Love's Labor's Lost

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

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:

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