Jane Austen on Hooking-up

Jane Austen

I was watching Pride and Prejudice this past weekend, which I do every time my husband goes out of town. It has to be the BBC 8 hour version with Colin Firth. If you’re a real fan, you’ll understand. You simply cannot scrimp on Jane Austen’s dialogue or on Mr. Firth. But I digress.

Aside from the intrigue, the scandals, the depth of characters, and the biting wit delivered in refined prose, Austen has an ability to talk about sex, relationships and the male/female dynamic in a manner that is timeless. Take this little gem for instance:

Charlotte: [Jane] does seem very well pleased with him.

Elizabeth: I think if [Mr. Bingley] continues so, she’s in a fair way to be very much in love with him.

Charlotte: And Mr Bingley? Do you think he is in love?

Elizabeth: It is clear that he likes her very much

Charlotte: Then she should leave him in no doubt of her heart. She should show more affetion, even than she feels, not less, if she is to secure him.

Elizabeth: Before she is sure of his character? Before she is sure of even her own regard for him?

Charlotte: But of course. Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance you know. There will always be vexation and grief. And it is better to know in advance as little of the defects about your partner as possible.

Oh Jane. We’ve come such a long way since then. We wouldn’t dream of pushing our friends into marriage with anything short of a background check, financial statements, prenups, and a full Google search of their name. We’re not so naive, so careless, so desperate that we would jump into such a major committment without knowing exactly who that person is standing before us.

Except that’s exactly what we do, but in a more damaging way. In the 19th Century it might have been considered prudent to enter into marriage without knowing too much. Now in the 21st Century, the same line of advice is pushed before making a committment of a different kind.

A committment of our bodies.

The advice flung down the halls of our college dormitories, doled out in the locker rooms, and encouraged over late-night phone calls between friends sounds vaguely familiar to Charlotte’s:

1. Better to know as little as possible about the other person before hooking-up.

You might find out that you’re not interested in them at all, that under normal circumstances you’d never want to know them or be in relationship with them. You’ll overthink it and get turned off before you’ve even had a chance to be turned on. Or worse, you find out enough to actually become interested in them beyond the sexual desire.

2. Don’t get too invested upfront.

Walking away the next morning won’t be as difficult if you keep your expectations low and your feelings in check. You can’t be disappointed about something you didn’t want. It’s just a hook-up, a casual encounter of bodies doing what they do best. If you start wanting a committment, a relationship, some sort of involvement beyond the bed, then you’re going to get hurt.

3. Show more interest than you might really feel so that you can land them.

You’re on the fence about the guy, but you’ve shared a couple of classes together and he’s kind of cute. Or she keeps showing up at the same bar and seems really in to you. So long as you’re buying drinks, but don’t think too much about that. Worst case, it’s a night you laugh about with friends over brunch. At best, a fun fling for a few months, right?

Jane Austin mocked the idea of throwing oneself into a marriage without knowing much about that person. What would she think today at the idea that we do the same in committing our bodies, keeping our eyes firmly shut and our hearts closed off?

As one college student was quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “We are told not to be sexual prudes, but to enjoy casual sex, we have to be emotional prudes.”

Have we really progressed as a culture in our sexual freedom? Or have we tricked ourselves into believing that knowing a person physically makes up for knowing nothing about the rest of them?