How to date at an American college

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Content warning: This blog post may contain terms that are considered sexually explicit. I wanted to include such terms in an effort to present a real, unfiltered picture of the information you need to know and real terms you may hear in college. It also may reference emotionally or physically abusive relationships. It is also, uhh, going to be a really long post ^^; 


This is a bit of an awkward topic for me to broach, but having seen many friends and classmates navigate the confusing, emotionally draining pathways of dating in college, I want you to know what I wish I, and my friends, had known as freshmen (especially freshwomen).

I was inspired to write this by an MIT confessions post, where someone complained that an international student “did not understand U.S. dating culture”, referring to hookup culture or the general idea of casual relationships, because the poster was in what they thought was a casual relationship, where clearly the other party thought it was a committed relationship.

Actually, I find, most people, including many from the U.S., don’t understand what this poster called “hookup culture” on entering college, and not all people find casual relationships right for them. Many people entering college do not have much experience with dating altogether, and dating in college can be very different from high school.

In this regard, I am from a very conservative family. I did not “date” at all in high school; it was more or less forbidden. In college, I suffered two difficult, awkward conversations with each of my parents when I decided I should tell them about my significant other–they both responded with equal and opposite awkwardness. As you might have noticed, I rarely talk about my significant other, or dating, on the blogs. I am not used to being open about this kind of relationship, and, both in writing and in person, I’m still kind of awkward about it.

I understand that for some of you, talking about these topics might be a little awkward too, but one thing I’ve learned is that we should not let awkwardness be a barrier to being aware or being informed, for our own happiness, health, and safety. I found that normal avenues like family and high school prepare people poorly in this regard, largely due to letting that awkwardness be a barrier.

Which is why I wanted to write this blog post, because chances are, you’re reading this because you’re not sure what you’re doing (or will do) either.

I will provide you first with the “facts”: statements that are more objective, and resources, so that you will be informed and safe. I will then provide you with my own opinion, and my own moral compass when it comes to these issues.


The “Facts”

There are some things that we see in movies that we do not believe exist in real life. In some ways, the concept of “hookup culture” was like this for me. I did not think that whatever it was that I saw on television–random people having “one night stands” or “friends with benefits” or casual dating with no goal of committed relationships really happened. Of course, Hollywood also kind of lies to you in that, the two people in the movie who are “just friends” always end up married by the ending anyway.

I promised you objective statements, based on my experience and others:

  1. Not everyone who has a romantic or sexual interest in you wants a committed relationship.
  2. Not everyone who has a romantic or sexual interest in you cares about you yourself.
  3. If you want a romantic relationship, you will be able to find one.

Urban-dictionary-type Definitions:

  • “Hookups”, “hooking up”: one night stands, making out a party, etc. One-off sexual activity of some kind, but not necessarily intercourse.
  • “Casual relationships”: a non-exclusive relationship based on multiple interactions of a sexual nature, “friends with benefits”. Somewhat derogatory description: “booty call”. Can be thought of as multiple hookups with a single person.
  • “Ghosting”: when someone suddenly stops talking to you or interacting with you–they’ve turned into a “ghost”! Can also be used when simply referring to friends or classmates too, e.g. “John is taking Unified so they’ve been ghosting our living group all semester”
  • “Romantic”: By this I mean some emotional involvement–going out on dates, having conversations, holding hands.
  • “Sexual”: By this I mean some physical involvement, but not necessarily intercourse.
  • “polyamorous relationship”: This type of relationship involves greater than 2 people in a committed relationship. It may or may not be exclusive to the 2+ people involved. This is not, for the most part, considered ‘casual’, as it still demands serious emotional commitment to all involved parties. 
  • “open relationship”: This type of relationship is like a monogamous relationship, but where the couple does not expect exclusivity. They can have different rules depending on the couple–some people are okay with their partners hooking up or being sexually involved with other people, but not romantically; some people are okay with their partners going on dates or being romantically involved with others, but not sexually. It depends. Some people put this relationship under the umbrella of polyamorous relationships. This is also not considered ‘casual’, since it still demands serious emotional commitment.


