It’s a little creepy hearing girls’ and women’s sexuality compared to food. But that ick factor reaches Schaefferian levels when such metaphors are encapsulated in a hand-wringing (yet profit-minded, to be sure) dissertation on the sexual and romantic behavior of an entire generation of women.
This week, the Washington Post reviews Laura Sessions Stepp’s “Unhooked” — the first book written about the supposed trend among young women of “hooking up.” But, less than forward-looking, the book sounds like a ’50s-style handbook on appropriate femininity, juiced up with some hip-wit-it slang: “In a smorgasbord of booty, all the hot dishes start looking like they’ve been on the warming table too long,” writes Stepp. These days, argues Stepp, young women are eschewing emotionally intimate relationships in favor of “hooking up,” which can be limited to “one kiss, or it can involve fondling, oral sex, anal sex, intercourse or any combination of those things. It can happen only once with a partner, several times during a week or over many months.”
To my great relief, reviewer Kathy Dobie is spot-on with her criticism of the book: “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.” Indeed, Stepp cautions that a guy “will seek to win you over only if he thinks you’re a prize.” The book concludes by directly addressing mothers and daughters — what about the dads, huh? — and cautions: “Your body is your property … Think about the first home you hope to own. You wouldn’t want someone to throw a rock through the front window, would you?” She continues, “Pornographic is grinding on the dance floor like a dog in heat. It leaves nothing to the imagination.” Of course, girls should be encouraged to respect their bodies. But what a retro throwback to equate what is oftentimes a normal — relatively healthy, perhaps — playacting of their sexuality with a debasement so great that one’s self-respect and virtuousness are irretrievable! Dobie puts it succinctly: “The ugliness of these images seems meant to instill sexual shame.”
To her credit, Stepp spent a year chronicling the romantic and sexual lives of three high school girls and six college women. So when she writes about girls adopting boy talk when chatting about their romantic exploits, her hand-wringing isn’t entirely baseless: “They speak of hitting it, of boy toys and filler boys, ‘my plaything’ and ‘my bitch,’” summarizes Dobie. There are two arguments (at least) to be made about that as a trend, though. On the one hand, it’s distressing — it might suggest a certain level of emotional dishonesty and immaturity. On the other hand, there’s the relative win that girls can now be the romantic and sexual aggressors. Beyond that, though, is the troubling generalization made by this book and countless other articles and books unhampered by the rigors of, say, science: Girls and women of X generation are in peril because of Y.
Even if we’re to believe the magnitude of this “hooking up” trend, Stepp — despite her retro revitalization — misses a chance for some good old-fashioned optimism. Most who survived those high school and college years should recognize Stepps’ divining of the end of intimacy and commitment as exhibiting the forethought of one of her teenage subjects. As Dobie argues, for teens and 20-somethings, “sexual relationships are less about intimacy than about expanding our intimate knowledge of people — a very different thing,” she continues. “We learn less about intimacy in our youthful sex lives than we do about humanity … Perhaps, this generation, by making sex less precious, less a commodity, will succeed in putting simple humanity back into sex.”