The “Broken Windows” Theory of Sex

Laura Sessions Stepp, the Washington Post writer who contributed greatly to the urban legend of rampant “rainbow parties” among teenagers, has written a book (and an article) bemoaning “hookup culture” among our youts.

Fortunately, Kathy Dobie has written a snarky review.

Stepp follows three high school girls and six college women through a year in their lives, chronicling their sexual behavior. These girls and women don’t date, don’t develop long-term relationships or even short, serious ones — instead, they “hook up.” Hooking up, Stepp writes, “isn’t exactly anything.” It can “consist entirely of one kiss, or it can involve fondling, oral sex, anal sex, intercourse or any combination of those things. It can happen only once with a partner, several times during a week or over many months . . . . It can mean the start of something, the end of something or the whole something.” If that sounds as if hooking up can mean almost anything but “fried fish for dinner,” Stepp goes on to offer something more definite: What makes hooking up unique is that its practitioners agree that there will be no commitment, no exclusivity, no feelings. The girls adopt the crude talk of crude boys: They speak of hitting it, of boy toys and filler boys, “my plaything” and “my bitch.”

Isn’t that also known as “playing the field”?

Cripes, people, hooking up is nothing new, and if you’re defining it so broadly as to include kissing games at parties, you really need to unclutch your pearls because you’re cutting off the circulation to your brain. My friends in college 20 years ago were complaining that guys didn’t really want to date, they just wanted to hook up. Maybe all that’s different is that now, the girls aren’t complaining. And maybe that’s what’s so scary for Stepp (not to mention for other wingnuts who have latched onto “hookup culture” as the lastest thing to hold against young women who are NEVER GOING TO FIND A HUSBAND DUE TO THE SLUTTY SQUANDERING OF THEIR OXYTOCIN).

In any event, most college students are over 18. If they want to hook up, they’re grown people.

Mind you, college women can’t win with Stepp. If they’re not dispassionately hopping from hookup to hookup, they’re joined at the hip with their boyfriends — assuming their boyfriends haven’t dumped them for causing impotency with their horniness. They lose their virginity in the hot, sticky summer, no doubt to a guy who had a good wingman and kept their less-hot friends busy.

But, really, this has to be my favorite. From the review:

Stepp is troubled: How will these girls learn how to be loving couples in this hook-up culture? Where will they practice the behavior needed to sustain deep and long-term relationships? If they commit to a lack of commitment, how will they ever learn to be intimate? These questions sound reasonable at first, until one remembers that life just doesn’t work that way: In our teens and early twenties, sexual relationships are less about intimacy than about expanding our intimate knowledge of people — a very different thing. Through sex, we discover irrefutable otherness (he dreams of being madly in love; she hates going to sleep alone ), and we are scared and enraptured, frustrated and inspired. We learn less about intimacy in our youthful sex lives than we do about humanity. And of course, there is also lust, something this very unsexy book about sex doesn’t take into account. In fact, Unhooked can be downright painful to read. The author resurrects the ugly, old notion of sex as something a female gives in return for a male’s good behavior, and she imagines the female body as a thing that can be tarnished by too much use. She advises the girls, “He will seek to win you over only if he thinks you’re a prize.”And goes on to tell them, “In a smorgasbord of booty, all the hot dishes start looking like they’ve been on the warming table too long.”

It seems strange to have to state the obvious all over again: Both males and females should work hard to gain another’s affection and trust. And one’s sexuality is not a commodity that, given away too readily and too often, will exhaust or devalue itself. Tell girls that it is such a commodity (as they were told for a number of decades), and they will rebel. The author is conflating what the girls refuse to conflate: love and sexuality. Sometimes they coexist, sometimes not. Loving, faithful marriages in which the sex life has cooled are as much a testament to that fact as a lustful tryst that leads nowhere.

In the final chapter, Stepp writes a letter to mothers and daughters, in which she warns the girls: “Your body is your property. . . . Think about the first home you hope to own. You wouldn’t want someone to throw a rock through the front window, would you?” And: “Pornographic is grinding on the dance floor like a dog in heat. It leaves nothing to the imagination.” The ugliness of these images seems meant to instill sexual shame.

Think about those images: you’re nothing but Swedish meatballs, missy, and if you let just anyone stick their frilly toothpicks in you, you’ll sit out on the table too long, and your gravy will congeal long before the little can of Sterno under the chafing dish goes out. You’re only worth anything if some man thinks you’ve got that new-car smell. You can dance, but you look like a dog being humped.

