‘Awkward is still the operative word’

Author: Kristen Dold ’09

We don’t date at Notre Dame. At least, not casually. There are no shared milkshakes, no flowers, no movies, no good-night kisses and certainly no romantic strolls around Saint Mary’s Lake. But before you blast us for corrupting any time-honored traditions and what is supposed to be an instinctual mating ritual, hear us out. (And quit blaming our BlackBerries and iPods.)

Our story begins on what is most often a brutally hot weekend in late August. Some call it Freshman Orientation. Others refer to it as a summer camp for college kids or, quite simply, a crash course on life under the Dome. We sing, we dance, and we participate unwillingly in shoe exchanges and scavenger hunts. But, most important, we begin what could potentially become four years of gender segregation.

Our friends at other schools are confused when we try to explain. “What do you mean, parietals?” they shout to us over the dorm party going on in the background. “Er, never mind,” we say. “I’m late to Domerfest.” Click.

How do men and women get along here?

When 325 Notre Dame coeds strolled onto campus for the first time in 1972, Notre Dame men stopped dead in their tracks. Were they excited? Yes. Tongue-tied? Probably. Awkward? You bet. Now, 36 years later, there are more women here than men. Yet, somehow, “awkward” still seems to be the operative word for gender relations at ND, and the issue is about as legendary as the Dome itself.

No topic on campus draws more scrutiny and provokes more arguments than the infamous question of how men and women get along here. Year after year students attempt to discover why our seemingly uncomfortable interaction with one another persists. We like to blame our gender-segregated dorms, our sense of Catholic guilt, the cold and decidedly “un-cuddly” weather, and our culture of intense competition.

Somewhere, in all our grumbling and protesting, lie certain truths. Single-sex dorms have their advantages: We girls are spared such “oh, crap” moments as bumping into a boy when we’re in a bathrobe and glasses on the way to brush our teeth. And it’s not such a bad deal to be able to go to bed on a Monday night without the thump of rap music and the smell of Nattie Light seeping into our room from next door. When parietals dictate the party’s over at 2 a.m. and the boys and girls retreat to their respective havens, we might even be tempted to do some studying.

At the least, it builds sisterhood and brotherhood. There’s nobody left to watch Seinfeld reruns with you at 3 a.m. than the friends of your own sex. That helps to build a strongly bonded dorm family — that and the fact that we huddle together tightly when we trek off to the dining hall in a swirling blizzard.

Yes, we don’t really mind our single-sex dorms. When the hum of hairdryers and showers starts up on a Friday night, we pretend we’re a sorority (granted, with babysitters and bedtimes), but we like the camaraderie. It’s just when Mom calls and asks us if we have met anyone special (and we haven’t) that we get a little nervous.

But sometimes, when the clock strikes 2 on a Saturday morning and a rector’s knock on the door ends the party and sends the boys out the door, we wonder . . . could this antiquated, seemingly juvenile and hyper-regimented setup delay our maturation? Can’t 19-year-old men and women be trusted to make these decisions on their own?

Our limited interaction with the opposite sex takes the “casual” out of everything. A young man walking down the hallway of a girls’ dorm is an event — like the paparazzi spotting Jennifer Aniston coming out of the home of her latest squeeze. Curious eyes peer over books and computer screens to follow him to his destination. He’s a foreigner, and if he’s seen around the risky hours of midnight or 9 a.m., antennae go up.

Many students think enforced casualness contributes to awkward gender relations. Dorm rules that apply to couples, such as “three feet on the ground” in the 24-hour lounges, seem positively Ozzie-and-Harrietish. There aren’t many places for a genuine, romantic, on-campus date, considering the deafening sound of ESPN in the LaFortune Student Center and the tipsy (though entertaining) nighttime crowd downing cheese-fries at Reckers.

Notre Dame recognized that there was a problem in 2004 when it provided students with a Gender Relations Center to help us “navigate the complicated world of gender relations.” Dorm discussions with pithy titles such as “Let’s Talk about Sex, Baby” or “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” make regular appearances, but most students can’t keep a straight face when adults attempt to talk about the “hook-up culture” at Notre Dame. Students talk about unhealthy and alcohol-induced hookups, but they also talk about another piece of Notre Dame lore: the “ring by spring” race to get engaged by the end of senior year. Other students scoff at the seasonal deadline.

We’ve got big agendas, great plans in the works. We study abroad, take on internships, chair committees, work out, go to Mass, eat and sleep (at least for a few hours). Some of us embark on serious relationships and experience the excitement, drama and the heartbreak that they bring. Many of us eye these couples across the quad walking hand in hand and wonder, who has the time?

We admit to each other that perhaps gender relations are a bit strained here at Notre Dame, but we adamantly argue that it’s not us. Even if we were those, ahem, “studious” kids in high school, we’re by no means awkward. We simply don’t have the same formula our parents did for finding that special someone. It just doesn’t exist for us. Our romantic advances fall into the categories of “hookup” or “husband,” with half of us scowling at the “ring by spring” phenomenon and the other half castigating the popularity of three-day flings.

You have to understand, we live in the land of books and beer — an odd couple, to be sure, but clear to those of us who get the division. We study until our brains feel mushy and then head out for a night of fun with friends. This part must sound familiar, right?

Students at Notre Dame recognize this is a different place, and they love it for its ability to build family bonds like no other school. But that little question of men and women and how they get along here persists. It’s an issue. It’s a problem. And most students think it could be fixed if everyone — students, professors, administrators — would just relax and learn to trust the kids a little more. In the meantime, perhaps some of us will step outside the box and try that dinner-and-a-movie thing.

Kristen Dold, a senior from Chicago, was the magazine’s intern during the autumn 2008 semester.