by Maria Stratienko
It all began with a casualphone call. As I sped along I-24, my conversation with my grandmother, Martha Lou, turned to weightier topics – namely dating. As she blabbered, she asked me a question I scarcely ask myself: do I find it strange that I have never dated anybody seriously in my life as I rapidly approach the age of 22? After a moment of thought, I responded noncommittally, chalking my experience up to the “lack of opportunity” afforded to me by seven years of girls’ school and Sewanee’s size. On the way home, and for the next two days, though, I ruminated over this question, consulting friends and peers with various theories.
I admit that I have read numerous articles on dating and hookup cultures in higher education. However, like the authors whose work I pore over, I would be remiss to provide commentary without noting my own lack of statistical data to corroborate my claims or without noting that I can hardly represent the experience of every Sewanee student. That being said, I finally arrived at two major narratives that, I believe, form the extreme dichotomy of the Sewanee dating culture that thus represents the experience of a majority of Sewanee’s students.
I begin with the minority: my peers in relationships. Of the Sewanee students with boyfriends or girlfriends, I have found that those relationships seem to be, in the majority, long-term – that is, greater than 9 or 10 months. When Sewanee students engage in relationships, it is decidedly for the long haul. Further, those individuals we know to be dating don’t exhibit just one type of relationship behavior – some couples seem to be “joined at the hip,” while others are more publicly independent.
However, most Sewanee students are not in relationships. Instead, the singletons of the college mostly engage in, for better or worse, those fabled buzzwords of our generation: “hookup culture.” While many individuals I know freely engage in hookup culture without qualms, many others know themselves well enough to abstain from the culture altogether, finding the emotional toll to be too much to bear. Both are pursuits that are entirely individually determinable and are worthy of respect. However, to quote a friend who herself engaged in both relationships and hookup culture in her time at Sewanee, “the problem isn’t hooking up – it’s the lack of caring.” Put bluntly, caring while hooking up is seemingly passé in this culture, and, conversely, not caring is power. Being able to walk away from a hookup without emotional attachment means that you have “won” – and caring can have you labeled as anything from “crazy” to a “Stage five clinger.”
So, for one reason or another, students at Sewanee and our peer institutions are, on the whole, on one side of this dichotomy of romantic and sexual relationships. I argue that two major phenomena result from this split – the first being a complete and total lack of middle ground or, as I have coined it, “explorative dating.” Gone are the days of being attracted to an individual and asking them on a date to establish both an intellectual and emotional connection. Instead, dating has been replaced with hooking up, where individuals frequently establish the emotional connection without an intellectual counterpart and feelings are commonly hurt. I do know some couples whose long term relationships began with a casual sexual encounter, but the odds of this are very slim – and may account for the relatively small number of people in relationships at Sewanee, especially when successfully not caring is power.
So exploratory dating is dead, for better or worse. Some may argue that Sewanee’s size doesn’t allow for explorative dating, and awkward encounters would become de rigueur. To that, I respond – then what is the fleeting eye contact in McClurg (the lowest common denominator of Sewanee) all about? I don’t find it impossible to fathom individuals going on a date, realizing a chemistry that doesn’t quite work, shaking hands, and walking away with a good story to tell and no loss of mutual respect. In many ways, the casual sex is simply a less sanitary handshake.
The second result of these coexisting extremes, however, lies in what I argue is a broad generational delay in love. Most people I know do not enter college with the primary hopes of finding a future husband or wife (though there is no fault in that). Further, many of my best friends – and I do not believe we are alone in this – will graduate from Sewanee without experiencing a long-term relationship or feelings of love. Put frankly, hookup culture is not conducive to long-term relationships, especially when withholding emotions constitutes “winning.” Outside of these gates, though, exploratory dating is the norm (and one night stands run the risk of being, in the words of Mindy Kaling, “inherently tied to violent crime”), and it is a social aspect we are mostly unprepared for.
The delay of love is not the worst thing that could happen to this generation, but I believe it makes for interesting emerging cultural phenomena. Again, there are exceptions to every rule, and my broad generalizations are hardly law. However, if the end game of a liberal arts education is to think globally and act with intent for a common good, those principles are not being manifested for the majority of students here today – and instead, many of my friends who engage in the hamster’s wheel of hookup culture here find themselves fending off what I call “anorexia of the soul,” endlessly negotiating conflicting feelings and broader societal norms for their behavior. I believe the culture could be healthier, or at least more balanced, with the inclusion of that middle ground we lack.