For the heterosexual woman in college, how did your college “situationship” begin? Perhaps you had gone on Tinder, found a man you really liked, and he never made the commitment? Or did you perhaps drunkenly hook up with a man at a fraternity but couldn’t compete with the girls in the sorority his fraternity often socialized with? Or maybe it is the third scenario, where you drunkenly flirted with a male friend on the fringe of your friend group, which resulted in some conflicts and animosity within the circle of friends? It had been a casual relationship that never went anywhere but a corner of your manifestation journal. No matter the starting point, you are now heartbroken and confused.
Heartbreak is soul-crushing when you’re surviving off a venti Starbucks cold brew and instant mac and cheese while trying to get your ten-page, double-spaced paper into Canvas on time. You avoided his apartment complex and the one-mile radius surrounding it, terrified of bumping into him, but also desperately yearning to meet his eyes somewhere on campus to reignite the former flames of your ill-fated relationship. You always went out done-up in hopes of said encounter, despite your friends’ anguished pleas for you to ignore his late-night texts. As your seasonal depression raged on, coinciding with the unforgiving Ann Arbor winter, everywhere you went, he occupied your mind, and Valentine’s Day advertisements for lingerie and luxury chocolate bars certainly didn’t help either. Upon gazing at your friends in relationships, your mind plunged into the dark and uncharted territory of envy and despair. You theorized to yourself, is there something so grievously wrong with me that brought about my unfortunate predicament?
If you resonated with my description of this imaginary Jane Doe, you certainly are not alone. In fact, the dating game — even committed relationships for that matter — is very much rigged for women in college, especially women of color. The odds are stacked against us.
For starters, there is a male to female ratio of 40.5 to 59.5. Therefore, hypothetically, even if every single heterosexual person at U.S universities is looking for a monogamous relationship, there would still be a one in three chance, as a woman, that you wouldn’t be able to find a partner. To further exacerbate this imbalance, according to a study on hookup culture, 65% of women and 45% of men claimed that they were hoping that their hookups would lead to a steady relationship. We can then reasonably infer that there is a large number of college women (as included in the study) in a casual relationship who would like to take things further. Many times, their male counterparts don’t echo said sentiment. Thus, you really shouldn’t be asking, “why wouldn’t he choose me,” but rather, “why aren’t there enough ‘hims’ in college?”
Naturally, the question then becomes, why are there so many men and women in college who would instead grit their teeth and suffer through juggling multiple relationships rather than enjoy the stability brought by a committed relationship? Hookup culture is to blame, of course. It is a combination of numerous factors. We live in an age where a one-night stand is as easy as swiping your thumb right by an inch and a half across the interface of a dating app. Therefore it should be no surprise that physical relationships devoid of emotional attachments are more common than ever. On that same phone, you are also constantly bombarded with celebrity news on their dysfunctional cheating scandals and cycles of short-term relationships, further normalizing relationships without longevity or commitment.
During the weekend, under the influence of alcohol and possibly other substances, surrounded by hypnotizing and flashing lights of clubs and frat basements, you are now vulnerable to make the ill-informed choice of going home with someone you briefly danced with. At the same time, under the ever-suffocating stress of academic excellence, acquiring a prestigious internship and financially supporting yourself, you may feel unable to pursue a relationship, resorting to the casual ones that require less work. These common occurrences on college campuses create a collective mindset that leans toward the casual side of the relationship spectrum.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with a one-time or continuous physical relationship with someone — as women should take full autonomy of their sexuality and choices — the reality is that most women are not happy with these types of arrangements. These “pseudo-relationships,” as journalist Leah Fessler calls them, are “mutant children of meaningless sex and loving partnerships.” Because of the mutual understanding and agreement of detachment, any discontentment within the relationship cannot be brought up without your partner considering you “crazy” or “clingy.” This is because, to them, they hold no emotional responsibility for your well-being in a merely physical, pseudo-relationship. What can happen as a result of this is usually a woman’s pent-up despair with their partner is an inability to exit the arrangement. This is because of the emotional attachment she had already formed after the pseudo-relationship had been ongoing for a while.
And why is it so challenging to exit these pseudo-relationships, despite knowing the toll it is taking on you? The reason might lie in trauma-informed responses that take root in your childhood and adolescence. Some men indeed manipulate you into submission by being sweet one day and completely cold and distant the next. I would argue, however, that the love you experienced as a child greatly influences how you perceive love and form romantic attachments as an adult. For instance, a childhood full of emotional isolation, harsh words and unfeeling silence from parents will cause the child to form an anxious-preoccupied attachment style. This looks like needing constant reassurance from one’s partner, which of course cannot be met in a casual relationship. Yet, the anxious-preoccupied lover cannot seem to exit the connection either, as the emotional distance of their partner echoes that of their parents growing up. Therefore, as you are too attached to leave the physical relationship behind, you stay in the pseudo-relationship and suffer through your partner’s cruelties.
