NEW YORK — During a class discussion on adolescence, a high school teacher recently asked her students whether they go on dates. We don’t “date,” the 12th graders reported. We “hook up.”

If you’re in your 40s, “hooking up” might mean catching a friend downtown for lunch. But to people in their teens or 20s, the phrase often means a casual sexual encounter — anything from kissing onwards — with no strings attached.

Now a new book on this not-so-new subject is drawing fire in some quarters for its conclusion: That hookups can be damaging to young women, denying their emotional needs, putting them at risk of depression and even sexually transmitted disease, and making them ill-equipped for real relationships later on.

For that, Laura Sessions Stepp, author of “Unhooked,” and a writer for The Washington Post, has been criticized as a throwback to an earlier, restrictive moral climate, an anti-feminist and a tut-tutting mother telling girls not to give the milk away when nobody’s bought the cow.

The author “imagines the female body as a thing that can be tarnished by too much use,” wrote reviewer Kathy Dobie in Stepp’s own paper, the Post, and suggested that Stepp was, in one part, trying to “instill sexual shame.” For Meghan O’Rourke, literary editor at, Stepp is “buying into alarmism about women,” and making sex “a bigger, scarier, and more dangerous thing than it already is.”

Stepp argues these critics have misconstrued her ideas.

True, she regrets that “dating has gone completely by the boards,” replaced by group outings that lead to casual encounters. True, she regrets that oral sex “isn’t even considered sex anymore.” But she isn’t saying girls should not have sex; just that they should have it in the context of a meaningful connection: “I am saying that girls should have choices.”
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Too often, Stepp argues, girls and young women say proudly that they like the control “hookups” give them — control over their emotions, their schedules, and freedom to focus on things like schoolwork and career (the students she profiles in her book are high achievers).

Being as bad as the boys
But she says they frequently mistake that freedom for empowerment. “I often hear girls say things like, ’We can be as bad as guys now,”’ she says. “But I don’t think that’s what liberation is all about.”

Stepp says her book stems from an experience she had almost 10 years ago. She and other parents were summoned to her son’s middle school. The principal informed them that all year long, a dozen girls — ages 13 or 14 — had been performing oral sex on several boys in the class. (Her own son was not involved.) Stepp wrote about the sex ring in a front-page article for the Post, which led to further research.

She’s had her share of positive feedback, including from educators and from young women like those in her book.

One 18-year-old student, who calls herself a feminist, e-mailed her to say she had approached the book warily, but came to believe it “will change the way my generation views sex.”

Contacted later by telephone, the student, Liz Funk, said she agreed with Stepp’s contention that “real relationships among college students don’t really exist anymore.”

‘Thanksgiving for guys’
“If I or my friends had the opportunity for real relationships, we’d take it,” says Funk, who attends school in New York City. “But my generation hasn’t really been conditioned for it.” Hookups, she adds, which she rejected for herself long ago but some of her friends still embrace, “are like Thanksgiving for guys. They don’t have to do anything to get sex!” And she bemoans the amount of time fellow students can spend on hookups: “It can be like a full-time job.”

Another student, at a small women’s college in South Carolina, says the “hookup culture” is not all that pervasive, in her experience.

“I’m aware of it,” said Grace Bagwell, 22, a senior at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C.. “But it’s untrue to say women aren’t having meaningful relationships at this point. I’ve been in one for three years, and I have a lot of friends who are getting married or are engaged.”

Sociologist Kathleen Bogle has also studied hooking up, which she says dates back to the ’80s. She has a book, “Hooking Up,” coming out this fall.

“I argue that we shouldn’t look at this from a moralistic viewpoint — as in, our youth is in decline — and we shouldn’t celebrate it either, in a ’Sex in the City’ light,” says Bogle, who hasn’t read Stepp’s book. She also believes that it’s wrong to assume women aren’t hoping for something more from their hookups.

“It’s a system for finding relationships — and there isn’t really an alternate system,” says Bogle. “It feels like it’s the only game in town, and if you don’t do it, you’re left out.” She did find that after college, there was a transition back to traditional dating.
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The debate over hooking up — how prevalent, how harmful — was neatly displayed not long ago in a high school classroom in Maclean, Va. Nancy Schnog, who teaches a course in adolescence to 12th-graders, was discussing Stepp’s findings.

“She hit the nail on the head,” one girl said, according to Schnog. “She perfectly described our social climate.” Many agreed, but an equally vocal faction argued the opposite. “This is totally overblown,” said another girl. “Why do adults always stereotype our generation so negatively?”

At the University of Maryland, Robin Sawyer, who teaches a course on sexuality, finds Stepp’s book pretty much on target.

“Men have always hooked up,” says Sawyer. “What you are seeing now is a desire of women to act in a masculine way, without being judged a whore.” He also finds that the “hookup” vocabulary softens the impact of the behavior. “’I hooked up with someone’ sounds a lot better than ’I had oral sex with someone whose name I don’t even know,”’ says Sawyer, who is mentioned in Stepp’s book.

“Can you generalize from a few women? If you can find a criticism, it is probably that,” Sawyer said. “But her thesis is pretty accurate. This is not your grandparents’ generation.”