Is there a downside to hooking up?
Some are alarmed at the 'trend,' others say there's nothing new
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is the ability to unhook from a partner at any time, just as they might delete an old song on their iPod or an out-of-date 'away' message on their computer."
  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 information.

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  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 of relationship.
  "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 health."
  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 love.
  "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