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Powell’s Q&A: Donna Freitas

Describe your latest book/project/work.
My most recent nonfiction book, The End of Sex, is most definitely not about how sex is "over" — though I keep getting questions about why I'm saying this is the case. My academic background is in philosophy, theology, and gender, and when we talk about "ends" in those fields, we are generally talking about something as an "end in itself" and trying to get at its meaning and purpose. I thought titling this book The End of Sex would be a provocative way of signaling that, here, I want to ask about the meaning and purpose of sex — given the rise of hookup culture on college campuses. If I could redo the subtitle to better fit what this book is about, it would go something like this: The End of Sex: Putting the Meaning Back into Sexual Intimacy for the Hookup Generation.

For the last eight years, I've been investigating (among other things) the role of hookup culture and how it's affecting the college experience today. I got into this conversation after launching a nationwide study on college student attitudes about sexuality and spirituality and how they influence each other (or don't), and soon found out that what the students really wanted to talk about was hookup culture. The End of Sex is my second book based on that research; the first was published with Oxford University Press in 2008: Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses. While Sex and the Soul provides an overview of the findings across the major categories of the study, The End of Sex focuses on hookup culture exclusively and how it's affecting college students' attitudes about their sexual experiences, their sexual decision-making, and how one's gender differentiates these things (or doesn't), as well as some of the responses I'm beginning to see among students who are trying to opt out of hookup culture.

I want to be clear — because people make lots of assumptions about your politics when you start critiquing the hookup — this is a very sex-positive critique of hookup culture. I start and end with the point of view that what I want most for college students and the young adults I talk to all the time is a satisfying sex life, and an empowered attitude about sexualitywhat I want most for college students and the young adults I talk to all the time is a satisfying sex life, and an empowered attitude about sexuality, whatever that might mean for each individual. What I see happening within hookup culture is often disempowerment, coercion, and the complaint that students see no other option before them but to hook up, and they feel trapped by the culture. Anyone with feminist sensibilities would want to take a step back and see what's going on there — and figure out how to respond. That's what I've tried to do here.

In my other life, I happen to be a young adult author, so some of the answers to the questions that follow will come from that point of view!

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Yah Dad's out Paahking the Caah: Growing Up Italian-American in the Great (Little) State of Rhode Island

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
What a fun question. I think it's a toss-up between Eugenides from Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief series, and Po from Kristin Cashore's Graceling. They are both very sexy, smart male leads in fantasy novels. I do read novels that are not fantasy, too, but those are the first characters to pop into my head.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Carlene Bauer's Frances and Bernard. It's a novel in letters loosely based on the correspondence of Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell, and it just came out in February. It's gorgeously written and its reflections on theology and literature are brilliant.

Full disclosure: Carlene is a friend of mine, and a wonderful one, but I had no idea that I was out cavorting with a literary genius until she sent me a draft of this novel when she was working on it. I remember thinking as I was working my way through it: Do I really know someone capable of writing like this? Does she really grace me with her presence over glasses of wine and conversation? I am not worthy.

It's really that good. I hope it wins awards. It should. I'd nominate it now if I could, for something lovely like the National Book Award. Can I do that?

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why or why not?
I don't think that's true. Well, I think it depends on the person. Writers are good at making up stories — that's the job, the calling, the way a novel gets done — but while I hope I'm a good storyteller, at least on the fiction end of my writing life, I am a terrible liar. Everyone I know always tells me that it is always obvious if I like the food I'm eating or, alternatively, if I hate it, because it's written all over my face. Likewise if I'm sad, happy, excited, bored, or disgusted.

Apparently my face is expressive and not always in ways that I am aware of or in control of. I was also recently told, since I'm supposed to do a lot of television for this book that's coming out, that this will go over well on TV. Of course, that may not be the case if the announcer says something I don't like, and my face registers disgust.

I think it has to do with the fact that I'm Italian. My mother couldn't ever hide her feelings either.

How do you relax?
TV. I love TV. I am a TV drama junkie, but good stuff like Dexter and The Wire. And Buffy, of course. Well, and maybe some trashy stuff, too. I am currently addicted to Nashville. A friend of mine called it the new "lady porn" and I think she might be right. Also, I used to hide the fact that I watch all the Pretty Little Liars episodes, but now I just embrace it.

But I also love to cook. When I am living in Barcelona, I go to one of the fabulous markets every single day to buy the fresh ingredients for whatever I am going to cook. When I'm living in Brooklyn, I'll walk all over the borough to buy a certain cheese or get peaches from my favorite farm stall. Good food is always worth the time and the pilgrimage. And then the cooking part is so thrilling to me, making something that comes out delicious and eating it afterward. I have a lot of pride in the kitchen, and it's all so finite and doable. Unlike writing a book, say.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I have. My partner and I recently went to Kafka's grave in Prague. It was not easy to find, actually. There are debates online about where, exactly, it is, and we went to more than one Jewish cemetery in the city before we finally made our way by metro to the right one. While Prague was teeming with tourists, absolutely no one was at the cemetery. We had the whole place to ourselves, never mind the actual gravesite. There were tons of letters people had left, though, and all sorts of Kafka-esque trinkets.

