College campuses are known as notorious breeding grounds for the hookup culture. But has the same widespread acceptance of casual sexual relationships infiltrated high schools? 

Some evidence suggests that in fact the hookup culture mentality is seeping into the lives of high school students and affecting their relationships. One youth minister who has worked closely with teens for the past several years says the hookup, in some ways, has become the new norm. 

“Oftentimes that’s how they initiate a relationship,” Cindy Black, director of youth ministry in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., told Our Sunday Visitor. “Instead of being attracted to someone and kind of starting a friendship and getting to know them, you’ll be at a party and be attracted and you’ll just hook up. It’s almost a reversal of a healthy development a relationship.” 

Culture’s influence 

Black, who has worked in the diocese for four years and has spoken to youths and their parents about Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body for five years, sees firsthand the consequences of the distorted messages the broader culture sends about sex. 

“I think there’s so much exposure in the media that our sexuality has become something that’s not sacred whatsoever, and that has definitely infiltrated into Catholic teenagers as well,” she said. “There’s just this openness to say whatever, to talk about whatever, except in the families who … have been discerning about the influences that their children have had.” 

Megan Oberhausen, the diocese’s associate youth director, agreed that the flippant attitudes toward sexual relationships must be combated. Catechists who work with young people must re-establish the norm as what it is — the love between a married man and woman, she said. 

Setting boundaries 

When speaking to high school students about sex, relationships and respecting the dignity of the human person, Black said students generally tend to ask the same questions, because they are curious to know where the appropriate boundaries lie in their own relationships. “I get a lot of confusion,” Black said. “They really are searching for where to draw the line. One of the most common questions I get is, ‘How far is too far?’ Or, ‘Is any kind of contact sinful?’ So helping them to understand the difference between affection and arousal is a big question that I answer.” 

One problem, she said, is that many of the teens don’t have adults to look up to that have been open enough about the Church’s teaching. In many cases, parents themselves don’t know enough about what the Church teaches to answer teens’ questions. Or, they avoid the discussion all together. 

“So, many of the teens really are ignorant about what the Church teaches,” Black said. “And they do see it as this big list of don’ts, and almost like the Church sees sex as a bad thing.” 

But even teens who do grasp the beauty and immensity of the Church’s teachings are not immune to the hookup culture’s ill effects, Black pointed out. 

“They actually carry a pretty tremendous burden with them because … they’re seeing the fallout of the choices of those who hook up regularly, and they see what it’s doing to them in the long run.” 

Positive examples 

Black stressed that one important factor in helping more teens understand the Church’s teaching on sexuality is the visibility of positive Catholic role models. “People that have gone before them that are embracing the truth and beauty of our sexuality shows the attractiveness and inner joy,” she said. “There’s a difference between those who are living in the light and those who aren’t, and I think that teens, probably more than anyone else, can see to the heart of the matter and can detect whether that’s true joy or not.” 

Teens also need to get involved in their parishes, in youth ministry programs and in their families if they are going to develop a solid understanding of sexuality and healthy relationships, added Oberhausen. “I think those are the teens that we see are making those better choices and are better able to understand that the ‘norms’ are not the norms of God, and they’re able to articulate it,” she said. 

As for advice for teens themselves? “I would tell them that we understand it’s not easy in this culture to live God’s truth about our sexuality, but that Jesus Christ will provide every ounce of grace necessary to if we’re committed to it, and if we call on him,” she said. And, “if we fall, he understands sexual sin, he understands sins of the flesh, so we have to turn back to him. Go to confession. They have to recommit themselves and not become discouraged, to trust in God’s plan and know the joy and peace that will ultimately be theirs from living that truth: that God wants way more from them than our culture does.” 

Stephanie Kornexl is OSV assistant editor.