We sat beneath the tarp as the rain fell around us. My OA leader cleared her throat. “This activity is called Fears in a Hat,” she explained. The game was simple. We were all to write anonymous questions about Princeton on scraps of paper, and our OA leaders would offer their responses in front of the whole group.
There was one topic that felt particularly poignant, one that I was sure I would consider throughout the year. In my head I surveyed the experiences that had led to my concern with the subject.
I come from a traditional Jewish high school that tries its best to discourage inappropriate sexual behavior, which is defined by most Orthodox Jewish authorities as any contact between genders before marriage. In school, we were forbidden from touching the other gender beyond the occasional high five, but almost no one followed this rule. I sensed that although my teachers wanted us to uphold the rigid norms of our community, many of them thought that there was nothing wrong with healthy sexual relationships. My parents, slightly more progressive than some of my teachers, always encouraged me to explore my sexuality in a thoughtful way. I was often not sure what to think. To top it off, I was on and off with my summer camp boyfriend, now a Princeton sophomore, all throughout high school.
There I was on OA, poised before the start of my college career, very much “on” in what used to be an on and off relationship, very much committed to my boyfriend, and bracing myself for what I was sure would be a complicated transition to our relationship in college. So naturally, I scribbled a question on my scrap of paper and tossed it into the designated baseball hat: Can you tell us a little about hookups and relationships at school?
When my leaders read the question out loud, a sassy peer responded immediately. To him, the question oozed with hormones. “What? I mean how thirsty can you be?” We all cracked up.
But every part of me was screaming to understand. Would it be possible to maintain a serious relationship amid the hypersexualized college parties that my high school teachers would never shut up about? Could I develop my own group of friends and still spend time with my boyfriend? Would people judge me for starting college in a relationship? Would people view me as an appendage of the sophomore boy with whom I’d share my most personal thoughts and feelings?
Sometimes, the hookup culture feels just as real and ubiquitous as I had heard it would be. I have friends who go to eating clubs, dance with strangers, spend the night with them, and send a “Walk of Shame” snapchat the next morning (although in my quad we call it the Walk of Pride). People do have random hookups. Sometimes, it feels like everybody’s doing it.
In response to my question on OA, one of my leaders reflected, “There are people who, despite being in college, manage to have real relationships.” People act as though college presents obvious obstacles to romance. But at the same time, I feel like I learn of more committed relationships around me every day. Are there a lot of exclusive couples? Or am I just a hopeless romantic who sees what she wants to see?
In July 2013, New York Times reporter Kate Taylor homed in on the challenges to romantic relationships at University of Pennsylvania. She examined the way many women make an empowered choice to engage in casual hookups rather than more draining relationships. The article documents several obstacles to commitment. Often, according to Taylor, students believe their obligations to their work preclude long-term intimate relationships. Some students quoted in her article note that between studies, jobs and social commitments, they simply don’t have time or energy to devote to a significant other.
Some Princeton students described the challenge of balancing their relationships with school work, as well. “My relationship, even though it’s new, has greatly affected my life at Princeton because it takes up so much time,” explained Sarah (’20). “Maintaining a relationship and committing my time to someone else, as well as to my studies and other responsibilities is a daily struggle, as some days I can afford to spend a little extra time lounging around/simply enjoying my partner’s company while on other days, I can’t even find the time to see them.”
One student remarked that there’s “less of a kind of general momentum towards dating I think than at other schools, I would guess partly because of our time, and at least our false sense that we have no time and have no time for dating and other people.” She reflected that the limitations on time could support hooking up with strangers over investing in long-term relationships. “It’s all about the fast satisfaction of hookup culture,” she added.
Samuel (’20), whose relationship was a significant part of his life last year but has since ended, remarked that the social nature of college may pull one away from a romantic relationship. “Part of being in a relationship is spending a lot of time with one person, and part of being in college, or part of starting college, is spending a lot of time with a lot of different people… so you can network and meet a lot of people.” One of the most challenging elements of a relationship, particularly freshman year, is the singular attention it demands at a time when one might rather be meeting as many new people as possible.
The couple’s sub-community may influence the way their relationship is perceived, as certain subcultures may place more or less value on romantic commitment.
Some students I spoke to noted that the Jewish community on campus fosters a culture of relationships, as there are multiple exclusive couples within it. While the culture of the Jewish community is more of an exception than a rule, it may still be true that the different settings on campus create different cultures around relationships.
