Out they came, one act after another, eighteen- and nineteen-year-old Division I athletes, ranging from passably pretty to drop-dead gorgeous, putting themselves up for bid at the annual "date auction" sponsored by GW's student athletic council. Big white bidding cards popped up immediately. Fifty dollars for a night on the town with a couple of lacrosse players! Seventy-five dollars for members of the crew team!
The water polo players, dressed in swim parkas and strappy black stilettos, brought down the house. They had been practicing polo for eight months, spending thirty hours a week in the pool. Their season over, they left little question in anyone's mind that they were ready to party.
Bumping and grinding to a new rap number, they ripped off their jackets to reveal short nightgowns—see-through black, with pink polka dots—over black bras and lacy fuchsia boy shorts.
Fifty dollars! The bidding began.
A couple of players started to strip further and, drunk out of their minds, fell down.
One player pretended to go down on another girl.
Morgan, a muscular blonde freshman, started flashing the audience.
One hundred dollars! Sold!
Morgan turned to wobble back boozily into the tent.
"Nice vagina!" yelled a boy standing just below her as she left.
The next thing Morgan knew, it was early morning and she was lying in her own bed next to someone she thought of as just a friend. He told her that they had hooked up after the auction and that she had been a willing partner.
He also told her that they had had sex. After inspecting herself briefly, she realized it was true.
Four months later, she sat across a table from me in a campus coffee shop, her hair pulled back by a Burberry plaid headband. She sketched out the rest of that year at college. She'd had a series of sexual encounters, and none of them amounted to anything. She depended on alcohol to get ready for boys and, when things didn't work out, to take the edge off her disappointment. Her grades were falling, putting her at risk of losing her scholarship. She had had several sessions with a psychiatrist, who prescribed an antidepressant that made her groggy.
"I've dug myself a pretty deep ditch," she admitted.
Would she participate in a date auction again, knowing what she knew now? I asked.
"Absolutely," she said. "It was so much fun. The energy, the hype . . . The next day everyone was saying, 'Those water polo girls were outrageous.' . . . I knew I was an object, yeah. But I didn't feel like a piece of meat at all. If it was in any way degrading, I never would've done it."
Listening to her in the spring of 2005, my mind went back to 1968 again and I found myself making generational comparisons once more. Sure, we used to leave our college dorm windows cracked so our boyfriends could sneak in. But we were terrified of being found out and wouldn't think of taking off our clothes until the guys were inside and the lights were off. Now girls were stripping in the student center in front of dozens of boys they didn't know, pantomiming sex onstage and later doing the real thing without saying much, if anything, to their partners. When did conversation and negotiation drop completely out of the picture?
Clearly, young women have changed not only the way they relate intimately to young men but also the way they think about intimacy. My Post articles on sexuality since the oral-sex scandal have not been about isolated acts of a promiscuous few but indications of a large cultural shift. To some degree, depending on their temperament, upbringing and luck, all girls are caught up in the changes. Young people have virtually abandoned dating and replaced it with group get-togethers and sexual behaviors that are detached from love or commitment—and sometimes even from liking. High school and college teachers I've talked to, as well as researchers, remark on this: 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; sex is becoming the primary currency of social interaction. Some girls can handle this; others, like Morgan, are exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually by it. They struggle largely outside the awareness of parents who either don't know what is going on or are vaguely aware but don't know what to do.
Science tells us that sexual attractiveness plays a significant role in the emotional and social lives of young women. Parents seem largely unaware of this or of how firmly hooking up has taken hold in young people's imaginations and lives. They are reassured by statistics that show a significant decline in teen pregnancies and a slight drop in the proportion of high school students having intercourse. What they don't understand is that sexual intercourse, or any other sexual act, is only part of the story. What is — or isn't — going on in addition to sex is at least as important.
The crucial thing to remember in all of this is that hooking up, in the minds of this generation, carries no commitment. Partners hook up with the understanding that however far they go sexually, neither should become romantically involved in any serious way. Hooking up's defining characteristic is the ability to unhook from a partner at any time, just as they might delete an old song on their iPod or an out-of-date "away" message on their computer. Maybe they tire of their partner, or find someone who is "hotter" or, for some other reason, more to their liking. Maybe they get burned badly in a relationship, or find themselves swamped with term papers and final exams. The freedom to unhook from someone — ostensibly without repercussions — gives them maximum flexibility. Although I use both phrases, this is not a hookup culture so much as an unhooked culture. It is a way of thinking about relationships, period.
