Based on qualitative focus group data, this study combines narrative ethnography with auto-ethnography to portray the stories told by Black women in college about their relational experiences. The stories of the focus group participants are juxtaposed with my own experiences, as I am also a Black female heterosexual graduate student. Emergent themes in this study, as a result of iterative analysis using analytical methods of constant comparison, include partner selection issues, goals for college, ambiguity within relationships, a lack of identification with the term “hooking-up” and a decreased presence of dating activities. The interpretations of this study are first presented in a narrative form to illustrate these themes, followed by a discussion of the themes. I conclude the analysis with implications, directions for further research, and limitations of the study.
Keywords: dating, hooking-up, Black college students, commitment, romantic relationships
Researchers have highlighted three main types of relationships that are prevalent among undergraduate students, including hookups, dates, long-term relationships (McClintock & Murry, 2010). Although dating used to be the “norm” on the social scene of college campuses, this practice has transformed, and in some instances described as being replaced, by the hookup culture (Siebenbrunner, 2013; Paul & Hayes, 2002). Furstenburg, 2007). While marriage may not be the end goal for college students, intimate relationships are still highly valued and important to socialization and overall well-being. As a result of the rise of “hooking up” and other types of relationship, young adults are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors with others without expecting any long-term or high-level commitment. Because of this, forming intimate romantic relationships with another person is more difficult. Indeed, as students remove emotional attachments from sexual behaviors, they remove what had been one framework for marriage. Concurrently, based on a number of factors, marriage rates have been on the decline in the U.S. for many years (Collins, 2015; Demby, 2014). This decline has been highly significant for Black Americans, with 9% who had never been married and were over the age of 25 in 1960, to 36% in 2012. While this number quadrupled for this group, it has only doubled for White Americans going from 8% to 16% (Pew Research Center, 2014).
It is difficult to say why the marriage rates of Black Americans have dropped more significantly than their White counterparts, but as dating is the typical precursor to marriage, understanding the types of relationships that Black Americans are experiencing and the ways in which they are experiencing them is one starting point. This qualitative focus group study explores how Black female undergraduate college students on one university campus talk about dating and relational commitment. In order to illuminate the nature of “everyday talk” about dating, I used narrative methodologies to story their talk as it was constructed in a natural setting. Further, my identity as a Black graduate student was implicated by their stories, blurring the lines between researcher and participant. Therefore, I employ autoethnography as a method to trace my own stories in the context of the focus groups using methods of reflexive interviewing (Ellis, 1998). Emergent themes from the focus groups are highlighted through the stories of the participants juxtaposed with my own autoethnographic narratives and reflections. The narratives reveal the difficulty these women have situating themselves in dating relationships, the difficulty in defining dating and categories of such, and the ways that outside pressures might affect dating success, motivations, and goals.
To provide context for scholarly conversation surrounding this work, the following literature review discusses three different types of relationships: low-commitment relationships (including hooking up and casual sex), dating relationships, and committed relationships. Each section discusses the implications of these three different types of relationships for college students.
The practice of hooking up on college campuses is quite prevalent, with between 60-80% of students reporting at least one hookup during their college careers (Jenkins Hall & Tanner, 2016; Paul & Hayes, 2002; Paul, McManus & Hayes, 2000). Some college students have described hooking up as the “hallmark of college experience,” (Jenkins Hall & Tanner, 2016, p.1265). While hooking up tends to be something that most modern-day college students have encountered, students have varied personal experiences under the umbrella term of “hooking up.” The ambiguity around the behaviors associated with the term has made it hard to define exactly what it means for college students to hookup.
As a result of their personal experiences, different racial groups of college students hold varying views of exactly what it means to “hook up.” These differences tend to be highlighted between different racial groups, with White college students typically defining hooking up as having some type of sexual encounter with an individual to whom they were not committed in any way, and their Black counterparts defining hooking up as meeting up with someone or possibly dating another person that they may or may not be interested in sexually (Jenkins Hall & Tanner, 2016; Glenn & Marquardt, 2001; Owen et al, 2016). Both groups of students agree that there is no relational commitment expected between the two parties hooking up.
The issue of not being able to create a shared meaning of the hookup primarily lies in the ambiguity associated with how college students are sharing stories about hookup experiences. The question of, “What are the requirements for an interaction to be considered a hookup?” is largely unanswered. Among students, the discussion and discourse about hooking up are highly ambiguous, making it hard to define. Many college students have reported sharing personal hookup narratives with friends (especially close friends) particularly when the hookup encounter was perceived as a “good” experience (Paul & Hayes, 2002). Even though these stories are being shared, students also report leaving out many of the details of the hookup experience, leading to inaccurate accounts of what a hookup means for some people, creating an erroneous representation of what is deemed as normal in the college culture in regards to hooking up. In discussing the assumptions that are made about hooking up among college students, Bogle (2005) states that, “Peers are very interested in what one another are doing sexually, and the term hooking up allows students to convey something sexual happened without ‘kissing and telling’ the details; therefore, we are left to rely on subjective feelings, gossip, and ‘guesswork’ about what it means to hookup” (Bogle, 2005, p.7).
