Author Naomi Wolf first made waves in 1990 as a recent Yale University graduate with her bestseller The Beauty Myth, in which she argued that women are held to an impossible standard of beauty perpetuated by the diet, cosmetics and plastic surgery industries. A feminist writer, culture critic and, most recently, political activist, Wolf has since garnered both praise and criticism for her work on gender and sexuality, including her controversial Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, a coming-of-age memoir. On Feb. 12, at Cal Lutheran University, she’ll discuss the culture of hooking up on college campuses and other subjects in a talk and Q&A session. She recently shared her thoughts on intimacy, courtship and the problem with getting drunk and getting some.
VCR: The expression “hooking up” is infamous for its ambiguity. To be clear, what do you mean by the term?
Naomi Wolf: Sexual intimacy — it can be a range. It doesn’t necessarily include intercourse, but it can. But what characterizes hooking up is casualness, lack of emotional connection and [the absence] of an ongoing relationship.
VCR: And how do you define romance?
Romance is the time and leisure and energy that goes into falling in love — feeling excited about somebody; getting to know them; exploration; fantasy; imagination; excitement; merging emotionally, spiritually, physically. In the conversations that I’ve had, one of the surprising things that comes out is that young people feel like they have to hook up because they don’t have time to date and fall in love. The economy is collapsing. They’re very worried about getting a job. In school, many of them have jobs to help pay their debts. They’re completely freaked out. They’re all about producing. Young people used to spend time in college lying on a blanket and looking at the leaves turn, or holding hands in a restaurant. They just feel that they don’t have time for that. But they do have physical needs, and they have time to get drunk and hook up on a Saturday night.
VCR: How is the hooking up culture different from your experience of the dating scene when you were in college? Hasn’t the idea of the one-night stand always been around?
It’s not that the one-night stand wasn’t perfectly prevalent. But there was also a culture of dating and falling in love — courtship. I would say that the cues, the signals of courtship, are not being transmitted. Young men don’t know how to ask young women on dates, or they’ve managed to avoid vulnerability by hanging out in groups or texting noncommittal “wanna hang out” kinds of questions. The whole gradualism of seeing a movie, then you have dinner, then you go out for drinks, then you kiss, then you go to second base or third base or whatever — that’s all collapsed. In terms of time, it’s straight to intercourse. If [two people] like each other, then they get to know each other. It’s kind of a reverse of what we experienced.
VCR: As a feminist, you don’t see hooking up as sexually liberating for young women?
It all depends on context. I’m not going to say there’s never been a one-night stand that hasn’t been empowering to a young woman or a young man on their journey. I do think that the culture that pressures both genders to hook up and glamorizes it and totally debases courtship, is not empowering. It’s especially disempowering for young women sexually, because you aren’t going to find out about your sexual response in a context like that.
VCR: Do you see hooking up as harmful to both men and women, or more to one sex?
It’s harmful to both in unique and distinctive ways. Since I’m a woman, I’m particularly distressed about the ways in which it is harmful to young women’s sexual development and self-respect and self-knowledge, but I think it’s terrible for men, too.
Young women are not prepared for the fact that when they have intercourse, they often feel very vulnerable and bonded and attached, and their emotions are involved. Then they never hear from him again! It’s bad for them. And frankly, the sexual culture that’s aimed at young men — the pornography and so on — really doesn’t teach them how to be good lovers to women.
VCR: Going to different college campuses, do you have a sense of how widespread this phenomenon is?
The death of courtship is very, very widespread. I’ve never spoken on a college campus where people say, “No, no, no, we’re dating. We’re courting. We’re having candlelit dinners.” Of course, in [places like] Salt Lake City, the hooking up looks different. It was more about maintaining virginity, but it was still hooking up, which was mind blowing. Even on very conservative college campuses, people are very promiscuous, but they think they’re not having sex because they’re not having intercourse. It’s extraordinary.
VCR: What is your sense of college students’ attitude toward hooking up, whatever that means sexually?
It’s like that Woody Allen quote — even bad sex is better than no sex. I think they feel like that’s what they’re stuck with. And given that, it’s better than solitude and frustration. But when I talk about romance and courtship and love, there’s this palpable longing from both genders. I think they wish it were not so.
VCR: Besides the economy, what other pressures are responsible for creating this hook up culture?
A lot of it is pornography. It gives young people really negative models for what sex is — really fast, really unmysterious — all about the mechanics, indiscriminate, kind of anonymous. So that’s what they do. That’s what they’re taught. The Sexual Revolution didn’t go far enough for women. Young women don’t feel empowered to set the pace or to set the boundaries. Young women’s sexuality is better served by a more gradual approach. And certainly because they are the ones who face pregnancy, they’re better served by not [having] intercourse — there’s other ways of being sexual. Frankly, I think another pressure is that grown-ups have kind of failed them. We talk to them about the mechanics of sexuality, but we don’t talk to them about love and intimacy and desire.
VCR: So many of the students you speak to — at least half of them — probably have divorced parents.
It doesn’t help. Certainly, if you’re a single parent, you’re dating. You’re not modeling a lifetime commitment. It’s harder to convey to kids that it’s really important to hang in there and be committed and focus on one person.
VCR: As a single mother yourself, do you find it hard to model that kind of behavior for your kids?
I think I’m pretty good. My values are pretty clear in my household. I have very old-fashioned values. Hopefully, they’re about fidelity and commitment and attention — mutual attention and mutual respect. While divorce doesn’t help, I think it takes a special focus to communicate those values in a single-parent household — it’s certainly possible to do so. And just because people are married doesn’t mean they’re communicating those values.
Naomi Wolf will speak about “Hooking Up: Sex, Alcohol and the Death of Romance on College Campuses” on Thursday, Feb. 12, 8 p.m., and “The Beauty Myth” on Friday, Feb. 13, 10 a.m. Cal Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks, 493-3306.