For example, Sarah reflected that as a black student, she has experienced significant support from her peers regarding her relationship. “There was widespread support as far as I know,” she reflected. “But more than in any regular occurrence of a relationship because the number of thriving relationships at all, let alone within the black community on campus, is very sparse.”
One looming factor in relationships at Princeton is the media storm in recent years around Susan Patton, a Princeton alumna and parent also known in the news as the Princeton Mom.
In 2013, Patton wrote a letter published in the Daily Princetonian, urging Princeton women to take advantage of the opportunity to find husbands in college. She was responding to what she deemed mismatched priorities among college women. Princeton women prioritize their studies and careers rather than focusing on finding a husband in a place with the highest concentration of smart men they will encounter in their lives. In writing her letter and subsequent book Marry Smart, Patton hoped to counter this phenomenon that she believes leaves women lonely and unsatisfied in the long run.
While none of the students I spoke to invoked Patton or the notion that they must find their life partner, a few of them commented that there are elements of our school culture that are conducive to finding people they can connect with in a serious way.
“When I talk to people who aren’t in college anymore they say one thing that’s a serious contrast is that you’re no longer always around people,” Samuel said. “So being always around people allows you to meet more people and cultivate relationships that way.” Although Samuel had previously noted that the rush to meet new people can detract from devotion to individuals, he added that, the buzz around every interaction can make meeting people of romantic interest more accessible. “Part of the culture is this glorification of college,” he explained. “But that also means that people are more excited to meet new people, and when people are excited they’re more interested in more conversations and also more attractive.”
Another factor specific to the Princeton environment is the prevalent intellectualism among the student body. Julia (’19) expressed that now that she’s in college, she feels that she should only date people with whom she can envision a shared future. But she added that “that’s sort of made simpler by the fact that you’re at Princeton because… you might be very different in so many different ways, but you know that you’re both intellectually curious to a certain extent, whereas before college it was more of a search to find certain factors that are more intuitively a part of people herxe.”
A few of the students I spoke to shared that despite the challenges, the greatest advantage of having a relationship at school is the support of a romantic partner. As we all know, college presents burning pockets of stress that we must navigate as part of our student careers. Having a romantic partner can help raise students out of these difficult moments.
“I think in general, being in a relationship has provided me with support through my most stressful points this year thus far,” Sarah noted. “I think that my partner is one of my biggest cheerleaders, and as someone who is involved in a lot of different things, I need all the moral support I can get.”
Now I have almost completed my freshman year. There are still moments when things feel complicated, but I know that being in a relationship been a fortifying element of my year. So much has changed, but I have had the privilege of living a building away from someone who understands and cares about me. I think it’s unlikely to meet someone else here who understands how I think so well, who knows exactly why I get anxious the night before vacations and who knows exactly how to calm me down. So why should I sacrifice spending time with him to go make small talk with new acquaintances? I accept that I rely on my boyfriend to fill a need for intimacy in the great anonymity of freshman year, and I push myself to be present for him when he needs me, as well.
Maybe I am limiting myself by spending so much time with him, for wanting to watch movies with him rather than going out to meet new people. Sometimes I wonder if I choose to spend time with him because it is the safe option, and I still fear that it looks like I followed him here because he’s a sophomore, and I a freshman. But I have built plenty of new friendships. I don’t think people have judged me for being in a relationship. I hope that what people see in my relationship is the presence of more emotional depth in me than what comes through the surface level conversations ubiquitous to freshman year.
I am aware that my relationship forms a personal infrastructure that may sometimes differ from the typical paths expected from first-year students. So I try my best to spend time with new friends, and sometimes that stresses me out, since I want to make new friends so badly. I want to know that I am spending the proper time studying, the proper time exploring new clubs and facets of campus life. So I try to do what feels right, and a big part of that is spending time with my boyfriend.
At the end of the day, I think Sarah put it well when she said that her partner is her biggest cheerleader. I’m still afraid that my boyfriend and I are somehow curtailing each other’s freedom and success in college. But I also know that we lift each other up when we are feeling most defeated by the stress and pressures of Princeton. We root for each other to rock auditions and interviews. We have each other to vent to when we get Ds on tests and each other to call when we get lonely on the walk back from the library. We keep trying to have our own, disparate lives, and sometimes we succeed.