Moral Panic Comes 'Unhooked'

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This Valentine's Day, as conservative groups lamented the supposed death of romance on college campuses due to the popularity of The Vagina Monologues, they found an ally in the mainstream media. In the Washington Post Style section, reporter Laura Sessions Stepp weighed in with a lengthy piece about how women just don't care about finding love anymore.

It was an excerpt from her new book, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, which explains the purportedly disastrous effects of the "hookup" on high school and college women.

According to Stepp, a hookup is anything from making out to sex to passing out partially clothed in the same bed. For the past 10 years, Stepp has taken a shocked-and-appalled "kids these days!" tone in explaining the youth dating scene to the Post's baby-boomer (and older) readership. (She penned a cutting-edge expose of the "wingman" phenomenon last year, as if friends haven't been helping friends get dates for millennia.) After mining some of her contacts from reporting that story and sending letters to campus administrators, Stepp found a handful of high school- and college-aged girls who were willing to share with her the details of their sex lives for the better part of a year. Their stories make up the bulk of the book.

While this type of in-depth interviewing doesn't really allow for a representative sample under even the best circumstances, Stepp doesn't even make a minimal effort at statistical integrity. She interviewed six college students who attend two primarily white, upper-class, Greek-heavy private schools: Duke University in Durham, N.C., and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. These girls aren't just "privileged" in the sense that they can afford to attend private universities. One drove to school in a brand-new Lincoln Navigator, a high school graduation present from her father. Another girl's mother took her on a Caribbean vacation when she was feeling a bit down after a breakup.

These are women who have been told they can do and have it all, who have grand career ambitions, who work hard in school and play even harder on the weekends. They like to get drunk at bars called Shooters and Charlie's, and maybe go home with the occasional lacrosse player. In the course of Stepp's year with them, most have a series of unfulfilling hookups, as well as at least one more important relationship.

Although she self-identifies as a feminist, many of Stepp's conclusions are soaked in conservative rhetoric. She tells women they don't really like going out and getting drunk, they just think they do. ("Admit it, the bar scene is a guy thing.") She goes on to explain that unlike men, when women have sex their bodies produce oxytocin, a chemical that makes them bond with their partner. And women who have engaged in multiple hookups have trouble settling down with one man later in life because their bodies stop producing oxytocin, so they can no longer form bonds as easily. This is a widely debunked theory, also espoused by many abstinence-only education curricula and by Eric Keroack, an anti-choice advocate recently appointed by President Bush to oversee federal family planning programs.

Stepp says women aren't naturally inclined to initiate sex; they just think they have to because they're encouraged to pursue what they want in other areas of life. Rather than sit demurely and wait for men to come calling, they'd rather enjoy the thrill of making the first move, kissing a guy in the corner of a bar, grinding against a stranger on the dance floor, and taking him home.

They're fooling themselves, Stepp says. She calls for reinstating the sexual double-standard (men pursue, women are pursued) for feminist reasons: It wasn't fair, but it was better for girls because it kept them from getting hurt, and it ensured that loving relationships developed later in life. Back in the good old days "there were generally accepted rules back then about what to do and not do sexually," she writes. "These standards restricted young women more than young men, by no means a fair deal, but they at least allowed women time and space to consider what kind of partners they wanted to love and what that love should look like." Because for Stepp, love, not academic or career ambitions, should be the focus of young women's energies.

Stepp makes at least one valid point. If women aren't finding hookups sexually pleasurable (and indeed, many women go as far as to say they are emotionally damaging), then something needs to change. But Stepp never proves destructive hookups are as widespread as she believes. She argues that all hookups are problematic in and of themselves, regardless of how women feel about them at the time. In other words, Stepp's subjects feel unfulfilled because they're having casual sex, not just because they're having bad sex. Her solution is for women to exit the bar scene altogether, go home, and attract a loving boyfriend by honing their baking skills. "Guys will do anything for homemade baked goods," she chirps.

