WaPo has a whole series of book reviews on love-romance-and-sex books up right now, called “Down With Love: Our Grouchy Valentine Issue.”
It covers “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both” by Laura Session Stepp (which seems similar to another book that’s gotten a lot of attention lately, “Uncovered,” by Miriam Grossman). Stepp is one of WaPo’s very own, having contributed such illustrious pieces to the paper as this piece from last May about it’s just no fun for college boys to have sex when they don’t get to pressure and coerce and terrorize the girls into it, and therefore sexually aggressive women are making the poor boys dicks go limp (oh, oh, oh, and best part? The piece is titled “Cupid’s Broken Arrow”. AND quotes Weezer lyrics!).
Stepp follows three high school girls and six college women through a year in their lives, chronicling their sexual behavior. These girls and women don’t date, don’t develop long-term relationships or even short, serious ones — instead, they “hook up.”
Stepp is troubled: How will these girls learn how to be loving couples in this hook-up culture? Where will they practice the behavior needed to sustain deep and long-term relationships? If they commit to a lack of commitment, how will they ever learn to be intimate?
The question is how will these girls learn to be in loving couples, practice relationship behavior, etc., obviously. This “hook-up culture” (eek, what a horrifically lame phrase) should not lead us to asking the same question of college boys, because, duh, boys will be boys, and everyone knows that is the girls who will grow up to be women who need to know all this relationship stuff so they can trick the boys-grown-into-men into it!
But — bestill my heart — the reviewer, Kathy Dobie, refuses to take Stepp’s questions at face value either.
These questions sound reasonable at first, until one remembers that life just doesn’t work that way: In our teens and early twenties, sexual relationships are less about intimacy than about expanding our intimate knowledge of people — a very different thing. Through sex, we discover irrefutable otherness (he dreams of being madly in love; she hates going to sleep alone ), and we are scared and enraptured, frustrated and inspired. We learn less about intimacy in our youthful sex lives than we do about humanity. And of course, there is also lust, something this very unsexy book about sex doesn’t take into account.In fact, Unhooked can be downright painful to read. The author resurrects the ugly, old notion of sex as something a female gives in return for a male’s good behavior, and she imagines the female body as a thing that can be tarnished by too much use. She advises the girls, “He will seek to win you over only if he thinks you’re a prize.”And goes on to tell them, “In a smorgasbord of booty, all the hot dishes start looking like they’ve been on the warming table too long.”
It seems strange to have to state the obvious all over again: Both males and females should work hard to gain another’s affection and trust. And one’s sexuality is not a commodity that, given away too readily and too often, will exhaust or devalue itself. Tell girls that it is such a commodity (as they were told for a number of decades), and they will rebel. The author is conflating what the girls refuse to conflate: love and sexuality. Sometimes they coexist, sometimes not. Loving, faithful marriages in which the sex life has cooled are as much a testament to that fact as a lustful tryst that leads nowhere.
And perhaps as this generation grows up, they will come to relish other sides of an intimate relationship more than we have: the friendship, the shared humor, the familiar and loved body next to you in bed at night. This is the most hopeful outcome of the culture Stepp describes, but no less possible than the outcome she fears — a generation unable to commit, unable to weather storms or to stomach second place or really to love at all.