We brought a big plastic beetle to honor him. We left it on his headstone. It felt right.

My next literary pilgrimage will have to be to Norwich, England, since I need to pay homage to good ole Julian of Norwich, one of my women mystic friends from grad school and subsequent teaching.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
I have these wedge boots I live in. What makes them great are several factors: The color — a slate gray suede. The height — they make me so much taller and I need some help in that department. And, despite the height, the fact that I could probably run a marathon in them. When you live in cities like I do, you need shoes you can walk around in.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Oh my god! I love these questions. The best breakfast of my life probably happens with my friend Alvina, who I always go to brunch with. We have a brunch tradition, which is to order our savory breakfast item first, then move on to our dessert breakfast. The server always assumes we're ready for our check, when we have to explain that, oh no, that was just the first course.

The best breakfast would be at Henry Public in Brooklyn, and it starts with their bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, which comes with fries on the side. They are one of those very Brooklyn-y places that prides itself on the exuberance of their excellent pork products, and their bacon is unparalleled. They also do some sort of secret cheese combo for all of their sandwiches. The result is to die for.

This first course would be followed by these things they call Wilkinsons but which are basically the fluffiest, most delicious pancakes I've ever had — and best of all, they are shaped like meatballs. They come with butter, syrup, and some sort of fruity sauce. They melt in your mouth.

All of this would, of course, be accompanied by lots of really strong coffee and good conversation.

Why do you write?
Because I feel compelled to it. Because it's a great way to be in conversation with people I'd otherwise never have the opportunity to be in touch with. Because I have things to say. A lot of them, apparently.

Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
I am trying to learn to understand Celsius because I'm living part time in Barcelona these days and that's what they use, but I have to say, I still prefer Fahrenheit, mostly because I understand it. All I basically know at this point is that once it gets above 20 degrees Celsius, it's warm enough to start going to the beach.

Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
The Wire. I mean, how could it be anything else? The writing is amazing and also unforgiving; the characters are practically Shakespearean; it's beautiful, heartbreaking, tragic, and even, at times, inspiring. The acting is unparalleled. Nothing else I've seen has ever come close to something like The Wire. I hear any of the five versions of "Way Down in the Hole," and I get chills. If you haven't seen it, you must run right out and rent it immediately.

If you could have been someone else, who would that be and why?
I would be the food critic for the New York Times — any one of them, ideally the current one. Eating is one of my favorite activities, maybe even my very favorite. What could be better than someone paying you to eat at the finest restaurants in a city with some of the best restaurants and eating culture in all the world?

Five books related to the young adults in your life, and the issues they care about:
Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu
This is one of the most important books I've read recently. It's about being gay and Christian in America, by one of the most intelligent, sensitive, unflinching, and gifted writers around. It gets to the heart of one of the most difficult conversations we need to have in this country about sexual identity and faith — a topic that is a huge concern to so many of the college students I meet around the U.S., and to me, too.

Feed by M. T. Anderson
If you have not read this novel, you are depriving yourself of one of the most chilling portraits of the potential negative effects of technology and its relationship to consumer culture ever written. It is more than a must. It's practically prophetic. The author is absolutely brilliant, and he's been awarded with more than one National Book Award nomination for his ability to weave that brilliance into a compelling novel that gets to the heart of some of the most important and difficult topics that face us today — and does so fearlessly.

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith
Yes, it's a publication of findings from a major study so, no, it's not the easiest read, but it's really good stuff. It provides super-excellent research on attitudes about faith and spirituality among young adults in America, and I recommend it highly. Whether or not the young adults in your life admit it openly, they care deeply about spirituality and religion, and it's important to pay attention to this subject in their lives.

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy
A must-read in thinking about gender, girls, women, and the state of "feminism" today — as it's been hijacked by people who don't know a thing about feminism. Levy's writing is courageous and smart, and she gets to the heart of one of the depressing realities of today's girls and women — that somehow, what Levy calls "raunch" has come to be associated as "feminist" — and wrongly so.

Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus by Kathleen A. Bogle
This is an excellent introduction to hooking up — what it is, and how it shows up on college campuses today — by a top-notch sociologist, and someone who cares deeply about young people, too.

÷ ÷ ÷

Donna Freitas holds a PhD in religious studies from Catholic University and has taught at Hofstra University and Boston University. The author of The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture... Used Hardcover $14.00
  2. Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and... Used Trade Paper $12.00
  3. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and...
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98
  4. Soul Searching: The Religious and... Used Trade Paper $11.95
  5. Feed
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  6. Frances and Bernard
    Used Hardcover $10.50
  7. Graceling
    Used Hardcover $9.00
  8. Sex and the Soul: Juggling... Sale Trade Paper $8.98


Donna Freitas is the author of The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy

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