Archive for the ‘Laura Sessions Stepp’ Category

Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both by Laura Sessions Stepp is what started me on my current reading slump.  It is an impactful, enlightening book about a disturbing cultural trend that I absolutely think people should read but it was too on the nose to be anything but depressing.  Perhaps for people with more distance from the subjects it would be an easier read but as a young twenty-something who grew up in precisely the environment where the hookup culture began (among affluent, white, over-achievers at private schools or elite universities, though it is by no means confined to this group any more) it brought back all the anger I had towards my friends – male and female – who accepted and perpetuated the hookup culture and of how incredibly frustrating it was to witness the emotional turmoil and emerging cynicism brought on by these casual, careless encounters.  It was basically 269 pages of reminders of why the whole university experience was so disappointing.  Bad flashbacks to the torturous bar scene in my university town and to early mornings spent counseling my friends of both genders on their mistakes of the night before.  Yes, cheering stuff.    

As a quick introduction to the topic, here is Stepp’s definition of ‘hooking up’ (emphasis mine):

Hooking up can consist entirely of one kiss, or it can involve fondling, oral sex, anal sex, intercourse or any combination of those things.  It can happen only once with a partner, several times during a week or over many months.  Partners may know each other well, only slightly or not at all, even after they have hooked up regularly.  A hookup often happens in a bedroom, although other places will do: dance floors, bars, bathrooms, auditoriums or any deserted room on campus.  It is frequently unplanned, though it need not be.  It can mean the start of something, the end of something or the whole of something.  Feelings are discouraged, and both partners share an understanding that either of them can walk away at any time.  (p. 24)

Sounds special, doesn’t it?  Look, I’m going to be bitter and slightly jaded throughout this entire review so consider yourself forewarned.  This is a topic that I feel passionately about and that I can’t pretend to be objective towards.  It makes me both unbearably angry and unspeakably sad.  I went to an all-girls school from the ages of twelve to eighteen.  There was no radical feminist agenda, no claims of the superiority of women over men, just a firm expectation that we would mature into confident, respectful, equal members of society.  And I think that made a huge difference to how we approached life after we graduated and what made the contrast with the other young women we encountered so upsetting.  From conversations with high school friends, it seems that biggest shock of university for most of us was trying to decipher what the female sexual script was.  Hooking up was part of that script and while we heard a lot about safe sex from our residence don and from university advisors there was never any discussion about good or meaningful sex.  It seemed right from frosh week that we were expected to be having random, drunken hook ups, as if this were a key part of the university experience not to be missed.  The drunken part is important and perhaps partially explains why the thought processes that must take place before a hook up will always escape a teetotaler like me.  Without alcohol, as Stepp notes, there would be no hook up culture:

Of the hundreds of young women I interviewed about hookup experiences, less than a half-dozen said they were sober at the time.  Some drank for the exhilarating high, others because everyone around them was drinking, others to relax and still others…to quiet the cautionary voices in their heads. (p. 115)

Stepp’s analysis of the issues that form the basis of the hook up culture were particularly resonant.  These arrangements thrive in work-hard, play-hard environments that prize achievement while discouraging emotional sincerity or attachment.  So much of the focus has shifted onto the individual and his or her personal achievements, first academic and then career-related, that these young men and women feel lost when it comes to figuring out where a spouse or partner fits in to all of these plans or how to handle a long-term relationship once it arrives.  Hook ups are easier.  They are instant gratification with no commitment.  They are an illusion – all the physical manifestations of a relationship without any of the work or emotional risk (or reward).

But this mindset has to come from somewhere and Stepp is happy to place some of the blame on the parents who have spent countless hours training their child to succeed academically, to expect her dedication and commitment to studies, sports and countless extracurricular activities, but who shy away from discussions about emotions or relationships, leaving their daughter with no expectations of how she deserves to be treated (or how she should treat her partner) in a healthy relationship: Because kids hear and participate in so few adult discussions about love, and rarely see examples of love among the adults they know, they come to believe that the sex they see around them is love (p. 180).  Neither Stepp nor I can stress how important a factor this is.  I see so many friends – particularly of divorced parents – who base their relationship fantasies on what they see on television or read about in books.  Without a real-life example in front of them, without parents who openly talk about both the struggles and rewards of long-term commitment, they seemed doom to chase after a non-existent fairy tale with the earnest belief that the perfect guy really does exist and that no one else is worthy of them.  My parents lament how many of their thirty-something colleagues – warm, intelligent men and women with so much to offer – are still single even though they admit to desperately wanting to get married.  This is why.  Part of the university experience used to be learning how to date, how to have serious relationships.  That is no longer the norm and hooking up establishes a holding pattern that people may not know how to break, even once they feel ready to.  In the words of Robert Blum at Johns Hopkins:

It’s one things to say relationships can wait when you’re twelve.  It’s something else to say ‘I’ll wait until I’m thirty to get my personal life in order.’  If you do not have experience with forming relationships earlier, your likelihood of entering into a relationship later that can sustained over time is at risk.  It’s like taking an exam assuming you’ll do well without experience in the subject, lots of studying and lots of practice.’ (p. 247)

Stepp focuses, quite rightly, on how hookups affect young women but she also gives brief insights into a few male subjects, showing how difficult these arrangements are for them emotionally.  Stepp repeatedly stresses the importance of female friendships and the emotional connections that ground girls as they flit from hookup to hookup.  Stepp’s female subjects have male friends but they never seem to be close ones, just potential hook up partners, making it presumably that much easier to objectify and use men than if they actually took the time to talk honestly with them and to discover how similarly both genders feel about the situations they find themselves in.  After moving out of residence after first year (the norm at my university), I shared a house with four old floor mates: one girl and three guys.  After living with guys for so long, seeing them fall in love and get their hearts broken, seeing them wander around in confusion after hooking up with a girl they really liked but who now ignored them, seeing them try to have relationships with girls too scared of getting hurt to ever risk opening up to even the most faithful partner, it’s difficult to imagine viewing their gender as simply and as disdainfully as these girls do.     

I loathe the hook up culture because it emblemizes the carelessness and insincerity that have become societal norms.  Sarcasm rather than wit, meaningless promises rather than honest actions, board meetings with furtive under the table text messaging rather than open discussions at family dinners.  We demean ourselves by undervaluing both our bodies and our emotions and then wonder that we feel lost and alone: welcome to your Quarterlife Crisis!  Not so long ago:

There were generally accepted rules back then about what to do and not do sexually.  These standards restricted young women more than young men, by no means a fair deal, but they at lest allowed women time and space to consider what kind of partners they wanted to love and what love should look like.  The guardrails have vanished, except among certain religious communities, and in their place is an increasingly sophisticated marketing industry pushing sex-toy workshops and T-shirts that read “Juicy” and “Cunning Linguist”. (p. 180)

What did we really establish by trading in the old conventions and timelines for this brave new world of unlimited options and undefined but overwhelming (and increasingly unrealistic and unfulfilling) expectations?

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