Is dating dated on college campuses?

College students today prefer to socialize in packs. But even as they tick off the reasons for avoiding couplehood, many also express mixed feelings about the new social norm.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TV's Carrie Bradshaw is history, but real-life relationship columnists like her are popping up on college campuses across America. Students covering their school's social scene suddenly have a lot to say. Their printed musings may not be quite as racy as those of the "Sex in the City" character, but they generate almost as much buzz on campus as did the HBO megahit.

The topic that's getting all the ink? Dating - or rather, the lack thereof. For the past few years, a trend has been growing right along with the ivy on those hallowed buildings: to socialize with groups of friends rather than spend time with one significant other.

In the college paper Rochester Review in New York, Jenny Leonard writes that "the notion of going on a date is, well, dated." In the Daily Princetonian Street, columnist Tarleton Cowen urges her male peers to take some initiative and ask girls out for a "measly trip to Starbucks." And in the Swarthmore College Bulletin in Pennsylvania, reporter Elizabeth Redden tells why her classmates don't date: "no time, no money, and no need."

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So prevalent is the choice today to hang out with a pack of male and female friends - about 5 to 15 at once - that some say it's more than a trend.

"It's become a well-established institution," insists Drew Pinsky, who counsels teens and their parents, and speaks frequently about social issues on college campuses. He also cohosts the syndicated radio show "Loveline."

Dating on college campuses has been replaced by what's commonly called "hooking up," according to a recent nationwide study of more than 1,000 college women by the Independent Women's Forum (IWF).

Respondents define the term this way: "A girl and a guy get together for a physical encounter and don't necessarily expect anything further."

Interviews with college students confirm that this has indeed become the social norm.

On a Friday night, a gang of friends might opt to watch a video, meet at a local sports bar, go out for sushi ... just about anything other than a romantic tête-à-tête. Even the classic dinner- and-a-movie date has become a thing of the past.

Some students go so far as to say it can be "terrifying" - when sober - to spend time alone with the opposite sex. And most agree that social gatherings, where alcohol is involved, help "take the pressure off."

As Swathmore's Ms. Redden points out, lack of time and lack of need are also factors. Casual interaction with classmates happens often and easily - in coed dorms, during meals, or in the student center, zapping incentive to initiate something more formal. Also fueling the trend is the fact that young adults are choosing to marry later, so they are less inclined to look for a life partner in college.

All of which creates a campus social scene, explains Dr. Pinsky, with three possible options: 1) Hang out and hook up, 2) "joined at the hip," or 3) "friends with benefits."

The "hook up" option, he says, is shrouded in mystery. It could mean anything from kissing to having sex - and it almost always follows a night of drinking. "Joined at the hip," he says, or "married," as some students call it, is often a result of seeking refuge from the hook-up system. Those who couple off don't "date" in a traditional sense, but they do study together, share meals, and sleep in one another's dorms. "Friends with benefits [of sex]," Pinsky concludes, "might work for a while, but it often ends up a disaster because someone - not always the woman - develops feelings."

College students need to develop a middle ground between hook-ups and joined at the hip, Pinsky says, so they learn how to assess one another and so their adult relationships don't suffer. "Without that," he asks, "How do you know who you are or what you want?"

But among college students, there are as many views about this contemporary phenomenon as there are ways to decorate a dorm room.

Gathered in a dark booth at the campus cafe, a group of Princeton seniors recently shared mixed feelings about the social life at their university.

Teniqua Crawford, for one, a student from South Africa, says somewhat wistfully that she can "count on one hand" the number of dates she's had in four years. But in the next breath, she adds that with the huge academic pressures at her university, this is almost a relief. "Getting involved in a relationship is like taking on two extra courses," she says with a laugh.

"Unless a guy really bowls you over, he's not worth that," Jen Burris chimes in. "Most of my friends don't want to spend lots of time with just one guy unless they think they'll marry him. Maybe it's all the Type A personalities here. People have such high expectations. They don't want to go on random dates and lose sleep or study time."

But the desire for intimacy does lead some students at this Ivy League university to hook up, just like at any other US college, after a night of partying. "Hook-ups are considered easy - except for the awkward thing the next day," says Ms. Burris.

Not every student is happy with the hook-up culture. "I would love to have been pursued more traditionally," says Megan Clancy. "My parents are a little sad for me not to have found a guy. They got married at 22."

Some students are taking action. "I decided to start asking guys out," says Maggie Brown. "I haven't been turned down once."

Others aren't as upbeat. Reversing this trend, says Mitzi Mock, is "like trying to defeat grade inflation." When asked if she thinks chivalry is dead, Ms. Mock responds, after a long pause: "No, but it's definitely ill."

Women don't always voice dissatisfaction with campus social life, says Pinsky. "They are often afraid to admit that hooking up is not such a great thing for them." And the guys, he says, often talk about it with "a kind of bravado." Pinsky often asks them: "If it's so cool, why do you have to get loaded to do it?" This opens a flood gate of insecurities. "They tell me that the college social scene is anxiety producing, that it's horribly intense, and that drinking makes it easier."

Some men who were approached for this article, while cordial, glanced at their watches, claimed to be late for class, and shuffled off. Others didn't respond to e-mails or phone calls.

But Ugo, a junior at Boston University who refused to share his last name, chatted away in his school's student center. Although BU is a large school, the engineering group, of which he is a part, is close-knit. "We see each other every day," he says, "so hooking up is way too awkward. I did that once ... it was a bad idea."

Justin Gorbet, a student at Northeastern University in Boston, celebrated this past Valentine's Day with his regular pack of pals. "Here, you have so many people at your fingertips with similar interests," he says. "You would never just walk up to a girl and say, 'Hey, let's go to dinner.' "

Marriage is about as far from these young men's minds now as retirement.

Katie Mulholland, Ugo's friend and fellow engineering student, is equally laid back about her future. "After graduation," she says, "I'll go wherever the wind blows me."

Ugo and Katie's group of friends mostly avoid hookups, finding them either awkward or amoral, as Katie says, but they suspect they are in the minority.

They are indeed, according to fellow BU student Maria, who asked that her last name not be published. A junior from Moscow, Maria goes out every weekend with about 10 to 15 fellow international students. They might meet for a meal or a drink, or, if they're up for it, an evening of nightclub hopping. Often, she says, two members of the group will pair off briefly. Her pals back in Russia, who tend to go out on more conventional dates, think this is odd. But Maria says she's OK with it. "I have so much work. It's just not possible to have a steady boyfriend."

Then with an aha look, she adds: "Oh, I was in a relationship for three weeks!" When asked if that's practically an eternity in college terms, she smiles and nods. "Most students aren't ready to go exclusive," she says. "They just want to explore."

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