Child Caring

Hooking up is the rage, but is it healthy?

Boston University students Carolina Aparicio (left) and Chloe Nolan both have boyfriends, a rarity in the age of hooking up.
By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / February 13, 2007
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

Carolina Aparicio , a Boston University junior from Los Angeles, met TJ in a Shakespeare class a year and 11 months ago. There was dinner and a movie. He paid. They've been together ever since.

Chloe Nolan , a sophomore from Boston, met Max at a party her freshman year in an old-fashioned, "Hi-my-name-is-Max" introduction -- which was, she emphasizes, all that happened that night. She glows when she talks about him. "I'm hoping he'll spring for Godiva tomorrow," she says. Valentine's Day will be the first anniversary of their first date.

In a culture where young women take pride in having guilt-free sex with partners they barely know, Nolan and Aparicio are rarities. They have genuine boyfriends, not hook ups.

"I don't know anyone else who's in a relationship, do you?" Nolan asks Aparicio. Nope, no one else.

Hooking up has come to define sexual relationships for most of today's teens and young women. It can mean anything from kissing and touching to oral sex or intercourse. Vagueness is its hallmark. "A girl can say, 'I hooked up with so-and-so,' and no one knows what she did. It protects you and makes you a player at the same time," says Aparicio, who admits to her share of high school hook ups.

So does Nolan, although she never liked the scene. "You feel hollow and empty the next day, hoping the guy will call or text, knowing he isn't going to, and then pretending to yourself and your friends that you don't care."

Laura Sessions Stepp calls that denial "unhooked" -- as in, the only thing hook ups have in common is the ability to unhook at any time. "Unhooked" is the title of her new book, but she doesn't mean it only in a physical sense. Hooking up also causes young women to be emotionally unhooked from a partner and from themselves.

"Girls can have feelings even from the most casual hook ups, whether they want to or not, and they aren't learning what to do with them," says Stepp, whose book -- subtitled "How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both" -- arrives in bookstores this week.

The most benign fallout from being unhooked is that young women delay dating and marriage. "The problem with that is they pick up a lot of bad habits that makes it hard to sustain a long-term commitment, like not being able to trust or share or know how to disagree and make up," Stepp says. More seriously, being unhooked can lead to depression, alcohol abuse, anorexia, and emotional disturbance.

What young women don't count on is oxytocin , a chemical produced in the brain to promote feelings of connection and love. Oxytocin is most commonly associated with breast - feeding; it's what helps a mother bond with her infant. But it's also produced to lesser degrees during sex. The more intense the sex, the more oxytocin. Males also get a dose of it from sex, but they get a bigger dose of testosterone, which suppresses the oxytocin.

"So there's a logical explanation for why girls are in turmoil after a hook up and boys are not," Stepp says. A Washington Post reporter, she took a leave to follow nine women for a year -- a group at Duke University, one at George Washington, and a third at a Washington, D.C., high school. Even though half were in a relationship for some of the time, they were also still hooking up with others. "The peer acceptance of the hook up culture is huge," Stepp says.

The irony is that girls aren't equipped to handle love.

"The C-word, commitment, is the dirty word," Stepp says. "They see relationship as draining you of everything, most of all of your time: You'll have no time for yourself, your girlfriends, your studies, your sports. They don't want to fall in love because they have too many other things they want to do."

Aparicio says friends at home think she's weird to be in a monogamous relationship. Nolan's relationship is enough of an anomaly among her friends that she says, "Some of them are curious about it -- like it's something foreign."

Stepp is not prudish or unrealistic enough to call for an end to hook ups. "I want girls to stop and think about what they are doing, and where it's going to lead them," she says. "Most girls say they want to be in love eventually, they want to marry eventually. My question is, Will hooking up get you there?"

Neither Nolan nor Aparacio knows what the future holds for their relationships. Marriage? Probably not. Aparicio even admits that hook ups with no strings have some appeal. Not that she's looking to break up.

"TJ isn't just my boyfriend; he's my best friend," she says. To the question of whether she could ever go back to hook ups, Nolan is skeptical. "I enjoy being with someone who plays an important role in my life. Nobody our age has the capacity to deal with the strong emotions that come from random sex."

Valentine's Day tips

Sure, it's a manufactured holiday, and yes, there are many of us who hate to be romantic on demand. But there are two very good reasons why parents should observe Valentine's Day:

1. It's a chance to tell your children you love them. No child, not even a teenager, can get too much of that. Keep it simple, a homemade card on the pillow, or a a single candy heart for dessert.

2. It's a chance to show them a positive role model for romantic love. All too often, our culture provides a cynical, stereotypical and otherwise negative dose of lust or pseudo-love. Children of all ages benefit from seeing real-life expressions of romantic love, especially from their parents. If you currently don't have a partner, send a card to your mom or dad, or to your best friend. There's never anything wrong with modeling caring.

Talking to kids about sex

In her book, "unhooked," Laura Sessions Stepp says children today get lots of good, solid information about the mechanics of sex, but not enough about love and marriage. Based on issues she raises in the book, here are some points to consider:

Go for dialogue, not diatribe. Be willing to explore the issues. For instance, there are some positive aspects to hooking up: It gives a girl the opportunity to experiment with her sexuality and not feel guilty; to walk away from a guy who is not treating her well; and to talk about sex and her body with friends, including the sexual partner.

Stepp expects to be skewered by feminists for coming across as criticizing girls for putting themselves on equal sexual footing with men. She says that misses the point. "Real power is not having sex with every Tom, Dick and Harry," she says. "Real power comes from knowing when and with whom to have sex, and what good sex is. Sex within a loving, committed relationship is good sex. Hook-up sex is not." Does your daughter agree or disagree? What about you?

Share some of your own sexual experiences with your daughter if she asks, especially your regrets and mistakes as well as some of your good choices. But spare details. This is still your daughter you're talking to, not your best friend.

Whether you are single or married, girls watch their parents' relationships very closely. If you are married and your children see you fight, do they see how you work through it? Do you allow yourselves to express playfulness and appropriate love in front of your children? If you are not married, what messages are you sending about marriage, the opposite sex, or romantic love?

Talk about motivation. Stepp says one reason why this generation of girls is drawn to hook-ups is because parents and adults encourage them to be the best they can in everything they do, and that doesn't leave them time for a boyfriend. What's missing is conversation about the need for a balanced life that includes intimacy, love and commitment.

What about our sons? By all means, have similar conversations with them. Stepp wrote about girls because it's girls who have fueled the changes by saying, "We deserve to have as much fun with our sexuality as guys do." If the culture is to shift again, she says, it will come from women. "It's not fair, but it's the truth," she says. Stepp has a 22-year-old son. "I made him read the whole book," she says.

Contact Barbara Meltz at