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Romance is not dead: Carls navigate the new hookup and dating scene in pandemic times

Note: All names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of the participants.

Cuffing season is around the corner—or is it? At Carleton, the pandemic has radically changed the dating landscape for students, forcing them to weigh their health in consideration as never before.

For some students, the danger of contracting COVID-19 is too high to justify dating and meeting new people at all. Harley, a junior, explained, “I’ve just decided to not pursue anything or reach out to anyone. It’s weird mentally because it’s a thing that I do want at some point, but I just can’t right now, for my own health.”

For others, there is a strong hesitancy governing their dating choices. “I know a couple people who are still using dating apps, like Bumble and Tinder, but are using them only for Zoom dates,” said Harley. “If it progresses to a certain point, they might potentially meet up with someone, but that’s not for certain. I have friends who, in the past, hooked up with a lot of people but at this point no longer feel comfortable doing that.”

“There’s a longer process now,” Harley continued. “You don’t just match and then immediately meet up. Now you have to have conversations about the precautions they’re taking, the precautions you’re taking and really weigh the risks. If they’re not a Carleton student, do you follow the rules and not let them into your dorm? There is a lot of physical scheduling that goes into a hookup now.”

Normally, people avoid hooking up with people in their friend group, but the pandemic has changed that for some. Roommates Aoife and Lisa and a few other friends are now hooking up with some men who live together nearby.

Things got complicated recently when someone in their friend group became interested in dating Aoife. She said, “I’m pretty sure that was most of the reason he was like, ‘I’ll just date Aoife,’ because we’re already in a friend group. You’re not going out and meeting people and going to parties and hooking up, so it’s like, if you’re going to date someone, it kind of has to be someone already in your bubble.” It didn’t work out, and things are a bit awkward in the bubble now, Aoife said.

Lisa is currently seeing someone in her COVID bubble. They had hooked up casually last year, but, Lisa said, “It does feel kind of relationship-y right now. I can’t quite tell if he wants a relationship or not. Sometimes he’ll say stuff that’s cute, and I’m like…okay!”

She added, “Because hookup culture is shut down from COVID, it would be the best time to have a boyfriend because there’s not really another option, I guess.”

Trey, a first-year student, had been texting a fellow first-year over the summer. They hooked up one  day after they arrived on campus. He said, “I guess that’s what I would call my first actual ‘relationship,’ even though it was pretty quick.” 

Their relationship ended during Fourth Week. It seems the typical tumultuousness of college dating remains. He hooked up with a girl on his floor a few days later. 

Trey isn’t entirely flippant about the dangers of pandemic hookups. “I was very anxious about it for a while and then at some point I was just kind of like, I’ve been extremely safe in all other aspects of my life, and I don’t really want to hinder myself in not being able to do this one thing that I’ve never really been able to do much of before,” he said.

He continued, “If I’m putting my clothes on, I just put my mask back on which seems very dumb but it’s my way of rationalizing the fact that it isn’t actually really safe, what I’m doing.”

Most of Trey’s friends are in the same situation. He said, “Most of us in this kind of bubble are at least trying to date or trying to find people that we like and that like us back. So I think that everyone understands that there’s a certain level of extra risk.”

The Office of Health Promotion (OHP) is focusing more on widening the conversation around sexual experiences, particularly during the pandemic. “Earlier in the year, our projects focused on sexual health. Now, we’re going to have a new initiative about masturbation and the stigma around it. It’s all about focusing on yourself and having a lot of self-discovery,” explained Maya Rogers ’22, an OHP Peer Leader. 

“You don’t necessarily need anyone present to explore, which is really helpful during COVID.”

Harley expressed a concern for students’ safety beyond the risk of contracting the coronavirus, regardless of the conversations they are having with potential partners. “There’s also the real potential for a lot of gaslighting. It would be so easy, if you’re interested in someone and they’re expressing interest in you, and they’re constantly downplaying the risks, to have your perception of reality altered and be manipulated into a dangerous situation. A lot of people are very emotionally vulnerable right now and that could be exploited,” they said.

With this term’s remote component, some couples have entered long-distance relationships. “My girlfriend and I would’ve both been on campus if it weren’t for the pandemic,” said one sophomore. “I think the long-distance aspect was definitely a factor when we were talking about plans for the fall, but it ended up that her being on campus and my being remote was what was best for each of us.”

For some students, being on campus means exercising a lot more self-restraint than is usually required of college students in this realm. For others, it’s a matter of calculated risks and rewards. Whether over video chat or in person, Carls are doing their best to stay connected romantically. 

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