there's anything he could change about relationships today, it would be to "put less emphasis on sex." He thought sex was important in a relationship, but that people were too quick to expect it. "If I'm gonna share myself that intimately with somebody, I always feel like I wanna know them first."
Jessica, the waitress and Tucker Max fan, agreed that if you like someone, you should delay sex. She waited two and a half months before sleeping with her current boyfriend. Whereas other guys "didn't mean anything," he "meant a lot to me and I wanted to wait, because that just meant that there was more there than just the sexual."
Part of the reason young adults end up dissatisfied with the hookup scene is because they still have lifelong love on the horizon. More than 80 percent of young adult Americans still want to get married—and they'd be the first to tell you that having casual sex complicates the search for lifelong love.
Lance, twenty-five, writes about this at I Believe In Love, a website of young adults looking to "write a better story about lasting love in America." "I don't think we have to do everything the exact same way today," he writes, "but I think if we dated with the same kind of morals and intentions as those who dated the old-fashioned way, I think we'd find it easier to find lasting love."
By "old-fashioned" Lance means dating with an intention to find someone to marry, as opposed to just a hookup. "Nowadays, I think it's easy to treat people as objects and not people. In small but important ways, these actions show a lack of respect, and I think a lot of what ruins relationships today is a lack of mutual respect."
Brittany, a twenty-eight-year-old single mother of two, describes a conversation with her grandmother. "Today we tend to have sex and ask questions later, whereas my grandma's generation did not. They actually took the time to get know the other person and look for marriage potential. . . . I don't think I'd be struggling as much to find a good man to marry and raise a family with if we still dated like they did in the past." In another piece, she explains,
When I was having sex, I would have a small sense of being loved and being wanted—two feelings that I craved. To make a guy want me—I thought that was the power of a woman. . . . But deep down I knew I was looking for love. What I know now is that having lots of casual sex is not the best way to find real love.
Looking for Love in the Chaos
In a 2016 research brief from the Institute for Family Studies, Nicholas H. Wolfinger explores the link between premarital sex and marital stability. In the first decade of the new millennium, only 6 percent of women who married before having sex divorced after five years of marriage, compared with 33 percent of those who had ten or more premarital sexual partners. Even for those with only two partners, 30 percent divorced.
Other research suggests that spouses with multiple sexual partners before marriage have lower levels of marital stability, communication, and sexual quality.
Premarital sex also complicates the path to marriage in the first place. As sexual mores have changed, dating has become less formal. One twenty-four-year-old woman who has been in multiple cohabiting relationships and is now engaged told me that she has never been on an actual date. Couples may "hook up," "talk," "hang out," or "get together"—but there is often confusion about when a relationship actually begins and what level of commitment is expected.
And it can be difficult to transition from ambiguous sexual relationship to something more. Habits practiced initially—freedom to explore other relationships, postponement of discussions about the nature of the relationship in order to avoid "pressuring" each other—die hard. Young adults describe feeling insecure and confused, yet terrified of scaring the other person away with talk of commitment. In all the confusion, cheating and "overlapped" relationships— as one woman described the habit of starting a new relationship before officially ending a current one—are common. Instead of preparing young adults for marriage, these chaotic beginnings often end in distrust of the opposite sex and cynicism about love.
That is Jessica's story. Though she had mixed feelings about serious relationships when she and I attended the Tucker Max book signing, earlier in her twenties she had been in a relationship with the same man for three and a half years. They rented a place together, both worked factory jobs (and hated it), and liked reading Tucker Max. Eventually they got engaged.
Jessica's fiancé found work as a "piercer," and Jessica was fine with the fact that his job entailed seeing other girls' nipples, belly buttons, and vaginas. But one day he called her to ask if it'd be okay if he pierced a girl's nipples. Jessica saw that as a "red flag" and joked slyly with him, "Yeah, it really wouldn't matter 'cause you've already seen 'em."
Her fiancé confessed, "Yeah, I have." A week after he proposed to Jessica, he had slept with this girl, whom he met on Myspace. He rattled off a list of other people he'd been with during the course of their relationship.
