The vast majority of Yale students suffer from romantic malaise. Collectively, we expend an insurmountable amount of energy fretting over text silences, analyzing conversations and wishing that we were more vulnerable with our partners, romantic or otherwise. This is, of course, a side effect of hookup culture, the widespread climate of casual sex — much of which starts at parties.
A critique of hookup culture is not necessarily a critique of casual sex. Protofeminist puritanism derides the casual as dirty, anonymous or woefully transactional. Yet to condemn all relationships that are not of the “will-we-get-married” type is not only impractical, but arrogant. Exclusive commitment is far from the only virtuous form of togetherness. Similarly, not all single people actually want that type of partnership. Most of the romance here happens at a much less involved level, and that’s fine with me.
In its best light, hookup culture is an attempt at a pathway toward exploration. Exploratory interactions come with a freedom that can help people relearn their sexuality outside of old norms and offer a chance to examine personal dating desires. That is a good thing; the casual is not what’s wrong with the script of hookup culture. But hookup culture doesn’t actually offer that introspection to its participants.
Instead, the infrastructure of sex starting after a party actually inhibits exploration. The anonymity and awkwardness of a hookup, prolonged or otherwise, inhibits mutual discovery because the people don’t know each other. A connection can be a casual one without existing in the infrastructure of hookup culture. It requires a simple adjustment to the way so much sex happens at Yale. It requires a capital-D Date.
A date — a capital-D Date — could be a much better introduction to a partner, romantic or otherwise. Date (n.): an hourlong conversation, maybe a little more, outside of a dining hall. That’s it. Maybe you take a walk to Wooster Square, maybe you get a drink somewhere, maybe you poke around the brain room at the Medical School. A date doesn’t mean “I like you,” nor does it mean, “I want to commit to you.” A date means, “I’d like to know if I’d like you. Maybe I’m attracted to you. Let’s just see.” A date is a conversation with the express purpose of seeing if you’d want to have more conversations.
In the purely time-economy sense, a date is a much better way to assess how you actually feel about each other. After an hour and change of talking just to that person, you know if you want to keep doing so. In this way, a date offers much more realistic expectations for the future than a dalliance blossoming out of a leaving-a-party-together situation would. So many of my peers have spent months sleeping with someone they don’t know if they like outside of sex, someone whose interior world is almost entirely opaque to them. This lack of romantic telos occupies far too much of our collective wondering real estate. A date solves that problem by answering the “Might this become something more?” question up front.
There is no better or worse answer to that question, despite conventional insecurities. Maybe there’s no sexual chemistry, but there is a potential for friendship: They’re nice, but they’re not your lover. Maybe there’s sexual chemistry but little else: This is a hookup situation, and that’s probably it. Maybe there’s sparks: This is something. Maybe there’s nothing there at all: This is a date you leave at the end. Whatever the outcome is, it’s not an indictment of either of you as people. It’s more just a reality of how you stand when paired together.
In that way, a date renders the whole thing low-stakes. A conversation is a much more familiar territory for most of us because it’s less invasive, for the most part, than being naked with a relative stranger. We’re all acquainted with being charming when we speak to each other, all aware of how to converse, at least a little. Low stakes is a necessity for Yale’s herd of commitment-phobic undergraduate schedulers.
A date is fundamentally an exploration, one that happens both during and — perhaps — after the initial conversation. On the date itself, that’s more immaterial, a question of the compatibility of thoughts, of senses of humor. That’s necessary to wondering if something can become something more. Further, people who know each other better as people can be more sexually honest and experimental if they have a foundation of trust.
So, my post–Valentine’s Day challenge to Yale is to ask someone out on a capital-D Date. If you want to, that is. In a place where dating is far from the norm, this can be intimidating. But that’s the effectiveness of this peculiar type of modern heroism. If you think there’s something there — or if you think there could be — just ask. What’s the worst that could happen?
Amelia Nierenberg is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.