Ladies, It’s Time to Raise Our Dating Expectations

Romance and dating beat hooking up. (blog.studentadvisor.com)

Romance and dating beat hooking up (blog.studentadvisor.com).

Millennials didn’t invent the hookup culture. I remember my introduction in the fall of 1995, while visiting Harvard. I was a high school senior, trying to decide where to apply, so I spent a weekend in Cambridge.

My four female hosts took me to a House-sponsored party in their dining hall (“House” being an upperclass dorm) that Saturday night. It was hot, dark, and loud, but I remember no alcohol; I certainly wasn’t drinking. Students bumped and grinded and made out on the dance floor. It was unlike any party I’d ever been to back home. But over the next four years, I saw that it was a fairly standard college party.

I thought about all of this after reading The New York Times’ article about campus hookup culture . It sounded awful. Even Gawker’s saucy Ana Marie Cox was unsettled by the article, tweeting: “I don’t think I’m a prude but found this article SUPER SAD,” and “I mean, yikes. Part of feminism is *not settling.*” (July 14, 2013)

The women interviewed insist their opinions weren’t shaped by “extreme feminists.” Rather, it’s their parents who urged them to be independent. I understand. My parents raised me to be independent too.

When I left for college, my mother made me promise not to settle into a relationship Freshman Week. But when she encouraged me to play the field, she meant I should say yes to first dates, not sleep with every guy I passed in Harvard Yard. So, are these women misunderstanding their parents’ directives, or are their parents truly libertines?

Most of my undergraduate peers were single most of the time. However, I knew students in serious, long-term relationships, and I don’t recall any of them being apologetic about it like the coupled-off students in the Times article. Mercedes sounded almost sheepish about her emotionally healthy sounding choices. I also can’t relate to students who think about relationships in “cost-benefit” terms. I knew many students who would happily have been in committed relationships, had the right situation arisen.

The challenge? Our dating scene stank. Formals were our most regular opportunities to have something resembling real dates. However, as I discovered, many of my male classmates had as much dating experience as I did (read: none), and that was problematic. I had crushes on boys who’d gaze adoringly at me across the dining hall but lacked the courage to act, which meant I had to initiate.

One guy was relieved I asked him and promptly bought our formal tickets and planned our pre-formal dinner outing. Another guy said he would have loved to be my date (for another formal), but he was so convinced I’d say no, he’d already asked someone else. And so it went.

By the winter of my sophomore year, I was frustrated with the status quo and penned a polemic for our student newspaper. I urged Harvard men to man up and ask out campus women. Like any writer, I simply intended to share my opinion, but the article really resonated with the student body. Women (and some men) regularly approached me to say they wholeheartedly agreed with my message. Students even posted my article in their dorm rooms.

Several men asked me out after reading that article, which, of course, wasn’t my goal. On one first date, I remember heading to Starbucks for hot chocolate (he paid) before walking to MIT and back on a cold Cambridge night; it was lovely.

Only after graduation did my dating life really bloom. For the first time, men had to make an effort; we couldn’t just bump into each other. I liked that and loved that my dating pool suddenly exploded. I was charmed to meet men who happily held doors or helped me with my coat. And the more I communicated that I expected to be treated like a lady, the more I found men eagerly rose to the occasion.

And that’s the kicker. By rewriting the script from the outset, every suitor knew what my deal was, and my 20-something romantic life became both fun and respectful.

It can be hard to stand out, but it’s worth it. And by asking for what you really want, you can actually get it.

This article appeared in Acculturated.

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