But the weirdest, and potentially most revealing, image is the whole broken windows thing. I dunno about you, but if someone throws a rock through my window, it’s a safe bet I didn’t give them permission. I let my guests in through the door. And it’s not going to fall off the hinges if I let more than one person through (even at once!).


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31 Responses to The “Broken Windows” Theory of Sex

  1. Sara says:

    Hah – zuzu, that title is by far the most amusing jab at the ridiculousness of the “your first home” metaphor. Good show.

  2. mythago says:

    What is there about young women having sex that gives this nutjob the vapors? It’s like every time someone under 30 has an orgasm, God raises her mortgage payment.

  3. Molly says:

    They’re discussing this over at Plastic too.

  4. Tapetum says:

    Isn’t the first thing you do with a new home supposed to be inviting all your friends over for a big housewarming party? Particularly a first home? Methinks she needs to rethink her analogy.

  5. micheyd says:

    I dunno about you, but if someone throws a rock through my window, it’s a safe bet I didn’t give them permission.

    And they accuse us of saying all sex is rape….sigh…

  6. NeilC says:

    Where were these girls when I was in college?

  7. jfpbookworm says:

    Damn, and I thought this was going to be related to the Broken Window Fallacy, and be an argument along the lines of “jumping through all these relationship hoops is good because if people just had sex when they wanted each other, then florists, jewelers, chocolatiers, etc. would lose business.”

  8. Gordon K says:

    Jfpbookworm: I thought that too. Although I thought it would head more in the direction of, “if you have sex once, then you’re ‘open for business’ and having all kinds of crazy sex; the barrier to entry is gone. So you need to wait until you’re married so at least all that crazy sex is with one person.”

  9. Miss Robyn says:

    I just want to know what in hell makes them think that we secretly want to marry every guy we make out with? I think it’s just hilarious how they’ve dug their claws into this whole “hooking up” thing. As though people never made out, or had one night stands before that term came along. It makes me uncomfortable in that “Annette Funicello saying ‘groovy'” kind of way.

    Also, one thing to remember- is that a lot of these people still don’t believe that women have orgasms (it’s true!) or derive any pleasure from sex other than appeasing a man. They also believe it’s our job to keep the men “pure” as well. Creepy, but true.

  10. Bolo says:

    It’s like every time someone under 30 has an orgasm, God raises her mortgage payment.

    NEVER sign up for an adjustable rate mortgage. They are directly tied to the amount of sex people under 30 are having.

    She should have known this when she got the house.

  11. Caro says:

    Oh, I’m so glad Dobie wrote this! I was trying to explain to someone why I thought Stepp’s argument was so ridiculous, offensive and sexist, but there was just so much wrong with it that I was having trouble processing it all!

  12. Shankar Gupta says:

    I can’t tell if you’re making a pop culture reference or not, but I’ll bite.

    What is a “yout”?

  13. Sessions Stepp didn’t start the “rainbow party” urban myth, but she did ignite widespread concern about oral sex parties (sans the “rainbow” part) among middle schoolers. Here’s what I wrote in comments at Matt Yglasias’ place:

    Laura Sessions Stepp is the mother of one of my former students, who I taught in middle school in Arlington. It was a great school, with very high standards, lots of activities for kids, tremendous parental support, great teachers. It was in an affluent part of town and many parents who kept their kids in private school for elementary and high school would actually have them attend our public school because it was so well regarded. It was a very high-pressure school. Almost all the kids were highly scheduled with sports, lessons, extra tutoring, and all sorts of structured activities. The parents were so hyped up for their overachieving kids that I even had a few demand that I give their kids extra help because they “only” scored 1200 on their SAT’s (for the Johns Hopkins Talent Search) in MIDDLE school!

    Sessions Stepp’s son was in all gifted classes; a great kid, somewhat geeky, but with a good circle of friends who tended to be a bit more innocent than most of the other kids that age. He was well adjusted, well liked, and seemed pretty happy.

    Sessions Stepp’s first really big piece for the WaPo was a expose about an oral sex scandal at our middle school. Seems a bunch of 8th graders had a fairly regular habit of having oral sex parties after school and even in parent homes when the parents were home. The kids who participated in this were mostly from very affluent homes, active in sports and other activities, with every possible advantage that a parent could give. Parents were FREAKED out by this. It totally rocked the school that kids were engaged in this kind of casual sexual activity with multiple partners with very cavalier attitudes.

    I don’t think Sessions Stepp has ever gotten over the shock. It seems like all of her stories still echo that same incredulty from a decade ago — how could it be that all these “good kids” have sex??? Like it’s no big deal??? Ack!!! It seems like all of her reporting, even now, reflects that her world-view was really shaken by the oral sex ring in her kid’s “good” school.

