How the Hook-Up Culture Hurts Girls

Kara Powell | Apr 26, 2012

I’m at the Orange Conference in Atlanta for the rest of the week, getting ready to share about Sticky Faith in 2 seminars and a general session. It’s an honor to be rubbing shoulders with 5,000 other leaders who are so committed to reaching young people.

Maybe that’s why this Christianity Today review of a new book (a book I haven’t read yet) called Girls Uncovered: New Research on What America’s Sexual Culture Does to Young Womenhit me so hard. Or maybe it’s because I’m a mom of daughters. Or maybe it’s just because I’m a human who cares about others.

While sex outside of God’s intentions are harmful to all involved, the book seems to argue that the consequences are even more dire for females.

The primary message of Girls Uncovered is that sex is sexist: “When it comes to the negative consequences of sexual activity, girls easily get the worst of it.” Of course, they are the ones who have to struggle with any resultant pregnancy. But they are also more likely to get a sexually transmitted infection, and the consequences of such infections are typically more severe and longer-lasting in both girls and women. Female physiology doesn’t thrive under a diverse sexual resume. Nor does female psychology. Girls also suffer more seriously from depression and self-loathing at the break-up of a sexually active relationship as well as casual hook-ups.

I’m not familiar enough with the research to know if this is accurate, and I certainly have talked with both boys and girls who have been crushed by premarital sexual activity, but it’s interesting to think about the unique cost for girls (note that I said “unique” and not “greater”).

Leaders and parents, the book hints at an important insight for us as folks who think we’re equipping our kids to navigate the sexual landscape ahead of them.

While Girls Uncovered is written for all adults who have important relationships with teen and early twenty-something girls, McIlhaney and Bush wisely aim their call mostly at parents. This is for one simple reason: “Scientific surveys clearly reveal that more girls say their parents influence their behavior than girls say peers, media or other source are influencing their lives.” They cite data showing how parents can get this wrong in two ways. First, while 43 percent of parents believe others have more influence on their children on matters of sex, only 18 percent of teens believe this. Study after study shows that parents are a child’s most important and best influence. Even if you think they don’t, your children desperately want your advice and direction. Second, while 73 percent of mothers tell researchers they’ve talked with their teen about sex, only 46 percent of teens strongly agreed that they had. While it might be true that most parents have talked to their kids about sex, it doesn’t really count if the kids don’t recall it.

So we may think we’re talking about sex, but if our kids can’t remember the conversations have happened, then they don’t count.

How can you make your discussions about sex more memorable? A few ideas come to mind to help parents (as well as youth leaders who work with parents):

1. Don’t have just one discussion. This is probably the most important thing I’m going to recommend. Use everyday happenings, news events (the John Edwards trial right now provides plenty of fodder), songs, TV shows, movies, or whatever you can find as a conversation springboard.

2. Explain that no matter what, you will still love and like your students. We’ve seen in our Sticky Faith research that when students fail, then run from God, the church and their families just when they need them the most. As I sent my son out to camp last week (his first camp without my husband, me, or an adult we know well as his counselor), I told him, “Your dad and I know you’ll make right choices, but even if you don’t, we still like you and love you. And God does too.” We want to communicate high expectations to our son but nonetheless let him know that we all fail, and we will stand with him when he fails.

3. Connect your teenager to other adults. For those times when your child doesn’t want to talk to you about who they’re dating or their physical intimacy, try to agree together on another adult who they can talk to. That way even if you’re not directly involved in the communication, your child is getting good advice and perspective.

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.

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