While research has explored how hookups are happening (Bradshaw, Kahn, & Saville, 2010; Siebenbruner, 2013) and how they are discussed on college campuses (Bogle, 2005), there has not been as much research to tease out the ways in which different racial groups are experiencing and discussing hookups in college (Glenn & Marquardt, 2001; Owen et al, 2010). When described as a generally unplanned, physical encounter in which “there is no anticipation of a future relationship,” students of color have been less likely to experience hookups than White students (Owen et al, 2010, p. 660). More specifically, Black students have also reported less hookup experiences than their White counterparts possibly due to the tendency of Black students (especially women) to be hesitant of interracial relationships more often than White students leading to a limited selection pool of partners to hook up with (McClintock & Murry, 2010; Jenkins Hall & Tanner, 2016). Black women, in particular, have reported insufficient partner options on their college campuses more often when they attend a predominately White institution rather than a historically Black college or university (Stackman, Reviere, & Medley, 2016). Paul and colleagues (2000) also found that Black students tend to hook up with acquaintances more than strangers and with people who share the same race, as many of these students view hooking up as a stepping-stone to marriage (Jenkins Hall & Tanner, 2016). Despite the efforts to further explain research about the hookup culture on the college scene, there is still an absence of literature about students of color within this hookup culture (Owen et al, 2016; Paul et al, 2000).
Since the definition of hooking up does not always include two parties becoming sexually intimate with one another, casual sex among college students, then, becomes a phenomenon to be studied separately from the hookup culture. In attempting to define this concept, casual sex has been marked by sexual encounters with two people who do not consider themselves to be in a relationship and can last a short while (such as a one-night stand) or become long-term. Under this broad definition both fall friends with benefits (FWB’s) and booty calls (Grello, Welsh, & Harper, 2006).
Booty calls are typically described by the use of communication acts to initiate sexual activity, usually by way of a phone call (Jonason, Li, & Cason, 2009). While booty calls do fall under the umbrella term of casual sex, it has been called a “middle-ground” between the short-term hookups and long-term committed relationships, since there is a greater level of emotional commitment required but still having the ‘no strings attached’ feeling (Jonason et al, 2009; Jonason, Li, & Richardson, 2011). Booty calls typically take place among acquaintances and may happen on multiple occasions even though there is no expectation of an ongoing relationship between the two parties (Wentland & Reissing, 2014).
On the more emotionally-attached side of the spectrum, FWB’s are also common on college campuses as a form of casual sex. The FWB relationship is described as “an opposite-sex friendship in which partners freely engage in sexual activity within the relationship and act as platonic friends rather than romantic partners,” (Green & Morman, 2008, p.328). The definition of the FWB relationship blurs the demarcation between friendships and romantic relationships (Bisson & Levine, 2009). Similar to hooking up, the prevalence of FWB relationships on college campuses is quite high with about 60% of students reporting that they had at least one FWB relationship in their college career (Bisson & Levine, 2009). Furthermore, two-thirds of casual sex reported by college students happened within an FWB relationship, or an acquaintance rather than a stranger (Jonason et al, 2009; Grello et al, 2006). The FWB relationship has been preferred by college students as a way to have sex with somebody who is considered trustworthy without any expectations of further commitment outside of sex and friendship (Bisson & Levine). Since women’s primary motivation for sex tends to be emotional closeness and a man’s tends to be pleasure and release, this relationship seems to benefit both parties but, researchers have found that women tend to get the short end of the stick (Green & Morman, 2008). College men have reported more benefits from and more favorable attitudes toward the FWB relationship than college women (Green & Morman, 2008).
While there are some benefits that come as a result of casual sex relationships, there is a multitude of negative consequences that can be associated with casual sex as well. For example, Grello and colleagues (2006) found that casual sex was associated with depression among college women. Similar to hookups, feelings of uncertainty limit the way in which college students are able to discuss, label, maintain, and experience the casual sex relationship (Bisson & Levine, 2009). In addition to the negative feelings that can be associated with casual sex them, these casual sex relationships seem to place a constraint on the relationship, hindering the potential for a more long-term relationship that could lead to dating, commitment, and possibly, marriage. Many college students felt as if their casual sex relationships did not transform into a long-term relationship because of the sexual nature of the relationship and it is limited to just sex (Jonason et al, 2009). This kind of a constraint may be one of the contributors as to why fewer college students are engaging in long-term and committed relationships.
