On Friday, The New York Times reviewed Laura Session Stepp’s new book, “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both.” Stepp reports that “hooking up” has largely replaced dating among women of high school and college age. The phenomenon of “hooking up” has harmful emotional and physical effects on young women, perhaps even leaving them unable to “forge meaningful relationships.”
Stepp’s book apparently looks at the effects of casual sex on these women and finds that they are burned by these experiences, that even if they think themselves unscathed, they are unhappy with the casualness of the sexual experience, reticent to admit it and disappointed by the male’s unwillingness to engage more emotionally.
It seems clear that Stepp conceptualized her intentions as feminist, rather than anti-feminist. She sees her directive to be exposing the way that this culture of casual sex wreaks havoc on the self-esteem of young women and renders them unable to stand up for themselves and their needs and unable to forge meaningful, lasting bonds with members of the opposite sex. But we question whether the other side of the binary, having a long-term relationship at a young age, can be just as detrimental — at the very moment we are exploring our identities, we define ourselves in reference to an “other.” Neither casual sex or committed sex is an unmitigated ideal; rather, it is how we approach them and what we expect of them that becomes problematic.
Stepp’s critique appears to be one-sided and gendered, and as such perpetuates, rather than dismantles, an unfortunately gendered power dynamic in sexual relationships. The book all but ignores that men, too, feel pressure in the casual hook-up culture: pressure to perform, to call, not to call, to care, not to care, to brag, etc. As Stepp said, “Really, when you look at it, hookup culture is gravy for guys.”
We firmly believe that men’s experience can be just as alienating as women’s — and to ignore that fact is to accept a vision of sexuality defined on male terms, which feminism wishes to undermine. The problem is not that women are sitting here waiting for “Mr. One Night Only” to call; it is that she is sitting here, and he there, and they don’t have the vocabulary to communicate, to say: I like you, or I don’t, or let’s do that again, or let’s be friends, or maybe we should get to know each other better, maybe we could be something, someday, when we’re both ready.
These chicken-and-egg arguments are hard to pin down, and it is impossible to understand causality, because culture is different from place to place. Rather than blame “casual sex” for emotional disconnectedness and misplaced desire, we think that the rhetoric of ease around casual sex or sex in general constitutes a huge problem.
If we talk about “hooking up” more, as a society, a community, or among friends, we can develop a vocabulary, an understanding that it is deep and profound and complex and murky for all parties involved — but can also be enjoyable, safe and even, dare we suggest, beautiful.
Perhaps we have fallen victim to the sin of hubris, as we are, undoubtedly, talking about our own college experiences, and have not spent 10 years interviewing young people, as Stepp has. Indeed, we would probably even defer to expertise that young women (and men?) find casual sex more harmful than they had expected; that being said, we believe that the answer is not to condemn any of the behavior. The answer is to understand the phenomenon and engage with it more intelligently, rather than advocate another, often equally pernicious and detrimental, form of sexual interaction. Is it really worse for us to sit by the phone waiting for “Mr. One Night Only” than to pin our hopes and dreams on one person at a young age, before having experienced more, before pursuing goals for ourselves?
Largely, the problem is that the discourse about all of these issues is far too reductive and universalizing. What our generation needs is to forge a way to discuss these issues openly and honestly with our friends, our lovers and our society at large. Of course, there is a problem that women often feel abused or used by their casual sexual relationships. So, let’s create an environment where women can assert themselves and their sexual and emotional desires without being pushed into the old categories of chaste, respectable wife or damaged slut.
We can’t ascertain any normatively desirable course of action for anyone besides ourselves, but we do think grappling with the difficulty of relationships, casual or serious, together will do us good.
Adda Birnir is a senior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays. Basha Rubin is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.