"I didn't really cry," Jessica said. "I wasn't upset. I wasn't heartbroken. . . . I just packed my stuff." When she went back to the house to get the rest of her belongings, another woman's underwear sat atop her stuff.
Her fiancé tried to persuade her to come back, and when she refused, he asked if they could at least still have sex. Jessica was dumbfounded: "We were gonna get married and now I'm just a f***?"
She subsequently lowered her expectations for relationships. "I've just decided not to expect anything from anybody, because then that way you won't be disappointed."
When she ran into her ex, a burly man with a shaved head, tattoos, and red plaid shirt—at the Tucker Max book signing—the two greeted each other cordially with a peck on the cheek.
Jessica's experience may have led to her view that "sex is just sex," but her jadedness coexisted with a longing for a different way: "I admire the people who do wait for that one person so that you can share that one moment, because that is something special," she said.
She was intrigued by the idea that sex could be something physical and emotional—something that involved "actually feeling." And when asked if there were any marriages she admired, she talked glowingly about her coworker. They were a religious couple, and had married as virgins. She was moved to tears describing the husband's affection for his wife.
"They're only each other's, and he absolutely loves her," she said.
"I just can't wait to get home to my wife," she often heard him say. "I know she's asleep, but God, I just can't wait to crawl into bed next to her, just to feel her next to me."
And when his wife visited the restaurant, he would exclaim to anybody who cared to hear, "Oh, my God! This is my wife!"
Man, you've been together for five years, Jessica would think. I've been with my boyfriend three months. . . . [And I'm] like, It's him. He's here.
"He just treats her like a god," Jessica said, wiping away tears. "And that's so cool."
Jessica liked talking to this co-worker about relationships "because it's just frustrating to date," and she admired his perspective. He told her he hadn't always treated his wife so well, but that when he observed how poorly women were treated in other relationships, he had an epiphany: "Why would you treat a woman like that when she's just so giving and just gonna bear your children and she's gonna cook and clean for you? Why? Why not tell her that she's the greatest thing in the world?"
"That's what he told me," she said, "and I was like, that's so cool."
Perhaps in today's culture people like Jessica's co-worker are the true "sexual revolutionaries"— those who can address dissatisfaction with the status quo and speak to the longing for something more than "just sex" by modelling an alternative way of living one's sexuality. "Alternative" in the sense that it integrates the whole person rather than compartmentalizing one's "sex life" into the realm of instinct and urge.
Those who are already living differently, like Jessica's co-worker, could join forces with other "revolutionaries in waiting"—those who, as Mike told us, have "walked through all this shit. Like, they lived it and they want a change."
Together they could reframe premarital sex— not in terms of "no" but in positive terms: "How can we have amazing sex and amazing marriages? How can we integrate our sexual desires and our desires for lasting love, so that they don't conflict with each other, but complement one another? How can we modify the way we date and the timing of sex to best prepare us for the lifelong love we are searching for?"
In this vision, the choice to delay sex is not seen as a repression of a natural desire, but as a way to discipline a desire in order to strengthen it and enjoy an even greater good, just as we discipline our desires for certain foods in order to enjoy good health and long life.
A movement of this sort would also seek to better understand the role of trust in sexual relationships. It is likely that without the kind of trust built within a committed relationship, the quality of sex suffers, particularly for women. In the Vanity Fair article "Tinder and the Dawn of the 'Dating Apocalypse,'" the author interviews several college women, who talk about their hookups' difficulty keeping erections and joke that while they knew how to give themselves orgasms, they rarely experience them during actual sex. As the author notes, "According to multiple studies, women are more likely to have orgasms in the context of relationships than in uncommitted encounters. More than twice as likely, according to a study done by researchers at the Kinsey Institute and Binghamton University."
But our "pornified" culture sometimes sends the message that a man does not need to concern himself with a woman's orgasm. As one popular manosphere blogger puts it, the female orgasm "is meaningless and superfluous."
But guess who says that husbands have an obligation to help their wives climax? Popes, for one. "There exists a rhythm dictated by nature itself which both spouses must discover so that climax may be reached both by the man and by the woman, and as far as possible occur in both simultaneously," wrote the future Pope John Paul II in 1960. More recently, Pope Francis approvingly pointed to Pope Paul VI's words (from 1968) that having sex without regard to a spouse's considerations "is no true act of love" and "offends the moral order."