Although sex is a key factor in the casual sex, booty call, and FWB relationships on college campuses, sexual activity is not a hallmark of the dating culture. (Schleicher & Gilbert, 2005). Dates are “formally planned and the planned activity is nonsexual although one or both partners may be anticipating sexual activity” (McClintock & Murry, 2010, p.47). As previously mentioned, dating among college students has a particular script, or way predetermined way that dates typically play out: the man initiates that date, he plans the location and time, pays for the date, and provide transportation for himself and the woman to and from the date (Bartoli & Clark, 2006; Bogle, 2005; Bradshaw et al, 2010). After the date, the two parties involved may then choose to become sexually intimate, but the idea that sexual activity is not central to the continuance of the relationship is obvious in dating, unlike casual sex relationships or hooking-up. When sexual activities do come about in the dating scenario, college women tend to expect the male to initiate the date and any sexual activity; however, college males do not want to be responsible for initiating these things, as the pressure is then placed on them while the woman acts as the “emotional facilitator” (Bartoli & Clark, 2006, p. 55; Schleicher & Gilbert, 2005). Men also expect sexual activity to happen after the date if the woman initiates the date since this is a deviation from the script that college men and women have classified as the normal way in which a date takes place (Bradshaw et al, 2010). Additionally, it sexual intimacy tends to increase with emotional intimacy, with the two parties involved becoming sexual only after developing emotional intimacy which probably is more likely to be a result of the occurrence of multiple dates (Bogle, 2005).
Due to this script, researchers have sought to understand how sex plays a part in the way students are discussing dating. For example, Bartoli & Clark (2006) found that first-year students were less likely to include any references to sexual activity in the way they described and defined dating than upperclassman students, showing that the expectation of sexual intercourse after a date increased over the course of one’s college career. When discussing dating, students also delineate between the phrase “going out with a friend” compared to “going on a date.” The latter implies a sexual or romantic interest in which establishing a long-term relationship might occur, which is not the meaning implied when stating, “I’m going out with a friend” (Bradshaw et al, 2010).
Because so many students are experiencing hookups more than any other type of relationship in college, it can be inferred that the nature of dating is changing for students. In addition to the academic stress that students face in college, other barriers to dating are present for this particular group. Anxiety comes up often as a reason for why students are not dating as much (Bogle, 2005). Many students describe feelings of relational anxiety about dating for reasons like becoming too emotionally attached (particularly, women), not being able to make relational goals clear, or the perception of carrying too much relational “baggage” or personal issues that might affect the blossoming relationship. This anxiety leads to more difficulty in initiating developing long-term romantic relationships, ultimately leading to dating avoidance (Sidelinger, Frisby, & Booth-Butterfield, 2009). Another factor contributing to dating avoidance, particularly for men, is the risk and stress of dating. Contrary to the hookup culture in which women describe more risks and stressors, in the dating culture men discuss more feelings of risk since they are expected to initiate the date, giving the woman the power to accept or reject his advance. For this reason, men prefer hooking up, while women prefer dating (Bradshaw et al, 2010). Because dating relationships tend to lead to romantic relationships, these barriers important to combat (McClintock & Murry, 2010).
Through understanding how college students are experiencing and discussing hookups and casual sex relationships, it is brought to light that committed relationships seem to ‘dying out’ on college campuses, even though college men and women have reported that marriage is their ultimate relational goal (Glenn & Marquardt, 2001). Aldrich & Morrison (2010) define commitment as a “long term orientation toward a partner with the desire to maintain a relationship” (p.113). Exclusivity, trust, and an emotional commitment are also key features of a committed relationship with a long-term orientation (Banker, Kaestle, & Allen, 2010). Although college students are looking to find their marriage partner in college, hookups prevent this goal from being accomplished, showing contradictions in how students are reporting what they are experiencing compared to what they’d hoped to experience while in college.
There are a number of difficulties articulated by college students about forming these types of relationships that require more time, emotional involvement, and commitment. The unattractiveness of navigating a long-distance relationship became evident when talking about things like wanting to study abroad, being in two different places over college breaks, and having differing post-graduation plans. Similar to the categories discussed before, college students also experience high levels of uncertainty when it comes to navigating committed relationships as well, ranging from uncertainty about becoming too attached (or not attached enough) to the partner to uncertainty about status (Aldrich & Morrison, 2010). As a result, college students find it difficult to communicate with their partners, or potential partners, about commitment and relational goals (Aldrich & Morrison, 2010; Glenn & Marquardt, 2001; McClintock & Murry, 2010). The experience of committed relationships seems to be highly ambiguous, leading college students to seek other types of relational experiences that require less of their time and emotional commitment.
