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Author explores why girls hook up to culture of 'uncaring'

In 1998, Washington Post reporter Laura Sessions Stepp learned about a sex ring at a Washington, D.C., middle school in which a dozen girls were regularly performing oral sex on two or three boys. That set her off on a journalistic search of the secret sexual lives of adolescents.

She stumbled upon "hooking up," rampant in high schools and colleges, and even in some middle schools.

What she uncovered as she spent a year hanging out with three groups of young women -- one at a high school, two at college campuses -- led her to write Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both (Riverhead Books; $24.95).

Stepp dissects the social trends behind and implications of the hook-up culture, and what it means for young women as they negotiate a confusing sexual landscape.

We caught up with Stepp by telephone and talked about her new book.

Question: Define hooking up.

Answer: It's a form of relating intimately that can mean anything from kissing to intercourse. Young people use it to describe a whole variety of behaviors in an intentionally vague way so that no one really knows what they did. The defining characteristic is that it's sex without attachment.

Q: What in girls' lives is driving this trend?

A: It's both a sense of empowerment and an acknowledgment these girls are very busy. They are very programmed to succeed, and parents very much want them to be valedictorian and go to a Division I college. . . . They want to do everything perfectly, and if you press them they'll say, "I just don't have time for a boyfriend."

Q: What troubled you as you did your research?

A: One thing that most struck me when talking to these girls was that they weren't happy doing what they were doing. And they were having to rely on booze to do it. This is really a very depressing book. What I heard girls saying was they were caught up in something they didn't know how to get out of, but they didn't see an alternative -- that is, a relationship that had them joined at the hip with some guy 24/7. They didn't want that, and they didn't know how to have something less than that. So hooking up was the easy fallback position.

These girls are losing out on some of the best part of their young lives, which is love.

Q: How are girls harmed?

A: Hooking up lacks passion and any sense of commitment. Hooking up is purposefully uncaring. In a committed relationship, you are motivated to communicate and work through problems, and these young women don't get a chance to practice those skills. Judging by what I observed, hooking up can lead to depression and low self-esteem.

Q: You talk about the effect of biochemicals in your book.

A: Girls' bodies react differently not only to intercourse but any sexual interaction, in which these huge jolts of oxytocin get released. It's evolution's way of making women hold their children close, nurture them. In sex it makes women want to hold the guy close, love him, nurture him. In hooking up girls are having to suppress this reaction.

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by Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje
San Antonio Express-News
March 8, 2007
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