1. Not everyone who has a romantic or sexual interest in you wants a committed relationship.

This first point is the thesis of “hookups”, which occur on a spectrum. First, the actual physical contact involved varies when people use this term, from just kissing to intercourse. (Some people think it only means intercourse, but it really depends on who you’re speaking with). Second, the emotional contact involved also varies. Some people who are interested in casual relationships still want to have conversations or go on dates, but do not want to be limited by exclusivity. Some people prefer to minimize emotional contact and are focused on physical contact. And the number of interactions can vary, too, with some people preferring just one interaction with any given person, and others in “casual relationships”, multiple or frequent interactions.

Storytime (don’t laugh at me please):

Once when I was a freshman, I was extremely confused when someone who was interested in me, and made all the first moves and invited me to hang out with them, ended up “ghosting” in the end, because I assumed that people who have an interest in you and actually put in most of the initial effort in the first place would want to continue talking to you or hanging out with you after more than just a short period. This made me feel very hurt, because I didn’t know this was even something that was possible. I realize now they probably disappeared because what I wanted or expected was very different from what they wanted or expected, on both a physical and emotional level, and while I think it’s rude to just “ghost”, I must admit that it was at least better than trying to fool me into thinking they wanted the same thing (which, beware, some people will do). There was nothing to prepare me since it’s very different from friendship–when we have acquaintances or more casual, in-passing friendships, we don’t suddenly disappear from them. I wish I had known that this was so common in college; then I think my emotional guard would have been more “up”. I’m telling you now so that you know.

How do you determine if someone is not interested in a committed relationship?

You should look for cues. First, sometimes, people will explicitly say they are not looking for commitment. You should really believe them, instead of hoping or waiting that they’ll change their mind–vice versa for people that say they are looking for commitment. Second, you can observe their interactions with others, and whether they seem to be flirting with multiple people or not. If you are good at not being awkward (im not) you can simply ask them. You should also pay attention to what their friends (or your friends) say, as often it can be difficult for you yourself to be objective in these situations.

What next?

Depending on what you determine about someone who seems interested in you, you now need to decide what you want. Obviously, the hard part is only if what you and the other person want are not the same. Maybe, as often happens in college, you just want to explore, so you are okay with going forward with this interaction and seeing what happens. Maybe you find that you yourself are not ready for a committed relationship, or any relationship, and you don’t want to let this person down (if they seem like they want a serious relationship). Or, maybe you find that you do not want a casual relationship or hookup, and you don’t want to continue interacting in this way with this person (if they seem like they want a casual relationship).

How do you communicate this to the other party? Well, departure or ‘rejection’ or whatever it may be is never pleasant, but the best you can do is be clear and sincere. I applaud anyone who tries to actually talk about it instead of just “ghosting” or being reactionary, no matter how awkward or poorly executed the conversation may be, and, though this might just be an opinion, I think that it does make people feel more respected than just sudden disappearance. 

2. Not everyone who has a romantic or sexual interest in you cares about you yourself

The second point I included because I want to make sure you are aware of this. I think it is distinct from the first point because some people who want casual relationships or hookups actually do care about you as a person–they may even have started out as friends or acquaintances (I know, this gets confusing). Some people do not, and may even wish to harm you, or even if it is not their intention, the way they interact with you can harm you.

A good list of warnings can be found at this link, and here are some of MIT VPR’s resources. All MIT freshman undergo a pretty thorough initial orientation about intimate partner violence and abuse, both physical and emotional. Take this seriously, so that you know what to look for–for yourself and for your friends.

You should listen to your close friends’ concerns, especially if they are worried about a relationship’s impacts on your health or well-being. You can always always always go to MIT VPR (or a similar office/title XI office at any other school) if you’re concerned about something involving a relationship. MIT VPR, or Violence Prevention and Response, is actually open for more than just clear-cut physical or emotional abuse cases (usually it’s never clear-cut anyway) you can also go there if you just want to talk to someone, or get advice about healthy relationships. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of the staff through events on campus, and they assured me that no problem is too small. From the office’s perspective, it is much easier to deal with students’ concerns early on anyway, so you shuld always feel free to go to them.