From the review of the literature, it seems that the increased prevalence of the hookup culture is presumably preventing college students from an achieving the goal to find a long-term partner, but there are areas in which the relational experiences of college students can be furthered explored to better understand what is taking place. There is a need to delve more deeply into understanding the relational experiences of a more diverse set of student groups. There has been an overwhelming focus on White college students, leaving other racial groups out of the conversation (Jenkins Hall & Tanner, 2016). Additionally, the theme of uncertainty and ambiguity was expressed in each type of relationship either through feelings of uncertainty about how to discuss the relationship, feelings about the relationship, or how to maintain the relationship (Bisson & Levine, 2009). Understanding how students deal with this uncertainty would be beneficial to better understand their experiences. As relationships, in part, are constructed and maintained through communication, it is important for college students to develop and use effective communication skills to express and accomplish their relational goals and deal with the uncertainty that they are presented with (Siebenbruner, 2013; Aldrich & Morrison, 2010; McClintock & Murry, 2010; Sidelinger, Frisby, & Booth-Butterfield, 2009). Looking at how college students are using communication and discourse within and outside of their romantic relationships could provide insight into why the hookup culture seems to be dominating the scene. As a result, the question I am seeking to explore in the current study is:
RQ: How do Black college students discuss overall relational goals and experiences in college?
To better understand how Black female college students discuss and experience romantic relationships, I conducted two focus groups with five women in each group. Participants for this research were students at a large Predominately White Institute (PWI) on the east coast. After drawing possible participants from a network sample starting with contacts at the university’s center for multicultural student services, then recruited through visits to this particular office and via personal networks, potential participants were sent an email re-stating the purpose and goal and inviting them to participate in the focus groups.
As a requirement of the present study, every participant identified as Black. Students varied in length of time they have attended the university and several were members of various organizations, including Black Greek Lettered Organizations and the university’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branch. One was in a long-term committed relationship, one in a dating relationship, and eight were not in any type of romantic relationship. Only one expressed never being in a romantic relationship at all.
The semi-structured focus group method was used to help recreate the small group interactions in which conversations about dating and romantic relationships might naturally occur between friends and were held in my home while sharing a meal. Participants were asked questions such as, “What do typical conversations with your friends about college romantic relationships look like?” (Interview guide in Appendix A). Each focus group was audio recorded and transcribed removing all identifying information, resulting in 53 pages of single-spaced typed data.
Qualitative data were first analyzed using iterative methods of constant comparison, alternating between the emergent data and current literature surrounding this phenomenon (Tracy, 2013). First, I read through the transcripts several times. Second, I moved through the data line-by-line to identify to conduct what Tracy (2013) describes as primary cycle coding. First-level codes were identified and compared using the constant comparative method to find where each piece of data “fit.” First level coding enabled me to capture participants’ language and terms that labeled their experiences and made them meaningful. After these primary-cycle coding activities, I then moved to secondary cycle coding during which first-level codes were transformed into broader interpretive themes. In addition to this iterative analysis, I have made use of narrative ethnography (Goodall, 2000) and autoethnography (Ellis, 1998) to transform those themes into narratives that communicate an embodied experience of the “relationships talk” among Black women. As a precaution to not further silence the voices that have already been absent in the literature, narrative ethnography allows the lives and stories of the participants to be engaged instead of deduced by only thematic analysis. While I was meeting with and hearing the stories of these women, I acted as a researcher-participant, as I shared and reflected upon my own experiences as a Black woman in college experiencing similar things to what these women were sharing. As a result, I have employed an autoethnographic approach and juxtaposed my stories with those of the women who participated in the focus groups. The themes highlighted through the stories of the participants and my own stories include broad themes of partner selection issues, goals for college, ambiguity within relationships, a lack of identification with the term “hooking-up” and a decreased presence of dating activities.
Talking about “Dating”: Dinner Table Conversations
“What Even Is Dating”
Sprawled across a small apartment floor, five friends sit wrapped up in blankets and close enough to one another that even the thinnest piece of paper wouldn’t penetrate the space between their bodies. Two of them lay across the floor, legs draped across one another, while the others sit cross-legged, backs pressed against the bottom of a chocolate colored sectional. The room is silent with the girls staring into the air with furrowed brows, contemplating the last statement that was made. “I feel like….what even is dating anymore?” Diamond has broken what was once a constant string of conversation with a question that has caused them to fall silent. Holding bowls of half-eaten spaghetti, the group’s once vibrant energy fades away. The endless chatter and laughter fizzled. Eyes darting from the floor and back to Diamond, with sounds of, “Hmm” breaking the silence every couple of seconds, the group waits for her to finish opening Pandora’s Box. “Like, dating is not a thing,” Diamond offers while shrugging her shoulders.
