Save the date: Kerry Cronin on the love lives of college students

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Article Marriage and Family Sex and Sexuality Young Adults
The love lives of college students leave a lot to be desired, says this educator, who suggests old-school dating as a remedy.

While eating ice cream with a group of “beautiful, smart, extroverted, social people,“ Boston College seniors nearing graduation, Kerry Cronin asked them about their romantic lives. “Will there be crazy break-ups at the end of senior year? Are you going to try to stay together with people you’re dating?”

She was met with blank stares. “They responded as though I had spoken about a trip to Mars or something.” Only one or two said that they had ever even dated someone. “We don’t really do that,” they said.

“They weren’t awkward or unfortunate-looking, none of that,” she adds. “They were just wonderful people, so I thought that was strange.”

Frank, funny, and charismatic, Cronin, now dubbed the school’s “dating doctor,” began asking more students about their love lives—namely about the so-called hook-up culture, where people have physical relationships without emotional attachment. “I would just walk around campus, and I would stop people and say, ‘Hey, are you part of the hook-up culture? When was the last time you hooked up?’ I would say it in funny ways and I was getting a lot of answers.”

Those answers turned into conversations as more students began confiding in her. “I realized there was a real need, and there were a lot of walking wounded around this topic,” she says.

Describe the relationship landscape for college students.

Generally, college students seem to fall into three basic categories with respect to dating and relationships. First there are the pseudo-married couples, who hunker down into “coupledom.” The hard thing for these couples is navigating the intensity of these relationships because in many residential colleges, among full-time students, it’s possible to spend way too much time together. Things get too intense too fast, and pacing the relationship easily becomes a problem.

The second category is a large swath of students who are hooking up. They may not be hooking up constantly, but many are hooking up occasionally and avoiding dating and relationships because they are invested in this social scene or this “script.” It’s definitely connected with partying and drinking.

The third group is basically rejecting the other two scenes. Many students find themselves in this category by junior year, because they’re exhausted by the hook-up scene and they are scared off by the intensity and possible heartbreak of the pseudo-married world. These students throw themselves into activities, clubs, causes, and expand their friend groups to weirdly unnatural numbers in order to avoid feeling lonely, relationally unproductive, or worse, invisible.

What is it that young adults want out of sex and relationships?

My students have tons of friends. They might have 802 Facebook friends, but they feel alone, not understood, and not valued.

When students talk to me one-on-one, they say they just want someone to see who they are. As Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body says, we all want to be seen. We want people to see our true selves, not just, “Here, see my body,” but “See me, and think that I’m worthwhile.”

In a more immediate way they want to feel excited, and they want to have fun. They want to feel sexy, and they want to feel desired. Hook-up culture promises that your ego will be boosted, that you’ll learn to build your sexual skill set, that you won’t graduate from college without knowing what the heck you’re doing.

I talk to some students who say, “I came to college and I just wanted to have sex with somebody to get it over with,” or “I just don’t want to be the person who hasn’t had these kinds of experiences,” both in terms of sexual expression and just romantic dating.

Is that why so many hook up?

Hook-up culture promises lots of things, such as feelings of affection. But in reality it creates feelings of alienation and isolation, feelings of real loneliness. It also produces a longing to be connected to something real, someone who really wants me. Not just wants me because I was the last drunken thing they saw that night, but someone who really values me, and not just my body.

I tell my students that the only thing you know for sure when hooking up is that the other person, at that time, at that level of drunkenness, doesn’t think you’re physically repulsive. You don’t know if they actually desire you.

To long for connection is natural, and hook-up culture, unfortunately, teaches us to disconnect and jump into a cycle of detachment. There’s a lot of disconnect, because after hooking up, you get to act the next day like you didn’t know what you were doing, and you didn’t really mean it. Like there’s not a lot of personal investment in it.

But underneath there’s a lot of risk. There are hard feelings and isolation. Maybe you got into it because you felt a little invisible. But afterward, you just feel more invisible.

Why don’t they pursue committed relationships instead?

Students know that relationships are an alternative, but when they think of couples around campus, they see relationship stuff as exhausting. It’s jumping way ahead of yourself, way ahead of this season of your life.

