Unhooked, by Laura Sessions Stepp (2007)

By Laura Clark

Laura Clark is a freelance writer based in Front Royal, Virginia.

Unhooked, by Laura Sessions Stepp, is her attempt to get a handle on the “hook-up” culture on college campuses.  As in Female Chauvinist Pigs, we encounter the sad dreariness of the sexual revolution.  Stepp, like Levy, actually seems fairly comfortable with where the revolution began, just not where it is ending.  It is ending with practically anonymous hook-ups between boys and girls on college campuses all across the nation.  A “hook-up” can mean anything from a kiss to sex: the technical “one size fits all” nature of the term implies that sexual encounters are uniform in meaning (meaningless?) and even boring (does “hook-up” sound exciting—or does it sound like something we do with our clothes when unpacking?).  More to the point, no girl really wants to be thought of as a “hook-up.”  Guys do not even really like it.  This “not liking it” (especially on the part of girls) is in part what Stepp documents again and again in her book.  Yet she also documents an odd willingness on many young people’s part to live with it:  a resignation she find strange. 

Stepp, much more than Levy, offers some concrete solutions to the problem.  Perhaps she feels confident in doing this because she is older than Levy, a Mom, and was raised in a considerably more conservative time. She recommends not “hooking-up.”  She encourages young people to seek “intimacy” in their relationships, to approach their relationships thoughtfully, and in terms of their long term goals.  She makes the cultural responsibility connection:  “If individuals consider hooking up only in terms of what it does for them, nothing will change,” Stepp says.  She admonishes, “You’re in this together.”  Going further than Levy, but like her too, Stepp seems to tie good sex up with becoming a more rounded, better person. “[Sex] can reinforce our best qualities:  our playfulness [is this one of our best qualities?], generosity, sense of responsibility, and trustworthiness.”   And yes, like Levy, she espouses the ubiquitous solution of better sex education.  So is there a problem with Stepp’s approach?

Stepp offers more concrete solutions than Levy, but she still sees no ultimate meaning to sexual relationships beyond “loving” intimacy.  Premarital sex is not problematic for her, as long as it is done in a committed, loving relationship.  She implies that these kinds of relationships are at least, in part, a preparation for eventual life-long ones.  She overlooks the fact that without the commitment of marriage it’s hard to see how sex can make anyone more “generous”, “responsible”, or “trustworthy.”   She seems to forget that her premises are close to the ones with which the sexual revolution began:  marriage is unnecessary, but make sure to be loving!  Be committed (if possible), at least for a while! She does not observe that without recognizing a meaning in sex beyond (good starting points that they are) commitment and intimacy we will end up with what we have today:  anonymous hook-ups.  “Commitment” leads to the question:  how committed?  “Intimacy” leads to the question:  intimate in what context?  Intimate to the point that I can be hurt because I’m not with you forever?  An uncomfortable fact about sex that will not go away is that it does not take to half measures.  Honest answers to these questions have in part led to the hook-up culture:  people would rather hook-up than give their whole selves and get hurt.  If they get hurt hooking up (which they undoubtedly do), at least, they can reason, they only gave part of themselves.  Let’s move on to the next book.

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