The shift from continuous chatter to long pauses between these two statements about dating has given me a chance to reflect on my own experience with dating in college. The only dating experiences that I’d had in my undergraduate years in college were those shared with Alex. Similar to many college students, most of my Saturday nights were spent going out to over-crowded parties in the closest student-housing complexes that were sure to be ended with flashing blue lights and a police person requesting to speak with the head of the household, until one particular Saturday on a cold night of January when I met Alex. He’d been standing against the banister with his three of his friends as my friends and I were walking up the stairs to enter the party. Reaching his hand out to catch my attention as I walked up the stairs, he asked, “Why haven’t I met you before?” with a smile that was as contagious as the flu during this time of year. I had a strong feeling that my Saturday nights would start to look a bit differently.
“Honestly dating isn’t a thing anymore and I hate that it’s not,” Kasey breaks my thoughts. “In the beginning, I’d considered Josh and me to be dating. He’d come see me and we’d go see a movie or to dinner. It wasn’t just us sitting and chilling and watching Netflix or whatever.”
A year prior, Kasey considered herself to be in a dating relationship when she and Josh went out on dates. Now, she defines her relationship status to be complicated, not single, not in a relationship, just… "complicated.” Interested to get back to Kasey’s question, I ask, “So it sounds like dating can be a verb and a status.”
The group begins to nod, with a few verbally agreeing. “I think so. To say, ‘I’m dating right now,’ is different from, ‘I’m dating a particular person,’” Diamond further explained.
Alex and I went on one date, to dinner and a movie, before we’d decided that we would be an exclusive couple, after which point we didn’t go on another date for a few months. We’d often hang out in each other’s dorm rooms, or grab dinner at a campus dining hall, but neither of us thought that counted as a date, even though in the early stages we’d often refer to our relationship as “dating.” Four years later and sharing the most personal parts of our lives, including living space, we definitely do not consider ourselves as dating. We have worked (and are continuing to work) to build and blend our lives together. Neither of us ever really know what to consider our relationship since dating seems like an oversimplified term to define our relationship…but maybe it isn’t, because what even is dating anymore?
“You Have Options”
“Are they Black?” Dana proposes. “Is this person Black? Because if they are White, I’d tell them not to worry…” Dana’s response elicits mumbled, “Umhms” from the rest of the group. I have just asked the group what kind of relationship advice they would give to a college freshman at their university, a predominately White institution. The rest of the women begin nodding their heads and continue to verbalize their agreement with her response. She continues, “I’d tell them not to worry because they have options here.” Michelle, Dana’s close friend, leaning forward and almost yelling respond, “Yes! If you are White here you have so many options to choose from. If you are Black, my friend has probably already talked to you. We don’t have very many options. If I went to an HBCU, maybe I’d feel better about it. I’d probably put more effort into finding a partner and my appearance. But, I think there’s really nobody here. We are all choosing from the same pool of people. So, if she was Black, I’d tell her to choose wisely…and stay away from those athletes but that’s about 75% of the Black men here so I don’t know what to tell her. ”
Discussing this led me to reflect on similar advice I’d received. “I really think I like Alex, what do you think of him?” I was a college freshman, looking for advice from a sophomore resident adviser in my dorm hall. We were sitting in her dorm room, on top of the green and blue paisley printed comforter tossed across her bed. She had pictures of her friends from back home tacked to the walls and a few pictures that captured what seemed the be the best moments of her freshman year- one from move-in day, one from the homecoming football game, and one with her close college friends. I was lucky that she took me under her wing and invited me into that friend group that was pictured. “We have to stick together, it can be tough being Black here.” As a freshman, I didn’t yet realize what she meant, but I’d soon learn. “Well, he’s a football player, and you know what I’ve told you about the football players,” she began. “But, he’s really nice. And I know he’s only had one girlfriend since he’s been here and he’s only talked to a few other girls. You might know one of them, but you should be fine!”
“My mom asked if I wanted to transfer schools because I told her there weren’t any men here,” again, I was jerked suddenly from my thoughts back into the present moment. Crystal was telling us about a recent conversation with her mom about her lack of potential partners. “She asked if I would rather attend a school like VCU where I’d find more Black men. I told her absolutely not,” Crystal adds. Dana decides to interject, “I agree, I’d like to marry a Black man now. I used to not think that way, but when I was in high school, a lot of the White guys in school were interested in Black girls. Here, even though there are more White men, a lot of them aren’t interested in us. Well maybe they are, but I don’t think it’s expressed much. So we don’t have that many options.”
“I Would Never Say That…Ever”
“So… what is hooking up?” I pose to the group. As I look around, I see faces with furrowed eyebrows for just a split second before I can no longer tell which words are coming from whose mouth. The cardinal rule about speaking one at a time has flown out the window. “What?” “We don’t…” “Hook...” “Party…” “Frat house.” “WHOA!” I exclaim, yet laughing at the rise that a single question created amongst this group. The rest of the group also begins laughing and high-fiving each other, as if they are celebrating the tie-breaking touchdown. “One at a time…” I barely finish my statement when I am cut off by Julia.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say this, and I don’t want to be offensive…” she gives a disclaimer for her statement and pauses for a moment before she continues. Biting her bottom lip, she carefully chooses her words before continuing the statement, “I hear about more White people doing that than Black. I mean, maybe we do hook-up and we just call it something different.”