With this generation, people aren’t ready for marriage at age 20, 21, 22, but some of them are in relationships that mimic the intensity and emotional dependency of marriages. That can go all wrong because they’re not really ready for that in their life structure.

What’s the alternative then?

I think we should retrieve what’s good about the traditional dating script, taking the idea of normal pacing to relationships and leaving behind the idea that men always have to be the ones to ask or to pay and that women are just waiting.

The problem with college is that your time is so flexible that you can have an intense relationship in two weeks. But that’s not normal. That doesn’t let the natural unfolding of feelings happen.

How would dating help?

Dating helps you ease into being vulnerable because it gives you time to learn how you feel. It takes a while to learn how to know somebody, and it takes a long time to learn how to love somebody.

When you date, you can let yourself think it through and let your feelings and the dynamic of it unfold in a slower and more natural way. Then you don’t get into the intensity of a committed relationship too early or physical intimacy that’s too early and is disproportionate to what’s really going on.

It’s a really bizarre situation that students see hooking up as the alternative to intense relationships. Everybody’s getting hurt in both of these situations. Whereas if we could take out that intensity, what could be good about dating is that it’s really fun.

When you assign a date in class, how do students respond?

They talk about literally sweating and waiting to put themselves in a place where they know the person’s going to be: “My heart was pounding as I approached my target.” It’s so fraught with anxiety.

I always ask them, “You think that maybe stripping off some of your clothes and making out with someone for eight hours is casual, but the really formal thing is asking somebody for a cup of coffee?” It’s crazy.

In every case, though, their reflections mention something about the actual asking being so much easier than they anticipated. Then they find they could do it again. Then they’ll say, “I was amazed at how much I could actually find out about a person in 45 minutes over a cup of coffee and how much that person wanted to know about me.”

When students come back after one date and say, “I still don’t know if I’d be interested in that person,” I say, “No kidding.” It takes a while to find out. On your first date you’re pretty much just mostly listening to yourself and thinking, Why did I just say that? It’s hard to let your guard down a little. But if you can do it without the pressure of physical intimacy hanging over your head or needing to know if you really like this person or if you might love this person, if you can get that out of the way, it can help you relax and actually figure out what you really want to know about this person.

Will hooking up prevent young adults from being able to make long-term or lifelong commitments down the road?

I don’t worry that students won’t want to make and keep promises, that they won’t want real, deep, true connections because those things are natural. You can’t keep that down. You have to work really hard to make your sexuality mean nothing. You can do violence to the meanings of your own life, but it’s natural that those yearnings come back. Those longings are still there.

The thing that scares me, that makes me anxious about the future for young people, is that they don’t seem to believe that romance is possible. It’s just always ironic to them. Real, lasting love seems to be a thing of a nostalgic past to them. It’s something that their grandparents had, but that’s not offered anymore. That makes me nervous. But I hope the longing for it persists and that the longing for it will win.

Does the church have anything to say to young adults about their relationships?

Unfortunately the discourse from the church has two basic characteristics. One is that we’ve got a long history of talking about sexual sinfulness, that you’re supposed to be cataloging your sexual sins and talking about things around sexuality that are sinful. It’s highly negative discourse.

We’re trying to break out of that, though. Pope John Paul II made a concerted effort to talk differently about sex. But that discourse is about how sex is sacred, and basically says that every sexual experience should be a mystical experience, an experience of the holy.

When young people hear either of those conversations, they are out the door. I don’t blame them, because both of those routes are highly divisive. They’re not concerned with the real facts of our sexual lives and what we long for.

If the church gets stuck in these two discourses, we’re leaving a lot of sheep with no shepherd. I can talk for days to the super Catholic students who want to talk about chastity and purity. And that’s great. But that’s about 5 percent of the students here. There are a lot of sheep with no shepherd if we’re not talking about what happens when you are physically intimate with somebody.

Of course there’s a spiritual component of sexuality and dating and relationships because we’re spiritual beings. But to talk about it at the level of spirituality shouldn’t destroy just what’s going on in the ordinary, banal day-to-day lives of young people.

