Is there a downside to hooking up?
Some are alarmed at the 'trend,' others say there's nothing new
By ATHIMA CHANSANCHAI
March 18, 2007
A new book on casual teen and young adult sex and its
consequences tackles an old topic -- "hooking up" -- but goes on to
argue that having a history of no-strings encounters scars you for
life, laying the foundation for a future of unfulfilling relationships
and other emotional problems.
To hear Laura Sessions Stepp, the author of "Unhooked," tell it,
high school students no longer care about being boyfriends and
girlfriends. Rather, they're skipping love entirely in favor of
exploring physical urges at any opportunity open to them. Girls, she
writes, are especially vulnerable as they play like Casanovas in a game
where there are no winners.
The book by Stepp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The
Washington Post, is catching both praise and heat for its depiction of
a generation of serial non-daters who rely on casual sexual encounters
-- especially of the oral variety -- as a way to have all the fun
without any of the sticky emotions "real" relationships entail. To her,
their drive to achieve success and maintain independence comes at the
cost of dealing with honest feelings and rejecting traditional ideas of
love, or even lust.
Stepp writes, "Hooking up's defining characteristic is the
ability to unhook from a partner at any time, just as they might delete
an old song on their iPod or an out-of-date 'away' message on their
A local sexpert just doesn't buy it.
"First of all, everybody isn't out there doing hookups, so can
that," said Pepper Schwartz, author of "Ten Talks Parents Must Have
With Children About Sex and Character" and a professor of sociology at
the University of Washington. "Why do we want to read another book by
Chicken Little? She's saying there's fire, and I don't think so."
Schwartz said there's very little empirical evidence to back up
the assertions Stepp makes, although occasionally studies do pop up.
But because they're so limited in their scope, she said it's hard to
make anything other than sweeping generalizations using that
A study released in February by two researchers at the
University of California-San Francisco tracked 618 ninth-graders into
their sophomore year, surveying their feelings after having experienced
oral and vaginal sex (44 percent).
Researchers Bonnie Halpern-Felsher and Sonya Brady found that
"girls were more likely than boys to report feeling bad about
themselves and feeling used." Adolescents who engaged only in oral sex
described it as a double-edged experience. They were less likely to
feel guilty or used, but they also were "less likely to report
experiencing pleasure, feeling good about themselves, and having their
relationship become better as a result of sex."
While the after effects of sex may not be the most pleasant for
adolescents, Schwartz said there's still nothing that convinces her
that hookups have more lasting detrimental effects than any other kind
"There's no safety out there," she said. "Our hearts are
vulnerable. Does having a drive-by sexual experience damage us more
than the ups and downs of sexual relationships and love?"
Stepp's book spends a lot of time with college students at Duke
and George Washington universities, but she also interviewed high
school students, whose candor probably will throw a whole mess of
parents into a protective frenzy.
Going through Stepp's vocabulary of what high school girls call
what they do with the boys is like reading bits of Dan Savage or other
graphic sex columns that roll through alt-weeklies. If you read those,
her words won't shock. If you don't, you might fall out of your seat.
While a brief visit with some Ballard High School girls did not
yield shocking language, it did indicate some of them agree with some
of what Stepp has to say. For the freshmans sitting at a table inside a
lcoal teriyaki/pho place, it seemed as if relations between the sexes
are as confusing as ever.
"That's kind of true," said Rachel Deneka, 16, when asked about
how common hooking up is. "I don't think a lot of kids commit. They
want to have fun in high school. 'We're dating' is just a title.
"People hook up so they don't have to put their emotions on the
line," she said. "You have to be able to not get attached."
"Sometimes people hook up and they think there's gonna be more,
and that's how people get hurt," said her friend Janelle Menday, 14.
"I think relationships still do happen, but hookups happen
more," said Parrish Poston, 15. She said she could see the potential
for such behavior causing lasting emotional damage. But as for its
being the end of traditional couples? Not likely.
"I don't hook up. I like relationships," said Chelsea Kern, 15.
At times in the book, it seems as if Stepp hasn't been in touch
with college life for the past 30, even 40, years. You mean guys will
get a girl drunk to get her in bed? No kidding. And girls will do the
same to get primed for it? You don't say. Bars are "prime hunting
grounds" for this generation? Someone had better tell that to the 20-
and 30-somethings still trawling through watering holes.
Lines like, "Morgan was convinced that Greek life had a lot to
do with how much she drank," and, "While some young women can sleep
with men and not become attached, many cannot," may make the reader
wonder a little about Stepp's apparent naiveté.
Calling alcohol "liquid courage" as if it were a new term, she goes on
to relate the experiences of drunken frat boys and sorority girls
eventually leading to sex with people they could only remember by
snapping a picture on their cell phones.
Stepp warns of the pitfalls of promiscuity (bringing up the
scene in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" in which Andie MacDowell
recounts her many sexual partners to an astonished Hugh Grant): "Who
was asking them to think seriously about their goals for happiness
beyond the law degree or to consider that having sex with lots of men
might limit their ability to sustain a long-term commitment as well as
their ability to conceive children?"
Schwartz countered: "What I have seen in young people is that
they go through a period of hookups and then it doesn't work for them
anymore. It's the rare person whose entire social life is hookups for
years. I don't think the loveless act of sex is always a terrible
thing. I think you learn from it. If we were all that fragile we'd all
be in funny farms now. Let's give these kids some respect."
Still, there are some other experts who aren't so quick to dismiss the points Stepp makes.
"Hooking up also disconnects sex from love -- or even from
like," said D'Arcy Lyness, adolescent psychologist and behavioral
health editor for TeensHealth. "Physical attraction and sexual desire
are important new feelings for girls to explore. But so is learning to
love another person -- developing interpersonal intimacy and closeness
that comes from self-disclosure and sharing experiences.
"Love develops -- and is most meaningful and most satisfying --
when physical attraction and passion happen along with a sense of
closeness and attachment to that person. Physical intimacy without
emotional intimacy isn't the same as love. If we are to have satisfying
loving relationships during adulthood, we all need experiences that
teach us how to love, how to refine and develop our loving
relationships so that we can find satisfying relationships. In
adulthood, love -- not just sex -- is vital to our happiness and
The main sticking point critics have with the book is the
nagging sense the problems Stepp repeats aren't anything men and women
haven't been dealing with forever. Confusion, hurt, rejection and
staying together are all part of the roller coaster of young lust, and
"It's an older generation imbuing each sexual act with
sacredness and meaning and identity and rejection at the largest and
deepest possible level," Schwartz said. "If it doesn't go right, it's
because it isn't tied to committed relationships. Well, hello, it
hasn't been like that since the baby boom generation got it on."
P-I reporter Athima Chansanchai can be reached at 206-448-8041 or email@example.com.