One can see this same impermanence in some of their other commitments—to their jobs and their life plans, for example. In their personal lives, many young women carry it with them as they move through their twenties, when the "hookup buddy" becomes the "sometime boyfriend." One national study found that among eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds, only slightly more than a third were in committed relationships. Of the rest, more said they were not looking than looking.
This book explores, through the eyes of real girls and young women, how complex this unhooked culture is, how firmly entrenched and how it has affected the thoughts, feelings, behaviors and aspirations of this generation—including those girls who want no part of it. Of particular interest to me, having come of age during the women's movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, is that the new sexual landscape has been designed in part by girls, to the delight of guys who no longer have to work very hard for girls' attention or their bodies. Young women's goal was, at one time, to save their bodies and their reputations for someone they loved, while young men were encouraged to play the field. Young men are still expected to be players, but now young women have jumped into the arena with them. And so I have chosen to focus my attention on these female architects. How do they feel about their new freedom? Great or used? Loved or lonely? Free or trapped in unexpected ways? What do they really think about relationships, including marriage?
Shortly before I started my research, I spent three hours talking to four young working-class women in their early twenties about men and sex. Never once during the conversation did they use the word "love." When I finally pointed this out, one of them explained, "Sex is different from love." The other three nodded.
On another morning I watched a half-dozen girls who had just graduated from an exclusive Virginia high school padding around a North Carolina beach house in camisole tops and low-slung pajama bottoms, cooking breakfast for guy friends and listening to music that would make their mothers blush. It occurred to me that these young women did not worry, as their mothers did, about showing off their imperfect bodies. They did not shy away from talking frankly about sex. As they move through college and into jobs, they might be less apt to worry, as their mothers did, about compromising their identity or independence in bed. These were good things.
But who, I wondered, was telling them that they were worth taking more care with—that they deserved to take care with themselves and insist that boys take care with them, too? Who was reminding them that sex, in any form, is more powerful when you don't throw it around, more satisfying when it's savored with someone you love? Who was asking them to think seriously about their goals for happiness beyond the law degree or to consider that having sex with lots of men might limit their ability to sustain a long-term commitment as well as their ability to conceive children? Who was helping them see that loving relationships are uniquely satisfying and manageable—and need not tie them down for the rest of their lives?
As I explained my research to acquaintances in my neighborhood, church and job, I would often hear something along the lines of "What is wrong with these girls?" That is not the right question. The question should be how this came to be, and what, if anything, should be done about it. Loving may be as basic as breathing, but loving well is a learned behavior. Who and where are young women's teachers?
The research was a natural outgrowth of my previous book, Our Last Best Shot. In that book, I wrote about ten- to fifteen-year-olds who, as young adolescents, were beginning to shape a self-image based in part on whether they felt loved and capable of love. The romantic encounters the younger ones, boys as well as girls, enjoyed were short-lived and confined to passing notes, messaging each other on the computer and stealing kisses at school dances when no one was looking. But starting in eighth grade, things changed: Kids thought nothing of sneaking to movies with a boyfriend or girlfriend or going to parties where couples made out. Girls were as likely to pursue as be pursued, and the pressure to "go all the way" (the old-fashioned expression used by two ninth-grade girls I interviewed in a small Kansas town) was intermittent but occasionally intense.
In general, however, the struggles these younger adolescents had with boyfriends and girlfriends were of less importance than the battles they waged with parents and peers. That tends to be true with most teens until the later years of high school and particularly in college, when adolescents begin to focus seriously on the kind of romantic partners they are becoming. What does that exploration look like? I wondered as I prepared to start this book.
I began with scientific reports, and didn't find much that was helpful. Sex research, sorely underfunded in this country, has been confined primarily to younger teenagers, and survey questions are worded in a way that rarely matches the language that teenagers use, leaving one wondering how well the findings match what teens are really doing. Nonetheless, I commissioned my own analysis of available data and am grateful to the independent organization Child Trends for help in making sense of the most reliable large-scale studies.
We found, for example, that the proportion of young women ages eighteen to twenty-two who reported having intercourse—seventy-five percent—equaled that of young men. Seventy percent of both sexes had had sex before their nineteenth birthdays. Only one-third of young women said they truly wanted to have sex the first time they did so, compared to one-half of the young men. One particularly interesting finding was that while two out of three young men said it was better to get married than go through life single, fewer than half of the young women felt that way.
