Saturday, July 17, 2010

Unhooked From Relationships

Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both" is a 2007 investigative non-fiction piece from Washington Post’s Laura Sessions Stepp. It is evocative, and hardly sugarcoated.

After reading it, I can't help but believe think about how things have changed. The dating traditions I’ve heard about from my parent’s dating years don’t seem to be in place anymore. Anyone else with me? Even a recent post from Slate writes about the new memoir sub-genre - young, single women exploring a new territory:

"This crop of books is laying out what it feels like to be a young, professional, economically and sexually independent woman, unencumbered by children or excessive domestic responsibility, who earns, plays and worries her own way through her 20s and 30s, a stage of life that until very recently would have been unimaginable or scandalously radical, but which we now – miraculously – find somewhat ho-hum."

Many of my female colleagues are ambitious. Some have serious relationships, and some do not. One has a promise ring from her boyfriend – a symbol for the pre-engagement phase. Another friend finished her undergraduate studies in 3 years, and has knocked out her first year of law school at Norte Dame. My friends are in all stages of relationships - some serious, and some not.

Do you remember your first love? Does it make you squirm? Apparently, that's pretty common.

Stepp, the author of “Unhooked,” interviewed Lloyd Kolbe, formerly an adolescent health director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kolbe said most adults would prefer to talk about almost anything other than their early (first) loves. He said even the topic of sex comes up more often in conversations: “We demean first love, deny it, trivialize it, and so our young people trivialize it. We lose the opportunity to talk about real things, like the difference between lust and love. Sex is part of it, but not the central part of it.”


Journalist Stepp suggests that as daughters grow up, parents begin worrying that crushes may become too significant, “distracting girls from more important things like algrebra.” Stepp says parents tell their daughters to “love moderately” lest they lose a college scholarship.

Stepp interviews two sisters - Cleo and Nicole - over the course of a year. The sisters grew up in a Texas suburb with manicured lawns. The girls were never allowed to play in the front yard – only in the backyard where the ‘rent and neighbors could keep an eye on the kids. Cleo notes: “We’ve had everything handed to us.”

Thus begins another commentary on our generation: The Spoon-Feds, the Silver Platters, the Pampered Ones. Stepp notes that we are “spectacular specimens raised in glass houses that are temperature-controlled and as disease-free as humanly possible…their opportunities for learning how to be responsible are few.” (Though there is room for debate on that one…).

Studies show that young women are likely to be optimistic, rule-followers who value school (Uh..check, check, check). But will they make good marriage partners, Stepps wonders? She concludes that our generation has learned little about making tough choices, attending to others’ needs or bearing burdens solo.

Stepps found that young women weren’t alone in their hang-ups about relationships. One guy told her: “To find someone, that’s really scary. Everyone wants that, but its for the rest of your life.” What happened to "going out" on a "date"? Again, it seems as though this generation is only interested in casual sex or committing to a serious relationship. Traditional dates have gone out the window. (Even someone on Urban Dictionary wrote: "Hooking up has replaced mainstream dating....It's no longer, "Omg! When will he call?" but...."Omg, that was awesome, i wonder when he'll ask me out after [last said hookup]."

Stepps continued to meet with students who viewed relationship as one of two things: (1) a serious, long-term relationship that would suck out a personal life, or (2) a series of meaningless hookups devoid of meaning.

Cultural and generational changes have affected the hookup culture. In two ways:

(1) Generational: Even 20 years ago, college residence halls enforced curfews. If a girl didn’t want to sleep over at a guy’s place (she thought he was slimy), she could politely remind her date of the rules in place. (Sometimes rules actually have a purpose – imagine that!) Technology, too, has played a role. Conversations become more informal. Some even argue that the Internet can rob romance of its mystery.

(2) Cultural: A GWU student who studied abroad in Dublin remarked that her Irish university did not provide student housing. The result? She felt less obliged to go home with a guy. Today, the campus lifestyle is not suitable for formal dating traditions. Students work all day, and squeeze in social time with gal-pals, while hitting the social scene. It makes for a pretty full schedule. Hookup is made easy when the two bedrooms are right down the hall from one another.

