SEARCHING FOR CONNECTION IN AN ALL~TOO MODERN WORLD
Snow falls on Montreal, bringing with it a timeworn Canadian tradition: nestling in for the winter. The cold reddens cheeks and fires hearts. November cold— whether dressed in wet eastern snow, riding a Prairie wind or bursting from a cold gust off the Pacific—sends young northerners in search of warmth. “It’s the long winters,” says Kelly Proznick, a 21-year-old music student
at McGill. “That’s what makes this a romantic city.” Proznick, her sister Jodi and their friend Sienna Dahlen sit in an artsy restaurant on St-Urbain Street and ponder the state of campus romance. Jodi has a long-term boyfriend, Kelly is single and Dahlen is single and a lesbian. All agree this time of year makes you wish for a soul mate. This season, however, the annual winter mating ritual is being hampered. Fear is not an aphrodisiac. Rumors of a cult abound, one that is infiltrating the city’s nightclubs. Armed with hypodermic needles, these invisible terrorists stalk their victims in the throbbing anonymity of dance clubs. Their attacks on unsuspecting dancers are silent and swift, a simple prick in the lower back. The victim reaches behind to find a note stuffed in a pocket. It reads: “Welcome to the world of HIV.”
Montreal is not alone. Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, New York City, London, Los Angeles: there are similar rumors of assaults in every major city. According to the Montreal Urban Community Police Service, there have been three reported cases in the past month. All were investigated and deemed to be unfounded. In fact, all reports worldwide appear to be equally false, at least as far as the police are concerned. Proznick and her cohorts say the rumor has floated around before. “It’s an urban legend, but it’s feasible,” says Nilima Gulrajani, a 20-year-old assistant news editor who reported it for the McGill Tribune. ‘When you are on the
dance floor, you’re inviting attention. Everyone is vulnerable. You’re not in control and that’s what is scaring people.” Students, who make up a majority of club-goers, are not taking any chances. Despite the evidence, many still believe the rumor. Besides, what if somebody decides to copy the method and make it a reality? “I know a lot of people who have stopped going out,” observes Christina Faustino, a management student at McGill. “They just don’t want to risk it.”
The rumor is a telling statement on the generation from which it has sprung. Today’s students, perhaps more than any other generation, carry with them an overwhelming sense of consequence and vulnerability. To them, what were once everyday mistakes can be traumatic, even fatal. Since birth, theirs has been a world of stern cause and effect. They have never known a day without the threat of AIDS. They have never known an optimistic job market. At the same time, they were taught that they could do anything and that technology would pave the way. The downside to this optimistic mantra? If you can do anything and you fail, it’s your fault—and don’t count on the government to bail you out. It all adds up to a tremendous sense of pressure, and pressure is not good for romance.
This sense of vulnerability, combined with an unflinching belief that it can be vanquished by effort and intellect, is having an enormous effect. “There is a paradigm shift,” says Sue McGarvie, a 31-year-old sex expert who specializes in campus issues, best known for hosting Sunday Night Sex with Sue, a national radio show. “Students see sex as something that can be learned and improved. They’ve had a few partners in high school and they want to make sure that the sex they have is the best they can have.” People are definitely becoming sexually active in their
teens. According to the 1998 Durex Global Sex Survey, Canadians experience their first sexual intercourse at an average age of 16.2. Once active, the survey found that teens aged 16 to 19 were more likely to have used a condom in the past three months than any other age group. But if the sex begins early, marriage and babies do not always accompany it. The most recent figures, published by Statistics Canada in 1995, show that both men and women are marrying later. In 1975, men marrying for the first time tied the knot at the average age of 24.9, women at 22.6. By 1995, this average had risen to 29 for men and 27.1 for women.
Some question the idea of lifelong relationships entirely. “I don’t think people believe in life partners anymore,” says Kelly Proznick. “But I’d like to.” To Proznick and her friends, relationships are a mixture of practical concerns and impetuous impulses. People rarely go on conventional dates, it seems. They socialize and flirt in groups. Safe sex is a given. According to
the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, those in their late teens and early 20s use condoms more regularly than those in their late 20s and early 30s. Careers come before love affairs. Long-distance relationships are common. Odds are that after graduation, Romeo will do his MA in Oregon, while Juliet will take a job in Vancouver.
