Why are so many girls 'hooking up'? 'It’s their parents telling them, "You need to be all that you can be, and love can wait.” ’ LAURA SESSIONS STEPP, AUTHOR OF ‘UNHOOKED: HOW YOUNG WOMEN PURSUE SEX, DELAY LOVE, AND LOSE AT BOTH,’ TALKS TO KATE FILLION
QA fort middle lot from of parents the school fact and take comhigh that school kids today tend to socialize in packs, because the assumption is that in a group they’re less likely to be having sex. What is actually going on?
A: They go to someone’s house, sometimes the parents are upstairs, sometimes they’re not there, and they find ways, as kids always have, of pairing off in bedrooms, back porches, outside in the bushes—it depends on the weather, but they will find a way.
Q: In your book, you explain that hooking up can mean anything from a kiss to intercourse, but the common denominator is the absence of any form of commitment. It’s easy to see how hooking up benefits guys, if you buy the idea that all guys want sex all the time. How does no-strings sex benefit girls?
A: It gives them freedom to go after a guy they think is hot. They don’t have to wait, as my generation did, for the guy to show some sort of interest, they can come on to him. They tend to do it in flirtatious ways, they’re not like tigresses, but the guys pick up the signals right away. And in the beginning, I think it feels empowering to girls. Even the women in college I interviewed, I was surprised by the number who said, “Well, guys can do this, why shouldn’t we do it?”
Q: If the old paradigm was that girls with multiple partners were tramps, and today, hooking up is connected to popularity for girls, couldn’t you say in some sense this is progress, or at least a little closer to gender equality?
A: One could argue that, except that when I’ve talked to girls about how it makes them feel deep inside, they still feel somewhat slutty. In the end, they’re simply not happy doing this. If they had been telling me, “God, this is so much fun, I love doing this!” then I would’ve said, “Great! You go girl!” Because I am a feminist, I worked in the late ’60s and early ’70s for gender equality just as hard as anyone else, but I think we have to rethink what that means in terms of our social connections. What girls tell me now is that they feel like used goods. You see, here’s the key: they go into this thinking they’re not going to commit, and that that’s going to be a good thing, because again, hooking up allows them freedom. And then the next day, they start checking their cellphones and wondering why he hasn’t textmessaged them. If they do that over and over again, what happens is they become depressed, and they don’t know why they’re depressed, and they don’t know why this feels bad, and they’re now in the habit of doing it, it’s the only way that they have known from a young age.
Girls don’t date anymore. A date, at least when it was just the two of you in the car, driving to the dance or the party, you had to talk to each other. You got to know each other a bit more slowly, and the respect that you might have for that person accrued slowly and built up. With a hookup it’s very casual, it starts out in a group setting, you pair off solely for the purposes of hooking up, then you go back into the group, and you drink more, and then you hook up again, and you go back into the group and drink more, and so on.
Q:And there are multiple partners in one evening, right?
A: Sometimes multiple partners, and sometimes the same guy, but there’s not a lot of conversation, and there’s not a lot of time for getting to know you.
Q: If it feels bad, why do girls continue to do it?
A: I asked myself that all the time. I think they don’t see an alternative. There’s no dating, there’s no social mechanism that they can grab hold of, this is the way their friends do it. Casual sex has been around forever, but hooking up started out in the mid to late ’90s, at least in [the U.S.], and it has become more and more pervasive. It’s a way of defining relationships now. What girls have told me over and over again is that you’re either hooking up or you’re in one of these relationships that they called “joined at the hip,” which is, you don’t go anywhere without your boyfriend. You go shopping with him, maybe you sleep with him, you go to the parties with him. And they don’t want that either, because that really ties them down. They don’t see a happy medium between the hookup and being joined at the hip.
Q: How can it be that these very young girls, 14and 15-year-olds, are hooking up regu-
larly blit their parents don’t have a clue?
A: Oh, parents! We say we want to know about the sex lives of our children, but we really don’t want to know. Those of us who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s thought that if our girls were smart in the classroom, they would be smart in the bedroom. We thought if they could make the honour roll in school and then get into a great university, they would know how to handle themselves socially. Therefore we didn’t really see a need to talk to them much beyond, “Be safe. You carry a condom so if he doesn’t have one, you have it. Get on the pill.”
Q: Isn’t part of the issue also that parents are so accustomed to thinking of girls as sexual prey that they just ignore any evidence to the contrary?
