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Unhooked: The new culture of casual sex

In her new book "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both," author Laura Sessions Stepp chronicles the younger generation's new culture of casual sex.

It's been nearly 50 years since the pill first revolutionized sex on college campuses and though "free love" may be a thing of the past, a new culture of casual sex, known as "hooking up," has now become the norm.

Author Laura Sessions Stepp chronicles this phenomenon in her new book "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both." Here's an excerpt.

I can explain the origin of this book with two ­stories —­ one brief, the other more detailed.

In the spring of 1998, the principal of a suburban Washington, D.C., middle school called about ­twenty-­five parents to a special night meeting. There, over the annoying hum of the fluorescent bulbs found in ­eighth-­grade classrooms around the country, she announced that as many as a dozen girls had been performing oral sex on two or three boys for most of the school year. The thirteen- and ­fourteen-­year-­old students were getting it on at parties, in parks and even in a couple of neighborhood parking lots.

The parents sat momentarily in silence, stunned. This was before President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky made oral sex a household word, and two years before the popularity of oral sex in middle schools percolated through the media. One mother, who had heard the news over the phone from a school counselor before the meeting, told me later, “I almost dropped the phone.”

The school was my son’s. He was not involved, but kids he knew were. I wrote about the sex ring for The Washington Post and I remember, to this day, what one girl in particular told me.

“I did it first in the fall with a boy I kinda liked, thinking it would make him like me,” she said. “It ­didn’t. Then I did it a couple more times in the spring at parties. We would go outside, then come back in and sit around and talk about it. It was no big deal.”

Now, in 1964, my ­eighth-­grade girlfriends and I were no prisses; we had secret places around town where we went to kiss and neck with our boyfriends. But when did teenaged ­girls—­everyday girls, not just the “fast” girls or the “loose” ­girls—­start skipping the smooching and go straight to giving head? How did they come to believe that offering their services to guys they barely knew “was no big deal”?

My reporting instincts shifted into high gear as I discovered that this was not an isolated case. School administrators were beginning to report similar behaviors in middle schools around the Washington area. My editors, extremely uncomfortable about putting the phrases “oral sex” and “middle school” in the same newspaper story, pressed for multiple, concrete examples, and I delivered. Eventually, after much debate, they published the article on the front page, and that launched me on an investigation that continues today into the sexual and romantic lives of America’s young people.

Now for the second, longer story. It took place almost seven years later, in January 2005, on a college campus in downtown Washington.

Rapper T.I.’s ­voice—­and more than a few shots of ­liquor—­had hundreds of students buzzed that Saturday night inside the Marvin Center of George Washington University (or GW). Crowded along both sides of an elevated catwalk, waiting for scantily clad freshman women to emerge from a tent at one end, the students sang along with the music:

Who set the city on fire as soon as he got freed

Da king back now, ho’s ­don’t even know how to act now

Hit the club strippers gettin’ naked ’fore I sit down

Bring ’em out! Bring ’em out!

Out they came, one act after another, eighteen- and ­nineteen-­year-­old Division I athletes, ranging from passably pretty to ­drop-­dead gorgeous, putting themselves up for bid at the annual “date auction” sponsored by GW’s student athletic council. Big white bidding cards popped up immediately. Fifty dollars for a night on the town with a couple of lacrosse players! ­Seventy-­five dollars for members of the crew team!

The water polo players, dressed in swim parkas and strappy black stilettos, brought down the house. They had been practicing polo for eight months, spending thirty hours a week in the pool. Their season over, they left little question in anyone’s mind that they were ready to party.

Bumping and grinding to a new rap number, they ripped off their jackets to reveal short ­nightgowns—­see-­through black, with pink polka ­dots—­over black bras and lacy fuchsia boy shorts.

Fifty dollars! The bidding began.

A couple of players started to strip further and, drunk out of their minds, fell down.

­Seventy-­five dollars!

One player pretended to go down on another girl.

Eighty dollars!

Morgan, a muscular blonde freshman, started flashing the audience.

