Love at Yale, Actually

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// Henry Ehrenberg

Three hours after the email is sent out, Christian Probst ’16 responds.

“Is Tuesday at 1 good?? That’s good for both of us! -Christian and Luke.”

We respond indicating that Stats and Lab won’t allow us to meet until later, hoping that they’ll find time to carve out of their days to talk about their relationship and the relationship culture at Yale — or lack thereof.

Exactly a minute after our response is sent: “Luke and I are free from 1-4:50? Or could do after 11 p.m.?” Christian seems unusually cognizant of his boyfriend’s schedule. I ask both of them about it.

They laugh, smile self-deprecatingly.

“We have our G-Cals shared with each other.”

Christian clarifies. “He stole mine first.”

“I was too embarrassed to share mine at first because I felt like I wasn’t that busy compared to him,” Luke Johnson ’16 says sheepishly. They both agree it makes for easier scheduling — like this meeting.

Johnson and Probst sit down after finding a table, Johnson cupping his hands around a quarter-filled ‘23’ water bottle and Probst leaning forward on the rickety table. It’s a scene that might be deemed anomalous at Yale (or so-called #swugnation), where such romantic encounters should be few and far between — at least according to writers at The Atlantic and Slate. If chivalry is dead, these writers lend us the uplifting prediction that monogamy is close behind.

The barrage of commentary on relationship culture at Yale has categorized us as hyper-focused and tunnel-visioned and, to an extent, Johnson and Probst fit the mold. Both are in a cappella groups (Mixed Company and the Duke’s Men, respectively), often involved in theater productions, and, for Christian, Yale Dancers. But, for all these “warning” signs — those that might seem to indicate an inability to devote oneself to another — they’re also atypical. In a sea of “I don’t have time’s,” they’ve somehow managed to manipulate the clock and find some.

***

The Hanna Rosins, Kate Taylors and Caitlin Flanagans of the world paint for us a hookup culture, largely driven by girls, that has replaced the serious monogamy of yesteryear. Titles like “Boys on the Side” (Rosin) and “She Can Play that Game, Too” (Taylor) ascribe to these women an unflinching progressiveness. They hook up because they’re too busy pursuing JDs, MDs, MBAs, and personally addressing the gender wage gap. Or, as Flanagan informs us, they hook up not because they want to (actually, “they’re terrified of it”), but because they’ve grown up “with scant direction or guidance about their sexual lives.”

Describing how young girls are trying to escape the expectations of sexual promiscuity allegedly flung upon them, Flanagan asserts: “We’ve sunk pretty low, culturally speaking, when we’ve left it to the 14- and 15-year-old girls of the nation to make one of the last, great stands for human dignity.”

And distinguishing between extra-marital sex between adults and that between adolescents, she writes, “One-night stands may be perfectly enjoyable exercises for two consenting adults, but teenagers aren’t adults.”

Taylor combats these claims with anecdotes. These free sexual practices are the very things that allow adolescent women, at least, to become adult women. Rosin, whose sources tend to be slightly older in age, comes to a similar conclusion. “To put it crudely,” she writes, “feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture.”

Whatever the exact interpretation, and however normative it may be, the first principle remains: Our generation is hooking up, and we’re doing it beyond Aphrodite’s wildest wet dreams. Call it concentrated (amongst the white and wealthy), destructive (Flanagan), progressive (Rosin), just don’t call it monogamy.

But a new paper from The American Sociological Association is calling it bullshit.

Using the General Social Survey, an in-person randomized opinion survey conducted every other year by the National Opinion Research Center, researchers Martin Monto and Anna Carey of the University of Portland compared data from two time periods: 1988-’96 and 2002-’10. Looking at the sexual experiences and sentiments of undergraduates, they found that frequency of sex and number of sexual partners in the later years was not significantly different from those in the earlier years.

In the earlier group, 65.2 percent of respondents reported having sex weekly or more often in the past year, compared to 59.3 percent of 2002-’10 respondents. And the number of recent sexual partners wasn’t very different either. 31.9 percent of respondents from the earlier group reported having more than one sexual partner in the past year, compared with 31.6 percent of those in the later group.

While millennials were 10 percent more likely to have had a casual date or hook-up in the past year, 13 percent more likely to have had sex with a friend, and 7 percent less likely to have a spouse or regular sexual partner, the researchers saw more temporal similarities than differences.

Relationship practices are changing, of course, but “this study demonstrates that we are not in the midst of a new era of no-rules-attached sexuality,” Monto asserted in a press release. “In fact, we found that, overall, sexual behavior among college students remained fairly consistent over the past 25 years.”

So, we’re less monogamous, but not startlingly so.

In “Boys on the Side,” Rosin writes, “America has unseated the Scandinavian countries for the title of Easiest Lay. We are, in the world’s estimation, a nation of prostitutes. And not even prostitutes with hearts of gold.”

But the takeaway here is this: If today is salacious, so were the years of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the crack/cocaine epidemic. There’s a consistency to the data that we often glance over. That is, we’re only prostitutes now if we were then. And few would have characterized the elder Bush’s presidency as the era of prostitution.

