Heart-shaped box

Valentine’s Day gifts sit on a display shelf at a Walgreens location in Bentonville ahead of the holiday.

If you ever find yourself capable of time travel and are suddenly unsure what time of year you’re in, head to the nearest Walgreens. The seasonal aisle will tell you all you need to know. At this time of year, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and teddy bears line the shelves, each waiting for a chance to prove that romance isn’t dead after all. Unfortunately, for some, Valentine’s Day season is not a time for red and pink crepe paper or cherry cordials — it’s a reminder that society values romantic partnerships and often defines people based on their relationship status.

Feeling pressure to be in a relationship is not unique to college students — people of all ages can experience a push to pair up. Society clings to the idea that singleness should be avoided or pitied. For college students, though, the expectation to find a partner comes from a particular intersection of circumstances, where constant exposure to people in the same age group meets anticipation and fear of the future.

There is a somewhat universal sense of panic among college students surrounding thoughts of the future. There seems to be an expectation that even if one does not have a set-in-stone plan, one should at least have a clear direction for the next five to 10 years of life. Putting aside the fact that such a notion is unrealistic and impossible for most people, there is also a largely unspoken expectation lurking behind those for academic and career goals: long-term relationships.

In addition to worrying about whether they’ve chosen the right major or what career path to pursue, students are bombarded with messages from all sides goading them to seek romantic connection. Social media, TV shows, family members, peers — whatever the source, the pressure is there, and it can get overwhelming.

And romantic pressures are not limited to the search for an exclusive relationship. Even if someone chooses not to pursue something “serious,” the prevalence of dating apps and the nature of party and hook-up culture can make students think there must be some sort of non-platonic interaction woven into the college experience. Unfortunately, this is a standard that is impossible to live up to. There is no way to date in college that will please everyone.

That is true for sexual activity as well. It seems to ring true that having too much sex is frowned upon, but so is not having enough. If you have sex with someone new every week, you might get slut-shamed, but if you have never had sex, you could get called a prude. If you’re in a committed relationship, people often assume you have had sex, even if that is something you choose not to do. It can be uncomfortable for people to explain why they do or do not have sex, relationship or not.

It is important to note that the pressure men and women face in regard to sex and relationships in college is often different. There are pervasive references to things such as “getting an MRS degree” (a play on the “Mrs.” title many women use after marriage), the implication that some women are in college to find a partner rather than receive an education. The phrase “ring by spring” insinuates that women in long-term relationships pressure their partners to propose before the end of senior year. Additionally, women who have sex casually or with multiple partners are often shamed for their choices.

Men also face unique challenges in navigating relationships and sex in college. Men who have never had sex, whether by choice or circumstance, might be teased or coaxed into doing so before they are ready because of the widespread notion that men are inherently more sexual. Men in college who have never had sex are often pitied until they “lose their virginity” after which they are celebrated.

Ultimately, an individual’s choice to be in a relationship or not, to have sex or not, or to date casually or not is up to that person and no one else. There should be no commentary on someone’s dating or sex life unless that person asks for it directly. And there should be no pressure one way or the other to find someone to spend the rest of your life with while in college. Just because society values romance does not mean you have to — and even if you do, your relationships do not define who you are. You can always buy yourself that box of chocolates.

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