Marriage comes after a high-paying job and promising career are established. It would be irresponsible to consider children until such essentials were in place.
Faustino and her boyfriend, Matthew Batterton, appear to be on that path. They have a same-city relationship. She is 21, part
Filipina and part Spanish, and a third-year marketing student at McGill. He is 22, of Irish and French-Canadian descent and freshly graduated, working at Ernst and Young but doing night classes at McGill to get his accountancy credentials. Both live with their parents. The pair met last winter through mutual friends, and their first two months of dating took place in group situations. “It’s more comfortable,” says Batterton. “One-on-one situations can be intimidating.”
The couple’s courtship is by no means unique. Most couples meet through friends and date as a collective. A suitor might describe the average group date by saying: “It was me, my friend, his girlfriend, her friend and her brother and his girlfriend and her.”
The group approach is a pragmatic tactic that allows for scrutiny. Says Faustino: “Nothing tells you more about a person than who their friends are, and how they act around them.”
When they flirt across a potluck dinner or in a pub, students are frequently asking themselves if the object of their ardor will click with their religion or race. Canadian campuses are more multicultural then ever before, and students accept interracial couples, like Faustino and Batterton, as a reflection of Canada’s modern character. It is parents who can be a problem. “I’m not very religious,” says Lina Ismail, a 20-year-old University of Toronto student majoring in political science and economics. “And my parents would never
CAREER IS A PRIORITY, MARRIAGE IS NOT
force me to give someone up. But if they had their ideal, they would like me to find someone who was Arabic and Muslim.” Parental approval, peer pressure, the media: all are secondary to the chief priority on campus—career. “I had a boyfriend for a year and a half,” says Kelly Proznick. “Now that I’m single, I find that I get way more done. If you’re going to be with someone, I think it’s really important to have somebody who understands that you’re immersed in what you do.” Batterton and Faustino overcome the pull between love and learning with “study days.” Each Sunday, the cou-
ple spend the afternoon poring over books and sipping coffee in their favorite café.
That compromise is highly indicative of campus values. The average honors student leaves university $25,000 in debt. Today, many students sow their wild oats in high school. “I want to be irresponsible and party a lot now, because, once I’m in university, I won’t be able to,” says Scott O’Flaherty, 19, a CEGEP student at John Abbott College in Ste-Anne-deBellevue. “Once you’re in university, you go out once a week and work the rest of the time.” O’Flaherty shares an apartment, nicknamed “The Dog Pound,” with his 18-year-old friend Kerry Clahane. Their drink of choice is
Yucka, a lemony mixture of vodka and sugar. Clahane describes last year’s ice storm with two words: “blackout parties.” He tries to pick up women with the line: “Do you want a drink?”—which he prefers to the latest stock line circulating the bars: “What are angels doing flying so close to the ground?”
University can prove a jarring adjustment for bon vivants like O’Flaherty and Clahane. The pressure to secure good grades, which students believe will ensure a successful life, is sometimes too great. For some, it means questioning the feasibility of relationships. According to 21-year-old Jim Doxas, a drummer in McGill’s jazz program, “My focus needs to be on what I’m doing now. To say I’m scared about what I’m doing in my life is an understate-
AVERAGE AGE AT WHICH CANADIANS FIRST TIE THE KNOT
ment. This is not Little House on the Prairie.”
But, debt loads and deadlines have not crushed passion entirely. In fact, despite such curbs, students still demonstrate a talent for indulging in time-tested postsecondary traditions. ‘There’s a whole booze-fest and sex-fest that goes on,” says 25-year-old Maria Scardigno, a York University arts student in her fifth year. “They are dogs,” 20-yearold Belinda Munro, a second-year University of Toronto psychology major, says of the male contingent. “They go to pubs, and nightclubs and try to pick up. They’re only looking for one thing.”
The official word on “sex-fests” is what one might expect. Many female students say that they do not indulge in casual sex, although they have “heard” of a number of women who do. “Residence,”
Doxas’s friend Greg Ritchie, 18, observes, “is a great place to meet chicks.” And the majority of male students say they want to indulge in casual sex but, despite their best efforts, are failing to do so, although they have “heard” of guys who do. Says McGarvie:
“Women still feel that they need to be swept away by emotion in order to be as sexual as they want to be. Men are often starved for any kind of touching. Tie only human contact they get, if they are not in a relationship, is a cuddle from grandma on the holidays.”
