NPR: Young Adults in Search of Sex, Not Love

NPR glossed over some of the most troubling aspects of the tendency of young adults to choose “hook ups” over dating relationships during its June 8 “Morning Edition” and a companion piece on its Web site.

Hook ups, according to correspondent Brenda Wilson are “sexual encounters with no strings attached” and “involves anything from kissing to fooling around, oral sex and sexual intercourse.” This used to be an activity frequently engaged in by high school and college students but as Wilson reports, it “is becoming a trend among young people who have entered the workaday world.”

Wilson's report gave ample time for twenty-somethings to defend hooking up as easier than getting involved with someone on an emotional level.

Elizabeth Welsh, a 25-year-old living in Boston, told Wilson that she prefers casual encounters to committed relationships because her friends play a large role at this point in her life. To make room for a romantic relationship within her group of friends, she told Wilson, “seems like a bigger step, that kind of emotional intimacy” than participating in nonchalant sexual activity.

May Wilkerson, another 25-year-old living in New York City, told Wilson that she wants a relationship but hasn't come across “much intimacy.” Presumably Wilkerson was referring to emotional intimacy, as she explained, “for many of us, that requisite vulnerability and exposure that comes from being really intimate with someone in a committed sense is kind of threatening.”  Wilkerson continued:

I think that love is embarrassing. It's funny, because you've been asking me about my, you know, like my sex life. And I've been more comfortable talking about that. And as soon as you ask me if I've been in love with someone, I kind of froze up because it seems like the most personal question that you could have asked. It's the most terrifying thing.

Avery Leake, a 25-year-old man from D.C. who offered the only the male perspective, favors hooking up for fiscal reasons. Wilson noted that he is currently in a relationship, but also reported that he thinks hook ups are easier to “manage” than dating because dating has become so expensive. “You used to be able to get away with paying $30 for a dinner and a movie. Not anymore.” he explained to Wilson.

Wilson attempted to balance out the support by speaking to Deborah Roffman, a human sexuality educator. Roffman expressed her fears about how casual encounters can harm future relationships:  

This is the dilemma for this generation, is how do I learn about intimacy? How do I have a series of relationships that are going to be really healthy for me and others and are going to prepare me for probably what's going to happen is I'm going to settle down with one person.

Welsh, perhaps naively, dismissed Roffman's worries, saying, “It is a common and easy mistake to assume that the value of friendship and those relationship building blocks have no place in longer term relationships.”

Roffman was not speaking merely of friendship, but the other things that a successful long-term relationship require, such as trust, sacrifice and making time and space for the other person. Hook ups by their nature disregard those aspects of romantic relationships. After years of training oneself to not feel those things and to focus solely on sex, it can be difficult for a person to open oneself up again emotionally.  

Wilkerson completely rebuffed Roffman's fears about intimacy and took the stance that as long as people know about safe sex, they'll be fine. She told Wilson “We all attended health class in middle school and high school. We know about condoms and sexually transmitted disease. Sex is fun, and a lot of people would argue that it is a physical need. It's a healthy activity.” 

Condoms and other methods may prevent STDs and unexpected pregnancies, but there is no protection from the unintended feelings can result from casual hook ups. Dr. Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist and author of “Unprotected” wrote in a 2008 column, “Intimacy releases oxytocin, a primarily female hormone that fuels feelings of attachment and trust.” She further explained, “It alters brain chemistry, so [a woman] is more likely to overlook a guy's faults, and to take risks she otherwise wouldn't. A girl surely doesn't want her brain drenched with oxytocin when making critical decisions like: What do I think of him? How far do I want this to go?”

Or how about Leake's reasoning, that a guy thinks a girl is fine for sexual activity, but not worth taking on a real date?  Sadly, this point of view has resonated with young woman. A recent article in Cosmo magazine about virgins revealed that many are done holding out for Mr. Right and will now settle for Mr. Okay.

NPR failed to answer the big questions behind this story: What happened in society that makes young adults afraid to trust each other with their emotions? What changed so that getting busy with a random person is now more favorable than looking for a person to build and share a life? Is this simply a way of avoiding the responsibilities of adulthood?