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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 Jennifer WolcottStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2004



PRINCETON, N.J.

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.

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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."

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Dating on college campuses has been replaced by what's commonly called "hooking up," according to a recent nationwide study of more than 1,000 college women by the Independent Women's Forum (IWF).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

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