Wednesday, Feb. 14, 11 a.m.

Books -- 'Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both'

Laura Sessions Stepp
Author, Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007; 11:00 AM

In order to define what "hooking up" means, Washington Post staff writer Laura Sessions Stepp spent a year chronicling the sex lives of three groups of women for her new book, "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both."

Stepp was online Wednesday, Feb. 14 at 11 a.m. to take questions about the book.

A transcript follows.

Laura Sessions Stepp is a journalist specializing in the coverage of young people and sexuality for The Washington Post. She has written about children and families for more than 15 years.

Read The Post's review of "Unhooked."

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Laura Sessions Stepp: Welcome to our chat about hooking up, the casually sexual encounters that have come to define the way many young people think about sex and love. Hooking up is a way of putting love on hold, an attempt at intimacy without commitment and work. Young women see it as empowering, a way of enjoying short-term intimacy on their terms that doesn't interfere with time spent on schoolwork and sports, and with friends. I spent a year observing high school and college women in this hookup culture, and in "Unhooked," I write about what I saw. I also suggest reasons why hooking up came to be and what some possible implications are. Feel free to ask or comment on anything you want.

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Washington, D.C.: Don't you think it's sexist to only study women? Don't you think men who sleep around or just hook up to be "studs" are losing too? Why are women always responsible for being virtuous and loving?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Good question. The reason I chose to focus on women is that traditionally they have been the gatekeepers. It is their attitudes and lifestyle that have changed, making it easier for young men to be the studs they traditionally have been.

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D.C.: My husband and I both waited until marriage to have sex (at 26), and I think the biggest reason we navigated the pressure of high school and college was the support and example of our parents and (in my case) friends making similar choices. It seems to me that parents have the biggest influence on raising kids to reject a "hooking up" culture so that they'll make smart decisions. But what if you don't have support from your parents or your peers in this regard? Who is encouraging young people to believe that hooking up is actually desirable?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Parents play a huge role in helping young people decide how to relate to others. Not only in what they say but how they model their relationship to each other. Peers are also a big influence, and as hooking up has become more popular, it takes a very strong young woman to decide on what terms she will pursue a relationship, as opposed to how her friends do.

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Washington, D.C.: I am extremely interested in this notion for a number o f reasons. First, I am far from a young woman, but I understand precisely what you are implying, Do you think this phenomenon is occurring only with young women? Are there too many women for the number of eligible men? Do you think women have to disassociate from their previous expected roles because we have to fight in a professional world along with the men? The questions go on and on. I will be reading this book. I have a 22-year-old daughter who was seeing someone for six years, was engaged, and has just broken up. She wants to go have fun... I support her because otherwise she may be my age before she does. I know of very, very few couples who are getting it on in a great way, these days. Most of my women friends, ages 22 to 62, wish they had someone special. They just can't find it, no matter what position they have on sexuality. If you can't have a great relationship, then at least have sex because it is a physical need, which we are told is taboo.

Laura Sessions Stepp: These are very good questions that we, as a society need to do lots of talking about.

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Bethesda, Md.: Why now? "Hooking up" (both as a term, and as you describe it) was not a new phenomenon when I was in college 15 years ago. What's so different in 2007?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Hooking up is more widespread today; it has become the defining way that many young people describe their relationships, even relationships which might not technically fit your description of a hookup. And it is starting as early as middle school.

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Boston: I have to admit that I have yet to read your entire book, but my immediate response to what I have read about it so far is: What about the boys these girls are hooking up with? Shouldn't males also be concerned about becoming "unhooked?" Is the hooking-up phenomenon's effects and "solution" beholden to females only?

Laura Sessions Stepp: At the very end of the book, I describe a classroom where a young man comes up to me at the end and says he and his girlfriend are being pressured by kids they know to break up and start hooking up. So yes, guys are definitely part of this culture. But the male culture is different from the female culture, and deserves its own, separate look.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm wondering if you explored in the book the effect on young women of the constant barrage of mixed messages. We're taught to be so ashamed of our sexuality and bodies, yet at the same time our culture and media are hyper-sexual. To add to that, I think a lot of young women aren't getting the proper education at home or at school that includes both the mechanics of sex AND how respecting yourself leads to a healthy sex life.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Yes I do explore the effect of the media, and mixed messages young women get. For the record, I think young women should be proud of their bodies and their sexuality and take care of both -- and I agree 100 percent that homes and schools need to expand their focus on the physical aspects of intimacy to include the emotional.

