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Every Harvard freshman receives “The Unofficial Guide: Your College Bucket List,” a little red and black book detailing the top 100 activities every college student should attempt. Although many detail storied traditions (“celebrating” on the John Harvard statue or running naked around the Yard before finals), the 31st recommendation is a little different: “Date Someone: It’s harder than you think.” As the opening line quips: “You might think you have four years to find your soul mate at Harvard. You don’t. You have exactly one week: It was at Orientation, and if you didn’t fall in love then, you never will.” The writers are joking, but the analogy that “dating at Harvard is just about as common as getting C’s” does not always seem far from the truth. A recent Crimson survey found that one in five undergraduates never dates during college here. Having a consistent, labeled relationship is not for everyone. But if, as some recent reports have suggested, the alternative hookup scene leaves many “deeply dissatisfied,” why don’t more people date?
According to Dr. Lisa Wade, a sociological professor at Occidental College who spoke at Harvard’s first Sex Week, students look for pleasure, connection, and empowerment in their sexual and relationship-based pursuits. So many don’t date because it’s unnecessary: They can find these qualities in the low-commitment, much-discussed hookup culture. It’s easier to stimulate short attention spans, and the lack of commitment means less time and emotional investment. We’re young, we’re smart. Why waste time building a relationship when we can get what we need (or at least finish stat homework on time) without the untidiness of feeling?
Moreover, social avoidance and compartmentalization are a part of the campus culture. The demands of psets, clubs, sports, and friends do not always allow for extra time in the murky world of dating. Committing to a single person is also giving up the opportunity to speak or interact with others—our beloved networking is lost when we dedicate ourselves to only one pursuit. In addition, most Harvard students wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t learned what it meant to prioritize studies or extracurricular commitments over relationships. When you’ve spent your entire life winning robotics contests and swimming competitions, why would you risk rejection—or even distraction—in another person?
Choosing to make our academic and social lives mutually exclusive may be the simplest path, but is it the one we should choose? As a Crimson writer lamented in 2010, “Everyone here puts their work first, believing that in the long run, an on-time Gov 20 paper will be more beneficial than a potentially-awkward date with last Saturday’s hook-up.” The key word is “potential.” Although it sometimes seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day or storage in our hearts for the uncertainty of pursuing and caring for someone else, we may lose out on promising possibilities when we refuse to take the risk of putting ourselves out there. And if the date fails, how bad, really, is the resulting “awkwardness” or a week’s worth of lost pride, especially in comparison with what we stand to gain?
Many of the reasons for not dating in college reflect a tendency to see a relationship as a zero-sum game, but much like the time spent with friends or even napping detracts from our work, these “distractions” also serve as necessary “recharge” activities. No one can work all day without some detriment to their health and even their academic progress. Because relationships are the most common cause of our strongest positive emotions, they can provide a truer, fuller experience despite any accompanying uncertainty.
It is said that the most valuable experiences at Harvard often take place not in the classrooms learning from venerated professors but from time spent with peers. Casual friendships are easier to come by, but relationships can offer deep emotional support and experience. Refusing to take that risk because of scheduling or potential failure is to forget how this time spent can benefit our mental health and even academic performance. Consider again Wade’s words about what most look for in their time at this school: Pleasure, connection, and empowerment. With any well-established norm, it’s worthwhile to periodically consider if our current actions are achieving that goal. For dating on this campus, breaking the Harvard mold may be worth it.
Caie C. Kelley ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Weld Hall.
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