With Valentine’s Day around the corner, I was recently reminded of my freshman year Courage to Know class and the infamous “dating assignment.” Since Kerry Cronin first presented this assignment to a small seminar several years ago, many professors of freshman courses have added variations to their syllabi. In my class, we were instructed to ask someone on a date in person to a location off campus where we would consume no alcohol and engage in no physical contact. Afterward, we would write a reflection on our experience. The alternative was to watch and discuss the riveting film Love Actually, a compilation of heteronormative on-screen love stories with sexist undertones that portrays a childlike understanding of romantic love.
I chose to write about Love Actually because, if you can’t tell, I passionately hate everything about that movie, so writing a critical paper would come easily. I also passed on the “dating assignment” because I thought the whole thing was pretty … weird.
In researching this topic, I listened to several of Cronin’s talks online, and her prevailing message seems to be that the “hookup culture,” the trend in social behavior of college students that features casual sexual encounters with minimal commitment and bonding, is harmful to the emotional development of the students at Boston College. According to Cronin, college kids want to have deep connections with other people, but revert to hooking up because it is easier than traditional dating. And because hooking up requires detachment, separating our feelings from our physical selves, it supposedly makes us incredibly lonely and emotionally unfulfilled, even while we achieve in other aspects of our lives. Anyone who has taken a philosophy class at BC has heard this before.
To some members of the BC community, the “dating assignment” seems like a fun and creative way of helping students engage differently with their peers and broaden their understanding of how relationships are formed. But to me, the “dating assignment” reveals professors’ genuine misunderstanding of their students, and constitutes an overreach of the Jesuit style of education that emphasizes emotional growth along with intellectual.
For one thing, Cronin and other professors create a dichotomy between dating and hooking up that is not as clearly defined in real life as they believe. They argue that traditional dating and romantic, monogamous relationships lead to emotional fulfillment, while hooking up leads to loneliness. Besides excluding individuals who identify as asexual, aromantic, or polyamorous, and implying that one must be in a relationship to be truly fulfilled, this mindset ignores the vast gray area between hooking up and dating in which many college relationships exist. And it problematically assumes that emotional and sexual growth cannot occur side by side.
At last February’s “Save the Date” talk, Cronin described the mechanics of an ideal first date, and the requirements of the students for her assignment. Like my assignment, the date must have no physical interaction (except for an A-frame hug). Cronin clearly establishes that physical contact determines whether an interaction is a date or a hookup.
While it can be sexual, physical affection is often an expression of care and love, and can help strengthen emotional bonding and fulfillment (what Cronin says students are missing). Even simple gestures, like hugging our friends, can make us feel good. Within the gray area between hooking up and dating, many decide not to postpone physical contact until after they have established an emotional connection with their partner. In this way, couples can develop both emotional and physical attachment at the same time. Perhaps what Cronin refers to as “hooking up” is really just our way of exploring and growing emotionally and physically.
This hookup-relationship hybrid is certainly not everyone’s experience, nor is it everyone’s goal to become emotionally invested in another person at this point in their lives. There certainly are individuals who engage in casual sex without emotional commitment, and Cronin and other professors would be quick to point out the disadvantages of such sexual experiences.
And they aren’t wrong. Before I was in a monogamous relationship, I remember hooking up with people I shared minimal emotional intimacy with. Sometimes I felt empty and dissatisfied afterwards. But there were also times that I felt empowered, brave, and confident. I’d just had sex! Cronin ignores the benefits that the “hookup culture” has offered our generation, female-identifying individuals especially. The “dating assignment” assumes that the “hookup culture” is objectively bad for our generation, focusing on what has been lost rather than what has been gained.
Some have pointed out that this trend in casual sex among young people might be a result of the times. According to Hanna Roisin, correspondent for The Atlantic, the hookup culture is a manifestation of sexual liberation. Young women are now attending college in greater numbers than before, and having temporary relationships allows them to delay marriage and to preserve their education and career goals. In this “hookup culture,” women are given control over their lives and their bodies, and may have significant power over men. From this viewpoint, the “hookup culture” is just a phase in life that young people pass through before forming more serious relationships. Cronin may consider these people “lonely,” when really they are discovering themselves, their sexualities, and their emotions.
So, if physical contact can help with emotional fulfillment and hooking up can actually develop one’s self realization and confidence, why are some professors so against the “hookup culture?” It’s possible that they just don’t recognize the benefits of this lifestyle. It could be that the “dating assignment” is simply designed to get people out of their comfort zones and make them think critically about their personal relationships. That is the Jesuit goal of educating the whole person, right?
I believe that the “dating assignment” is a desperate scramble to reestablish the archaic forms of romantic relationships, the ones our professors consider valid and normal. The assignment is not a lesson in emotional growth, but a way for the older generation to control young peoples’ lives.
Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Staff