“I don’t ever hear Black people say they hooked-up,” Crystal chimes in.
This perks my interest. I straighten my back and ask, “So this is not a term that you use?” “I would NEVER say that! Ever!” exclaims Michelle.
Her close friend Nia raises an eyebrow, then squints, “Yeah, and if she did, I’d look at her like, ‘Bitch, what?”
Lilly nods her head and jumps in the conversation, “I agree. I remember coming to college, and I had a White roommate and she’d always ask me, ‘Did you hook up with that guy?!’ and I never really knew what she meant. Like, what’s hooking up? Black people don’t do that. Is that casual sex? Kissing? What is it?”
Hooking up wasn’t a term I was familiar with coming to college either. The closest thing I can recall to a “hook-up” experience was a couple of weeks after I’d met Alex. “Jordannnn. Can I go to Alex’s dorm? I’ll be back in the morn…” I stumbled back into our small dorm room after a night of dancing and drinking something that smelled a lot like the rubbing alcohol that my grandmother would put on my scraped-up knees as I child. Jordan and I had been friends since the sixth grade and decided we’d be college roommates. Our personalities worked well together- she was reserved, quiet, and stayed in on the weekends. I was outgoing, loud, and despised the thought of staying in.
“NO, you cannot. Go to bed.” She never raised her head from her bed or looked over at me. “You don’t know him that well. You’re not going,” her voice was mumbled as she’d tucked herself in tighter and snuggled into her pillow.
I knew I only had a few seconds before she realized what I was doing. I quietly opened the bottom drawer to my 5-drawer wooden dresser. I changed out of my dress and slipped on my oversized purple sweatshirt and black leggings before she could say another word. Running out of the door, I yelled back at her, “I’ll be back in the morning! I love you!”
The next morning, I inched open the heavy door, peeking my head in slowly, hoping to find Jordan still asleep. “You better not have had sex!” She wasn’t asleep. “No, I promise I didn’t. We spent half the night talking about nonsense and the other half fighting over the blanket.” “Umhmmm,” she rolled her eyes at me and smirked. She grabbed her favorite rust colored blanket, got comfortable in my bed, and stared into the windows of my soul. I knew she wanted details.
“B.S, M.S., Mrs.”
I’d grown up being told, “Your education is the most important thing. Don’t get caught up with no boy!” My grandmother, my mother, my sister, my cousins, just about every close family member had warned against dating as if it were the equivalent of selling my soul. I remembered calling my sister my freshman year, a month after I’d met Alex. “I hope you are focusing on your school work. I promise you if your grades aren’t good at the end of the semester you’re going to community college,” she reprimanded me, even though my grades were above average and we’d had this discussion more times than I can count on my hand. She was my primary caretaker though, so I took her threats pretty seriously. “You don’t have time for anything else and that includes boys,” she’d continued. I took a deep, hesitant breath, watching the small cloud in front of me disappear. It was that time of the year where you can see your breath and hot cocoa was almost a requirement for survival. I knew once I told her, there was no taking it back. “Well, it might be too late for that. I am actually seeing someone.”
The oven timer rings loudly, letting us know the brownies are finished. The room is filled with the smell of chocolate and we are all still sitting closely together. I stand and walk towards the kitchen as Julia begins talking, “The rule I go by is B.S, M.S., then MRS.!” The rest of us laugh, as she continues her statement, “Get my degrees and then get married. My degrees are my main focus right now. But you never know God’s plan for your life so if it is meant to be it will. But I’m going to stay focused on my school work.”
I look around the room and notice that many of the others are bobbing their heads up and down in agreement. Luckily, the kitchen is connected to the living room so I am able to cut the brownies into medium sized squares without missing a beat. Placing the dish down, I ask, “So, does this mean that dating is not a part of your college goals?”
“I think it would be ideal, to find your person in college. I just feel like when you are in the real world, it’s a whole different ball game,” offers Diamond.
Kasey picks up, “I don’t think it necessary to find someone in college. It would be cool. Convenient.”
“This better not affect your grades!” I could tell my sister wasn’t happy.
I knew I’d have to do some work to reassure her. I didn’t come to college hoping to find someone, and I also didn’t come to college with hopes of not finding someone. It just happened. “I’m doing well in my classes, you know that. This doesn’t change anything.”
I could hear her sigh. “Well, what’s his name? What does he look like? ARE HIS GRADES GOOD?” They weren’t, but I wasn’t about to tell her that and be reprimanded more. “Alex, sophomore, tall, handsome….football player.” I almost didn’t include that part, I didn’t know if she’d give me the same precautionary tale about athletes that others had.
