The national media regularly runs stories on decaying university culture—the liberal arts are in trouble, universities have become mere credentialing factories, the faculty are cultural ideologues, and so on. If the media addresses the corrosive social life on college campuses at all, they do it through the topic of sexual harassment or through sensational exposés on fraternities. But what is social life on college campuses actually like? Students have basically three options: quasi-marital relationships, hooking up, or opting out. Most choose the third.
A few weeks ago, I asked students how many of them had ever said “I love you” to someone other than a family member. Out of 16 seniors, three raised their hands. So I gave them an emergency dating assignment. They had two weeks to ask someone out on a date and write about it. I’ve been giving this assignment to my Introduction to Theology class for years (it was originally designed by Boston College’s Kerry Cronin), but I’d never considered giving it to college seniors.
Here’s what they wrote: One woman asked a guy out only to receive the infamous 3:00 a.m. text, “You still up?” Another asked a guy who accepted but then told her he had chlamydia. A third student asked a woman who thought he was joking. He had to clarify, “This is me. Asking you. On a date.”
The ask has to happen in person. Students report sweaty palms, beating chests, stuttered speech. They report that once on the date, there are some awkward silences, of course, but so many write about how refreshing it is to get to know someone in this unusual way—on a coffee date. Many students try this assignment once and then return to their regular patterns of social life. But for some it changes the way they walk through college. One student asked a colleague of mine to thank me. Her now-boyfriend’s roommate was given this assignment, and he convinced his roommate to do it in his place. They’ve now been dating for six months.
In a culture awash in sexual images where nothing is left to the imagination, many think we need to control or suppress our erotic longings. But the problem isn’t that we have too much eros. It’s that we have too little. Both hooking up and opting out attempt to control a desire that is at the heart of who we are as human beings. The first reduces eros to sex, and tries to control one of our deepest desires by turning it into something mechanical and transactional (porn sites, of course, have the same effect as a hookup). The other redirects our desire for sex into studying or exercising or working, while we pretend that the underlying loneliness isn’t eating away at us. But those who hook up and those who opt out are both actually reducing the desire for love to the desire for sex. They’re just choosing different sides of the same coin. This confusion about the relationship between love and sex underlies the reigning romantic chaos and loneliness on college campuses.
For Plato, eros is a profound longing wrapped up in everything we come to know and do. It’s the strong impulse that leads us out of our temptation to narcissism—to be turned in on ourselves and our worries and egos. Eros invites us to look beyond ourselves and into a wider world waiting to be known and loved. The key is to learn to direct this erotic longing toward people and things that will make us more—rather than less—human. Eros is a fundamental force in human living. Eros builds cathedrals. It writes music that moves our souls. It leads us to create and connect. It makes us more of who we are. It makes us fall in love.
Twentieth-century American novelist James Baldwin echoes this Platonic insight when he writes in The Fire Next Time (1963) that many
are terrified of sensuality and do not any longer understand it. The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.
We’re relational beings; we discover who we are in the midst of our intimate relationships. Eros can involve intercourse. But it must first involve discourse. Tinder’s commodification of love, where we’re one swipe away from trading up, is anti-eros.
College students need to rehabilitate a social script that helps them get to know each other with the lights on, in real and not digital relationships. They need to be encouraged by the adults who care about them to take that risk and ask someone to go out for coffee. With some good coaching and a healthy dose of courage, they can direct their erotic longings toward someone who just might say “yes.”
Anna Bonta Moreland is the Anne Quinn Welsh Endowed Director of the Honors Program at Villanova University and a member of the Department of Humanities. She and Dr. Thomas Smith, dean of Arts and Sciences at The Catholic University of America, are writing a book manuscript entitled The College Guide to Adulting: How to Major in Life.
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