***

Cocking his head at an upward angle and pausing to add up hours, Harry Larson ’14 finally has the answer. Overall, he says, “We spend at least one or two waking hours a day together.”

He and Natasha Thondavadi ’14 have been dating since January of freshman year. (Thondavadi is a former Culture editor for the News, and Larson was an Opinion columnist.) After living together in an off-campus apartment last year, they now share a suite in JE, the college that brought them together as friends when they first arrived at Yale. Even when they don’t have many waking hours together, they still have sleeping hours. They live across the hall from each other, but for all intents and purposes, Harry notes, “we live together.”

In other words, they’re not going out to Zinc every Friday night, or catching a movie every Saturday matinee. When it comes to the time they spend together, it can be slightly haphazard.

And, in Johnson and Probst’s case, extremely so.

“Our schedules are the most incompatible possible,” Johnson says animatedly, leaning forward and playing with his water bottle. Given their intensive academic and a cappella balancing acts, they often don’t see each other until late at night.

Their Mondays are a prime example. One of them wakes up (“and then the other rolls over, mumbles ‘have a good day,’ and passes out again,” Probst adds). Probst finishes classes at 2:15 p.m., Johnson at 5 p.m. They might grab a quick dinner; then go to rehearsal, sometimes followed by a tech rehearsal for a separate production; then reconvene at 11 or 12; do homework, go to GHeav, watch TV and go to bed.

“You can always find time. We sacrifice a lot of sleep,” Probst said.

“But it’s so worth it,” Johnson added hastily.

Despite living on different continents over the summer, the two stayed close, Skyping almost every day, emailing and sometimes texting “even though we weren’t supposed to because of international charges,” Probst laughed guiltily. Johnson spent two months in Japan on a Light Fellowship, while Probst remained in the U.S., part of the traveling Broadway tour of The Little Mermaid.

For Abby Reisner ’14 and Noah Steinfeld ’14, in order to battle this inevitable Yale time crunch, making sure to see each other every day is of utmost importance — even if it’s for a five-minute end-of-day suite drop-in. Despite the fact that they share YPMB as their main extracurricular, scheduling time to see one another remains a concentrated effort.

But those activities they do strive to share with one another don’t necessarily fit into the mold of stereotypical “dates.”

“It took us 16 months to see our first movie together,” she says. A conversation ensues in which they try to remember what they saw, but it takes more of a Herculean effort than they expected. “Well, must have been really memorable then,” Reisner quips.

Instead, they go on runs and eat meals together — “anything we would do by ourselves, we do together.” Except homework, because Noah talks to himself while doing it, she said.

Ultimately, given these everyday moments she’s able to steal with Steinfeld, Reisner doesn’t buy the “I don’t have time” claim, adding, “if we have any problems, it’s that. But we’ve figured out ways to do it.”

Similarly, every student interviewed had heard the “I don’t have time” excuse, but few in relationships bought it.

Thondavadi lent her support to this statement, noting that being in a relationship does not actually take time away from her other heavy commitments. She was surprised that students felt this way, given that, in her view, the time spent being in a relationship would otherwise be spent socializing with friends anyway.

She said that in fact, she felt more comfortable in her relationship when she started having more academic and extracurricular work. “I had a constant support system,” she said, referring to how she and Larson would help each other with errands and give each other general emotional support.

Johnson points to the same pattern of a relationship benefitting his work life. “Watching a movie in your suite takes up less time than going to a party. And you can wake up the next morning and actually work because you’re not hung over.”

He added that any time that would have been spent finding someone to hook up with on a Friday or Saturday night is more time to crank work out. “If you can just hook up with someone on a Tuesday night,” he laughs, “you’re actually working on a more regular schedule.”

Larson and Thondavadi agreed that students who do not engage in relationships have not found anyone they consider to be worth the time and attention. His lanky frame filling one of the few comfortable chairs in Bass Cafe, he arrives at a conclusion he intones as self-evident.

“If you’re not willing to put in the time, it’s probably a sign that you’re not that interested,” he said.

***

But not everyone is looking to find a soulmate within the walls of the Ivy League. While the hookup culture may not be as pervasive as die-hard skeptics have suggested, according to some it remains an inescapable part of the Yale social scene. And though a large number of students feel the desire for a monogamous relationship, a great many are not planning to be in one during their undergraduate years.

Raisa Bruner ’13, in her WEEKEND piece “#SWUGNATION” from earlier this year, defined the culture of Senior Washed Up Girls, a subset of Yale women who had essentially “given up” on college romance. By the time she went to her last party in the Elm City, Bruner was no longer the eager, idealistic freshman who dressed up for every outing in hopes of finding a special someone. Now, as she looks back on her undergraduate experience, she is happy to have lived the single life during her time at Yale.

“At the end of the day, I don’t have any regrets,” she reflected. “Learning to depend on yourself is an incredibly valuable lesson.”

