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September 29, 2008

Does Hooking Up Hurt You?

Does hooking up hurt you? You bet ... says Laura Sessions Stepp, after spending a year entrenched in the sexually charged world of single 20-something women.

Single Sex

Photo Credit: C. Steinhausen/Getty Image

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Kimberly, a 27-year-old nanny in Atlanta, has had sex with three men in the past month. "I have a job, hobbies, and friends I love. A monogamous relationship is the only component of my life that is lacking — but I love it!" she says. "I want Mr. Right eventually, but for the time being, I've got needs, and Mr. Right Now will do just fine."
Welcome to the hookup culture — or as Washington Post reporter Laura Sessions Stepp puts it, "the most confusing sexual landscape any generation has faced." Stepp spent the past year hanging out with eight young women and learning about their sexual escapades. She reveals what she discovered in her provocative new book, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both.

Q: You grew up in the '60s and '70s, the free-sex era. How is that time period different from what we're seeing now?
A: In my generation, we wanted to have free sex, but we actually didn't. There was a line that you only crossed under certain circumstances. For instance, you would open your window a crack in your dorm room and let your boyfriend in, but you wouldn't announce to the world that you were doing it. Back then, we knew what the rules were. Today, there aren't any, so women don't have anything to break. They're making it up as they go along. The women's movement argued — and I was right there — that women need to be as sexually free as men. I think it's only now, with some age and experience on us, that we're looking at our daughters and seeing that maybe that wasn't such a great thing.

Q: Are you saying that feminism is to blame?
A: I think sometimes feminism leads women to believe they can't have both a loving relationship and a hard-driving career. A lot of the women I interviewed for my book say one of the reasons they have casual sex is the fear that if they get tied up emotionally with someone, they won't be able to do their work or get ahead in their jobs. That's just not true. A truly good relationship puts a spring in your step; you can work more, have more energy, and feel better. You can soften your edges without softening your drive.

Q: But if women don't want a relationship, shouldn't they be able to have no-strings-attached sex as easily as men?
A: They can. But just because they can doesn't mean they should. The way chemicals are released in the brain during intercourse is very different in men and women. In women, oxytocin is released. It's a chemical that makes women want to nurture their young and stay close. Men get a huge jolt of testosterone, which suppresses oxytocin, and that's nature's way of saying, "Leave the nest and go sire offspring somewhere else." So when women think they can have sex and walk away just like guys do, they're having to suppress thousands of years of evolution that tells them to cuddle, stay in bed, and look forward to tomorrow. When they get up and walk out, they feel depressed and don't know why.

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