For the last six years, I’ve taught a course on the sociology of marriage. Midway through the semester, we discuss courtship—the old-fashioned marriage-focused style of pairing up—and 1950s dating. Students dutifully take notes on terms like “parking” and “going steady.” As we make our way to present-day, I suggest to the class that courtship and dating had more set rules than the current hook-up culture. It was fairly clear who was supposed to call whom and what intimacies could and could not be experienced before marriage. But today’s young-adult relationship formation has different sets of rules based on your social class, educational background, choice of school, and social circle.
To illustrate this confusion, I grab the chalk and head to the blackboard. On one end of the board I write “random drunken hookup.” At the other end of the board, I write “marriage.” I ask the class to take me from one to the other.
Here’s this year’s breakdown:
Relationship Designation: Hooking Up
- Random drunken hook-up. (Anything from making out to sex is acceptable.)
- Late-night text message that leads to another hook-up.
- Hooking up with others is still permissible during this period.
- Little or no daytime or sober interactions.
- Start having sex, if you haven’t been having sex from the beginning.
- “You’d Facebook friend them, if you can spell their last name.”
- Daytime texting.
- Coordinating to meet at a party or “pregame” together (i.e. drink in a dorm room prior to heading to the bars to save money.)
Relationship Designation: Talking
Months 3 to 4
- Begin to hang out sober, for example, going to a movie together or lunch.
- Meet each other’s friends.
- Maybe go on a dinner date.
- Maybe talk on the phone.
- After several drinks, have a “exclusivity conversation” to ensure neither person is having sex with anyone else.
- Commence weekday sleepovers
- Spend more time together
- Repeat exclusivity conversation, this time without being drunk
Relationship Designation: Dating/In a Relationship
- Become “Facebook official” by announcing that you are “in a relationship”
- If the parents come to campus for a visit, introductions are made.
- Awarded a drawer for your things in their room or medicine cabinet
And then, after that, things get fuzzy for most of my students, since they are too young to have embarked on relationships more serious than this. “Months or years could pass like that,” one woman said. “At some point there are the ‘I love yous’ but that’s basically it until you move in together.”
Depending on your age, you’re nodding your head in agreement, cringing, or heading for the smelling salts. Bear with me: Then I ask students whether this looks like the progression of their last relationship.
While my students are happy to tell me what they think the “rules” are for hooking up and dating on a college campus, most of them haven’t followed this code. Many entered relationships via long-term friendships. Some met online. Others refuse to play the drunken hook-up game. The reason why books like The Rules, He’s Just Not That Into You and Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man are so popular is because it’s nearly impossible to know what the “rules” are in young-adult relationship formation . . . and once you feel like you understand them, odds are you’d prefer to choose a different path.
Hooking up has dozens of different definitions. And expectations vs. desires in early relationship formation often differ dramatically: I asked the class what they expected after a hookup. “Maybe he’d follow me on Twitter?” offered one young woman. After I regained my composure, I then asked what they desired from a hook-up, and while it took some prodding, the answer was always the same–at least the potential, the possibility, the hope . . . of a relationship.
Good luck figuring out the rules of the college dating game. But don’t write off this generation as sex-crazed and heartless either. The choose-your-own-adventure style of relationship formation is a minefield. And my office hours are very busy.