She paused for a moment, I waited. “This is the last thing I’m going to say about this,” she told me, “A stands for Alex, B stands for breakup, C stands for cut, and D stands for death.” We both burst out in laughter because we knew how ridiculous she was being. I promised her that I would try my best to earn nothing but A grades in all of my courses to avoid the consequences she’d laid out for me. She’d given up, and I’d won the conversation.
“What are We?”
On February 20th of my sophomore year, I woke up to a text message that changed the course of my college career. “Will you be my girlfriend?” Those 5 words at the end of a seemingly never-ending text message were the words that made whatever it was that Alex and I had going on “official.” I have my reserves about using text message to communicate important decisions (such as this); nevertheless, I’d agreed to a committed, exclusive relationship with the man that I’d grow to love. Before this moment we’d been “talking,” with neither of us explicitly delineating the boundaries or terms of the relationship. We’d been spending time getting to know one another but never really knew one another’s intentions beyond that. He’d never initiated the conversation, and I sure wasn’t going to be the one to do it either.
As we prepare to wrap up the conversation, I think about a word that I’ve used and that the rest of the group has been using as well. “If you had to define ‘talking’ what would you say?” I ask the group as they begin to gather their belongings.
Keys dangling from her hand, Diamond stated, “I would say there are levels to talking. That initial stage is like, you know, we’re just having fun “and you’re still talking to other people then it gradually moves to, ‘Okay well, I’m developing feelings for this person, maybe we should stop talking to other people and focus on us. But with talking, people don’t really know where they are or where they stand. It gets kinda ambiguous here.”
Kasey adds, “This is why I say I’m not committed to anyone, because I expect for you to ask me to be your girlfriend, it’s not just going to happen,” Kasey expressed to the rest of us attempting to clarify her relationship status, “Even if we have an understanding that it’s just me and you and we are exclusive and these are the boundaries, I still need that to be said, not assumed.”
Looking around the room, I see head nods in agreement and Crystal puts her shoes back down. “You never wanna be the, ‘What are we?’ girl. Like there’s a stigma when you ask what are we? I HATE asking that question!”
Interrupting her, Joanne stands, demanding our attention, “Well, he’s never going to ask! So fuck it, you may as well be the one to do it. Cause there’s an awkward moment where SOMEONE has to ask. And since everyone wants to know, just ask!”
Through the composite narrative constructed from ethnographic observations and transcribed focus group interviews and my autoethnographic reflections, I have attempted to highlight the ways in which the Black college women experience and discuss romantic and dating relationships. These stories point out the tensions that are present in their experiences and also begins to tease out the ways in which their roles as Black, heterosexual, cisgender women at a predominately White institution intersect. Although the manner in which I’ve narrated the story might suggest that these experiences take place in a linear fashion with mutually exclusive categories of experience, the themes revealed through the narratives are interconnected and offer insight into broader meaning systems of Black heterosexual women navigating romantic relationships at a PWI.
The discussion of what dating means to the women storied in this paper, alongside my autoethnographic reflections, provides insight into the issues that occur with trying to define what it means to date in college, showcasing that the meanings for dating were fluid, changing, and multiple. Most of the women had a hard time identifying a definition for dating and expressed that it could be a “status or a verb.” As a result, trying to situate themselves in the dating scene proved to be difficult a task. When using the word as a verb, “dating” either happened after an extensive period of “talking to someone,” which was defined as getting to know a person better with the desire to progress the relationship into a romantic relationship. This period of “talking to someone” could seemingly be replacing dating, used as a verb, altogether. As previously defined, dates are a “formally planned activity that is nonsexual although one or both partners may be anticipating sexual activity,” (McClintock & Murry, p.47, 2010). The women in this study have expressed that dating, as a verb, is not a “thing anymore.” Because the process of going on formally planned dates is being replaced by other practices, such as “talking,” it is also difficult for these women to determine when they are in a dating or other type of relationship if an explicit conversation is not had. If a conversation, though, is initiated, they are better able to determine how to discuss and understand their relationship with a partner. The issue with this is that most of these women do not feel comfortable being the one to initiate the conversation; feeling that they “should not have to,” further intensifying the feelings of uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding these relationships. Dating processes are not happening as much, leading to ambiguity and uncertainty in their efforts to define a relationship that might be experiencing.