You have to go where they are. They need help thinking about, “How should I behave reasonably and responsibly and lovingly toward the people I’m dating or I’m in a relationship with?”

What should the church be telling young adults?

I often say to students, you’ve got to be able to say verbally what you’re doing with your body, what you mean by your sexual expression. And if you don’t know how to talk about what you’re doing, you should probably take a step back. If you can’t say what is happening physically, and talk about what that means emotionally, then you’re probably just using somebody or you’re probably letting yourself be used. If you’re in a relationship, you’re not catching your emotional selves up to where you are physically.

The church could really help on that because the church has gorgeous teachings on love and the expression of love and what love really needs to protect it. When you put yourself into someone’s care, even for an hour, you reveal the parts of you that are awkward and uncomfortable and you laugh about it and it’s funny. Why can’t the church be talking to young people about where God is in that? To think that God wants to be a part of that is not overly pious.

What about a message of chastity and purity?

I get why the conversation about sex has to be a certain way, but it’s just leaving so many people out when it’s only about chastity and purity. What the church needs is lots of different conversations. We need conversations to the choir, to talk about, to help them think about their purity and their virginity in ways that they love hearing about it. When you’re very chaste, you love talking about chastity because it helps you process it and feel good about it. And struggle through it, or struggle through the various temptations around it.

But there are so many people who’ve already left the room when you start that conversation. When I started having these conversations with students, people said to me, “Oh, Boston College administrators are going to say you have to stop talking about that because you can’t talk about oral sex with students.” I’ve never had anything but people saying, “Great. We’re glad you’re out there talking to people.”

We just need to be having smart conversations. The culture is speaking really loudly, and we need to speak back. We can’t bury our heads in the sand on this anymore. There’s too much damage that can be done while we’re sitting around in the ether thinking about what we do and don’t want to encourage people to do.

People are out there living their lives, and they need us.

What would be most helpful to young adults?

We need to help people identify what values they really are trying to live or what values they really might be drawn to and how to help them get there. I’m not going to say to a young person who’s been having sex with his girlfriend for two years, “OK, you need to stop having sex tonight.” But I am going to say, “OK, how can you and she have a better relationship that’s a little more grounded, that’s a little more real to where you are in your life and what kinds of promises you are and aren’t able to make and fulfill?”

Even apart from the sexual decision-making, I’d ask, “What are you learning and what do you still need to learn about being a man or a woman or a husband or a wife or a father or a mother or a person who can make a promise and keep it? What are you learning in that relationship? What do you still need to learn? Where do you need to bulk that up a little bit?”

So we have to be willing to wade in to where they really are.

That’s a perfect way to put it. We have to be willing to wade in to where they are. We can’t be afraid of saying that we’ve got a vision of human flourishing and a view of the gorgeousness of human sexuality that doesn’t end up just being “It’s bad before marriage and then suddenly it becomes a mystical experience.”

That is so bipolar it’s not even funny. And the larger culture suggests that sex means nothing, that sex is just recreation and you just need to make sure you’ve got consent, that everybody’s on board with the “Yes.”

The church wants to say dating and relationships and sex matter. We’re serious about it. Not serious like we can’t have any fun talking about it, but that it really matters.

If we’re made in God’s image and likeness, it means we want to be in a relationship. We want to give ourselves to people, and we want people to give themselves to us. We want to see each other. We want to reveal ourselves. And that’s fun and exciting and wonderful.

It can be, as a whole, an opportunity for mystical experiences. But sometimes intimacy is just boring and banal and your husband’s a pain in the neck and your wife’s driving you crazy. Sometimes it’s just, “I want to have sex because I want to fall asleep.” Sometimes it’s not good, but I’m doing it because you want it.

As a whole, a sexual relationship is an opportunity for mystical experience because it produces all kinds of things. It produces wonderful things. We take it seriously because it’s all that.

Great relationships and dating are about finding the ground to stand on and build on.

This article appeared in the September 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 9, pages 22-25).

Image: Photo of Kerry Cronin by Caitlin Cunningham