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What are we?

let's talk about 'it'

You’re really cute (or cool, or funny, or whatever), but I don’t have time to be in a relationship right now. It’s not you, it’s me. 

Sound familiar?

Since our last piece, a lot of you have asked questions using our form (keep it up!), and a lot of your questions deal with Duke’s hookup and relationship cultures. One of you pointed out how it seems like some people on campus have a ton of experience dating, while others have none at all. Another student asked about the ethics of hooking up. Others mentioned how uncertainty—a huge question mark next to “what are we?”—impacts people’s day-to-day, and sometimes gives them performance anxiety in bed. Sounds like a lot of us are thinking about dating at Duke.

In this column, we’re going to begin to tackle a combination of these questions by asking: how do we navigate relationships at Duke when it seems like everyone around us isn’t looking for anything serious?

Before we dive into this topic, we should say two things. First, we’re students just like you. Existing in Duke’s hookup culture definitely doesn’t mean we have the “correct” answers to these questions; but we have experiences and we think it’s helpful to share them. 

Second, we want to be careful in how we use the term “relationship.” I may not have a committed partner right now, but I have relationships with my friends with benefits. In fact, we have a relationship with all of our sexual and romantic partners, even if it’s not exclusive and very short-term. We have a lot to say about all those types of relationships, and in other columns, we’ll tackle them in more depth. 

For now, we’re going to use “relationship” to talk about the ones we have with committed partners. You’ve had the “what are we” conversation—or maybe like seven iterations of it—and you have a clear idea of boundaries with that partner (you’re exclusive, you have an open relationship with clear communicated boundaries, some combination of the two).

Let’s start by asking why it seems like so many people at Duke aren’t looking for a relationship. In my almost four years here, I’ve heard two justifications far more frequently than all others: first, “I’m too busy to be in a relationship right now;” and second, “everyone around me is just looking for a hookup.” We’ll talk about hookup culture more in future columns, but we think tackling the “I’m too busy” response itself is really important.

Duke students are busy. We often overcommit, and many of us struggle to get all of our things done in a day. On top of taking care of ourselves in the midst of classes and other responsibilities, being in a relationship might sound impossible. Whether or not it’s impossible, I think, depends completely on your mindset. Yes, relationships consume time. They rely on communication, and that isn’t always easy (a Capricorn wrote this, and they might know this best of all). But being in a relationship is not like being in a house course or picking up an extra shift at work. We don’t have to judge our capacity to engage in relationships by how well it fits in our calendars. We can—and we should—judge our willingness to engage in relationships based on our feelings. Do you want to be in a relationship with someone? If the answer is yes, you and your partner(s) will make time for it.

In fact, if you’re thinking about dating other students, who better to understand how you’re feeling in terms of your workload and capacity to take on another thing? In relationships I've had while at Duke, I’ve gone to Perkins with my partners. I’ve sent and received texts asking to postpone dates because an assignment deadline was looming. And because they were on the same page, they completely understood.

That brings me to my biggest point: communication in relationships is key. In a “what are we” conversation, you can tell someone you’d like to be more than friends and also tell them you have other academic, work and social requirements that make you worried you won’t be a perfect partner. 

If you say that, I’m almost positive the person(s) you’re speaking with is going to reciprocate with something similar. We’re all busy, none of us is perfect and we honestly don’t know what a perfect relationship is. But we can commit to trying our best by being honest with our partners and ourselves and consistently communicating our wants and needs. 

If you’re like me, you’ve also probably used the “I’m too busy” justification as a write-off instead of tackling how you’re really feeling. We often push off or avoid “what are we” conversations because we know they might lead somewhere that makes us feel embarrassed or undesired. Nobody likes hearing “you’re really cute/cool/fun, but…” 

In truth, I think we ought to stop assuming that “what are we” has to carry so much weight. It doesn’t have to lead to an answer stemming from the binary “we’re dating or we’re nothing.” Think about it: we break that binary all the time when we have friends with benefits, when we’ve been talking to someone or when we’re otherwise semi-consistently seeing our partners. It also doesn’t have to place an unchangeable label on your relationship. 

Think of “what are we” conversations not like tattoos, but like nail polish. Maybe this color looks good on us this week, but we can change it whenever we’d like. We just have to be honest about it. Maybe the conversation doesn’t even give us a clear label. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t give us clarity. I may not have a word to attach to my bond with my partner, but if we’re on the same page about what we are (even if it’s pretty low-key), who cares?

If you’re interested in dating at Duke, or in general, you won’t have the “what are we” conversation just once. Even if you’ve dated a lot before, your current fling/FWB/partner is a different person, and it’s up to y’all to navigate your relationship (and those conversations) together. If you can commit to doing that, your overcrowded schedule won’t stop you.

Bonus question: “Where can I access latex-free condoms on campus?

Answer: PASH just ordered some that will be delivered soon. We’ll be on the BC plaza tabling and giving things out later in the semester. You can reach out to PASH’s president directly (tjk25@duke.edu) and they’ll hook you up with a bunch of condoms and other safe sex supplies! In the meantime, DuWell carries latex-free condoms, so if you ask someone at the front desk, they’ll give you some! Lastly, you can fill out special requests for supplies on campus here.

PASH is a student-run organization providing resources for sexual health and relationship-building. Their column, “let’s talk about ‘it,’” runs on alternate Monday. To ask them a question about sex or relationships, submit to this form. This column was written by Tyler Kopp, a Trinity senior and President of PASH.

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