Valentine’s Day On a College Campus: Hallmark and the Hookup Scene

(I’m beginning to work on a book proposal for a memoir about “casual sex” and why the term is a misnomer. While digging through my notes, I found this essay I wrote as a sophomore in college [age 19] about how Valentine’s Day brings some of the pain of hookup culture to the surface. It’s an interesting read as an adult looking back: I wasn’t anti-casual sex, but I’d already realized that the lack of communication and respect baked into Wesleyan’s party scene led to dehumanizing sexual experiences. I didn’t want a committed relationship, but I didn’t want my encounters to be meaningless or anonymous either.

Wishing a very happy Valentine’s Day to the awkward college students who don’t know what to do today and don’t yet have the framework to understand what they want.)

A few days ago, a friend called me with a very important question. What do you do about Valentine’s Day when you’ve been hooking up with a guy for a few weeks? Do you give him an ironic ‘thinking of you’ card paired with a wink to show that you know he’s not your boyfriend but to acknowledge that he is more than just some guy you’ve seen naked? Do you invite him over to your dorm room to hang out in spite of the fact that it’s a Tuesday night and you should really be studying for your Contemporary American History quiz? Do you just ignore the holiday altogether? If casual sex means anything, it’s that there is never an appropriate Hallmark card.

Welcome to the ambiguous world of Valentine’s Day on a college campus, where most relationships fall into the category of “undefined.” With a few exceptions, most students at Wesleyan don’t date in the traditional sense. The average college relationship usually involves alcohol, a party, and the assumption that you will never see this person again. If you’re unlucky enough to run into them in the dining hall, you will most likely pretend you do not recognize them, that you do not remember the awkward conversation you had on the walk back to their apartment, and that you are an emotionally impenetrable stranger to whom a one night stand means nothing. Some people are lucky enough to not have to pretend. I am not one of those people. I am very emotionally penetrable.

To comfort the terrified parents reading this, rest assured that not everyone participates in the college hookup scene, and even if they do, the anonymous stranger hookups sparked at a frat party (sometimes referred to as ‘getting some strange’) are an extreme example. There is also the safer but more confusing act of hooking up with someone you know, either a friend or a friend of a friend whom you meet at a pre-game or in class. This is usually how things get complicated, which brings me back to my friend’s dilemma. What do you do if you are “seeing” someone who you aren’t actually seeing on Valentine’s Day?

I’ve always done my best to ignore Valentine’s Day. Usually alone by choice, I do my best to go to class, have dinner with my friends, and do my work as if it were any other day. This was easy in high school; after a few hours in the red and pink bubble of candy-grams and heart-shaped cookies, I could return home and make whatever sarcastic comments I wanted to my parents about commercialism.

College, however, makes avoiding Valentine’s Day difficult. I live on campus in a dorm with other sophomores, where alone time is a rare commodity and escaping from the whirl of festive cheer is nearly impossible. There are Valentine’s Day raves at the frats, Valentine’s Day bake sales for club sports, Valentine’s Day dinner-for-two deals in the fancy dining hall usually reserved for professors. In an environment that renders real dating nearly impossible, suddenly everyone is forced to take a harsh look at what (or who) they want, and what they already have. This sometimes means analyzing the “relationship” you’re in (what do you get for the partner who isn’t really yours?), or confronting the fact that you, like me, aren’t living a lifestyle that matches the dinner-for-two dynamic.

My ‘ah ha!’ moment about the uneasy pairing of hookup culture and Valentine’s Day came my freshman year. February 14, 2011 had been refreshingly easy, if even nice. The girl who lived in my room the previous school year returned to leave a cupcake on my doorknob and a kind note on my white board. We all had a good time teasing our friend when he admitted he’d prepared nothing to celebrate the holiday, wrongly convinced that his girlfriend wasn’t the type who cared about that sort of thing. We bullied him into making a card out of printer paper and crayons scavenged from someone’s desk drawer. Still chuckling at his dating faux pas, I dragged some snow boots on over my sweatpants and trudged to the school grocery to buy snacks before it closed at midnight.

Loaded up with Wheat Thins and Easy Mac, I began the trek back to my dorm, only to run into someone I hooked up with a few weekends before. Referred to as ‘Awkward Hookup Andy’ by my clique, he was my first and only random hookup of freshman year. At the end of our few hours together, he asked for my number and promised to text me to hang out the next weekend. The text never arrived, and I spent an embarrassing amount of time wondering if I’d done something wrong. Now I know the only thing I did wrong was hook up with someone who would rather white lie than let me down directly, but on that Valentine’s Day evening I stood mortified in my snow boots as he looked at me wide-eyed before staring steadfastly at the ground. Andy then walked past me without saying a word. I cried on the walk home, those little self-pity tears that are a mix of humiliation and outrage. Fifteen minutes to midnight, Valentine’s Day had made me its bitch.

As February 14th steadily approaches, the same question remains: in an environment where caring is usually a weakness, what do you do about a holiday centered on showing that you care?

This year I will do as I always do. I will spend it not with a boyfriend, or a hook up, or by myself, but with the people who dried me off and picked me back up when I returned desolate from the grocery store last year. My friends. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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