A new sexual "revolution" would make it clear that the best sex is mutual—not merely consensual, not just about individual pleasure— but connected to a self-giving love, and even possessing the creative power of new life.
Young adults tired of a sexual experience centred on self-gratification are ready for those kinds of messages. They are nostalgic for what they perceive to be the innocence of their grandparents' courtships, yet they do not want to completely "turn back the clock." They are looking for something new, a synthesis of the best lessons of the past combined with a way to live them in current realities.
In this new synthesis there would also be a celebrated place for those who discern a call to celibacy. In the twentieth century alone, some of the most admired and accomplished persons have been celibate: Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and John Paul II come to mind. What if, instead of making everyone feel that it's lifelong marriage or bust, we also pointed to living examples of people who joyfully and heroically love God and neighbour through celibacy?
Sex is a Social Activity
Thus far I've only mentioned beliefs and attitudes. But mediating institutions that make it easier for people to align their actions with beliefs about sexual restraint are also essential. Among those we interviewed, there was often a gap between what young adults viewed as "ideal" and the way they actually lived. Rob, a twenty-four-year-old roofer who had lost his virginity as a young teenager, explained: "Did I follow abstinence? No. Should've I followed abstinence? Probably. The human mind's a pretty crazy thing."
Individuals might be interested in delaying sex or even waiting until marriage, but if they think they are alone in that resolve, they are unlikely to succeed. Churches can be places where likeminded young adults are encouraged and supported to live out their ideals. Through small groups and one-on-one meetings, the I Believe In Love Project also seeks to create intentional communities—online and on the ground—of those who want to live counterculturally when it comes to sex. Institutions like these give young adults permission to live their ideals in a skeptical culture, and a place to gather with others who are doing the same.
There is also need for practical support and resources, something that mediating institutions can work to provide. In our interviews it was not uncommon for young adults to suggest that early sexual exploration was prompted by sexual abuse, family breakdown, or other childhood traumas. Access to quality mental health care is therefore an important part of helping young adults have healthy relationships and find sexual healing. High rent and low wages also incentivize cohabitation, particularly for those with little social capital or from unstable families. As one woman told me, she'd rather have time at the beginning of a relationship to live separately and get to know each other, but given that she didn't have a stable place to live and was going from friend's house to friend's house, moving in with a new boyfriend seemed like a good option.
And here too there is room for mutual service among those who are married, those who are married and have families, and those who are called to celibacy. Sometimes the "marriage movement" inadvertently (sometimes advertently) sends the message that everyone needs to get married, when in reality we should be encouraging greater discernment of one's vocation, whatever that might be. The work of celibate individuals, particularly those living in intentional communities, could be an important part of building up those mediating institutions, and in fact modelling a different way to be a family.
On a cold winter day two and a half years after I first met Jessica, we bumped into each other on the sidewalk outside a coffee shop. She was glowing, dressed warmly in a dark grey peacoat and coloured scarf, her blonde hair pulled back. She lifted up her left hand and pulled back her coat sleeve, flashing a white-gold wedding band and an engagement ring with tiny rows of glittering diamonds.
"I got married!" she exclaimed happily. "It's been over a year. My dad set us up. We hit it off right away. It was kind of a whirlwind."
And in the five years since I saw him at the book signing, Tucker Max retired from fratire and also married. "As crazy as my single life was, my 'marriage' life is that boring (at least, to other people)," he wrote on his blog. "Veronica is an amazing person, we've been together for almost two years now, and our relationship is incredibly fulfilling and rewarding to both of us."
Entertaining others with his outrageous stories eventually produced ennui—but in trading that life for a more "boring" and traditional one, Max found something "incredibly fulfilling." He added, "There's not much else to say. That's the thing about happy, loving relationships; they are great to be in, but they don't make for great stories."
But that's where Max may be wrong. While Jessica found his stories hilarious, she was more captivated by the story of her co-worker's love for his wife. Ultimately, that kind of love was what she wanted most.