    I should clarify — this DID actually occur; Stepp wasn’t making it up. However, it was not at all a widespread practice, not even in our middle school. The difference was, I think, that it was not happening among a “fringe” group of goths or slackers or poor kids or outcasts; the attendees at the party were the center of the “cool kids” in the community, and that means that their parents were the “cool parents”, too – those who were very involved in the PTA, in their children’s schedules and extracurricular activities; those who were wealthy and successful and admired by other parents.

    Her son’s group of friends was not involved, and I never got any sense from any other kids that the practice really was widespread. But the extent to which this freaked out the community can not be understated. The assumption was, well, if the kids of the BEST parents are doing THIS, what is everyone else doing? And ever since then, I have seen LSS’s work as a continued reaction to that one story — she seems fixated on the “these youngsters have such unhealthy attitudes about sex” stories.

    Which is not to say that oral sex parties in middle school ARE healthy. As a feminist, I was appalled to see girls who came in to 6th grade as strong, athletic, self-confident, outspoken, proud 11 year olds leave 8th grade as self-conscious, self-critical 14 year olds who rarely spoke up in class, deferred to boys’ opinions, and yearned for male approval so much that they’d get down on their knees and blow a dozen in one afternoon…with no reciprocation from the boys, of course – this was not an egaitarian party circuit. I have yet to solve the puzzle of how to usher adolescent girls through middle school without permanent damage to their self-concept…but I do know it would help if more feminists became middle school teachers!

    Anyway, I thought this perspective on LSS might be helpful. She was a nice mom and never struck me as a raving right-wing loonie; she raised a great son who was one of my favorite students. But I do think this experience really rocked her worldview and has kept her stuck on a concern that cavalier attitudes about sex, especially among young women, are hurtful to this generation. Her stories have taken on a distrubing “blame the slutty girl” tone, and those metaphors about rocks are awful. Knowing where her worldview (at least in part) sprung from, though, helps me understand her concerns, though.

  14. Caro says:

    “yout” (pronounced “ute”) = colloquial abbreviation for “youth”

    Or, it could just be a typo.

  15. piny says:

    Oh, excuse me, your honor. Yooooooooooooths.

  16. jiggavegas says:

    I have yet to solve the puzzle of how to usher adolescent girls through middle school without permanent damage to their self-concept

    That’s the case study for the effects of patriarchy, right there. Middle school is when girls stop being asexual children, and start being seen as sexualized adolescents. That focus on your body and sea change in how people view you is amazingly difficult to get through unscathed. And body-shaming of the kind that LSS indulges in is a huge part of that problem.

  17. Bitter Scribe says:

    People have been hyperventilating about the sex lives of college students since the flapper era. Hell, probably since there were colleges. If only everyone would just denote one-tenth of that energy to, I don’t know, making higher education affordable or seeing that graduates had a chance at decent jobs.

  18. Thomas says:

    I have yet to solve the puzzle of how to usher adolescent girls through middle school without permanent damage to their self-concept

    I am seriously considering pulling my daughter out and homeschooling her for those three years. Middle school was a terrible soul-searing series of fights, bullying incidents, panic attacks and self-hate for me, and that’s just what it does to unpopular boys. It is my view that middle school exists only to quarantine children that age, to prevent the contagion from spreading.

  19. Betsy says:

    Meghan O’Rourke also has a great take-down of this silly book over at slate:
    http://www.slate.com/id/2159995/

  20. L says:

    ALL GIRLS SCHOOLS

    It was a lifesaver for me. Except that girls can be just as horrible. At least I didn’t bow down to boys, though.

  21. Michelle says:

    Well, I have a metaphor for house = casual sex which to me at least is more accuate, it’s very boring but…

    “One day you invite a friend over, you watch tv, have some beers, talk, listen to music a bit and have a really nice time. Your friend stays the night on the couch because they don’t want to drive after drinking beer. The next day they go home, after helping you clean up a bit. Now how would you feel after that? Just how
    would you feel after having shared your “house” in that way?”

    Terrible isn’t it?

  22. kate says:

    Some Perspective: I hate to nicpic, but thought I’d just point something out about something you said,

    the attendees at the party were the center of the “cool kids” in the community, and that means that their parents were the “cool parents”, too – those who were very involved in the PTA, in their children’s schedules and extracurricular activities; those who were wealthy and successful and admired by other parents.

    Fact is, in my experience and that of many others I’ve known, the ‘rich good kids’ are usually the absolute worst when it comes to misbehavior. The big difference is that their parents have the pull and the money to hide that fact from public view, which of course fuels their careless and narcisstic behavior.