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Is there hope?: What about those of us who no longer want to go about relationships like this? I would like to get into a serious relationship but at 28 have no idea where to start. Is all hope lost? What have you seen among women who have gone through a similar change of heart?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Yes, there's hope. In the last chapter of the book I write about a young woman named Alicia, who did her share of hooking up. Over the course of our conversations, she came to see that she was looking for more, and when a guy started pursuing her, she slowed down. He had hooked up too, and admired her resolve. They spent eight great months together, then he graduated. She's now in the working world, and is in another long-term relationship.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The "hooking up" approach is showing up at work -- think of all the contracting out and job insecurity. And housing. How absurd to see a house only in resale terms, and not as a place to live and put down roots. "Hooking up" is a symptom of our destructive, capitalist culture. It is not liberating for women or men. But we can't go back to the 1950s either. We need new models of mutual, loving relationships.

Laura Sessions Stepp: I make a similar point in the book. Thanks for your thoughts.

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Vienna, Va.: Do you talk any in your book about abstinence and the role that religion plays in people's choices about sex? I know the campus ministry I was involved in during college played a huge role in shaping my personal beliefs on sex; beliefs that directly contradict the casual hook up culture. Do you explore this area at all?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Religious faith can help young people stay true to their beliefs. One of the young women in "Unhooked" comes from a Jehovah's Witness family; she didn't hook up all year, using her Bible as a support. But she also didn't date because she was afraid the guy would expect her to hook up and she didn't want that pressure. Which shows how the hook up culture affects even those young people who want no part of it.

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Alexandria, Va.: I do not understand why so many singles seem to want to compartmentalize their lives. They need to "concentrate on their careers" before they can devote time to a relationship so they hook-up. My sister is 33 and the last few guys that she has dated are each career-focused. Granted, she was into the "hook up" approach for a while and it's gotten her nowhere.

Is it that younger people cannot understand that life is not like taking a series of classes? We live, work, and relate all at once, not in a particular order.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Good question. Parenting has become so goal-oriented (so has education) that it's little wonder young people see their lives as going from A to B to C and so on. From early on we need to be teaching girls and boys how to balance the important things in their lives, and that includes room for love.

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Washington, D.C.: What sort of reaction have the women you profiled had to the book? Do they see themselves/their lifestyles differently after seeing themselves through your eyes?

Laura Sessions Stepp: They matured a good bit over the course of the year that I followed them. Looking back, they're somewhat chagrined but also heartened to see how they've grown and what they know about themselves now that they didn't know before. Which is exactly why adults need to be helping young people reflect on what they're doing -- I'm optimistic that given encouragement, they will find out what kind of relationships are good for them.

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Berkeley, Calif.: Thanks for this important subject and topic. At 29, I am a few years past college but still a "young adult." I actually refrained from intercourse for much of college, but still had hook-ups that just didn't involve the physical act of intercourse -- do you find this pattern at all in the girls whom you studied, or was the book limited to hook-ups as intercourse? I'm curious because there seem to be a lot of levels through which intimacy and sexuality can be engaged, only one of which is intercourse -- though it may be the most sought after.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Hooking up among younger girls frequently does not mean intercourse, but in college that changes. One thing to remember is that sexual activity of any sort produces chemical reactions and the reactions are different in women and men. I go into this in some detail in the book, but very simply put, these chemicals make females want to cuddle and males to fly the coop.

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Alexandria, Va.: Six months ago, I broke up with my boyfriend, who was about to propose. I felt I didn't love him enough. Since then I've been "hooking up," not a lot, but still. A few people have expressed interest in longer-term commitments, but I'm terrified of starting anything new because I'm terrified of ending it again and hurting someone. My belief is that me, and my friends, hook up until we find someone we think it worthy or worth putting oneself out there for.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Thanks for writing in. Perhaps you would be willing to share with us what you get from these hookups -- positive as well as negative -- that you don't find in longer-term relationships?

