Adam Ash

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bookplanet: US sex panics come in two forms - women are fucking too much and that's bad; gays are fucking too much and that's bad

1. In Defense of "Loose" Women
The latest crisis on college campuses.
By Meghan O'Rourke/

It is the time-honored duty of the adolescent to alarm adults (parents, in particular) by having wild and often idiotic fun -- e.g., streaking naked across campus, playing drinking games, throwing things out windows, hooking up with an acquaintance or a friend who, in a flush of late-night hormones, suddenly looks kind of hot. I went to college in the early days of the "hookup" culture, as it is now called, and my recollection, through the haze of years, was that the whole point of hookups was that they were pleasurable -- a little embarrassing, sometimes, but mostly, well, fun. Either I was self-deluded, or things have gotten a lot worse. According to Laura Sessions Stepp, author of “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both,” sex on campuses for young women today is a series of joyless encounters engaged in without either short-term pleasure or long-term reward. This pointless hedonism, in Stepp's view, turns young women into jaded depressives unable to trust or love anyone, secretly wishing Mr. Right would show up on their doorstep with flowers and a fraternity pin.

Unhooked purports to be a sweeping look at "hookup" culture on college campuses and several high schools, but, in fact, it is largely limited to a study of Duke University and George Washington University. ("Hooking up," if you've never heard the phrase, is an intentionally vague term that signifies sexual contact, ranging from a kiss to sex.) Stepp, a Washington Post reporter, interviewed "dozens" of young women about their sex lives. The resulting book is the story of nine girls followed over the course of a year. It is heavy on anecdote and generalization and short on information, since, as Stepp herself points out, there is a dearth of reliable evidence about the subject. What she discovered on college campuses troubled her: "Relationships have been replaced by the casual sexual encounters known as hookups. Love, while desired by some, is being put on hold or seen as impossible," she observes. "Some girls can handle this; others … are exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually by it." Like a good mother, Unhooked strives to be less polemical than concerned. But just below its surface lurk the usual naked (and prurient) fears about girls and sex: Girls who put out are going to get hurt. Instead, Stepp argues, they should admit "the bar scene is a guy thing" and stay home to "bake cookies, brownies, muffins" -- after all, guys, she confides, will do "anything" for homemade treats. (Who wants chlamydia when he can have cake?)

Certainly, the scene Stepp evokes can seem grim. She watches as packs of girls go out to bars and snap cell-phone pics to remind them who they went home with, then get so drunk they pass out. A lot of the hooking up is motivated not by debauchery but by status: One high-school girl told Stepp that it was "all about getting/hooking up with the hottest, most well-known guys, and girls will spend a lot of time strategizing and manipulating their way into getting those guys." Sorority life is also a factor. In one case, a sorority event leads to consensual sex the young woman in question doesn't remember; in another, to what the woman calls "gray rape." In a shift from victim-oriented 1980s campus culture, these women see themselves as equal or at least responsible partners in the sticky sexual situations their liberated outlook gets them into.

Unhooked is suffused with the vague anxiety that is symptomatic of the teens-in-crisis genre, offset only by a handful of concrete ideas about the damage done by hookup culture: specifically, that young women involved in it are more likely to contract sexual diseases (doctors note rising rates of STDs among young women); that they often feel "awkward" and "hurt" as well as "strong, desirable, and sexy," leading to depression and poor grades; that loveless sex fails to teach women the lessons of intimacy they need for marriage. Some of Stepp's analysis is supported by students' testimonies, but, as with all anecdotal journalism, one detects self-selection and data contamination at work. One problem is that Stepp cites no longitudinal work on the subject -- these girls are still in college -- which means a lot of predictive doom and gloom with little to buttress it. When girls and psychologists defend hooking up -- or argue that she's overemphasizing its downsides -- she responds with rhetorical insinuations. After one girl who enjoyed noncommitted sex enthuses, "If sex was that good with Nicholas, imagine what it will be like with my husband," Stepp responds, "But how would she find that husband?" In the 1950s, parents got concerned when girls "went steady" instead of playing the field, but Stepp is convinced this "new" habit of playing the field will warp girls' hearts and make it impossible for them to settle down when the time comes. "It's as if young women are practicing sprints while planning to run a marathon," she worries.

That metaphor of practice for a grueling competition says a lot about both the phenomenon Stepp is describing and her blinkered perspective. What her own reporting suggests, but she doesn't seem to see, is that if there is a problem, it isn't that young women are separating love and sex. It's that they are blurring sex and work: The hookup culture is part of a wider ethos of status-seeking achievement. As one girl puts it: "Dating is a drain on energy and intellect, and we are overwhelmed, overprogrammed and overcommitted just trying to get into grad school." So they throw themselves into erotic liaisons with the same competitive zeal they bring to resume-building: "If you mention you think a guy is hot, your friend may be, 'Oh, he is hot. I'm gonna go get with him,' " Anna, a high-school student, reveals. The combination of postfeminist liberation and pressure from parents to "do it all" -- as one kid puts it -- has led girls to confuse the need to be independent (which they associate with success) with the need to be invulnerable. Thus, they frame their seemingly explorative sex lives in rigid, instrumental terms, believing that vulnerability of any sort signals a confusing dependence. The result? Shying away from relationships that can hurt them -- which includes even fleeting obsessions that can knock them off balance.

