If you're in your 40s, "hooking up" might mean catching a friend downtown for lunch. But to people in their teens or 20s, the phrase often means a casual sexual encounter — anything from kissing onwards — with no strings attached.
Now a new book on this not-so-new subject is drawing fire in some quarters for its conclusion: That hookups can be damaging to young women, denying their emotional needs, putting them at risk of depression and even sexually transmitted disease, and making them ill-equipped for real relationships later on.
For that, Laura Sessions Stepp, author of "Unhooked" and a writer for The Washington Post, has been criticized as a throwback to an earlier, restrictive moral climate, an anti-feminist and a tut-tutting mother telling girls not to give the milk away when nobody's bought the cow.
The author "imagines the female body as a thing that can be tarnished by too much use," wrote reviewer Kathy Dobie in Stepp's own paper, and suggested that Stepp was, in one part, trying to "instill sexual shame." For Meghan O'Rourke, literary editor at Slate.com, Stepp is "buying into alarmism about women," and making sex "a bigger, scarier, and more dangerous thing than it already is."
Stepp argues these critics have misconstrued her ideas.
True, she regrets that "dating has gone completely by the boards," replaced by group outings that lead to casual encounters. True, she regrets that oral sex "isn't even considered sex anymore." But she isn't saying girls should not have sex; just that they should have it in the context of a meaningful connection: "I am saying that girls should have choices."
Too often, Stepp argues, girls and young women say proudly that they like the control "hookups" give them — control over their emotions, their schedules, and freedom to focus on things like schoolwork and career (the students she profiles in her book are high achievers).
But she says they frequently mistake that freedom for empowerment. "I often hear girls say things like, 'We can be as bad as guys now,'" she says. "But I don't think that's what liberation is all about."
Stepp says her book stems from an experience she had almost 10 years ago. She and other parents were summoned to her son's middle school. The principal informed them that all year long, a dozen girls — ages 13 or 14 — had been performing oral sex on several boys in the class. (Her own son was not involved.) Stepp wrote about the sex ring in a front-page article for the Post, which led to further research.
She's had her share of positive feedback, including from educators and from young women like those in her book.
One 18-year-old student, who calls herself a feminist, e-mailed her to say she had approached the book warily, but came to believe it "will change the way my generation views sex."