Statistics do not talk, however; they only point us to the people to whom we need to talk. The heart of the book, then, became the insights provided by the most important people: Alicia, Sienna and the other young women whose personal lives fill the following chapters.
The need to be connected intimately to others is as central to our well-being as food and shelter. In my view, if we don't get it right, we're probably not going to get anything else in life right. My goal for this book stems from this premise and is twofold. First, I hope to encourage girls to think hard about whether they're "getting it right," whether their sexual and romantic experiences are contributing to—or destroying—their sense of self-worth and strength. Their studied effort to remain uncommitted convinces me only of how strongly they want to be attached.
Second, I hope to encourage adults, men as well as women, to have the kind of conversations with girls that I've had. If you're a woman reading this, put yourself in the shoes of the young woman you're reading about and ask what you would have done in her situation. As a man, think of these girls as your daughters and ask yourself what you hope your daughter would do. You may want to separate yourself from these women—I know I did—but you end up realizing you can't, because they and their partners are wrestling with the same needs and desires we all share at some level.
Discussion over a period of time can help girls make wiser choices; I've seen it happen. One college junior, on the heels of a rough period with a guy she was hooking up with, talked to me at lunch one day for a couple of hours. Several days later, I received an upbeat e-mail. "Conversation with adults is a big part of why I've begun to feel better about myself," she wrote. "Really my happiest moment at home during those two weeks was our conversation that Tuesday."
Such conversation takes place only if we approach young people hoping to understand rather than intending to censure. This book is written to further that effort by showing grayheads what the current sexual culture, so different from the one we remember, is like. The book is full of terms that will be new, even shocking, to some readers. We don't have to adopt these terms—just as we need not agree with everything young people do—but we do need to know what the terms and actions mean and don't mean to those involved.
Many adults, protective in other parts of their children's lives, turn a blind eye to sexual matters. How else to explain Lingerie Barbie dolls purchased for three- and four-year-olds? Or parents spending a hundred dollars at Club Libby Lu so their kindergarteners can dress up in spandex and sparkles and learn how to shimmy and shake it on a catwalk? By the time they're in middle school, girls are reading young-adult novels such as Rainbow Party, in which a high school sophomore invites her girlfriends to perform oral sex on a group of boys. By high school, girls and guys can watch videotapes of themselves having sex or, with the help of a webcam, their friends having sex.
"In many of these situations," says Deborah Roffman, a teacher who lectures nationally about sex education, "it is clear that adults are complicit, either by their neglect, cluelessness or even subtle encouragement."
Although familiar with Roffman and the efforts of organizations such as the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, I had not realized the depth of adults' reluctance to talk openly about sex among teenagers until I wrote a story for the Post about girls keeping track of how many guys they had hooked up with.
These young women chatted about their numbers as if they were compiling data in a brokerage firm. They kept count in planners stowed away in bedside tables and typed names on Excel spreadsheets along with details and grades for performance. One of them, a college senior, described in my story how common this practice had been at her Catholic high school, which I did not name.
She later regretted being so honest. Early on the morning that she was to take a summer job in the development office of her college, which was also Catholic, an administrator called to rescind the job offer, citing her quotes in the newspaper. That same day, her parents told her to stop talking to me. I heard also from a friend whose daughter attended that particular Catholic high school and had helped me on other stories. My friend informed me coolly that her daughter was to have no more contact with me ever, on any story.
How, I wondered at the time, can we expect young people to make good decisions about their sexuality—the essence of what it means to be female or male—when adults they know resist discussing it publicly and thereby deny its central place in all of our lives?
To observe this culture in depth, I interviewed dozens of young women, ages sixteen to twenty-one and white, black, Latin, Asian and Middle Eastern. These girls had grown up in various communities across the country and attended public and private schools and universities on the East Coast. Slightly more than half of them had been raised by two biological parents. They shared one significant demographic: Their families were at least moderately well-off. This meant that regardless of race, ethnicity or the address they called home, they dressed similarly, shared the same jargon, listened and danced to the same music, used the same technology to communicate and related to their friends and families in similar ways.
I decided early to focus mainly on women enrolled in four-year colleges for several reasons. The majority of high school graduates now start at such a college or university, although some don't finish. I could talk freely with college women, who are legal adults. I also would have more freedom to follow them throughout their days and nights as they went about their various activities with various friends and in various moods. College women also appealed because it is in college where young women first begin to contemplate seriously the traits they want in a life partner—and to my surprise, when I began my investigating, I found that little had been written about that struggle in popular nonfiction.
