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Seeing past Valentine’s day: dating culture on campus

| Monday, February 19, 2018

The chocolates, the roses, the heart-shaped pizzas delivered to lucky roommates from long-distance boyfriends — Valentine’s Day has me thinking about dating at Notre Dame; more precisely, the lack of it and why that’s bad for campus social life.

To those who acutely feel the pangs of being single in this “cuffing season,” who see couples on campus everywhere and would protest my statement that Notre Dame lacks a dating culture, I’d like to clarify why I describe it that way.

Let me begin by defining my terms. Notre Dame is known for its romantic Grotto engagements and Basilica wedding waitlist, yet as the upcoming “ring by spring” deadline draws near, few students are implicated in these traditions (for better, not worse, in my opinion). Dating does not mean immediate serious relationships or inextricable emotional commitments. In fact, the traditional dating system is structured to prevent errors of miscommunication, the dangers of sexual assault and frequent heartbreak.

When I say we ought to have more dating, I mean just that — boys ought to ask girls out on normal, public, getting-to-know-the-other-person dates more frequently. All students, irrespective of gender, would benefit from this cultural shift.

Dating is supposed to be how you get to know someone in a public, safe setting (which is especially important for women, more on that later). That might sound obvious, yet with a campus culture that largely lacks regular dates, every date that does occur seems like a big deal. We need something that’s not a hookup but not a serious romantic gesture. When a guy asks a girl out to dinner, he’s not asking her to marry him, yet we often treat it that way. Don’t believe me? Think about all the times you’ve teased or been teased about a dining hall date; it’s just two people who are interested in each other getting a meal together, and yet we heckle and pull faces every time.

We should just admit it: The relationships between the sexes at Notre Dame is awkward and has been so since Domerfest. Some say if only our dorms were integrated, parietals lifted and condoms distributed, all our awkwardness would disappear. I’d disagree, but I’ll leave that debate to another time.

Instead, I’d like to offer a more immediate practical solution — not an administrative policy overhaul — to this awkwardness phenomenon, a better dating culture.

A traditional dating culture empowers women and protects us. In a normal dating culture, when a guy asks a girl out, it’s not a strange or exceptional event. She can turn him down — no harm, no foul — but because it’s not a big deal, girls are more likely to say yes to a guy’s invitation. And a guy can ask out one woman this week and another gal the next. A date is not a commitment. It’s just a date. When a man takes a woman to a date in a public place, she consents to a definite proposition: dinner (or the like) in a public space for the purpose of getting to know her date.

For those who believe gender is a social construct and that women and men approach dating and relationships with equal physical power, let me set the record straight. I came across a phrase recently that revealed the gravity of the situation. In his book “The Gift of Fear,” psychologist Gavin de Becker writes, “It is understandable that the perspectives of men and women on safety are so different — men and women live in different worlds. … The fact is that men, at core, are afraid that women will laugh at them. And women, at core, are afraid that men will kill them.

Traditional dating culture respects this innate and nearly universal power difference. To keep women safe and at ease (which is in the gentleman’s interest), dates are in-public, social affairs. Women are truly at the reins here because we are safe. And because the woman is safe, she can also let the man take the lead. When a woman knows that she can comfortably end the evening and that she owes nothing beyond the date, she is, paradoxically, more open to a nice evening continuing or perhaps a second date. Making things safer makes things better for both men and women.  

So here is my call to the men (and women, who actually drive the dating train and set cultural standards): Ask her out. If you need ideas, look no further than upcoming DPAC performances, coffee or dinner downtown, a basketball game or a lecture. It’s not hard, and if we push outside our comfort zones, the entire campus social life will improve. Let’s see past Valentine’s day and make dating more common.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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