The film Love Story--the tale of a Harvard boy and a Radcliffe girl drawn irresistibly together despite disparate backgrounds--opened in 1971 and became a box-office hit.
Nearly 30 years later, hundreds of Harvard students fill Science Center lecture halls each year to witness the on-screen romance blossom against the backdrop of Harvard Yard and the commentary of Crimson Key emcees. The cheesy idealism of the movie draws snickers and sneers.
Love Story debuted when coed dormitories and classrooms were transforming Harvard, Radcliffe, and the relationships between the sexes. Today's students have a savvier, more cynical perspective. The post-Radcliffe equality of the sexes reflects a reality of new uncertainties in the world of courtship, where Harvard women are equals both on paper and by experience. The line between platonic friendships and romantic relationships is blurred. Monogamous love seems all the more elusive even as it becomes more critical. This is a generation that grew up under the umbra of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, wherecondoms are distributed like mints during Freshman Week, and where a sharp rise in chlamydia cases in the student body last year alarmed University Health Services.
We are also the children of divorce. In the immediate post-World War II generation, 80 percent of children grew up in a family headed by their two biological parents. That number has dipped to 60 percent--and is heading lower, with one of every two current marriages projected to end in divorce or permanent separation. So we seek long-term relationships, but realize their fragility.
Harvard students grapple with the idea of love. Conversations reveal that most believe love is attainable and that there is someone, somewhere, out there who could be a lifelong partner, partly because a new openness and acceptance has emerged around all forms of love. At our formals, tuxedoed male bodies clutching each other and girls in long dresses swaying together in intimate slow dances blend right into the crowd.
What brings lovers together? Naturally, it's an intellectual question debated in courses from English 90cr, "Middle English Romance," to Anthropology 114, "Evolution of Human Sexuality." Sociologist J. Richard Udry's classic text The Social Context of Marriage--its second edition was published, just like Love Story, in 1971--revealed that 40 percent of college students believed love was a feeling or kind of attraction; 20 percent thought love had more to do with companionship and compatibility; another 20 percent thought of love in terms of "giving"; 17 percent saw love in terms of security; and 3 percent looked at it in terms of efficiency, practicality, or expected cultural roles.
Love and sex come hand-in-hand for most undergraduates nowadays. Until the 1960s, sex was a very risky activity. The Pill wasn't yet available and abortion was illegal; Radcliffe students went to Mexico and France to end their pregnancies. Now, at Harvard, sex has become a matter-of-fact by-product of college attendance. Every first-year is greeted with an hour-long discussion about prophylactics. Few students raise eyebrows when suitemates have overnight guests, even if theybecome more or less permanent. According to a 1999 Harvard Independent survey of 1,800 fellow undergraduates, 35 percent of the men and 42 percent of the women were virgins.
Today, risqué "bare as you dare" dances charge less for admission the more skin is shown, to the point where coverage sometimes is nothing more than a strategically placed sock. In the early hours of weekend mornings, joggers may observe a handful of students taking the so-called "walk of shame" back to their rooms after a hook-up--the term now used for one-night stands. Pregnancy is seen more as an educational disruption than a social stigma.
The coeducational freedom of today would seem nightmarish to others. President Charles W. Eliot's 1869 inaugural address warned against the burdens of coeducation: "The difficulties involved in a common residence of hundreds of young men and women of immature character and marriageable age are very grave. The necessary police regulations would be extremely burdensome." But students say that the greatest benefit of coed residency is not fulfillment of what Noel Coward called the "urge to merge," but the friendships from which love evolves. Popular culture has given us expectations for true love and great sex. But as Harvard students and the larger society have discovered, sex cannot replace love.
Harvard students in general are perfectionist and risk averse. These qualities give rise to a romantic landscape that is bimodal: people engage either in serious, long-term relationships or in casual hook-ups--complete commitment or none at all. The middle region of ritualistic and risky formal dating has eroded. The 30 or so black-tie formals now held at Harvard every year provide the rare occasions for extending an invitation to someone you barely know. Yet even formals have become more casual: they are as likely to be attended by couples who are friends as by couples who are dating.
In the 1880s, a date often consisted of an afternoon row on the Charles River (hat carefully pinned to the head). Romance today is bred through coffee dates, casual group dinners, and late-night dorm-room conversations. "Jumping right into a dating or romantic mode requires a certain amount of formality and rituals that in our day and age are exposed as superfluous," says Rob Hyman '98. "What is really important in a romantic relationship is friendship."