This is exactly what many young women want to avoid, and rightfully so. It's their ambition to have a successful career--not their ambition to bed the cutest guy at a party--that's keeping them from forming lengthy, serious relationships in college. For ambitious students, the chances seem slim that a relationship can continue after graduation unless one partner (historically, the woman) makes some serious sacrifices. Today people marry later in life; the sacrifices don't seem quite as worth it when you don't expect to settle down until you're in your late 20s.

But for Stepp, having serious a boyfriend is the be-all end-all of the college experience. "When you talk about ambition, there's probably no one who's more ambitious than I was in college," Stepp told me over the phone last week. "But I didn't want to let that ambition get in the way of having boyfriends."

But the women Stepp interviewed do have relationships. Most don't last more than a few months, but they're certainly more than casual hookups. And as Stepp's 22-year-old son recently pointed out to The New York Times, sometimes hookups do lead to more serious dating.

One of the women Stepp follows, Nicole (Stepp changed the names of all of her interview subjects), breaks up with her semi-serious boyfriend because she's off to Greece for an internship, and he'll be entering his third year of medical school in Dallas. Given the overall thrust of her book, Stepp seems to imply that the reason Nicole chose not to stay with her boyfriend after graduation is somehow related to hookup culture. Writes Stepp, "Patience and willingness to work through difficulties do not come easily to a Google generation that expects problems to be quickly resolved." But in reality, it's not laziness. It's Nicole's desire to be tethered only to her own career path that prevents her from continuing the relationship. She sees marriage as a long way off. "Maybe I should just stick with the girls," she tells Stepp.

Despite Stepp's tendency to drop never-used slang into the book (when's the last time you called someone a "stud muffin," or referred to cunnilingus as "eating a roast beef sandwich"?), she seems to understand young women's thinking on this issue. She simply doesn't agree with them. She writes, "If they were to date someone seriously, they'd enjoy steady companionship, affection, and perhaps an occasional bauble or bouquet. But the costs would be enormous: time that could be spent with friends, attention to schoolwork or athletics and, perhaps most significant, a sense of independence. They're not stupid, these girls."

Indeed, they're not. Although Stepp might not believe it, they'll have plenty of time for serious relationships after college. She fails to show how women lose when they "delay love." This would seem to be an equally important part of Stepp's argument--after all, she claims that casual hookups have a negative effect on young women's lives beyond the morning after. And yet Stepp devotes only one skimpy chapter to what happens after graduation to girls who've enjoyed a lot of hookups in college. Perhaps the most important part of her argument, that this behavior damages girls' ability to form serious and lasting relationships later in life, isn't even weakly supported in her final chapters.

She mentions, but casually dismisses, experts like Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University who "suggests that most college graduates become serious about pairing up in their middle to late 20s and then start the rehearsals that will prepare them in their 30s for marriage." Steinberg also notes that the divorce rate is lower for women who married at age 25 and older. "Frankly there's very little data on dating/mating habits of young singles," Stepp told Campus Progress. "All I could do in that last section is raise the question."

But she does more than simply raise the question. Her definitive conclusion is that casual college hookups have created a generation of women who don't care about love. She ends on an ominous tone, citing one study by the Pew Center for Internet Life, that shows the majority of young single women (ages 18-29) aren't looking for a partner. And she weakly refers to the proliferation of internet dating sites as additional proof that 20-somethings are having trouble dating. I'd argue that the rising popularity of sites like says just the opposite: that women (and men) in their mid-20s are actively looking for more serious relationships. If they wanted to keep casually hooking up, they would be out at a bar. Not to mention that young people today are simply very, very comfortable with using the internet to do just about anything, including dating.

"People are asking questions," Stepp said. "That' s all we can do is wonder. I hope 10 years from now, 20 years from now, someone is looking at this." And I hope if so, that someone isn't Laura Sessions Stepp.

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