    As for Stepp, as a contractor I’d really be interested in knowing about those windows that have orgasms and then retract to their original shape and position after penetration. I think they’d be a hell of a seller.

  23. Dan in STL says:

    I’d have to echo what commentor kate just said… you need look no further than the White House to find out what’s wrong with the “cool rich kids” – whose parents and social connections get them out of DWIs, cover up their coke habits, and get them into the hallowed halls of Yale and Harvard, despite the moron’s inability to correctly pronounce the word “nuclear” or “nukular” as Shrub would say…

  24. NBarnes says:

    Kriston at grammar.police worked on this one:

    Yglesias: Your body is your property. Think about the first home you hope to own. You want to have a big party and invite all your friends over.

    Spencer: Your body is your property. Think about the first home you hope to own. You don’t want people breaking in through the front or the back.

    Me: Your body is your property. Think about the first home you hope to own. If you’re ever in a bind you can always take out a mortgage.

  25. Isabel says:

    The article at Slate is a good one, though she mentions that girls are for once spending more time on work and female friendships than love and sex, which makes me wonder if she thinks men and women can’t be friends–about half of my best friends are boys (two of whom are exes) and if there’s one thing I love about the demystifying of sex it’s that it’s demystified the opposite sex; my guy friends have helped me through some really tough times, and I don’t know where I’d be without them (the girls have too of course; but the more the merrier right?)

    And I curse more than all my guy friends so I dunno what she’s talking about this “crude language” thing.

  26. DDay says:

    Isn’t the first thing you do with a new home supposed to be inviting all your friends over for a big housewarming party? Particularly a first home?

    Heh, that’s great. And it’s a great way to meet new neighbors!

  27. pmoney says:

    Also, one thing to remember- is that a lot of these people still don’t believe that women have orgasms (it’s true!) or derive any pleasure from sex other than appeasing a man.

    You know, I think one of my best friends still believes this deep down! He is progressive and sensitive and a great guy (even if he suffers slightly from “nice guy” syndrome), but I can see this assumption bleeding through many of the things he says. He is extremely touchy about being called it, though, as he fancies himself a feminist. Actually, not to get off-topic, but if anyone has any advice on how to constructively talk to him about it, I’d appreciate it. Sometimes I feel like he just hates sex in general. :( (His dad is a preacher, which I assume has ALOT to do with it)

    Anyway.

    Re: the “rainbow parties” and the info provided in comment #13…. I wasn’t really scandalized until I got to the “no reciprocation” part. WTF is THAT about?!?!?!! whenever I hear talk of this “oral sex” with teenagers, I naturally assume it is being reciprocated. Because…. well, I just DO! It doesn’t make sense otherwise. And now I’m confused, and more than a little disturbed. WHY would a bunch of girls go to parties where they do nothing but PERFORM oral sex? Is this typical of these parties? And if so, they shouldn’t be referred to as “oral sex parties.” I don’t know what would be a better choice but “oral sex party” always implies (to me, anyway) that the sex is reciprocated. Otherwise, it’s a boys-only party because the girls are WORKING the party, like STAFF. I mean, if a bunch of white people held a party where all the staff was black, that would hardly be a “mixed” party, you know?

  28. pmoney says:

    OK, maybe a better analogy would be if blacks and whites were at a party together, but only the whites got to drink beer and eat snacks. ?

  29. skippy says:

    fact is, in my experience and that of many others i’ve known, the ‘rich good kids’ are usually the absolute worst when it comes to misbehavior. the big difference is that their parents have the pull and the money to hide that fact from public view, which of course fuels their careless and narcisstic behavior.

    i am reminded of the bunch of boys in norwalk california who were keeping score on all the girls they hooked up with, and the scandal it caused (don’t remember the name of their club, it was a ‘posse’ of some kind).

    has it ever occurred to these people that the very things that make their lives oh so superior (lust for money, shallow desire for material goods, etc) are the things that make their kids rebel and search out human contact, albeit in superficial ways (what other kind of ways can kids find such contact on their own? that’s how you learn, try stuff…and if you have no moral compass to begin with, no real moral compass, not a superficially-imposed pearl-clutching cadre of stone emotions, you’ll wind up screwing everyone that smiles at you).

    any way, as i said on another blog, if the smorgasboard metaphor is any indication of sessions stepp’s writing skills, we need not worry that anyone will actually take this book seriously.

    and, as to the body as a house idea: what if you don’t let anybody into your house but the adjustable rate goes up anyway and the bank takes it over? then what?

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