If this is true, the last thing young women need is more assignments from those who view relationships as yet another arena in which they better "win." In that sense, Unhooked is part of the very problem it's trying to offset. While noting that a fear of "failing" makes college girls insist that they've got matters under control when they don't, Stepp offers up the same prescriptive diagnoses that get in the way of young women asking themselves what they -- as individuals -- might really want: "I hope to encourage girls to think hard about whether they're 'getting it right,' " Stepp says. At the same time, young men get away without such cautionary lessons: Stepp follows a long pattern of leaving them out of the picture. From at least the 1920s (when everyone thought flappers were destroying manners) on through the 1980s (when teen pregnancy rates had everyone alarmed), girls have been hearing that their sex lives are the symbol of generational decadence.

The truth is that even the sex-as-work ethic has an upside -- one Stepp fails to see. For the first time in ages, young women are actually concentrating, in some fashion, more on their work and on their female friendships than on love and sex, and many do feel empowered by this. One of the studies Stepp cites found that young women feel less pressured to engage in sex than their male peers do. If some have a tough time figuring out what romantic or sexual pleasure is, they are nonetheless hardheaded about their status as pioneers in a new sexual landscape. "If there's one thing that I know about adults, it's that they pounce on adolescent sexuality with zeal," says Alicia, a student at Duke, aptly pinpointing the adult impulse to scold. Stepp couldn't resist the impulse herself. Buying into alarmism about women, Unhooked makes sex into a bigger, scarier, and more dangerous thing than it already is. The fact is, love is a messy arena, and in it most of us make both wise and foolish choices. C'est la vie, if not l'amour.

2. Love's Labor's Lost
What Young Women Are Saying About Their Aversion to Emotional Ties
By Laura Sessions Stepp/Washington Post

Today on Valentine's Day, high school hallways and college courtyards will be scattered with flowers. Young women at work will peek at the personal ads online, and dish about who got what.

They may confess to having a crush on their chemistry partner, or confide to a friend that the guy in the cubicle next to them is "really hot." What they probably won't say is "I love him" or anything close to it. Because while they may enjoy the trappings of love, many young women believe that being in love, at least right now, is impractical, foolish, a sign of weakness or even unattainable.

Evie Lalangas, a communications specialist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is talking about this over lattes on a Sunday afternoon with several friends in their early 20s.

"Love is constant effort," she sighs, settling herself into a couch at Tryst, a coffeehouse in Adams Morgan.

"It's so annoying," Carolyn McGee agrees.

"A waste of time," Alyx Ackerfield says.

Heather Schell, an assistant professor of writing, picked up similar attitudes when she taught a course called "Love, American Style" at George Washington University. Her female students loved to discuss the chick-lit book "Bridget Jones's Diary" and the sexual follies of Jones and her boss, Daniel Cleaver. But they were not enthralled with Edward Rochester's lengthy courtship in "Jane Eyre." Quick flings, or hookups, were okay, "but love was rarely mentioned in class discussions," Schell says.

Their favorite assigned reading? A poetry anthology called "The Hell With Love."

A national survey of 18-to-29-year-olds by the Pew Research Center reported that almost 60 percent were not in committed relationships and the majority of those were not interested in being committed. Young women even have phrases for couples, frequently spoken with a touch of derision: They're "joined at the hip," or "married."

Absent old-fashioned dating, which has virtually disappeared, the alternative for these young women is hooking up, which can happen in any semi-private place and includes anything from kissing to intercourse. The beauty of hooking up is that it carries no commitment, and this is huge, for being emotionally dependent on a lover is what scares these young women the most.

To tell a man "I need you" is like saying "I'm incomplete without you." A young man might say that and sound affectionate. But to an ambitious young woman, who has been taught to define power on her terms and defend it against all comers, need signals weakness.

An instant-message conversation between two female college students, printed out and shared with a reporter, was telling:

Student 1: and we layed [sic] in bed and talked for like four hours and like had sex during the whole thing; it was really like a moment; like he held me sooo tight for the rest of the night; i woke up like really close to him; and i felt something . . . .

Student 2: that's incredible intimacy . . . do you love him?

Student 1: i am scared of loving him.

Student 2 because of what being in love will do to you

Student 1: because of what does that say about me . . . i'm just a weepy girl who relies on someone . . . i want to be independent and i think that it is important for women of our generation but by saying i love someone and need him it's like contradictory . . . hypocritical . . . but i also don't want to give into love because i am scared he won't call me . . . and i will be heartbroken and then feel like a stupid girl that should have known better."

