A College Student Explains Modern Dating to His Mother

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“Roadtrip,” by Nicole Rosenthal, of her son Billy. Photo: Nicole Rosenthal

How to Raise a Boy is a weeklong series centered around this urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo. Here, a 20-year-old UC Santa Cruz freshman, Sam, talks about dating — with his mother, Leslie, in the backyard hot tub.

Sam: I completely support the #MeToo movement — we’ve moved in a positive direction in terms of dating in the 21st century. But if I were to talk about downsides, you just have to be a lot more careful. I wouldn’t approach someone on campus and just say “Hey,” and start talking. My friends don’t either. There’s a voice in the back of my head, whether it’s rational or irrational, Maybe you think this girl’s cute. If you talk to her she’ll probably think that all you want is sex.

Leslie: People do want sex.

Sam: Right, but there’s this whole other culture of like pickup artists, on YouTube these guys that make a video called, like “How many girls’ numbers can I get in an hour by doing this trick?” It kind of dirties the whole thing, makes it a more sour culture. Here’s another thing. In olden times, you weren’t on your phone. For example, when you’re waiting for the bus on campus, it’s expected that you’re gonna be looking at your phone. Or you have headphones in, which is another way of blocking out the world. And if everyone else is on their phone, you’re not gonna benefit from being the one who’s not, right?

Leslie: You almost might be the weirdo, like, “Hey! How are ya?” And they’re like, “Um I’m listening to my music …”

Sam: I’d appreciate the chance to live on a college campus before the advent of cell phones. I have trouble even just making connections with people not in the dating world — just finding new friends, because of the phone.

Leslie: Like striking up a conversation in those waiting moments, waiting for class to start, or when class ends, waiting for food?

Sam: Even if it’s dumb chitchat, at least there’s not zero percent chance that you’re gonna get to know the person. Even in exciting moments, if something crazy is happening. Like, a few weeks ago a bus caught on fire on campus. No one was talking. Everyone was just taking videos with their phone. And Snapchatting their friends. Maybe a few words were exchanged, but —

Leslie: So you’re not dating?

Sam: No.

Leslie: And your roommates?

Sam: No. S. is not. J. is trying Tinder and he doesn’t have any success either.

Leslie: It’s weird to me, you’re on a college campus filled with beautiful young people and everyone is using Tinder.

Sam: I resisted it for a while — I just wanted it to kind of happen naturally. Not an amazing meet-cute or anything, but I was hoping that something would happen. But there was just … there was just absolutely nothing. I mean, why try to talk to the schmucks around you when there’s unlimited choices that you can swipe right and left on your phone? There’s always something better.

Leslie: Hopefully you’ll find somebody.

Sam: I’m still on the grind, so …

Leslie: But you’ve never been like, Today I’m gonna challenge myself. Today I’m gonna go up and talk to somebody.

Sam: No. Here’s an example. You enter a lecture, right? You go sit down next to some girl. At least what’s running through my head is that she’s gonna think you’re sitting down next to her to flirt with her. So I purposely sit next to some dude, or I notice that people, if they’re able, they’ll always leave a gap on both sides of them. You’ll never sit next to anyone.

Leslie: But what if a young woman wants a cute guy to come sit next to her?

Sam: How would you know that? [Laughs.] I don’t have good intuition about this stuff.

Leslie: And you’re not one of those beer-can-bashing-over-your-head frat guys. You’re a good guy. So you’re probably being extra sensitive …

Sam: If I appeared creepy to someone, that would be one of the worst things to me. I’d feel really gross. One time I was on the bus standing up, on my phone. I guess I was kind of leaning over, and there was a girl sitting in the seat, and she was like, “Excuse me, could you please move away a little bit?” And I guess I took that to mean: This person thinks I’m creepy. This person thinks —

Leslie: She just might have wanted some more space.

Sam: Yeah.

*A version of this article appears in the March 5, 2018 issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

A College Student Explains Modern Dating to His Mother