But also, just remember that, as difficult as this may be for some of you to grasp, you are important and special, and other people see this. Some people see this and want to befriend you or date you or talk to you. Some people want to control you or have power over you or exploit your best qualities. Sometimes I think people don’t notice when others take advantage of them simply because they didn’t realize they had anything worth taking. Whatever way you can, I need you to recognize your own importance, for the sake of your safety.

3. If you want a relationship, you will be able to find one.

While the other things I’ve written may seem kind of scary, there is something beautiful about lots of young, intelligent people in a single place. It is a good place to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise, and to be exposed to so many perspectives and backgrounds.

But here’s the catch: like the post I once wrote about friendships, relationships, too, require patience and effort to acquire and maintain, just like anything else. It requires trial and error, and “error” will probably feel really embarrassing or painful. I thought a lot about what I wanted to say in this blog post, and I realized that unfortunately, no matter how clear or courteous we are about it, being rejected always feels painful and sometimes we cannot help but feel resentment. It is going through that emotionally arduous process that’s necessary if you really want to go for what you want. Sometimes people decide this is simply not worth it (I decided this at some point) and just take a break from it all for a while.

However, if you’re serious about wanting a relationship, you can and will find one that makes you happy. I know some people who are very proactive about their search for a romantic partner; who put themselves “out there” (sometimes by going to a friend’s house warming, sometimes by using apps like Coffee Meets Bagel) and anyone I know who has made some effort has been successful in securing a relationship. I am of course unqualified to tell you how to keep it going after that (talk to an older married couple I guess), except that again, you should expect it to require some amount of patience and effort.

I’m also not going to (nor feel qualified to) tell you how to “pick up” or start dating anyone, because it’s different for everyone. But something surprising might be that, in my experience, the people who most often “got the girl/guy/desired person” are actually just the people with the most self-confidence, not the most “good-looking” or “smart” or “talented” people. And the most important thing after that initial step is just to make sure that what you want lines up with what they want.

This is also important to recognize because I want you to never feel like you have to be in a type of relationship you don’t actually want, or worse, one that’s not healthy, simply because you think this is the only person that will be interested in you. That is not true, and you can combat that feeling by focusing on all the other wonderful people in your life, who give your life meaning and happiness. If you can be happy before a relationship, you can be happy after one. This is one of my favorite Wait But Why posts that talks about not being afraid to leave a relationship.

These are the most basic of the basics, for people who were like me, coming into college without much experience dating. Even if you do have experience, college can be very different from high school. I tried to be as objective as possible, and provide only enough so that you won’t be surprised or shocked when you get here–you’re on your own as far as the details of actually dealing with dating life goes!

My Opinions

Disclaimer: these are my personal beliefs, things I would probably tell close friends/younger friends that asked me for advice. This is both why I included this and why I am explicitly labeling it as an opinion and not a “fact”. It is subjective, it is just my personal belief and won’t necessarily apply or work for everyone. But, if you have a similar background or similar “wants” that I do, then you might find it useful.

On casual relationships

Since I have given you a clear disclaimer, I will be very blunt with my opinions. I do not think “hookup culture”, in practice, is very healthy–at least in college. Actually the extreme end of purely physical contact/random people making out at parties isn’t that bad; it’s the in-between, multiple interaction, is-this-dating-or-wut part that tends to be hard to watch unfold, and you usually know how it ends.

I should clarify again that I do not consider an open relationship or polyamorous relationship “casual”. This is still strong, serious emotional commitment to one or multiple people, and the varying levels of exclusivity do not necessarily impact this.