(Several young women asked not to be named in this report when discussing their private lives.)

There are costs, of course, to keeping love at bay. Where's the feeling of being adored, for example?

"I need to know a guy's thinking of me all the time," Ackerfeld says.

Is this likely to happen after a hookup?

"Well, no," she admits.

And what about the skills one learns when dating?

"In traditional boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, you begin to understand how someone else thinks about things," says Robert Blum, who chairs the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins University. "You learn to compromise, and not to say the first thing on your mind. You learn how to say you're sorry and accept other people's apologies."

These things are essential to being happily married and raising children, both of which young women say they want someday. They are best learned within a romantic relationship, in Blum's view, because the young person is motivated by the romance to learn them.

Lloyd Kolbe, a health education professor at Indiana University-Bloomington, agrees. He still remembers his first love in high school, how he worked at being honest, decent and caring -- in short, worthy of her.

"Hooking up is purposely uncaring," he says. "If they turn off the emotional spigot when they're young, what will happen to them as older adults?"
The Decline of Love

In some ways young women are riding a to-hell-with-love wave that started building more than a lifetime ago. By the 1930s, following more than a century of discourse on the concepts of passion, courtship and romantic marriages, scientists were declaring love the stuff of childhood fantasies and sentimental women. Psychotherapist Alfred Adler was one, arguing in Esquire magazine for rational, cooperative marriages that aimed for companionship rather than emotional connectedness.

Later, feminists like Marilyn French wrote that women couldn't love deeply and live independent, meaningful lives. (A character in French's popular 1977 novel "The Women's Room" called love a lie to keep women happy in the kitchen.) Many young women at the time found themselves agreeing with French, at least partly. This didn't stop them from dating and getting married. But they did so with a cautious attitude toward love that is even more evident in their daughters, especially those in college.

A college senior from Dallas with deep brown eyes and thick hair to match was describing a man she had hooked up with a couple of times. Despite her best efforts, she said, she was falling for him and that worried her.

"It will suck if it's bad," she said, "but it will suck even more if it's good."

She explained: Her number-one goal, for as long as she could remember, was to excel in school so that she might someday land a great job that would make her financially independent. In high school, she maintained an A average, played volleyball and rowed crew, edited the digital yearbook and played on a church basketball team that won the state championship. Her pace in college was similarly brisk, and she didn't see how, even in her senior year, she could afford to invest time, energy and emotion in a loving relationship.

At her 21st birthday party she talked about this with a girlfriend who understood. As the friend said, over the recorded sounds of rapper Jay-Z, "I don't have time or energy to worry about a 'we.' "

College is about many things: learning to read Chinese, write poetry, solve complicated physics problems. It's also about learning how to build relationships with others: how to be a "we" with a roommate you can't stand at first, a classmate whose political persuasion is different, and, significantly, with an intimate partner or two.

It would not have occurred to many mothers of this generation that when they were in college, they couldn't have it all including romance. But their daughters wonder.

Their reluctance is not irrational.

Some have lived through the divorce of their parents. Or they witness disputes between Mom and Dad yet are not privy to the negotiations their parents undertake to resolve these differences. Although Mom and Dad may say they love each other, young women report that they rarely see their parents hug, hold hands, act playfully or do other things that sustain love.

They have the same complaints about the way love is portrayed in the movies or on television. A college junior says, "We never see anything positive about Hollywood relationships. It's beginning to seem normal to get married on flings and then get divorced and have random babies." Evie Lalangas wonders, "Have you ever noticed how romantic comedies are all about falling in love or breaking up? I want to say, 'Show me the rest of your life!' "

What if, after hesitating, young women enter into a relationship? What does that look like? How do they make it last? Since they haven't dated much, if at all, it's difficult for them to know.
Steps Toward Intimacy

Romantic love occasionally insists on making its presence known even to the most cavalier of young women. This happened to a young woman who spent much of her college time hooking up and then, two months into her junior year, fell in love with a senior who loved her back.

From the moment they decided to be a couple, they knew their relationship probably wouldn't last after he graduated and moved away. But they decided to try to make it work as long as they could. Midway through their eight months together, she wrote in her diary: "We had some long talks about us and it's nice to know we are more or less on the same page, even though it is a hard page to be on. One thing I became very certain of is that if I changed any of my plans or dreams for him, I would resent him and it would eventually ruin whatever relationship we might have. . . . I'm glad to have him in my life right now. . . . We push each other to become our dreams/goals/passions. . . .

"My generation -- actually, our society -- is into taking shortcuts. . . . Hookups are like the shortcut to intimacy, while dating is the long way around, the scenic route. We want to get there, wherever 'there' is, as quickly as possible, and I think we've lost the ability to enjoy the journey."

(Adapted from "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both" (Riverhead Books), by Laura Sessions Stepp.)


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