Hookups are, by defintion, brief. They leave little time for either party to reflect, much lest acquire feelings or emotions. Stepp says many young women deal with depression, and in serious cases, eating disorders up to 6 months after a particular hookup. Stepp says, “This means that girls who hook up serially have to work very hard – harder than they may know or admit – to squash or deny natural feelings of connection, making themselves even more vulnerable to depression.”

Kolbe, the health education professor at IU said, “Hookups are purposely uncaring. If they turn off their emotional spigot during this time, what will happen to them as adults?

Stepp attempts to answer that question. Indeed, how will young people grasp the responsibility of adulthood and mature relationships if all they’ve ever known has been emotion-less and last only 24 hours?

Stepp says “College women say they’re not ready to commit, and indeed many may not be. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to think about it.”

Our Gen-Y has grown up observing that 1 out of 2 marriages end in divorce. One of the students Stepp interviewed said, “I think our generation is less likely to stick around and work out problems in a marriage.”

Why else are the online dating services raking in millions of dollars? Do we really not know how to date? Do we know how to develop a relationship? I agree with Stepp that there are few models for women on how to build and develop healthy relationships.

Caveats: On one end, Stepp makes a great case for encouraging more guidance on relationship development. She made clear to make this point more than once: “A girl can tuck a Trojan into her purse on a Saturday night, but there is no such device to protect her heart.” What resources exist for our generations? And what models can we look to? On the other extreme, Stepp borders closely on criticizing a woman’s freedom to choose her path. Several friends pointed out that feminists didn’t take too well to Stepp’s criticism of the third-wave movement.

An interesting piece from NPR reviewed the latest Twilight movie. One comment stuck out: the movie reviewer wondered if the reason so many young women were ga-ga for the plot was because it involved delayed gratification – a foreign concept for most of Gen-Y. Yet perhaps that is why so many young women are enthralled with the story. Are they yearning for delayed gratification?

One young women said it best: “…You don’t have to marry someone in order to learn from spending time with them. There are some relationships that aren’t going anywhere, but you can still learn about yourself…”

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Really good post Meg. I think it's sad but true. Yet God STILL creates women with a desire to be in relationships, committed and secure and a desire to come alongside. We've got so many choices now and so much freedom, which is a GOOD thing. Yet those choices and freedoms have been presented to us or kept from us in such a way that have created chaos and confusion. God's word and His Spirit can redeem this but a woman has to let Him have her heart first. There in lies the problem. We are looking for satisfaction and fulfillment everywhere other than in Him and the immediate satisfaction of sex, warmth and drifting security are the closest and cheapest thing we can find to pure intimacy. Sad...

Hanna Yaeger said...

I have mixed feelings about Stepp. Part of me agrees with that it almost seems like she is criticizing a woman's choice to remain independent, single, and self sufficient. It almost seems like she believes women need to be trained to be good wives. However, that's just what I gleaned from a quick glancing over of your review. Perhaps I got it completely wrong. I have been on both sides of these situations and I have seen friends struggle with the concepts of "commitment "and "sacrificing their individuality". I am currently in a serious relationship, but I too have sometimes struggled with the idea that a relationship will cancel out my individual dreams. It almost seems like people our age have been trained to see relationships as a burden, not a partnership or a support system. Hmm...these are just random thoughts. I need to chew this over some more. I will have to look into reading the whole thing. I wish we could actually sit down and talk about this over coffee meg!

Meg B said...

@Suzie - Thanks for your comment. There are definitely benefits to investing in relationships

@Hanna - Thanks for your thoughts. I have read reviews of this book, which indicate that lots of feminists out there were not happy with the author's slam against feminism. And you're right, I think a lot of our ideas about relationships are really engrained in us - by family, friends and the media. I so wish I could chat with you over coffee, too :)

Post a Comment