LOVE HURTS

01.01.15 11:45 AM ET

Random Hook-Ups or Dry Spells: Why Millennials Flunk College Dating

The ‘hook-up’ culture is glorified on college campuses, but it’s not what undergraduates want. So why aren’t millennials dating?

A few blocks from Duke University, just off Main Street in Durham, North Carolina, lies Shooters, a club known for its cheap drinks and a cage suspended from the ceiling. For the less acrobatic exhibitionist, bars for tabletop dancing are placed strategically around the dance floor’s edge. In the corner, there is the charming mechanical bull. I like to think of Shooters as Sodom and Gomorrah, reimagined for the modern world.

By default, parties on Saturday end at Shooters. It is near impossible to set foot on the dance floor without 360 degrees of physical contact with other Duke undergraduates, and it is more than likely you’ll do more than merely brush up against your fellow undergraduates at Shooters.

Ignoring people you hooked up with at Shooters when encountering them on campus is a quintessential Duke experience. If the oft-talked-about college “hook-up culture” could be embodied by a place, it would be Shooters.

But what I find most fascinating about Shooters Saturdays is not their ubiquity—rather, it’s how little so many of us enjoy them. The other day, a friend of mine remarked that she’d love to interview people as they waited in the long entrance line to see how they felt about their upcoming few hours of sweat-filled DFMO (dance floor make outs) and possible ventures to a foreign dorm room.

She’s right to suspect discontentment with the habitual mass exodus into the world of consequence-less fun. A 2012 study found that fully 76% of Duke students want to be in a committed romantic relationship. Yet the study found that only 39% reported that they were— a number of my peers expressed doubt that the number was even that high. For all that we may wish it to be, “dating” simply is not the dominant romantic culture here.

That strong desire to be in a relationship runs contrary to the pervasiveness of the hook-up culture on campus. Rather than resulting from a change in romantic aims, as is so often hypothesized, I believe the hook-up culture actually results from the extra barriers to achieving those same relationship-focused goals. We want committed romantic relationships just as we always have, but something is getting in the way of us achieving them.

Over my four years in college, I’ve found that three cultural shifts have increased the barriers to entering into a serious romantic relationship.

Feminism

I am a feminist. I love feminism. As my fellow students have eloquently demonstrated, we need feminism. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t completely altered the world of dating.

Being the first to declare feelings is incredibly difficult. Rejection stings. Perhaps the only thing that could motivate anyone to undertake such a thoroughly horrible task was if doing so was the only way they’d ever have romantic relationships at all. And for men, this used to be true.

The feminist movement has encouraged women that they can initiate romantic relationships, too. However, this barely works because in reality, women aren’t making that first move. In my four years of college, I know exactly one woman who has asked a man out on a date. For me, it’s something I know I should do, but the thought is unpleasant. The possibility that the same outcome could happen another way -- namely a guy asks me out -- keeps me from taking action.

At the same time, men have lost the uncomfortable but useful conviction that putting themselves on the line by making the first move is the only way they’ll reach their desired romantic outcome. In my experience, I’ve found that the philosophy that men and women should share the responsibility for initiating relationships has taken root in men, for whom it is convenient, and not in women, for whom it is not.

Participation Trophy Culture

This fear of rejection is exacerbated by the fact that my generation grew up in a world in which some sports leagues didn’t even keep score so that no team would lose. We gave participation trophies at the end of every season and received certificates with a specially-designed compliment for each person. In short, we found ways to couch messages of failure or inadequacy. While preaching D.A.R.E. in schools, we made a drug out of external validation.

Fear of external invalidation is this drug’s natural counterpart, and this fear keeps us from becoming comfortable with the constant possibility of rejection. Yet, what my peers do not realize – or cannot handle – is that rejection is a necessary part of forging a romantic relationships.

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Social Media

Millennials also thinks about our public personas so much more than previous generations. We’ve had Facebook pages for long enough to be embarrassed about their early content. We’ve barely lived in a world in which broadcasting our lives and painting ourselves in the best possible light weren’t considerations.

Social media also makes us feel more connected. Any bad outcome – be it initial rejection or eventual alienation – seems as if it will have ripple effects across our entire social circle. In a romantic relationship, facing humiliation or awkwardness is a strong possibility. Social media forces us to not only be vulnerable for our partner but for the whole world.

All of these increased barriers then have a snowball effect. The social pressure of other people entering into meaningful relationships is a large part of the motivation for entering into one yourself. As fewer people enter into such relationships, doing so becomes increasingly unusual, providing still further reasons to retain the status quo.

When I was a first year, I looked at the crowd at Shooters and saw that people were free—free to shed inhibitions, to give into desires they usually kept hidden, to dance like they do in their bedrooms, and sing like they do in their bathrooms. There was something beautiful about this, and I still see that beauty. But when I look out over the crowd now, I also see that they are trapped—trapped by their cowardice. When I first arrived at Duke, hooking up with a stranger seemed like a way to shed my inhibitions. Now it feels like a way to give into them.