McNellis Examines ‘Hookup Culture’ Through Jesuit Lense

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It was 13 years ago that Rev. Paul McNellis, S.J., a part-time professor of philosophy, first set out to tackle the concerns he had with the hookup culture at Boston College.  

“I was seeing pain and suffering all around me in my students,” McNellis said. “And I thought that [the hookup culture] was the cause of much of it, and that it would be irresponsible if I didn’t try to address it.”

In a talk on Thursday night at 7 p.m. in McGuinn 121, sponsored by Sons of St. Patrick, St. Thomas More Society, and Gratia Plena, McNellis addressed the topic once again. The two main questions of the night were, “Is hookup culture the new norm?” and “Is it here to stay?”  

Although he did not delve into either question in significant detail, McNellis took the discussion in a different direction, addressing his main concerns with the hookup culture, which included the vagueness of the term “hookup,” the assumptions people make when hooking up, and how men shouldn’t take advantage of women in this manner.

Many of us are left puzzled at the variety of options available when a friend tells us they “hooked up” with someone, McNellis said. He drew the attention of those in attendance to why the term “hookup” has replaced more specific ones like making out, casual sex, shacking up, one-night stand, friends with benefits, cohabitation, and others.

For McNellis, the lack of specificity is exactly why it has caught on. Not only does the euphemism “hook up” obscure a whole host of questions that are difficult to discuss but important concerns of ours, it also encourages people, especially men, to boast about their exploits and even fabricate them entirely. He compared them to Augustine, who in Confessions says, when discussing his friends, “I hear them boasting of their exploits and the louder the exploits, the louder the voices.”

“Often one who says ‘I hooked up last night,’ purposely leaves it to the imagination of the hearer to interpret what he really means,” McNellis said. “He implies he’s ‘getting some,’ when in fact the ‘hooking up’ was bumping into someone at a party. And the ‘getting some’ was nothing more than getting an answer to the question, ‘what’s your major.’”

McNellis first addressed the problems he saw within the hookup culture in 2004 at a talk titled “Chastity and Courage.” The following semester, in 2005, Marina McCoy, Kerry Cronin, and Mary Troxell gave a talk on “Bringing Back the Date,” which McNellis noted is what Cronin’s talk has since grown from.

McNellis also addressed a quote from Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield’s hookup culture talk back in February, which asked, “What if random hookups were a way of countering all these examens you’re doing?” McNellis rendered this not just a misunderstanding of hookups, but of Christian prayer.


“Don’t participate in the hookup culture. Replace it with something better. Have the courage to be a better man.”

—Rev. Paul McNellis, S.J., part-time professor of philosophy


Although McCoy, Cronin, and Troxell took the issues in a different direction, McNellis argues that each spoke for similar reasons: the unhappiness that this culture was causing and the desire to suggest legitimate alternatives.

“Both back then and today, many would deny that there’s any downside to the hookup culture,” McNellis said. “And who are we to tell them what to do? But we weren’t trying to tell them what to do, but rather suggest that there were real alternatives that could lead to a deeper, long-lasting happiness.”

McNellis noted suggestions of legitimate alternatives, such as asking someone on a date from Cronin, and chastity, which he differentiates from celibacy. He recognized, however, the reasons why many people do engage in the hookup culture and deem them equally, if not more, legitimate than the alternatives. He pointed to examples like it’s a time for self-discovery, it’s fine as long as it’s consensual and courteous, it’s pleasurable, it’s realistic given busy schedules, and, for women especially, it’s empowering.

McNellis articulated, however, that these suggestions maintain one fundamental misunderstanding.

“It presupposes that what I do with my body has no affect on me, my soul, unless I want it to,” McNellis said. “My body isn’t really me, it’s just something I use or have. And therefore what I do with it doesn’t mean anything unless I decide it does.”

The idea that people can disconnect from their bodies and participate in something, presumably, without meaning is, to McNellis, not only harmful to human nature but simply impossible.

“Anything I do with my body I do with all of me,” McNellis said. “Therefore what I feel is not merely what I wish for but also the result of what I do. I don’t have a body. I am a body.”

McNellis finished his talk with by addressing the men in the audience, asking each of them to consider whether they would be okay with someone treating their sister or mother they way that they currently treat women. He said the most important question each of them will ask themselves during their time at BC does not concern their major or their future career, but what kind of father they will eventually want to be. Being a good father, according to McNellis, requires all the virtues—courage, wisdom, prudence, compassion, and understanding.

He urged the men to not say “I love you,” unless they are prepared to back it up with deeds—to respect women enough to say no and to live a chaste life, which McNellis describes as what it means to love someone the way they deserve.

Despite the claim of “real life doesn’t begin until after graduation” that many BC students seemingly live by, McNellis contended that there is no time to waste.

“Don’t participate in the hookup culture,” he said. “Replace it with something better. Have the courage to be a better man.”

Featured Image by Alex Gaynor / Heights Staff