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Unhooked: Book Review by: Leigha Winters, college student

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Recently, I read a thought-provoking book that Nancy Brown recommended (and reviewed) called Unhooked. Every time I would comment on this book to a friend, it would inevitably spark a fascinating and lively conversation about sex, pleasure, and “hooking up.” As a college student, I live the life that Laura Sessions Stepp investigates in her book Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both. I may not have experienced every situation she presents first hand, but when Stepp starts talking about the high-stress, academically achieving environment where women do not have time for commitment, I know exactly what she’s talking about. To me, Unhooked is a well-researched and insightful book that delves into the contemporary adolescent culture of “hooking up.” While Stepp does examine the actions and reactions of her characters through a somewhat conservative and discouraging lens, she succeeds in highlighting many distressing trends.

Below is a book review I wrote to discuss this book in more detail.

Laura Sessions Stepp examines a modern culture where “hooking ups defining characteristic is the ability to unhook from a partner at any time” by following the lives of three groups of young women: high school students Sienna, Anna and Mieka; Duke University students Jamie, Shaida, Victoria and Alicia; and George Washington University students Nicole and Cleo. (All names are pseudonyms to protect the women’s identities.) These stories reveal much about both the young women and Laura Sessions Stepp. The stories Stepp picks to include all reinforce her clear view that “hooking up” is detrimental to young women’s health and future. Although Stepp alludes to the idea that there are women out there who enjoy and flourish in this culture, she fails to include a single success story in her book. No young woman participates in hooking up and later maintains all her self worth and confidence. Even Shaida, the uber-feminist who originally seeks to “take the term ‘hooking up’ and make it [her] own” in a male-dominated college environment, eventually loses herself, breaks down and admits she was more or less raped one night when she took a man home. Instead of strength and independence, Shaida admits her motives were less profound: “I was anxious to be the person I had been, desired by everyone.”

Unhooked implies that today’s youth have been forced into a very unhealthy and very unique situation. This young generation is being raised with both the most coddling and the greatest expectations. Parents want it all for their kids. From a very young age, parents tell their kids they can achieve anything they put their minds to. And to do this, parents, both consciously and subconsciously, push college and careers, and advocate putting love on the back-burner. Add high-speed technology to this high-achieving environment, and you get a society of multi-taskers who have “everything at their fingertips” and expect instant gratification. With these parameters, what is left for romantic encounters but hooking up?

Stepp paints this picture very well in Unhooked. However, she fails to recognize that past generations have experienced similar environments and turned out just fine. (Think the “free love” era of the 1960s!) Furthermore, alcohol is very important in every woman’s story that Stepp relates. However, studies show that this generation’s drinking is actually way down since the 1970s and 1980s. If this is the case, where are the stories in Stepp’s book of the women who are not constantly surrounded by alcohol?

Ultimately, Unhooked is a strong examination of the modern hook-up culture as revealed by young female participants. While it may lack some breadth (there are no lesbian perspectives, no male perspectives and little insight into female experiences without alcohol), Stepp makes some poignant points. Listed below are some of the highlights.
  • This hook-up culture has no structure and no rules. Therefore, even if women want to play the game, they do not know how. And if they are left feeling empty and want more, they don’t have the tools or experience to bring about a change. Women can’t transform hook-up buddies into serious boyfriends because they don’t know how to get to that next level. And in many peoples’ eyes, there is nothing in between hooked up and getting married anyway.
  • Female friendships are taking the place of romantic relationships in many young women’s lives. As one friend of Nicole’s put it, “My girlfriends in college are my life.” Women are too busy with school work and maintaining their friendships to establish any type of relationship with men except temporary hook-ups. Unfortunately, young women often begin to see guys as either the enemy or fools when these temporary relationships go amiss.
  • Hooking up is most often about control for young women. When this control or sense of detachment is lost, women sometimes fall into depression, or develop eating disorders, feelings of worthlessness and other harmful emotional problems.
  • Young women are most often unfulfilled by sexual encounters. They try to stay detached to maintain control, but ultimately lose all enjoyment in the process. In fact, when these “female-dominated” hook-ups are revealed, they are more like rape or sexual assault than consenual sex.
  • One of the saddest consequences of the hook-up culture is the development of “gray rape.” This is a concept that women are not sexually assaulted or raped because they initially come on as the “hunter.” When things go too far, women are reluctant to report rape as they will appear powerless. Furthermore, when women initially seek out men and initiate the sexual encounter, they often don’t think they can claim rape if things go too far. The situations may be written off as “unfortunate instances of poor judgment and miscommunication on the part of both partners.” This does not stop women from being negatively impacted by the experiences.
  • Hooking up is the opposite of marriage. There is no “trust, respect, admiration, honesty, selflessness, communication, caring and, perhaps more than anything else, commitment.” There is also no ability or experience with “straight talk or negotiating different points of view.” It is worrisome that young adults are getting very little experience with trusting relationships, but most of them claim to want to get married and have children some day.
  • “The parallel between hookup relationships and this generation’s work habits is striking.” Young adults are individualistic, unfulfilled, mobile and always looking for something better. They don’t stick to one relationship, either professional or romantic, for long when it gets hard, boring or tedious. There is not much trust and very little reliability.
  • Parents, friends, fellow women and other men need to get involved. Only through frank and open discussion will these problems improve. And it’s important to remember that young women’s relationships with their parents have a great impact on their romantic behavior later in life. So parents need to lead by example and be willing to talk about the tough issues with their children.
In the end, a lot of Stepp’s conclusions seem a little pessimistic, but sadly realistic. It is never fun to hear that a lifestyle you took for granted is eroding your generation. But now whenever I go to parties, it is all I’m able to see. I can see through the façade, and it makes me want more out of my relationships. Even if I can’t seem to find the time…

Photo Credit: Ron's Log

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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.

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