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
(Image credit: C. Steinhausen)

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.

Q: Do you think it's ever possible for women to have sex like men?
A: Sure, but nine times out of 10 they're going to feel something afterward. I have no data to back this up, but I am convinced that one reason we're seeing alcohol-consumption rates go up in women is that they are taking part in these sexual encounters, believing they should do so and be strong about it. And they're having to do it over and over again. At some point it denies their own biology and desires, so of course they drink in order to prepare for it, because it's not what they want to do. One of the girls in my book, Alicia, says hookup sex is very scripted. You turn off everything except your body and make yourself emotionally invulnerable. Who wants that? It's like saying I'm going to plunge down the roller coaster without anticipating the ride to the top. It's a cheap thrill.

Q: Besides the commonly known risks of casual sex, like STDs and AIDS, what are some of the other consequences of rampant hooking up?
A: Besides alcoholism? Depression. We know from surveys that have been done over the years that — again, due to oxytocin — the shorter a relationship, the more likely it is for depression to occur afterward. Breaking up a longer relationship tends to be less painful, and hookups are nothing if not brief. So this means that girls who hook up have to work really hard to squash or deny those natural feelings of connection, which again leads to depression. Also, casual sex may make later relationships more difficult, particularly if it becomes a pattern, because cheating is common. Trust is elusive. You don't learn how to trust someone; you don't learn how to treat someone in a caring way. And I think if you don't get to practice those things, it's going to be harder down the road to have a successful relationship or marriage.

Q: What's your advice to women who are planning to go out tonight and get it on with a stranger?
A: Besides packing a Trojan? I would advise them not to. Go out and find some guy who turns you on and have fun with him, but leave him wanting more. Wait until you know him better, and believe me, the sex is going to be better.

Q: Doesn't that seem terribly old-fashioned?
A: Maybe, but I think in our rush to condone or not be seen as disapproving of young women's independence — which I'm very much in favor of — we have gone too far in the opposite direction. We just need to put the brakes on a little bit. I wouldn't argue that you should never have casual sex. I just think that women need to think through how they're going to do it and with whom. Why cheat yourself out of a great relationship and great sex?