Much of my work at the Post had centered on middle school and high school students, and I knew that decisions in late adolescence are based partly on experiences during these earlier "gateway" years. So I decided to begin the book with high school girls.
The reader will notice that I use the words "girl" and "girls" in this book, along with "young woman" and "young women." That is because female college students, and even some women in their twenties and thirties, call themselves girls. This practice puzzles those of us who came of age during the women's movement and demanded that we be called women as soon as we reached eighteen, just as boys became men at that age. But it reflects, I think, the way young women, particularly those in middle- and upper-income families, have been protected, even coddled, to the point where they think of themselves as not yet adults. Economics and social custom play a part in this. Adulthood, in the conventional sense, means getting a job, leaving home and starting a family. As young women, like young men, postpone these milestones, they remain stuck being not quite adolescents but also not quite adults.
I have changed the names of the girls, using names they chose for themselves, and left out some of the details of their lives. I also changed the names of their family members, friends and partners.
I chose subjects who: illustrated something surprising or significant about the hookup culture; could articulate clearly what was happening to them and their friends in this culture; and seemed candid but not prone to exaggeration. Because of the sensitive nature of the information they would be sharing, it was important to have easy, personal access to them. I did not want to be confined to e-mails and telephone calls as means of discussing blow jobs and date rape. Ultimately, I selected three girls in Washington, D.C.–area high schools, two public and one private, and six young women at two universities I could get to quickly: George Washington University, in D.C., and Duke University, a four-hour drive away in Durham, North Carolina. At Duke, campus social life was driven largely by thirty-eight fraternities and sororities. This was not so at George Washington, with twenty Greek organizations and a much larger student body. Officials at both universities were open and cooperative, and I should add that the observations I make about these two institutions could be made about many other schools.
I taught a course on love, sexuality and the media in George Washington's School of Media and Public Affairs, and those students contributed enormously to my understanding. I also observed and corresponded with two girls who identified themselves as lesbians—one at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and the other at the tiny University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. At year's end, after extensive discussion with one of those girls, I decided to include neither in the book because I believed they were distinct in many ways. It is not that they didn't hook up or relate to their partners in some of the same ways as the straight girls. But they also had other issues—of identity and disclosure, for example—that complicated their stories and made them unique. And their power struggles were with other girls, not with guys.
I came to this decision reluctantly. The gay female population is larger than we used to think. According to a recent national study, 8 percent of high school girls report having had some kind of sexual experience with another girl. For older girls, that figure increases to 14 percent. Americans frequently assume that young women all speak in the same voice, when they most certainly do not. Gay and bisexual girls need to have a separate account written of their hookup world, and I hope someone will do that.
I spent time in class with the girls in this book, attended sporting events and plays, and sat with them in coffee shops and restaurants. I shopped with them (improving my wardrobe considerably) and partied with them. Some of the most memorable moments were observed from a bar stool—a scene I hadn't been a part of in more years than I care to admit. Occasionally, on returning to my hotel at, say, two a.m., I would call my husband and say, "I am way too old to be doing this." But I also enjoyed being with them, and now, frankly, I miss them and their energy, enthusiasm and challenge to my ideas.
I interviewed the friends and boyfriends of these girls, visited the girls in their homes and talked to some of their parents. I listened with interest as mothers and fathers told me how little they knew about their daughters' sexual and romantic lives. I was intrigued that some seemed not particularly concerned about that. Parental anxieties were reserved for grades and plans for graduate school and careers—a reality that, as you will see in later chapters, has important repercussions for girls' private lives.
What will you read in this book, and through whose story? In Section One, you will read first about the hooking-up phenomenon itself—its definition, scope and short history—through the story of a Duke senior I called Jamie. I chose Jamie in part because she hooked up during her first year at Duke and then moved into a deeper, more lasting relationship that gave her some perspective on her earlier experiences. You will see how hooking up can blindside an unsuspecting freshman; how it has become not just a temporary fancy but a replacement for dating, affecting even those who, against the odds, date; and how young women, empowered by Title IX–inspired success in school and on the playing field, have been the driving force behind this change.
