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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 Slate.com, 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.”
Let’s call this rhetoric what it is: a tired repeat of the sexist double standards that have haunted women for centuries. (The subtitle of Shalit’s second book, “It’s Not Bad To Be Good,” clearly articulates the regressive notion that chastity and sexual restraint renders one “good.”)
The idea that women are so fragile that a bad one night stand leaves them scarred —or “in turmoil” as Laura Sessions Stepp puts it—is destructive. (So is the common belief that men are incapable of feeling empty or sad after a similar encounter; Sessions Stepp absurdly claims that when it comes to being in turmoil, “boys are not.”)
With consensual, no-strings-attached sex so regularly under fire, the positive aspects of “hooking up” rarely come to light. Here are six ways that having (safe) sex outside of a monogamous relationship might actually be good for you.
1. Asserting your desires can create a tremendous sense of power.
The word “empowerment” is so fraught as to be nearly useless. But for girls who are constantly bombarded with the message that they need commitment before enjoying sex, there’s real strength in freeing their sex drive from conservative norms.
Some women don’t need a deep spiritual connection in order to enjoy carnal pursuits and some men do; the old stereotypes aren’t useful in navigating your own needs, and breaking anachronistic expectations through experience could lead you to a better understanding of your own sexuality. Sex educator Heather Corinna’s ongoing, massive survey of sexual experience and attitudes—8,553 respondents so far (4,990 women, 81% casual sex participants)—shows many women have sex outside of relationships for that very reason: 80% of her respondents chose “to find out more about my sexuality” as a motivation for having casual sex.
Similarly, almost 80% cited their desire “to feel free/uninhibited,” which leads us to the next point.
2. It might help you transcend your inhibitions.
When most of us embark on a new relationship, we’re inundated with anxieties. We usually want to please the other person and we want them to think well of us, because we think highly of them and we want to make the connection last. Above all, we definitely don’t want to weird them out with our strange fantasies and turn-ons. We save that type of honesty for much later, when we feel safer. Many couples never share at all: lack of disclosure is the norm for married couples in a variety of ways, whether the issue is finances or hopes and dreams. In a 2001 poll, only 52% of male respondents and 62% of female respondents told their spouses about their sexual history.
There’s less at stake emotionally with a casual partner. This is the very target at which critics aim their arrows—how can women enjoy sex without an emotional connection?!—but this lack of investment can be freeing. It’s the same relative anonymity that causes some people to blurt out their deepest secrets to their hairdresser or a taxi driver. When we’re with someone who isn’t a fixture of our daily life, our egos relax enough to let a little authenticity come through. Rather than worrying about impressing the other person, you can be more assertive about what satisfies them in bed. And in doing so…
3. You’ll learn more about your sexuality
Through encountering new techniques and tastes, through subduing the urge to self-censor, you’ll start to recognize what brings you the greatest amount of pleasure as well as what completely turns you off. In a perfect world, this type of exploration can take place with someone you’re in love with. But many men and women have had the sad experience of falling in love with someone who refuses to indulge in playful sex or whose preferences are entirely at odds with their partner’s.
The heart and the libido are by no means guaranteed to be compatible. (The New York Times recently reported that 15% of marriages were sexless, meaning the couple had not had sex in six months to a year. Casual sex bypasses this by concerning itself primarily with the libido, which is typically regarded as a source of shame and fear, but can yield its own profound and revelatory moments.
4. You might learn about yourself emotionally
The fear and propaganda around one-night stands isn’t just sexist, it’s illogical. Bad long-term relationships involving miscommunication, unmet expectations, and lies are just as likely to damage participants as any sexual disappointment on a short-term scale. Both men and women are only as vulnerable as they allow themselves to be, and provided they’re with someone who won’t exploit it, vulnerability can be a beautiful thing whether in the confines of a traditional relationship or not.
A series of hook ups might lead you to the conclusion that you’re enjoying single life and not ready for anything longer-term, or may prove to you that you feel the best sexually and emotionally when you’re serious about someone. Either way, it will be a truth about yourself that you’ve tested out, not something you assumed out of fear. As Laura Sessions Stepp says dismissively, “everyone’s had some sort of sexual experience and they all think they’re experts on it.” But no one other than yourself can be the expert on your sexual experience.