Before coed living, rigid social barriers created an atmosphere where platonic friendships between men and women were "surprisingly uncommon," according to a 1971 report on a Harvard-Radcliffe experiment with coresidential undergraduate housing. Many Radcliffe students felt constrained by the burden of expectations. "There is a lot of social pressure in terms of dates," commented one student. "If you weren't going out this weekend, what was wrong with you? Something wasn't quite right." Noted another,"No matter what they say about women's liberation, you're not complete without a man." The Radcliffe Saturday-night ritual of milk and cookies used to be a consolation for girls who weren't on dates. Now "milk and cookies" has become a study break for everyone.
The study notes that the impact of coed living was almost immediate. The artificiality of the dating scene broke down in coed dorms. Women worried less about relationships with men, and focused more on friendships. In the past 30 years, the impact of coed living has solidified. But the Radcliffe Soirée, a Sadie Hawkins formal for seniors where the power is in the hands of the women, reveals a glimpse of the unbalanced dynamic of the past. Every May, senior men wring their hands, wondering whether they will be lucky enough to receive an invitation from a senior woman, or if they will be wallflowers.
Meeting the opposite sex used to take much advance planning. (Nonscience concentrators sometimestook lab courses simply to have a casual environment for conversation.) "Jolly-ups," evenings where men were invited to Radcliffe dorm lounges to socialize, provided a mechanism to scope out prospective mates. In the 1950s, the Widener reading room was the singles bar of choice, since Lamont was still single-sex.
Today, the locus of friendships--and relationships--centers on the Houses and extracurriculars. Extracurriculars are particularly fruitful: they bring together on a regular basis people of shared passions and interests. Lamelle Rawlins '99 and Rob Hyman became friends on the Undergraduate Council and began dating after they won as running mates on a president-vice president slate. Rawlins then succeeded Hyman as president. The two now have a committed, long-term relationship. "We have so many shared interests and values," Hyman says. "We got to project those onto an activity that we both were passionate about and spent 50 to 60 hours a week on. That really gave us an opportunity to get to know each other and love each other."
Meanwhile, as women's careers have taken off, marriage, for many, has shifted from the forefront of concern to the back burner. The 1956 freshman issue of the Radcliffe News described the species known as the "Husband Hunter": "She knows 53 percent of Radcliffe women marry Harvard men and she looks forward to seeing 'Radcliffe Girl Betrothed' in the New York Times." In the 1950s, Harvard freshmen were warned by the Yard Bulletinthat "Cambridge trees are laden with 'Cliffe dwellers waiting to pounce on undergrads and drag them to the nearest altar."
Now, for many women, marriage has become something to think about within the context of a career, rather than vice versa. Although many still cling to the ideal of true and lasting love, statistics show that fewer of us get married, and that when we do, it's later in life. The tradition of the "Radcliffe China"--given to the first classmate to marry after graduation--is defunct, along with the custom of giving a silver spoon to the first baby girl born to a class member after graduation.
We know abstractly that college, where we are surrounded by thousands of people of the same age and interests, is still the best opportunity to meet a significant other. Yet today, students are increasingly more concerned with constructing lives around résumés rather than romances. "Who has time for love? We have ambition," jokes Adam S. Hickey '99. "But," he admits, "it would be a better world if we made time."
Some combine résumé and romance. I know more than a few couples on campus who take the partnership-marriage of the Clintons (without the philandering) as their model for a professional and personal future. A few still make what they intend to be lifelong commitments shortly after graduation. "We did an informal count and found that 1 percent of the Harvard senior class is getting married, either to each other or to someone outside," says Chana Schoenberger Zimmerman '99. She and Gary E. Zimmerman '99 were married 10 days after Commencement, after dating since freshman year.
Others step toward the rope, but are not quite ready to tie the knot. Four of my formerroommates have chosen their post-graduation geographic destinations in conjunction with their significant others, balancing love against the competing tugs of jobs, graduate schools, and fellowships.
I chose differently. This fall I am heading off to study in Beijing for a year, with the hope that love can weather the time and distance. My boyfriend and I have a relationshipthat began in friendship, is rooted in common interests, and ultimately seems more like a partnership than any storybook romance. We have been troubled by time pressures, questions of commitment, and ambiguities of male and female roles, but, surprisingly, we're still together.
Like all Harvard graduates, I face competing questions of career and commitment. At my age, my parents were married. Two years later, my mother moved around the world to join my father. For me, marriage seems an unfathomable distance away.
My own experience at Harvard featured few dates, many coed friendships, and a couple of serious relationships. I knew no one who experienced anything quite as dramatic as Love Story. Instead, Harvard students seem to have developed our own updated, more practical love story for the turn of the century.
Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellow emerita Jennifer 8. Lee sends her love en route to Beijing.