Another emergent theme was that the lack of available partners at their institution affected their perceptions of relational success or lack thereof. Although some of the women felt that men of other races would be interested in them as a Black woman, they also felt that men of other races, particularly White men, would not feel comfortable approaching them at their university. Additionally, most all of the women agreed that the Black men were athletes and that they get “passed around” quickly within their university; leading them to stay away from this group of men, further decreasing the pool of available partners. This also shows that status and stigma affect the ways in which these women make dating choices. The perception of the lack of a sizable pool of possible partners also affected how the students made sense of the “hook-up” culture. Every single person in this study agreed that hooking-up is not a term that they could identify with, may expressing that they “had never used the term” or that “Black people don’t hook-up.” When asked to explain hooking-up, the women included definitions such as, “Sex with another person that you do not know, or any sexual encounter with a stranger, even if it is not sex itself.” As the Black community is small at their particular university, these women felt as if it was uncommon to come across someone that “they don’t know.” For these reasons, partner selection issues influence how these women feel about the hook-up culture in their community.
Developing priorities for their college career was also prevalent among the group and was affected by family background. Many felt as if their goal for being in college was to get their degree, not to “find a man” even though it would be “ideal” to do both. There was not a high level of emphasis placed on the desire to date, affecting ways in which they showed “openness” to dating. Many of the women who were raised in a household in which parents were married expressed the desire to “mirror” their parents, especially if they’d met in high school or college; however, partner selection issues also changed this desire as, “there isn’t anybody to choose from….that my friend hasn’t already talked to.” Those who were raised in a household with a single parent or a household with neither parent placed a higher emphasis on the desire to obtain their degrees before finding someone that they would commit to long-term.
As previously mentioned, the themes that are discussed, though presented linearly, affect and are affected by each other in a nonlinear manner. For example, not being able to identify with terms such as “hooking-up” could affect conversations about defining relationships. Focusing on terminology also highlights the importance of language and social interaction in regards to the way in which these women are experiencing relationships. For African American women, the ways that language is used to make romantic relationships meaningful could be very different than for others (i.e. “talking” vs. “hooking up”). This would be useful to further explore, as the research shows that “hooking-up” is prevalent while all of the women in the study expressed that this was not a term they would ever use (Jenkins Hall & Tanner, 2016; Paul & Hayes, 2002; Paul, McManus & Hayes, 2000). It is clear that there is room for exploration of the concept of “talking.” A better understanding of this commonly used term would help to understand how dating practices are being transformed. Modern technology could be a factor leading to the commonly used description of “talking” to someone rather than “dating someone” or “seeing someone.” The ability of constant communication through texting and social media could be a factor in the decrease of the dating practices on college campuses.
Most of the women in this study expressed that the desire to succeed in the educational setting was more pressing than the desire to succeed in a romantic relationship. This is an additional area for further exploration. What are the reasons that these women provide for feeling the need to succeed? How does this impact their identities and how is this impacted by their identities. Critical Race Theory (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001) provides a lens to understand the ways in which these Black students feel that they need to work harder and in less advantaged position than are their White counterparts. Because of this pressure, romantic relationships are put on the “back burner,” which is not addressed by the reviewed literature.
Differences between Black students at PWI’s compared to those at Historically Black College and Universities (HBCU) could also lead to additional, and different, emergent themes that help to depict an accurate representation of Black college students’ experiences. Finally, this research focuses on a specific demographic (Black women) who identified as heterosexual. Future research should explore concepts of intersectionality and capture the voices of other identities which have been largely absent in the conversations surrounding relationships and relational goals.
The methodology used also contributes to the broader conversation. In much of the research surrounding dating in college, the voices of participants, “voices all worthy of being heard,” are told through the voices of the researcher (Suter & Faulkner, 2016, p.2). This paper uses the words of the participants, to better show their experiences, rather than tell about their experiences, offering a more nuanced understanding of the cultural contexts of dating. Additionally, sharing my own stories allowed me to remain self-reflexive about my position and my experiences. These methods have been largely unrepresented in the previous literature surrounding dating in college. The themes that are provided here are only a small piece of the much larger puzzle.
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Focus Group Questions
- Are any of you in a committed relationship? How long have you been in one?
- Has anyone never been in a committed relationship?
- What do typical conversations with your friends about college romantic relationships look like? Tell me about the types of topics you might discuss.
- If you were to offer advice about romantic relationships at JMU to an incoming first-year student in your organization, what would you say? What are some key points that you might highlight or feel that it was important for them to know?
- How do you think college students’ families influence romantic relationships during their college years, if at all?
- If you had to reflect on your experience here at JMU in terms of relational success (or the opposite) what would stand out the most to you? How would you describe your experiences here at JMU in terms of romantic relationships?
- How often do you see people in committed relationships at JMU? How does that compare to those who you know of that just “hook-up” or express the desire to not be in committed relationships? If there is a difference, what do you attribute that comparison to?
- Are there any topics that we didn’t cover that you’d like to expand upon?
- What did you all feel was the most insightful or important thing that we covered today? Why do feel that way?
- Once I write up the data, I’m going to be using fake names for your responses. Is there any particular name that you’d like to be identified by?
 All names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the participants.