One hundred dollars! Sold!

Morgan turned to wobble back boozily into the tent.

“Nice vagina!” yelled a boy standing just below her as she left.

The next thing Morgan knew, it was early morning and she was lying in her own bed next to someone she thought of as just a friend. He told her that they had hooked up after the auction and that she had been a willing partner.

He also told her that they had had sex. After inspecting herself briefly, she realized it was true.

Four months later, she sat across a table from me in a campus coffee shop, her hair pulled back by a Burberry plaid headband. She sketched out the rest of that year at college. ­She’d had a series of sexual encounters, and none of them amounted to anything. She depended on alcohol to get ready for boys and, when things ­didn’t work out, to take the edge off her disappointment. Her grades were falling, putting her at risk of losing her scholarship. She had had several sessions with a psychiatrist, who prescribed an antidepressant that made her groggy.

­“I’ve dug myself a pretty deep ditch,” she admitted.

Would she participate in a date auction again, knowing what she knew now? I asked.

“Absolutely,” she said. “It was so much fun. The energy, the hype . . . The next day everyone was saying, ‘Those water polo girls were outrageous.’ . . . I knew I was an object, yeah. But I ­didn’t feel like a piece of meat at all. If it was in any way degrading, I never ­would’ve done it.”

Listening to her in the spring of 2005, my mind went back to 1968 again and I found myself making generational comparisons once more. Sure, we used to leave our college dorm windows cracked so our boyfriends could sneak in. But we were terrified of being found out and ­wouldn’t think of taking off our clothes until the guys were inside and the lights were off. Now girls were stripping in the student center in front of dozens of boys they ­didn’t know, pantomiming sex onstage and later doing the real thing without saying much, if anything, to their partners. When did conversation and negotiation drop completely out of the picture?

Clearly, young women have changed not only the way they relate intimately to young men but also the way they think about intimacy. My Post articles on sexuality since the oral-sex scandal have not been about isolated acts of a promiscuous few but indications of a large cultural shift. To some degree, depending on their temperament, upbringing and luck, all girls are caught up in the changes. Young people have virtually abandoned dating and replaced it with group ­get-­togethers and sexual behaviors that are detached from love or ­commitment—­and sometimes even from liking. High school and college teachers ­I’ve talked to, as well as researchers, remark on this: Relationships have been replaced by the casual sexual encounters known as hookups. Love, while desired by some, is being put on hold or seen as impossible; sex is becoming the primary currency of social interaction. Some girls can handle this; others, like Morgan, are exhausted physically, emotionally and spiritually by it. They struggle largely outside the awareness of parents who either ­don’t know what is going on or are vaguely aware but ­don’t know what to do.

Science tells us that sexual attractiveness plays a significant role in the emotional and social lives of young women. Parents seem largely unaware of this or of how firmly hooking up has taken hold in young people’s imaginations and lives. They are reassured by statistics that show a significant decline in teen pregnancies and a slight drop in the proportion of high school students having intercourse. What they ­don’t understand is that sexual intercourse, or any other sexual act, is only part of the story. What ­is—­or ­isn’­t—­going on in addition to sex is at least as important.

The crucial thing to remember in all of this is that hooking up, in the minds of this generation, carries no commitment. Partners hook up with the understanding that however far they go sexually, neither should become romantically involved in any serious way. Hooking up’s defining characteristic is the ability to unhook from a partner at any time, just as they might delete an old song on their iPod or an ­out-­of-­date “away” message on their computer. Maybe they tire of their partner, or find someone who is “hotter” or, for some other reason, more to their liking. Maybe they get burned badly in a relationship, or find themselves swamped with term papers and final exams. The freedom to unhook from ­someone—­ostensibly without ­repercussions—­gives them maximum flexibility. Although I use both phrases, this is not a hookup culture so much as an unhooked culture. It is a way of thinking about relationships, period.

Excerpted from “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both" by Laura Sessions Stepp. Copyright ©2007.  Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.