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From auctions to a capella: A history of Date Knight

Date Knight, as it exists today, has become a Carleton tradition over decades, serving as a night for Carleton students to take themselves just a bit too seriously, dressing up and dressing out to impress their blind date. Affectionately known as “screw date,” the sexual undertones of this event have outdated the event itself, with its  former name being “Screw Your Roommate.” It’s a night for a capella, dance, karaoke and awkward, exhilarating romance. But organized dating is not new on campus and has a somewhat rocky start at Carleton. Variations of this event started as early as the 1960s, with a legacy that is more than questionable. 

Date Knight now has developed into an event that is innocent enough, where the most you have to worry about is bad conversation or SAO running out of boba. However, for a freshman woman in 1963, you were powdering your nose and putting on makeup to participate in a “Slave Auction.” Yep, you read that right. The “Freshman Woman Auction,” took place outside Willis, and men were able to “purchase dates for the carnival.” White male students would outbid one another to take the most attractive freshman women on a date to homecoming. 

In 1964, Vicki Shaw, the Homecoming Queen, would be “purchased” not even by a Carleton student, but by Marine Corps Captain Ronald E. Blanchard for $16. A recruitment officer stationed in Minneapolis, he was understandably confused and concerned about the selection of Carleton women who were to be “purchased” by their “masters.” The date was at the discretion of the “master,” and could have consisted of a variety of tasks. The next day,  Miss Shaw was tasked with handing out brochures at the recruitment table – just in case you thought you had a bad date last Saturday.

In the late ‘60s, this problematic tradition began to die out, and “Computer Date Night” found itself as a viable alternative. Contrary to modern Date Knight, which relies on the good intentions of one’s friends to create a match that will satisfy both parties for the night, Computer Date Night relied on “Laird’s basement dweller,” or the Carleton IBM. In this case, the computer would create matches between Oles and Carls alike. 

Students were asked an array of questions concerning their physical characteristics and personalities, and they were subsequently matched via an assigned number. According to a 1995 Carletonian article, “In the 1960s, anxiety about getting a funny looking date spawned the setting up of ‘dog pools’ for both men and women on campus, in which money was placed on who would be paired with the most unattractive date.” 

This event was largely student-run and required students to take a gamble on a night out with a fellow Carl or Ole. One year, when a group of Carleton men decided they didn’t want to roll the dice, they hacked the system so they could get matched exclusively with the “very attractive” category of women.

Another year, in 1977, a Carl found himself in the middle of an Ole love triangle. He was matched with a beautiful girl at Olaf who had borrowed her unknowing boyfriend’s car to go on the date, only to have her irate (ex)-boyfriend intrude on their date, forcing the Carleton student to hide under the table at risk of his life.

However, we should note the ways in which the culture of these dates was fundamentally different. Carleton in the ‘60s and ‘70s was grappling with national questions of integration between the sexes, and the hyper-sexualized, problematic natures of these events were reflective of that. Whereas in 2022 Date Knight serves as a low-stakes opportunity to experience campus events and meet new people, and the student body commits itself to a night of “whatever happens, happens,” in the past these events used to be a sacred night of gender integration and sexual relationships. 

Back in the ‘60s, when Carleton had very few “open houses —” campus buildings where both sexes were allowed — Computer Date Night was the only night of the term where men and women across campus were permitted to enter each other’s residential buildings. This was huge and meant a great deal to Carleton students, considering in 1973 the Dean of Female Students, when asked of the college’s views on sex laws, stated, “When any man and single woman have sexual intercourse with each other, each is guilty of fornication, which is a misdemeanor.”

The sexual repression of this period, predictably, created more problems than it solved, and one can explain the development of these campus-sponsored dating events as an alternative to other forms of fraternization, namely couples meeting up on second Willis or on the way back from integrated social events. 

It’s no surprise, then, that as Carleton’s attitude towards sex integration changed, a result of student campaigning in the ‘70s, organized dating did as well. In 1988, “Screw Your Roommate” was the replacement and was organized with the intent “for the whole campus to have a good time….Everybody’s happy to get a date, so why not set a blind date up for everybody….You meet new people and have a good time. It’s something to do on a Saturday night and it’s just fun.”

So, when you participated in Date Knight last Saturday, did you know you were taking part in a tradition that found its roots almost seventy years ago? This tradition arose in response to sexual repression and gender segregation, and is thanks to the many Carleton students before us who fought for such events to take place. We must remember these voices, and their faults, and give them their well-earned spot in Carleton’s collective memory. 

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