Julia Dault and Peter Wrinch


Sex, lives, and commitment

PATRICK McDONAGH | Walk around campus and you see them everywhere. Crouching in library crannies, propping up pool cues at Gert's, rolling in the grass and mud on the lower campus…

They're students. They're here to learn. About History. Physics. Romance. Literature. Relationships. Engineering. Sex. Anthropology. Biochemistry.

But not all of these subjects are actually on the curriculum. Sex, romance and relationships are self-directed non-credit studies that take place -- for the most part -- outside of the classroom.

Still, despite this informality, no one can deny their significance. For today's university student (and indeed for those of the past 30-plus years), experiments in sex and relationships are usually an integral part of higher education. According to some studies, about a quarter of university students lose their virginity during their university years.

But what characterizes this latest crop of students? Is there anything about the way undergraduates today perform the sex-and-relationship dance that distinguishes them from previous generations learning the same choreography?

One way of searching for an answer to this question (a variant on the old chestnut "What's with kids these days anyway?") is to ask those who have made "kids these days" an object of study.

Michaela Hynie's 1995 McGill doctorate dissertation, "Exploring Sexual Attitudes, Social Norms, and the Sexual Double Bind," drew upon samplings of McGill undergraduates.

According to Hynie, now a psychology professor at York University, there is a general trend toward more conservative sexual attitudes and behaviour. "We see less positive attitudes toward casual sex than 10 to 15 years ago. The sexual revolution is definitely over."

This trend (not radical, but definite) may be connected to a number of factors. "It's a different political climate, along with AIDS and STDs; sexual behaviour has been framed in a way that implies a moral message," she notes. Interestingly, both men and women are likely to report that men are less interested in committed relationships, although both expressed equal amounts of interest in commitment.

That's right. Male students, by and large, do want relationships. When Details magazine commissioned a survey of U.S. university students a few years ago -- the largest national sex survey since the Kinsey Report -- one of the findings was that male students are more interested in soulmates than playmates. Maybe men aren't dogs after all.

Of course, that same survey indicated that the qualities male students found most attractive in a sexual partner are a nice butt, beautiful breasts and good legs. Female students, queried about the qualities they thought men found most attractive, cited sensitivity, brains and pretty eyes. Maybe men are dogs.

There is also a greater awareness of sexually transmitted diseases these days, fed by concern about AIDS.

According to Dr. Pierre Tellier, the medical director of Student Health Services, "We see a lot more students coming in together. It seems like a new rite of passage in relationships -- partners come in to get tested for STDs, usually because of concern over HIV. This didn't happen four or five years ago. It's new, and not unique to McGill."

Gert's, the downtown campus pub that serves as a central meeting place for students, is nearly empty on a Tuesday night. According to bartender Matthew Adler, who is pursuing a degree in atmospheric and oceanic sciences when not slinging beer at fellow undergrads, "Thursday is definitely the big night -- we get about 400 people in here." But numbers may belie the level of activity. "There is some cruising, but generally it's more of a hangout. I imagine some relationships are formed here, but I couldn't say how long-lasting all of them are…" he says with typical bartender's reserve.

Student pubs aren't an undergraduate's only option in the search for someone to wake up with -- according to the Details survey, five percent of university students have met sexual partners online.

Erin MacLeod, a fourth-year English literature student and a residence floor fellow, is in charge of organizing social and cultural events as well as serving as a mediator or a supportive shoulder for residence students, most of whom are in their first year. "I think there is some bewilderment among them. It's exciting and overwhelming to be one of thousands.

"The first-year experience," she says, "is much about meeting people. And McGill offers lots of opportunities." Overall, she notes, "There are so many people, so many options -- opportunity abounds. But..." But what?

But mutability, that's what. There are many out-of-towners at McGill, and often they leave Montreal for parts unknown after their sojourn here. "Everything is great for four years -- then reality hits. A lot of stuff becomes really impermanent," says MacLeod. Sam Johnston, Students' Society vice-president (university affairs), would agree. "I think people are more inclined to have shorter relationships, as there are lots of different options regarding what to do after graduating -- although people can accommodate when they need to."

Julia Dault and Peter Wrinch, who both work at the McGill Daily, are a couple who have accommodated each other successfully for the past two years. After meeting at an event organized by Wrinch, they became friends, which eventually developed into a romantic relationship.

But the question of the future now looms before them. Wrinch graduates this year -- Dault has another two years left. "Our philosophy is we'll see where it goes. We're not making any giant claims about where it should go," Wrinch says.

This response to an opaque future is not the only contemporary feature of the relationship. Says Dault, "I think we're representative in that we're each other's best friends." But, notes Wrinch, "We might be an anomaly in that we do have a serious commitment. I can't help feeling a little old at times." Most of their friends seem reassured by the couple's stability.

Notes Dault, "Every person I know clings to us. There must be some comfort in us -- all our friends are single."

What about romances formed before McGill? What if Dick opts for Simon Fraser, while Jane decides to study here? That makes for tricky terrain, according to psychology professor John Lydon.

An expert on commitment and relationships, Lydon once tracked 86 new McGill students in dating relationships with paramours in other cities. Distance might make the heart grow fonder, in some cases, but it can also be murder on a relationship. Half the romances didn't last a full semester. Only 25 percent survived the academic year.

Another finding in the study was that all breakups are not created equal. The more committed the student was to the relationship, the more painful the end of the romance was.

While most campus relationships are heterosexual, it would be a grave error to characterize everyone according to this template. Gay and lesbian relationships are another facet of life on campus. Queer McGill, a student-run information and support group is, at 25 years, the oldest organization of its kind in Canada.

Notes Marlo Ritchie, coordinator of Queerline and an executive of Queer McGill, "There are a lot of people who don't categorize themselves sexually. At the university, away from traditional communities, family members, and religious settings, people are exploring their identity and often need support."

In the last 25 years, queer rights have gained a higher profile, but, Ritchie says, "There is still a lot of homophobia on campus. McGill is, after all, a part of a larger society." Queer relations are as complex and diverse as any others, but with the added problem of discrimination.

"Is it safe for two men to walk on campus holding hands?" asks Ritchie. "Is it safe for two dykes? There is still gay-bashing on campus." The much-vaunted sexual freedom of the late nineties does not extend to everyone equally, asserts Ritchie.

What, then, characterizes contemporary undergraduate relationships? A sense of impermanence, or at the very least uncertainty, is no doubt one feature -- although, as Ritchie points out, "that sense of insecurity is everywhere, not just with the undergraduate community."

And the early twenties are, as most undergraduates point out, not really the time to contemplate long-term relationships. Additionally, while undergraduates today enjoy the freedom of recent previous generations, they may have a clearer awareness of its price. They learn this on their own and from each other: no professor would have the qualifications to teach what students need to learn about sex and relationships.