Interview -- Laura Sessions Stepp

The Mom Who Listens

She gets kids to talk honestly about sex - and writes in a new book that it's gone out of control and is leaving young women hurt, perhaps permanently

March 25, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

There is one in every neighborhood: The cool mom.

Not the mom who lets the kids drink in her game room. That mom is working too hard to make the kids like her.

Laura Sessions Stepp is the mom the kids think is cool, in spite of themselves.

She is the mom the kids talk to. Her son, Jeff, doesn't have to be home for you to seek her out. As a matter of fact, you might be glad he isn't.

You'd like to have Jeff's mom to yourself for a while; to sit in her kitchen and talk. Because she listens. Because she never makes you feel bad about yourself.

Laura Sessions Stepp is a working journalist and a working mother, a confluence of life and skills that has made her at once the cool mom the kids will talk to and the embedded journalist parents should listen to.

Her new book, Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both (Riverhead Books), tracks a troubling trend: Smart, ambitious young women have traded the old-fashioned dating rituals for a series of one-night stands.

It's called hooking up, and it can mean anything from making out to sleeping over. But these are transactional encounters that can come off without the exchange of last names, let alone phone numbers.

And though the women claim they are getting their needs met without getting their hearts broken - and they have more time to focus on the educational and career success their parents want for them - Stepp found that they were still waiting for him to call the next day. And they were still feeling bad about themselves when he doesn't.

Worse, Stepp concludes that these young women might never be able to form stable, loving relationships because they have never had any practice at it.

"They had hardened their hearts to the point where they don't know how to feel when they are ready to get into a relationship," she said.

The book has been a great revelation to parents and a great irritant to some outspoken young women who find her conclusions as outdated as twin sets and pearls.

"This pointless hedonism, in Stepp's view," writes Meghan O'Rourke in Slate, the online magazine, "turns young women into jaded depressives unable to trust or love anyone, secretly wishing Mr. Right would show up on their doorstep with flowers and a fraternity pin."

One reviewer suggested that Stepp was trying to bring back sexual shame.

Stepp, who battled for equal pay for women in the newsrooms in which she worked early in her career, was being told she wasn't feminist enough. She was stung by the criticism.

"Google `retro' and `Laura Sessions Stepp' and you will get a million hits," she said sardonically. "I am going to get a T-shirt made."

It was as if the smart, mean girls were telling the wannabes that only losers hung out in Ms. Stepp's kitchen.

"I knew it wasn't going to be a popular stance," said Stepp. "But I wanted to say, `Hey girls, slow down a minute'."

"That's part of her courage," said Patrice Pascual, executive director of the Casey Journalism Center on Children and Families at the University of Maryland, where Stepp sits on the board. "Not just for going into this topic. She is willing to say that her subjects have been wounded in the process."

Regardless of what you think of her warnings, you have to appreciate the candor Stepp inspires in her young subjects. In a time when most parents can't garner their children's attention, let alone their confidences, Stepp's work is remarkable.

"Getting young people to talk about sex is one of the easier things to do in life," said Bill Albert, deputy director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "Getting them to talk honestly about it is a very different proposition. Laura has been very successful at that."

"She is an investigative journalist and she has immersed herself in this culture and she has been willing, unlike most adults, to see what is there," said Deborah Roff- man, the Baltimore author and sexuality educator who has written extensively about talking to kids about sex.

"I think people would be surprised at how much kids would talk to anyone who would listen with an open mind," said Linda Perlstein, who spent a year in a middle school lunchroom in order to write Not Much Just Chillin'.

"It is not that she isn't judging them. But she isn't doing it while she is talking to them."

It was what Stepp overheard a decade ago that set her on this path. She was a reporter for the Style section of The Washington Post, writing about family issues, when rumors began circulating in her son's middle school that oral sex had replaced spin-the-bottle as a party game.

A year later, the story appeared on the front page of the Post, and the nation of parents was set reeling.

Parents learned, to their horror, that the normal progression - from endless phone calls to holding hands to making out to whatever - had been turned on its head. Home plate had become first base. And none of it required what used to be recognizable as a girlfriend or a boyfriend.

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