A That’s can’t ter imagine going exactly their out and right. daughhitting They on a guy. You have to bend your mind in all kinds of odd ways to get there. They think, if she’s going out with her friends, “Oh, those are good kids.” And they are good kids. These are not the bad kids, the druggies. I just think they don’t want to see their girls in that role. The other thing is that there’s a huge generational difference in the way they define terms. Oral sex, to the older generation, is something that you maybe did after you were married. For these girls, I’m going out on a limb here, but I suspect it’s more common than holding hands. I can’t tell you how many girls have said to me that they wouldn’t hold hands in public with the guy they were hooking up with privately.
Q: Why not?
A: Because holding hands implies a commitment. It’s a public announcement that you are committed to this person, and commitment is a very uncomfortable word for them.
Q :A lot of commentators reflexively blame the media for girls’ sexual behaviour, as though girls are unwitting dupes of popular culture. But you’re suggesting that in fact the positive messages girls have received about being independent and striving for success may be at least as much to blame.
A: It’s their mothers and fathers telling them, “You need to be all that you can be, and love can wait.” These parents have made a large investment in their daughters, financially and emotionally, and they don’t want their daughters to make a mistake by attaching themselves to the wrong guy. From the time these girls could walk, they were learning the values of self-sufficiency and independence.
There’s a girl in my book named Cleo who had just met a boy I called Stephen, and she really thought he was so cute, she really liked him, but she was incredibly scared about that. She said to me, “It will suck if it’s bad, but it will suck even more if it’s good.” And I went, “Whoa!” When I was her age, I was just hoping for a relationship that was “good.” I asked her what she meant by that, and she said, “Because [a relationship] is so time-consuming, it will get in the way of my plans, I want to go to Paris when I graduate”—she was a senior in college—“he wants to go into politics here, maybe we shouldn’t even start because we’re going to be in two different places.” While we say on the one hand that hooking up gives guys everything they traditionally ever wanted, I think that does a disservice to guys, too, because many of them do want to be in committed relationships and they find that many of the girls they want to do that with really don’t want to be committed.
Q: In the ’80s and ’90s, the whole public discourse on female sexuality really focused on victimization. Yet the girls and young women you interviewed, who grew up in that same time period, seem to see themselves as anything but victims, at least initially. So where did they get this idea of themselves as sexually powerful?
A: I don’t want to deny that the entertainment industry has played a role. I also think they feel empowered because of how well they’ve done in school. That’s been a terrific outgrowth of the women’s movement: these girls are really smart, they’re very confident in ways that I don’t think my generation was, in terms of their place in the world and their ability to work and their ability to make partner in the law firm. They carry some of that confidence into these sexual situations.
Q: The culture you observed on campuses, with a lot of random sex fuelled by binge drinking, seemed so crass. But the kids and young adults you interviewed were so articulate and thoughtful. Weren’t they at all bored or disgusted by their own behaviour?
A: You know, it’s hard for us to imagine why they wouldn’t be, but no, they weren’t. And this is where I think the media have played a role, this kind of “Girls gone wild” atmosphere of “Ooh, isn’t this fun? This is what we’re supposed to be doing, we’re young, we’re free, we’ll get serious later on.” This is also a generation that has grown up quite privileged. They’ve grown up having more money than any generation before them, fewer responsibilities because parents have said, “School work is your work, therefore you don’t really need to do chores around the house, you don’t really need to get a job when you’re 16—and yes, you can drive my car to school.” So they’ve been protected from the tough decisions of life that harden us and make us grow up to become adults. There’s this period now that [social] scientists are calling the extended adolescence, which some say goes up to age 30. These are young people who still see themselves in many ways as kids. They see this culture as being kind of a sandbox that they’re just playing in.
Q: What surprised you or horrified you the most in your research?
A: How little satisfaction these young people got out of hooking up. There was a decided lack of passion and enthusiasm in their voices when they were telling me about it. And also what struck me was there was
no anticipation. It was an end-sum game, it was about whether you got the hookup. It wasn’t about, “Oh, what should I wear tonight that he really likes?” Or, “How can I impress her with what I know?” The fun of the chase is gone. I was also struck by how many girls would say to me, “I could count on one hand the number of dates I’ve had.” And these were girls who were 20 and 21 years old.
And there would be this wistful sound in their voice, like, “Gosh, I wish someone
would just ask me out or take me out to dinner—I wouldn’t know what to do but it would sure be nice.” M
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