Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both
by Laura Sessions Stepp; narrated by Ellen Archer

I enjoyed this book, but was also terrified by it. I have always been somewhat out of touch with what the hip kids do, party-wise, but this book opened my eyes to how the landscape of dating has been shifting in the last decade, and some of what I might do to help prepare my daughter (only 2 right now, thankfully) for it. Here are some things that are hanging out in my brain after reading the book:

  • Oral sex is a common issue in middle schools now. Middle schools.
  • Young women whose parents regularly show affection for one another are more likely to handle romance and relationships well. (This isn’t a surprise, but more of a reminder.)
  • Young women whose parents often initiate conversations about love and sex are more likely to have thought through these issues more carefully.

Stepp suggests that the hookup culture stems from several things. The biggest contributor is the pressure to succeed in life. Young women are told to be everything they want to be, to pursue education first, to go for the career. While Stepp agrees with these messages, she worries about a corollary message: boys can wait. Parents, often concerned that Young Women will sideline their studies or career for that special boy, tell girls not to pursue relationships. They’ll have time for that later. What many parents don’t realize (or don’t care to face) is that when young women forego relationships, they aren’t foregoing sex. Instead, sex (and other hookup behavior) becomes a meaningless party activity.

Stepp worries about the problems the hookup culture causes when these young women and men get older and start to look for the relationships they all say they want. After years of casual hookups in bars and at parties, they don’t have any practice with romance. They aren’t used to dating, to getting to know someone, to letting the physical side of a relationship grow alongside the emotional. Stepp suggests that these issues are crucial problems.

She also points to the wide availability of alcohol on college campuses and the loss of nearly all restrictions on behavior by college administrators. While she’s not saying dorm curfews and rigid rules should be brought back one hundred percent, she does suggest that these rules built a structure in which young people could find refuge and order when they didn’t want to go all the way. This leads into the most disturbing part of the book, for me–the discussion of just how many young women in the hookup culture are assaulted by the dates they bring home, and how many accept/don’t report/feel guilty/feel responsible about those assaults.

When I mentioned the alcohol-fuel part of Stepp’s argument to some of my students, their response was amusing.  Columbia doesn’t have a traditional student body, in that our majors are primarily in the arts.  Much of our student body come from the idiosyncratic demographics, and as such are not the uber-achieving pre-politicians, engineers, and business leaders that Stepp writes about.  As such, one said “Our students don’t drink, they smoke weed.”

The one thing I didn’t like about Stepp’s book were both at the end.   First, Stepp puts a large part of the burden for changing this pattern on the young women she writes to.  (I see the reason for her writing in this way: the letter is to the young women.)  Ultimately, she points back to the idea that young women don’t want sex in itself, that they should hold out for relationship sex.  She says that young men don’t have these feelings and thus it’s the woman’s responsibility to control the pace and tenor of the sex in the relationship.  This seems an abdication, to me.  She’s essentially saying that the women-on-the-hunt model didn’t work, so we should go back to women-holding-out.  She acknowledges the part of men in this culture, but she doesn’t seem to acknowledge that men could have anything to do with changing it.

On the other hand, I REALLY liked her idea that women and men should come up with a new dating model that helps romance build and that gives each person impetus and social pressure to respect the other.

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