The situation for one-night stands is equally as bad. First of all, there is obviously the ever-prevalent threat of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) after a one-night stand. According to Elizabeth Pfeiffer’s thesis on college-aged men’s willingness to disclose STI status, “individuals (men) whose last sexual experience was with a casual sexual partner were 39.8% less likely to disclose STI” compared to those who are in a committed relationship. Furthermore, without the comfort of trust and communication present in one-time sexual encounters, women cannot adequately verbalize their needs in bed; only one in ten women are able to orgasm during a one-night stand, while that figure is 64% for men. While the climaxing rate for men isn’t quite that high either, in comparison to that of women’s meager 10%, there is clearly an orgasm gap. Knowing these figures and some anecdotal evidence from my friends, I have to ask: are one-night stands really the empowering action some people make them out to be?
To add salt to the wound, it is actually more difficult for college-educated, high-achieving women to find a partner. Taking the pressure of their impending future into account, college-aged women enter their twenties in an increasingly pressurizing search for a relationship with a capable man who can somewhat match her accomplishments. Women are socialized to date up and get into hypergamous relationships, where the man is the main provider and bread-winner of the couple — just look at the countless romance novels where the male love interest is a love-sick billionaire. Elements of classism are certainly at play here, as wealth is still associated with prestige and the high life. Therefore, it is not so far-fetched to say that hypergamy is a trade-off between the passions of love and the opulence of wealth. Whether intentional or unintentional, for a woman seeking a man from a wealthy background in college, getting in a relationship with one is insurmountably more difficult than committing to a man coming from a middle-class family. The reality is that it is difficult to find a man who you’re physically attracted to, fits the criteria above and is willing to get into a committed relationship with you as well.
If this reality is already harsh enough for white, cis-gendered heterosexual women, the dating scene is much worse for women of Color. While finding a partner certainly differs from person to person, the racial group they belong to and their culturally-informed dating decisions, women of Color face more hurdles in the college dating scene, especially in predominantly white institutions. Not only did many of us grow up in a culturally-socialized way that isn’t aligned with that of white people’s, but there is also the ever-present glorification of white and white-adjacent features in media of all forms. For instance, due to my Chinese upbringing, I’ve been taught that it is generally frowned upon to flirt overtly in public. Therefore, I do not harbor the same confidence and comfortability some white women have with flirting in social situations. If you are a woman of Color who grew up surrounded by your own community of people who do not think or act the same way the white majority at the University of Michigan does, the dating pool then becomes relatively limited for you, compared to that of white, cis-gendered heterosexual women. On the flip side, regardless of how funny, outgoing, smart or kind you are, white womanhood will always define desirability in North America, and it is extremely difficult for women of color to be measured against the guidelines of white femininity.
Though casual dating, especially as a woman of Color, has its downsides, committed relationships are not all sunshine and rainbows consisting only of gifts and lavish date nights either. Like other forms of relationships, romantic relationships require work and upkeep.
An excerpt from Alain De Botton’s speech on love for The School of Life, an educational company that offers advice on life issues, has stuck with me throughout the years. In all of our love lives, despite the many external factors that dictate it, we are essentially choosing the ways we want to suffer. We can either choose to suffer in casual relationships where the sex is less-than-satisfactory and wallow in the personal misery of our non-reciprocal affections, or we can suffer in the boredom, insecurities and arguments brought upon by committed relationships. Similarly, we can choose the personal pleasures we want to enjoy. We can either choose the freedom to experiment with our sexuality, enjoy the attention of multiple people and focus on our growth without the responsibility of a full-fledged relationship, or we can choose the stability and peace of a loving partner who always has your back in almost everything you do.
I hope that whoever is reading this has found some solace and comfort in knowing that they are not alone. Dating in college is supposed to be difficult. If anything, being single is increasingly becoming the norm. During your sleepless nights wondering why things ended the way they did, know that your experience is actually the result of a set of complex social constructs and realities that manifested into a singular experience in a pool of many who share these same experiences. Your experiences will inform your future decisions in dating; they teach you to become a smarter and better lover. On one seemingly ordinary day in the future, you will meet someone who aligns with your goals and meets your needs, filling you with contentment and excitement. You will then look back at your past with relief and gratitude. And slowly but surely, your heartbreaks and confusions suddenly seem so small and insignificant after having found that person, and more importantly, after a journey of healing and learning.
MiC columnist Zoe Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.