Based on 638 anonymous responses from a random sample of 2,000 students, there was no hostile opposition toward the idea of monogamous relationships. But individually, many students preferred having the romantic and sexual freedom monogamy inherently lacks. And in a school that forces one to choose between thousands of classes and more extracurriculars than Payne Whitney can house, this seems to make sense — why should students feel pressured to commit in yet another aspect of their undergraduate experience?

One student who felt particularly liberated said, “I like to sleep around like a free spirit or a Swiffer free sweeper.”

To be fair, most students in the survey did not compare their sexual habits to the motion of a cleaning device, but many still felt that their peers were not worth their complete and undivided romantic attention. Bruner attributes this to the seemingly unlimited potential romantic partners to be found in Ivy League institutions: Ultimately, she says, “What if there’s something better around the corner?”

Even some of the strongest couples interviewed empathized with the appeal of the hookup culture. Though he has been in the same relationship before he even encountered his first Old Campus squirrel as a freshman, Derwin Aikens ’15 said he perfectly understands the “college mentality:” the belief that, for every student, no lip should go unkissed and no party left unattended. Having thought at length about what life would be like engaging in this experience, Aikens concluded that he does not think one lifestyle is better than the other, only that he prefers being with his boyfriend, John Shively ’15, at the end of each day.

Aikens and other couples interviewed are quick to note, however, that even given the supposed pervasiveness of the Yale hookup culture, the ability to find something more serious still remains. Similarly, for Bruner, the perceived lack of monogamy at Yale indicates not that the culture lectures against it, but that most people simply aren’t interested.

“A lot of the time,” she says simply, “people in college just aren’t looking for their life partners.”

***

Despite the talk about and perception of one dominant “culture” at Yale, the numbers tell another story. According to a survey sent to a randomized sample of 2,000 undergraduates, the mere notion that monogamy is stigmatized at Yale, and that the majority of students are wholly uninterested, is largely false. Ultimately, many students are lamenting a perception — that the hookup culture is the only option for romance at Yale — in the face of a drastically different reality.

With a response rate of approximately 32 percent (638 out of a sample size of 2,000 students), and a 45–55 male to female ratio, 86 percent of students said they had enough time to be in a monogamous relationship, or could find the time if they found the right person. 67 percent said they believed other students are looking for romantic relationships. And on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating no interest in a monogamous relationship and 5 a strong desire to be in one, students settled in at 3.59 — not fiercely determined to be in one, but also not completely uninterested in the manner that Rosin and Taylor convey.

For those who are keen on drawing the distinction between female and male interest (and it seems that many are — one respondent sounded off that “Men here are blind idiots”), it turns out that while the difference exists, it’s not statistically significant. The average interest in a serious relationship for girls is 3.70 and the average interest for boys 3.51 — not exactly an echoing and cavernous gap.

The perception that these relationships are stigmatized at Yale seems similarly detached from reality. Seventy-five percent of respondents said any stigma surrounding relationships is entirely nonexistent. But respondents’ comments indicate that if there isn’t a stigma around being in a relationship, there may be one around looking for one.

“[S]aying that you really want a relationship is seen as saying that you are not comfortable with yourself,” wrote one respondent. Another saw the difference as gendered. “I … get the sense that female students looking for relationships are considered ‘desperate’ … somehow pathetic or unfeminist, but men who want relationships are somehow sweet and mature.”

Another opined that it’s much more difficult to be in a monogamous relationship in the gay community. “There is an annoying pushback among gay culture at Yale that claims bowing to monogamy is somehow equivalent to caving to heterosexual norms. It’s not. Who’s to say heterosexuals have the exclusive right to monogamy?”

The data indicates that Rosin and Taylor’s narratives are largely sensationalized. Undoubtedly, the vast number of responses indicating that students hadn’t yet found the right people with whom to enter into a relationship align with Rosin’s women, almost all of whom seem to indicate that the men they’re surrounded by aren’t worth the time investment. But the female Yale and Penn undergraduates and Harvard Business School students Rosin and Taylor interviewed seem wholly uninterested.

It’s easy to cherry pick anecdotes, but when looking at numbers en masse, a more nuanced narrative emerges — the very idea of a “culture” seems worth dropping. On the whole, Yale undergraduates are somewhat interested in being in monogamous relationships, and there’s not a statistically significant gendered difference.

So why are 69 percent of Yalies still single?

Ultimately, it’s not for lack of interest. And it’s not for fear of being stigmatized. As the majority of Yalies soberly indicated, it’s an answer far more simple, and one that even the traditional monogamous trends of days past could get behind: They just haven’t found the right person.

“I wouldn’t want to have a romantic relationship with someone I’m not deeply in love with,” one surveyed student said.

Meanwhile, in a crowded Bass Café, Reisner explains the flipside of that logic.

“Have you thought about whether you’ll stay together after college?” she and Steinfeld are asked.

There’s a slight hesitation. They look at each other, and Steinfeld gestures with a head nod, a taciturn mutual acknowledgment that Reisner will answer.

“I just feel like if we like each other, we should be together.” Pause. Either thinking she hasn’t fully answered the question or just wants to add a follow-up, she says in a softer voice, “And we like each other, so we’re still together.”

And with a lightness that belies their almost two-year relationship, they fist bump under the table.

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