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Wednesday, Oct 27, 2021

Hey Midd, u up? Other schools don’t hook up like we do

Two months into my freshman year at Middlebury, I got mono.

It was … well-deserved. (Sorry, mom.)

During the day, I was intimate with my essays and readings, delicately stapling printouts and color-coded notes. On weekends, I wasted my time at parties kissing guys who, after sticking their tongues down my throat, would lean in and whisper, “Hang on. Gotta piss.”

If that isn’t classy, I don’t know what is.  

One night stands should not exist at Middlebury. Frankly, the framework that underpins casual sex is incompatible with Midd’s whopping 2,500 students (give or take a few). Small colleges prevent anonymity — a staple of random hookups elsewhere — and muddle otherwise impersonal sex with interconnected, complicated social undercurrents. At Middlebury, both casual and committed relationships are limited by friendship dynamics and calling arbitrary dibs on class crushes. But these factors alone are not enough to preclude relationships. 

On numerous Saturdays nights over the past three years, I have wondered if it finally snowed enough to break all the cell towers in Vermont. That could be the only logical explanation for why my male peers, rather than sending me a text composed of simple words and sentences, opt for a tasteful Snapchat: “roll thru.”

It’s pathetic, but genius.

Snapchat has eliminated the discomfort of expressing interest, enabling men and women alike to send bold, visual messages that disappear within seconds. After a message is opened, recounting the conversation becomes hearsay, protecting the sender’s interests and invalidating the recipient’s claims. In a small university, the app thereby reduces the accountability involved in romantic pursuits, contributing to the uncertainty inherent in intimacy. 

Despite these gray areas, many claim Midd is a relationshippy school, citing the recycled admissions statistic that 60% of alums marry each other (the real number stands at 17%, although I’m willing to believe in fairytales if you are). I admit, there are pockets of committed couples (see: much of my friend group). An arguably more relevant dialogue, however, deals with “pseudo-relationships,” a term coined by Leah Fessler ’15 in her thesis, “Can She Really ‘Play that Game Too?’”. Fessler uses “pseudo-relationships” to refer to partners continuously hooking up, oftentimes only with each other, without commitment or emotional investment. Of the 75 Midd students polled, Fessler found only 8% of women surveyed were satisfied in their pseudo-relationships. The majority of male respondents also felt insecure in ambiguous romantic arrangements; despite favoring committed relationships, most men felt their masculinity was judged on the number and attractiveness of their partners.  And yet, in an environment where relationships are stunted by booze, insecurities and a rigid social life structure, no one feels comfortable asking the “what are we?” question, much less answering it.

This past fall, I studied abroad at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Compared to Middlebury, St. Andrews is a traditional relationship school; there is a distinct “get to know you” culture centered around (relatively) sober courting. Most refreshingly, I went the entire semester without hearing the phrase “Snapchat message.”

I refuse to believe that I magically became more appealing the minute I went abroad. Sure, I had a  “cute” American accent, but I was still loud, bad with rules, and prone to eating food in the grocery store before paying (sometimes I have to scan an apple core at the self-checkout line). These tendencies are wholly un-Scottish, which is why it surprised me that I was disproportionately (not to mention soberly) pursued across the pond.

Unlike Americans, Scots and Brits do not walk on eggshells. There is little space for Middlebury-esque pseudo-relationships in a culture that barely tolerates ambiguity. Once, a British guy I was seeing felt compelled to inform me — unprompted, no less — that he had enjoyed getting to know me but solely wanted a physical connection. Although I liked him and was bummed, at least I wasn’t left wondering how he felt. When we consequently broke things off, it was cordial.

By comparison, defining relationships at Midd becomes a painstaking process of obscuring and ignoring emotions (or the lack thereof). To this date, my personal favorite euphemism for “I just want to sleep with you” which I received from a male friend during my second year of college remains, “I’m in love with you but have a lot on my plate, so let’s hook up and talk about it after.” Good one.  

To be fair, it isn’t entirely Middlebury’s fault. In many ways, St. Andrews has superior dating conditions: a larger student body, more cafés, a drinking age that permits controlled alcohol consumption in pubs or bars. Still, just like Midd, the town itself is a “bubble,” and so should theoretically incubate the lack of romantic privacy we say prevents “traditional dating” at Midd. And yet it doesn’t. 

Hook-up culture is not an inevitable product of 20-something-year-olds, hormones and empty beds. We’ve created it.

The shortcomings of Middlebury’s romantic environment have more to do with the current, limited dialogue surrounding intimacy than an explicit desire for commitment. This is a loss: no matter how casual a fling, everyone wants to be respected. We might take a page out of the Scottish playbook. There is something undeniably sexy about being honest about what you want.

Maria Kaouris is a member of the class of 2021.