I think that the spectrum of hookup culture and casual relationships should be for more mature, experienced people who can be clear in communicating what they want. Yet most students (especially the freshmen) are very bad at communicating this, because they themselves may not know what they want, and so casual relationships just turn into a gray area full of lazy people who don’t want to/are scared to actually put in effort toward acquiring or maintaining a committed relationship, but at the same time want to short-circuit some way into some kind of pleasure: less loneliness, or the satisfaction of physical contact. The vast majority of heterosexual women that I know do not enjoy being in casual relationships, because they value emotional contact and tend to only receive physical contact, and in fact, I find that these situations are sometimes when people feel loneliest and most hopeless about their romantic prospects–more so than just being a single person. I think that this is actually one of the worst things about college. I hate seeing friends that feel deeply betrayed because of central misunderstandings–where one party thinks a relationship is committed and another thinks it is casual–or friends that seek out casual relationships and hookups when, in my opinion, what they might really need is to take some time to focus on themselves, think about what they want, and invest their time in other important companions, like their friends, family, and various communities.

So, I do not personally recommend it, but if you are going to do it, then please be clear–communicate with thought-out, explicit, verbal statements–so that things don’t become misconstrued. Otherwise, it can just be a waste of time, for everyone involved. Practicing clarity on an emotional level will also help a lot if you are in situations that will require sexual consent, too.

That also goes for people who want more commitment, like me. Also be clear and up front about it, so that you don’t end up wasting time. In some situations earlier in college, I wish I myself had been more clear earlier about what I wanted. Most of the time the barrier to clarity, for both parties, is the fear of losing this person you’ve been getting to know. But it’s better to have the conversation than not. You won’t prolong the inevitable, you won’t have to suffer from uncertainty, and you might find out some things about what you yourself want along the way.

I do feel like some people seem to exploit those who aren’t aware of hookups or casual relationships as a concept, or make it seem that what they want is commitment when really, it isn’t. I hope that this blog post will help people know what that is, be clear about themselves and their partners, and get out of situations they don’t want to be in faster.

Disclaimer again: I am not here to shame anyone for anything, and that is why I have explicitly labeled this section an opinion, not a fact or objective statement. I believe casual relationships can work for some people, when there’s genuine respect and clear communication, and I do know people that are happy with them. I’m aware that my perspective is likely heavily influenced by my personal background, growing up so conservatively–I only included this because, as I said, it’s the type of personal, subjective advice I would give my friends, and may be useful for some people.

On dating in general

Romantic relationships are not necessary to be a happy, fulfilled person and live a full life. I fully believe this, both when I have been in a relationship or single. Companionship is necessary, of course, and emotional support–but these will always be necessary, even when you are in a romantic relationship. You will always need your friends, family, and various communities, and a person you date can never (and should never try to) meet all your social and emotional needs. I have always been able to envision myself, and can even now envision myself, living a full, happy life as a single person, right up through old age (which, ironically, made my more traditional father (who never wanted me to date?) rather concerned (“what about my grandkids”)).

That said, romantic relationships can also be a very fulfilling part of life. Some of us from more conservative backgrounds, like me, may have been told that they are “distracting” or “frivolous”, and yeah maybe this makes more sense in high school when most people really don’t have a handle on what they want, but it is clearly a big part of social and emotional life for a lot of people, and that’s not frivolous. Whatever type of relationship you choose to have, I always think that they would go better if people thought of them as close friendships more, with the sincerity and genuineness we approach our close friends.

Oh, and for the freshman coming to MIT (and for the upperclassmen at MIT?!!) FOLLOW THE NOVEMBER RULE. dear lordt.

On self esteem

Value yourself. I’ve always had relatively low self-esteem, and it’s only now that I’ve realized how undervaluing myself had actually hurt me. Receiving interest from other people can be surprising if you’ve never thought of yourself as interesting, but this type of reaction can actually be very dangerous, if it makes you think of yourself as lower than your intimate partner in some way, and can give them a lot of power over you. On the general, everyday level, low self-esteem can make you forget to think about what you want, and you deserve to fulfill your own goals. 

Good luck!

At the end of the day, things will happen, and whatever does, you will learn from it. This is maybe one of those parts of life where advice can never replace lived experience, but I wanted to try, because no one ever really talked about this to me. Hopefully you will at least be aware, and that will help you be emotionally prepared. Most importantly, be safe, surround yourself with good friends (sisters b4 misters), and take advantage of all the resources around you if you ever need help.  

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