At this time of year, high school seniors are licking the envelope on their last
college application. Mom and Dad await their offspring's departure with a mixture of
anticipation and dread. What sort of social scene will their children find on campus?
Parents have a vague notion that their own antics at college 25 years ago -- when they gleefully overturned rules of every sort -- started the ball of social change rolling. Where has it come to rest in 2002?
A recent report helps answer this question. The report is entitled "Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right -- College Women on Dating and Mating Today." Sponsored by the Independent Women's Forum (IWF) of Washington, D.C., it presents the findings of an 18-month study that investigated young college women's attitudes toward sexuality, dating, courtship and marriage.
According to the IWF report, when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex, today's college students are largely bereft of norms and guidance. For many -- young women especially -- the result is confusion, distress and heartache galore.
In part, the problem arises from the fact that most college women (83 percent) say that marriage is one of their most important life goals. Two-thirds would like to meet their future spouse in college. Yet today, important aspects of the college social scene actually appear to undermine the likelihood that young women will achieve the goal of a successful future marriage.
How do college students meet and mate today? Dating, it seems, is a thing of the past. While the notion of "the date" might seem quaint, the practice has traditionally played an important social role. A date is a public acknowledgment of potential romantic interest, and requires planning. Its aim is fun, but it holds out the possibility that one might just find Mr. or Ms. Right.
Today, on many college campuses, the "hookup" has largely replaced the date. A hookup is an isolated sexual encounter, generally between two people who do not know each other well. It requires neither commitment nor affection. Hookups generally occur when both parties are drinking or drunk. Often, these encounters leave young women feeling awkward and depressed, hoping for a relationship that never materializes.
Why is hooking up so widespread? In the IWF report, a student gave this explanation: "In the dorms hooking up [is] huge. It [is] so easy to come back to your [coed] dorm and everyone's there at two or three in the morning. Everyone's come back, everyone's intoxicated."
Another student put it this way: "The random hook ups because of alcohol happen all the time. I've talked to people about how there is just no dating because of it."
"Hanging out" is another widespread form of campus social interaction. When men and women hang out, they spend loosely organized, undefined time together without making their interest in each other explicit. For example, they might study together or watch TV, in a group or alone.
Hanging out often fosters confusion and uncertainty, because a woman does not know if a man is romantically attracted to her or just likes her "as a friend." One student explains: "A lot of people are just a friend because no one really seems to want a commitment anymore."
The third common kind of interaction is the "joined at the hip" relationship. In this, a young woman and man meet and form a bond that quickly becomes serious and intense. The two spend most nights together, and eat and study together. Their relationship is usually so time-consuming and exclusive that it prevents them from establishing close ties with classmates of either sex. As a result, breakup is often inevitable.
Today, it seems, campus social life is largely characterized by relationships that exhibit either too little commitment or too much. Hooking up, hanging out and "joined at the hip" relationships fail to teach young people an all-important life skill: how to form and sustain a mature relationship. Without this skill, they will find a successful marriage very difficult to achieve.
In their search for a life-mate, our young people are flailing in the dark. They lack the indispensable social rituals and relationship milestones that helped previous generations to meet and court one another, in a context where a committed relationship could grow and flourish.
What happened to these social road signs? We of the baby boom generation helped knock them over, and called it liberation. But we replaced them with nothing. Today, our children are paying the price. We have left them to negotiate a complex time in their lives -- full of conflicting needs, demands and feelings -- almost entirely on their own.
This is bad for the young people involved. But it is also bad for society as a whole. All of us have a stake in the successful mating of the young. It is our children, after all, who must pass on our democratic heritage to posterity.
Today, we hear much about divorce, and its devastating influence on the next generation. It's time to tackle a more fundamental problem, and consider how to help our young people form strong, enduring marriages in the first place.
-Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.