Whether they're looking to hook up serially or, less often, for something more substantial, what young women want most is control over the guys they've set out to conquer. In Section Two, through the stories of Sienna, Anna and Mieka, you'll see what the contest looks like in high school and the influence that friends have in egging each other on. You'll also witness the kind of influence parents have on girls' choices. Sienna and Anna were close to their mothers; Mieka was close to neither parent.
Section Two ends with Nicole, a George Washington sophomore, who illustrates that, while hooking up may seem like a game in high school, it becomes a serious campaign in college, the prize being the ability to walk away at will. Nicole's experience suggests that as a result of hooking up, close friendships between girls have replaced long-term relationships with guys. Without parents or college authorities helping them figure out how to navigate the new social terrain, college women depend on their gal pals to push them out there and then protect them from going too far.
Nicole was a closet romantic. Indeed, most of the girls I observed came across initially as ball-busters, but privately, either late at night or after a couple of drinks, they morphed into softer versions of Bridget Jones, hoping for someone to knock on their door, flowers in hand. As hard as they tried to run away from love, they ended up falling in love, usually only briefly, and were reluctant to call it anything but "having feelings for."
So why did they continue to hook up? Section Three, which shares the stories of Shaida, Cleo and Victoria, suggests three reasons: the ethic of female empowerment; parental expectations for academic and professional achievement; and reluctance on the part of authorities on campus to intervene in students' social lives.
Shaida was a declared feminist who arrived at college assuming, as many older feminists do, that girls who feel powerful in the classroom will act in their own best interests in the bedroom. Personal and painful experiences changed her mind—and also made her believe that feminism needs to revisit its assumptions and expand its vision of what it means to be a woman.
Cleo was Nicole's older sister. Their mother was a successful lawyer who wanted her daughters to prepare themselves for a successful life with or without husbands. Cleo, internalizing her mother's and father's hopes, grew up believing that she should ace the SATs and later the foreign service exam, star on a winning basketball team, date someone equally talented, graduate from college summa cum laude and move on to a top graduate school, all without breaking a sweat. She fell in love her junior year in college but, unable to see how the relationship could work in the perfect future she envisioned for herself, also hooked up on the side. Interestingly, although both sisters were influenced by their parents' dreams, and both attended the same university, Cleo, more than Nicole, ended up confused and uncertain—the result, in part, of their different temperaments.
In all these stories, the reader may be struck, as I was, by the total freedom that college students enjoy on campus today. They move from their years at home, when so many decisions are made for them, to a place where everything is up to them. College authorities, at one time surrogate parents, have become absentee landlords. Rules that both inhibited and protected students are gone. Although the pendulum is beginning to swing back in the direction of college control, the movement is slight, and Victoria's story shows how one young woman managed that freedom and at what cost. The religious rituals and beliefs that she brought from home helped ground her, as did a couple of college programs. Her parents' relationship, unlike that of some of the other parents in this book, provided a model for her of what she'd like to have one day in her own life. Early in the year, she decided that the only way to win at the hookup game was not to play, and these supports helped her maintain her resolve.
The early-twentieth-century British actress Beatrice Tanner Campbell, when asked about two actors who took an unusual liking to each other, reportedly replied, "Does it really matter what these affectionate people do, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses?" It is tempting to say the same thing about young women once they get to college. Section Four suggests why we shouldn't. As Alicia, a junior at Duke, helps us understand, hooking up regularly puts girls at risk both physically and emotionally. It also carries potential implications for their future roles as mothers, workers and members of a community.
Alicia came to college looking and feeling like the odd girl out, and she used hooking up to reassure herself that someone, or in her case, a series of someones, found her desirable despite her differences. This had consequences for her that, fortunately, because of her extraordinary observational powers, she was able to recognize and rectify.
One of my Post colleagues, reviewing a Katie Roiphe book, wrote that sex is not "the sum total of two people, a bed and a viral scare." How true. Sex in fact is a Rorschach test for how we treat all people—casually or with care. Skin to skin, we are at our most vulnerable, and so is our partner. We learn to trust or distrust, to give and receive in the most basic way possible, and we take those lessons with us into the wider world.
In that spirit, I end the book with "A Letter to Mothers and Daughters," a template for conversations we should be having with the next generation. These are not our daughters in the following pages. But they and so many young women like them are the ones who will be teaching, doctoring and in other ways attending to our children and grandchildren. Right now, they are trying to make sense of what is arguably the most confusing sexual landscape any generation has ever faced.
From Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both by Laura Sessions Stepp. Copyright © 2007 by Laura Session Stepp.