5. You might be a better partner in a committed sexual relationship
In Corinna’s results on reasons for engaging in committed sex, almost 90% cited motivation due to “feelings of obligation” and 86% listed “to earn something from my partner.” Surely this can’t be the utopian sexual experience we’re supposed to hold out for?
Should a monogamous commitment appeal to you, your knowledge about yourself and sexuality in general will be an invaluable tool to bring to the table. If you’ve experienced sex as a vehicle for relatively emotionally uncomplicated pleasure, you may even be less likely to go along with sex you don’t want, or to seize upon sex as a tool for manipulation.
You might get more than you bargained for. Contrary to conservative insistence that sex before emotions renders an emotional connection impossible, sexual intimacy so powerfully fosters emotional intimacy that partners sometimes end up dating the person they thought would be a one night stand. In Corinna’s survey, an impressive 82.5% said that one or more of their casual sex relationships became long-term and/or serious.
If you need even more convincing that casual sex won’t ruin you, consider this. Another recent study, one conducted on 1,311 Minnesotans between the ages of 18 and 24, found that there was no correlation between emotional or mental distress and casual sex. The professors were “surprised,” said Marla Eisenberg, lead researcher. “The conventional wisdom is that casual sex […] is harmful. That’s what we’ve been teaching kids for a decade.”
6. You’ll learn more about sex
We’ve all heard the stories about undereducated, traditionalist marriages in which the partners never realized that sex is possible in a position other than missionary, or that a woman can orgasm. With public school programs throughout the country refusing to provide young people with accurate, useful information, Americans are often left to educate themselves through the oldest and arguably best form of learning: experience.
If women’s mags like Cosmo are to be believed, sex is a pretty predictable phenomenon, more like operating a basic machine than learning the unique tastes of an individual. Given our culture’s obsessive promotion of narrow beauty aesthetics and even narrower sexual practices, one might never suspect that people have wildly divergent preferences, arousal triggers, and responses to touch. Variety in partners makes it nearly impossible to maintain the “one size fits all” mentality, while never experiencing more than one partner might actually reinforce it.]]>
The hookup – that meeting and mating ritual that started among high school and college students – is becoming a trend among young people who have entered the workaday world. For the many who are delaying the responsibilities of marriage and child-rearing, hooking up has virtually replaced dating.
It is a major shift in the culture over the past few decades, says Kathleen Bogle, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University.
Young people during one of the most sexually active periods of their lives aren’t necessarily looking for a mate. What used to be a mate-seeking ritual has shifted to hookups: sexual encounters with no strings attached.
“The idea used to be you are going to date someone that is going to lead to something sexual happening,” Bogle says. “In the hookup era, something sexual happens, even though it may be less than sexual intercourse, that may or may not ever lead to dating.”
Young people from high school on are so preoccupied with friends, getting an education and establishing themselves, they don’t make time for relationships.
New Goal: Fun, Not Marriage
“Going out on a date is a sort of ironic, obsolete type of thing,” says 25-year-old Elizabeth Welsh, who graduated from college in 2005 and now lives in Boston. She says that among her friends, dating is a joke. “Going out on a date to dinner and a movie? It’s so cliche – isn’t that funny?”
It seems it’s far easier to have casual sexual encounters or hookups, though several national surveys of college students found a stalwart 28 percent who remain virgins. The term “hookup” is so vague, however, it might well encompass someone’s idea of virginity – it involves anything from kissing to fooling around, oral sex and sexual intercourse.
“For me, it’s been anytime that I was attracted to a guy and we spent the night together,” Welsh says. “It has been sex; it has just been some sort of light making out. That’s the beautiful thing about the phrase. Whatever happened is hooking up.”
Bogle interviewed college students on a small and a large campus, as well as recent college graduates, to find out what was going on. The hooking-up phenomena has been traced back to the 1960s and the 1970s, when male and female students were thrown together in apartment-style dormitories, and there was a revolt against strict rules on having a member of the opposite sex in your dorm, lights out and curfews.
“What you see on college campuses now, even in some cases Catholic campuses, is that young men and women have unrestricted access to each other,” Bogle says. Throw in the heavy drinking that occurs on most campuses, and there are no inhibitions to stand in the way of a hookup.
The alumni Bogle spoke with were less into hooking up after leaving college, but she says that’s changing. It is catching on among young working adults, mainly because of the Internet and social networks.
