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William Raspberry

Love's Dying Ritual

By William Raspberry
Monday, February 14, 2005; Page A17

Maybe Valentine's Day is a good time to talk about something that's been on my mind for a while: the alarming decline of courtship.

Calling it alarming, of course, places me firmly on the old-fogy side of the discussion. The youngsters I talk to at Duke University don't seem particularly alarmed, though a few will acknowledge some discomfort, some disappointment that they find themselves in a world in which boys don't come courting. They are, willy-nilly, in a hookup culture that they (the girls, at least) don't remember asking for but feel powerless to change.


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What am I talking about?

Listen (with her permission) to a young woman in my "Family and Community" class last fall:

"Friday night, my sorority had a function in an abandoned field, where the only activity is to get really drunk," she wrote in a paper I assigned on the decline of courtship. "I asked this older boy that I sort of knew, just because I needed a date and he was cute. Everyone was drinking so heavily that the majority of the conversations did not even make much sense.

"When the party ended, we all got on the buses (nicknamed the 'hook-up buses') to return to campus. I went back to his room 'to talk,' but obviously talking turned into making out. Later, I walked back from his dorm all the way to my dorm by myself."

Thank goodness she spared me the details of her make-out session, though she and her classmates drove home the point that "hooking up" can include anything from kissing and petting to sexual intercourse.

Several of them made it clear that alcohol consumption is a significant part of the hookup experience -- as though to give all involved a pretext for saying that what happened last night wasn't really them.

My young student said something that still has me scratching my head.

"At the end of the night, I could have batted my eyes, given him a hug, and said 'Thanks for a wonderful evening.' But in today's society, that is rude. A hug is the universal sign for 'not interested.' "

The disjuncture from courtship as earlier generations remember it is startling. For us, sex was the Super Bowl of relationships. For many of today's youngsters, it's just a pickup game. I don't envy them.

I should note that the hookup, though widespread, is by no means universal. A few students still have traditional take-her-to-dinner-or-a-movie dates. Some avoid the hookup culture, either by dint of ironclad personal values or by joining up with a subgroup of like-minded friends.

But a lot of them -- too many, by my dimming lights -- go along to get along. They are not sure who made the new rules, though they seem to believe they have something to do with gender equality. And they are not sure they like the new rules, but they like even less the prospect of being branded weird and left alone in their rooms on weekend nights.

What I have found surprising is their willingness to talk about the trend. Several young men -- after first giving an enthusiastic thumbs up -- admitted that the new culture leaves them off balance, too. Several young women said -- sadly, I thought -- that they don't really expect to find their future husbands in such encounters. They see it, they told me, as a college thing, a phase. Grad school is soon enough to start taking relationships seriously.

Still, more than a few young women see their "liberation" as tinged with awkwardness and shame.

Again, I quote from my student's paper:

"I walked home late at night by myself. He offered for me to stay at his place, but I said that I would just walk home. He responded with false concern, asking if I would be OK going back by myself. I promised him I would be fine. This dialogue is standard. The boy cannot appear too apathetic, the girl cannot act too needy and dependent. We are afraid to forfeit the independence that took so many years to acquire in return for an escort back to the dorm."

Then this:

"He and I could have a future together, but we will never know. There will never be a next date. If he were to ask me out next weekend, he would appear weak. I could not ask him out again for fear of appearing obsessed."

What a dysfunctional, ego-destructive and profoundly sad "equality" the young folk have fashioned.

Do you suppose any of them send -- or receive -- Valentine's Day cards?

willrasp@washpost.com


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