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Washington, D.C.: You say that romantic relationships for young adults are crucial for developing necessary skills to use later, during marriage and child-rearing, since romance provides a motivation for learning them. But what's to say someone, who doesn't need the motivation of romance, can't learn these skills from developing her friendships, academic, and work relationships until she has the skills/emotional maturity/energy to handle a romantic relationship?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Of course these same things can be learned in other relationships, and everyone's timetable is different. I've just seen how big a motivator romance is among the young. For many people, love and lust focus one's attention unlike anything else.

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Camp Taji, Iraq: Do you think that simple market economics influences the "relationship culture?" It seems to me that men are the scarce commodity -- particularly on college campuses, where 4 in 7 students are females. The women are competing for the men and the men, naturally, dictate the rules for the competition. In your judgment, how would the campus atmosphere be different if four men were vying for every three women instead of the other way around?

Laura Sessions Stepp: I'm glad you asked that. Yes, there are social scientists who believe that the guy/girl ratio does play a part in the behavior we see on college campuses. It's not the only factor, but it is there.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you look only at straight girls? The myth of lesbian culture is that it's all about nesting and long-term relationships, sometimes to the exclusion of sex; are younger lesbian women falling into hook-up patterns as well?

Laura Sessions Stepp: I followed a couple of lesbian women but decided, reluctantly, that their experiences were so different that they deserved a book of their own. I hope someone will do such a book. By the way, they do hook up, as well as fall in love.

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Seattle: Do people in the middle of the hook up culture have an idea in their heads about when they're going to be too old for that? And do they consider that time as when life ends or when it truly begins?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Most of the young women I talked to wanted to be in a permanent, loving relationship -- just not now. They saw that as the end game, something they were working toward. They would hook up , and have little flings, and get confused when feelings intervened and they realized that they maybe sort of loved this guy.

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Arlington, Va.: I can relate to the comments from Washington, D.C. (the third comment). I'm a 35-year-old woman, and I went through a very long dry spell after breaking up with my boyfriend a couple of years ago. I wanted to hold out for someone special. But the truth is, those special someone's are very hard to come by (that's what makes them special). I started hooking up because I felt it was healthier to have physical needs met. In doing this I helped myself to stop being so concerned about my "aloneness" and found it easier to focus on other areas of my life.

Laura Sessions Stepp: Your age is important here. You presumably had the self-confidence to know what you wanted, didn't want, and wouldn't fall apart if something didn't work out. The young women I've written about are ages 16-21, still tender and uncertain about themselves. The question "Unhooked" poses is what is hooking up teaching them, and with what consequences for their emotional as well as physical health?

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Arlington, Va.: I think it's important for young women to explore what's out there outside of serious relationships. Women who want to be able to just have a "hook up" should be able to do so without feeling disappointed in themselves or judged by others.

However, lots of women my age (early to mid 20s) use alcohol as their uninhibited and end up doing things they regret. All of my girlfriends, save one, have hooked up with someone they normally wouldn't, due to being drunk. BUT -- most of us have also been able to go after the men we want only when drunk.

Do you think young women use alcohol as an excuse to do what they really want to do?

Laura Sessions Stepp: Alcohol is a big factor in hooking up. Yes, it gives girls courage to approach a guy or go to his room. It also stifles those reservations she is having about whether he's really interested in her, whether she's comfortable doing what she's doing, etc. She needs to learn to listen to those thoughts, maybe get sober and then see whether she still wants to hook up with him.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Do you think that in your book you are making a judgment that hooking up is wrong? I understand that this is a new phenomenon but it's only an outlet. Many people my age are in committed relationships and in my experience those who are not are making the choice. As long as people are using protection then why should they be judged for the choices they make?

Laura Sessions Stepp: There are no condoms for the heart. Girls shouldn't fool themselves into thinking that just because they're enjoying a physical experience, they won't feel something afterward. Example: the number of girls who check their cell phones the day after a hookup, wondering why he hasn't called or messaged them.

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Laura Sessions Stepp: This was a great discussion, and I appreciate all of you who wrote in, including those of you whose question or response didn't get posted. Take this debate into the world....and involve young people in it.

You may contact me through my e-mail at The Post. Thanks again!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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