The Evolution Of Dating
Dating itself represented a historical change. It evolved out of a courtship ritual where young women entertained gentleman callers, usually in the home, under the watchful eye of a chaperone. At the turn of the 20th century, dating caught on among the poor whose homes were not suitable for entertaining, according to Beth Bailey’s history of dating, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America.
Young couples would go out for a movie or dinner. The expectation was that dating, as with courtship, would ultimately lead to a relationship, the capstone of which was marriage. Precious few of these young women attended college.
According to experts, the main reason hooking up is so popular among young people is that in the United States and other Western countries, the age at which people marry for the first time has been steadily creeping up. As of 2005, in the United States, men married for the first time around the age of 27, and women at about 25 years of age.
Bogle says the hookup is what happens when high school seniors and college freshmen suddenly begin to realize they won’t be marrying for five, 10 or 15 years.
Prioritizing Career And Social Life
Marriage is often the last thing on the minds of young people leaving college today.
“My first few years out of college was about trying to get on my feet and having a good time,” Welsh says. Dating and a relationship interfered with that.
Avery Leake, 25, knows what this is like from the other side. He’s in a relationship now, but he says that, in general, most of the young women he used to meet “just wanted sex. They’re independent.” Being in a relationship was not important to them, especially if it interfered with their careers or their pursuit of advanced degrees, he says.
Leake found that he was also up against women who had as much money as he had, if not more, and he says dating had just become too expensive. “You used to be able to get away with paying $30 for a dinner and a movie,” Leake says. “Not anymore.”
Empowerment Or Loss Of Intimacy?
A number of experts accept this relaxed attitude toward sex outside of relationships as a natural consequence of the sexual revolution, women’s growing independence and the availability of modern contraceptives. But Deborah Roffman, who conducts human sexuality workshops for middle- and high-school-age students and their parents, sees that as a distorted view of liberation.
“It’s not a new model. I think most people would probably look back and agree that this has been a more traditionally, or at least stereotypically, male model,” says Roffman. “What I’ve seen over the last few years is girls adopting a more compartmentalized view, and feeling good and empowered by it.”
She’s not convinced that this is a good thing for women, and says that being able to say yes is only one way of looking at freedom. She would feel much better if young men also were developing a greater capacity for intimacy.
Being able to engage in intimate relationships where men and women bring all of themselves to the relationship is the cornerstone of family, Roffman says.
But young people like Elizabeth Welsh don’t see the hookup as an obstacle to future relationships:
“It is a common and easy mistake,” Welsh says, “to assume that the value of friendship and those relationship building blocks have no place in longer term relationships.”
If you’re honest and open about what you’re doing, and willing to commit to a relationship, she says, a hookup and friendship can be fused into a lifetime partnership.
Partnership Still The Ultimate Goal
At 25, May Wilkerson would like a relationship, but not a family – not quite yet. She’s lived a lot of places: Argentina, Canada and Paris. Wilkerson says she hasn’t found much intimacy with the men she’s encountered.
In New York City, where she moved two years ago, people seem even more emotionally detached, and she thinks it is because so many of the people who come to the big city are focused on success.
“For many of us, the requisite vulnerability and exposure that comes from being really intimate with someone in a committed sense is kind of threatening.”
And the thought of being in love with someone, Wilkerson says, “is the most terrifying thing.”
Yes, she has been in love, but the guy wasn’t quite into it. There was one older guy who was serious; he used to bring her cupcakes. She couldn’t work up an interest in him.
Today, Wilkerson says people hook up via the Internet and text messaging.
“What that means is that you have contact with many, many more people, but each of those relationships takes up a little bit less of your life. That fragmentation of the social world creates a lot of loneliness.”
Hooking up started before the Internet and social networks, but the technology is extending the lifestyle way beyond the campus. Deborah Roffman says no one is offering this generation guidance on how to manage what is essentially a new stage in life.
The dilemma for this generation is how to learn about intimacy, she says: “How am I going to have a series of relationships that are going to be healthy for me and others, and going to prepare me” for settling down with one person?
Wilkerson doesn’t really focus on the concerns of people like Roffman, who fear that hooking up doesn’t bode well for the future of young people. She thinks young people will be able to sort it out for themselves.
“We all attended health class in middle school and high school. We know about condoms and sexually transmitted disease. Sex is fun, and a lot of people would argue that it is a physical need. It’s a healthy activity.”]]>