Those who admit to partaking in casual sex employ the measured pragmatism that is emblematic of their generation. Condoms are a must. Casual partners are chosen, and once sampled, are sometimes passed on to friends. “I thought he would be good for her,” says one woman who made this switch. “They hit it off and a year ago, I attended their wedding. He was a bit shocked when I first suggested he see her.
He said, “ ‘I’m seeing you.’ And I said, Tes, but I think you’d like seeing her.’ ”
Casual sex has always existed on campus, but some of the AIDS generation seem disillusioned and cynical. Many university students had their first long-term relationships in high school. These are often cut short by university, and many arrive footloose for the first time since they were 16.
There are some virgins, like Ian Yule, a McGill student, who says he wants to save himself for marriage. “It’s something that I think I should respect,” he says.
“It’s something I value.” This,
however, is a minority view. With so many beginning so early, sexual histories are exchanged as often as sweet nothings.
Again, pragmatism is the motivating factor. Failing to learn your partner’s sexual track record could be fatal. “Before I have sex with someone, I want to know if they have been tested,” says Munro. “If you have a single wart on your hand, I want to know how you got it. In this day and age, you have to be on your guard all the time.” Scardigno agrees. “I find myself asking men how many partners they’ve had,” she says. “And while I don’t know if they’re lying, I have to ask. I also ask if they’re into having sex with more than one person at a time, because that’s a high-risk behavior.”
In the Sixties, students “found themselves” at university. Today, some have already made many of those discoveries. This holds especially true for homosexual students. Some arrive for their first year already out and openly gay. Nick Dolf, 17, is the co-chair of the Victoria Young Pride Society, a group that conducts seminars in local B.C. high schools. He came out in January, 1998. Christopher Moon, a 25-year-old fourth-year student at the University of Victoria, grew up in a small B.C. town where “you didn’t call people gay, you called them faggot.” He hid his homo-
sexuality in high school. Today, he sees a more self-assured group of gay students arriving on campus. “People can come out in high school,” says Moon. “Guidance counsellors now know there are queers under 18.” Homosexuality brings a host of other variables to dating on campus. Single gay students cannot rely on mainstream pubs and social events for making amorous connections. Despite the increased acceptance of homosexuality on campus, many gay students still feel marginalized. Incidents, such as the gay-bashing murder of 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Sheperd last month, exacerbate fears of hatred. “Unless you’re really lucky, you have to rely on gay clubs and student groups to meet people,” says Dahlen, in her third year of studies at McGill. “And I think it’s tough on gay men. I’ve found that there are a lot of gay men on campus who can’t meet guys who are into having relationships. Personally, I would like to be with someone I consider a soul mate.”
That is perhaps the only value upon which students, regardless of gender, age or sexual préférence, appear to uniformly agree, What’s unique about many students is that they openly discuss such topics. Four years ago, Jodi Proznick and a couple of female friends would meet at a local McDonald’s to “eat fries and talk about sex.” Today, they’re more likely to congregate in a coffeeshop or at the apartment the sisters share. What do men want? “Sex and more sex,” says Jodi. “But not
WOMEN LOOK FOR HONESTY, SUPPORT
just sex—someone who’s sensitive to them and caring.” What do men think women want? ‘To be pampered and coddled,” she says. What do women really want? “Someone who is honest, real and up front, and supportive of your career.” Students, especially female students, are not shy when it comes to communicating in the bedroom. “Men can be taught,” says Jodi. “If you tell them where to go and what to do, they are willing to do it.”
Doxas and his friends hold similar conversations. Looks attract, but intelligence and a sense of humor are the clinchers. Sex, not surprisingly, is high on the list. “But,” Doxas observes, “it’s not the sex you’d miss most in a long-distance relationship. You’d miss the sharing and conversation. That is the nicest thing about a relationship, having someone to confide in without restriction. With your male friends there is always that locker-room thing.” Ritchie agrees. “There’s that thing girls have,” he says, searching for the right word and, in doing so, articulating a sentiment uttered by generations of freshmen gone by. “Sensitivity?” And so another student begins his education.