One Fish or NO fish?
The Dating Experience, St. Olaf College Style
The purpose of this study was to come to a better understanding of the
various dating experiences and patterns on the campus of St. Olaf
College. In addition, a student-defined paradigm of the concept
of dating was sought out and compared with definitions from past
research. Through qualitative research, patterns, attitudes and
behaviors are revealed. Using persons of different ages, gender,
and sexual orientation was crucial to the representation of this
study. After conducting fifteen interviews, it can be determined
that casual dating in the sense of several noncommittal relationships
is a rare occurrence at St. Olaf. Students are heavily influenced by
the physical proximity and mental framework St. Olaf College creates
and seem to defy the larger social context of casual dating on college
In order to understand the various dating
experiences that will be discussed later in this study, it is crucial
to explain the context in which these experiences exist.
Collectively, the experiences of each student are affected in one or
several factors related to the location and setting of St. Olaf
St. Olaf College is a private, Lutheran-affiliated
four-year educational institution situated on a massive hill in the
midst of dozens of cornfields. Located in Northfield, Minnesota,
St. Olaf College is about forty minutes south of Minneapolis and St.
Paul, two large metropolitan areas. Northfield has a population
close to 15,000 people with both of its colleges, St. Olaf and Carleton
College in session. The town offers tiny cafés, coffee shops,
grocery stores, and a few bars that students frequent regularly.
St. Olaf provides transportation to the Twin Cities through bus shuttle
services and college-owned passenger vans.
Since St. Olaf College is located on a large hill, the fact that 99% of
the student body lives on-campus all four years is not a surprising
one. Residential living, which is central to community
development in a college setting, is divided into twelve residence
halls. Five halls are reserved for first-year students: Kildahl,
Ellingson, Hoyme, Kittelsby, and Mohn Halls. The halls are co-ed
by floor, and are broken into corridors. Junior counselors,
selected members of the junior class, serve as mentors and resources
for the new students during their entire first year. Living in
the residence halls with the first-year students allows for the
fostering of community growth and helps students adjust to college
The upperclassmen have the choice to live in Ytterboe, Mohn, Thorson,
Mellby, Larson, Hillboe, and Rand. Upper-class students have a variety
of options for living arrangements. Every hall except for
Ytterboe offers special living spaces, such as triples or quadruples in
addition to singles and doubles. Ytterboe offers students the chance to
live in “pods,” which are sets of rooms located around one larger
central room. Each room enters into the large living space, so it
forms a small community within the larger social context. The
upperclassmen halls are also co-ed by floor, but students have a
greater variety of options to choose from for living arrangements.
Furthermore, juniors and seniors with motivation to formulate volunteer
projects have an option of living in 11 honor houses, which are all
part of residence living. Generally, those looking for a more
intense experience and who have decided to dedicate more of their time
to a specialized project find honor houses to be extremely
fulfilling. St. Olaf College also encourages students who are
involved in foreign languages to consider living in one of five
language houses. One who lives in a language house must speak
their respective language at all times, so students are fully immersed
in the language.
Also crucial to the community setting is the
structure of Buntrock Commons. Finished in November of 1999, the
Commons is the largest single gift of a benefactor St. Olaf has ever
received. Centrally located on the campus, Buntrock Commons
serves as the crux of college life on campus. It architecturally
and symbolically links the three symbols of St. Olaf College: the
institutions of church, academic excellence, and community life.
With glass-lined skyways, the Commons joins Boe Chapel and Rolvaag
Library on both sides.
All of the necessary details of
college life are centralized in Buntrock Commons. The student
cafeteria, Stav Hall, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a
ski-resort atmosphere. Students can also purchase gourmet food and
drink in the Cage, located on the main floor of the commons. Its
open-air and informal atmosphere provides ample space for students to
study, converse with friends, professors, parents, or take a break from
the business of college schedules. For all purposes of entertainment,
the Lion’s Pause presents a wide variety of shows and concerts in a
professional venue. Pool tables, a video arcade, and another
student lounge complete with a television complement the relaxed
atmosphere. Students also have the ability to purchase food and
beverages from the Lion’s Kitchen. In addition to the Lion’s
Pause, the Viking Theatre is a small movie theater, complete with
comfortable chairs and a podium for lectures and speakers.
The student bookstore also complements community at
St. Olaf College. Students can purchase everything from textbooks
and greeting cards to tampons and granola bars. The commons also
serves as the main transportation stop for the buses to the Twin
Cities, health clinics in Northfield, grocery stores, and Carleton
College. Various services, such as ATM’s, laundry card deposit
machines, the telecommunications office, the main printing center, and
numerous conference and meeting rooms are all located in Buntrock
Commons. Therefore, a student does not need to go very far to
access any of the daily demands of a college schedule.
Most vital to the community and its relevance in
understanding the dating context are the 2,956 individuals that
comprise the student body. Students represent all fifty states
and twenty-four different countries around the globe. They bring
their respective values, beliefs, and philosophies into the diverse
fabric of student life. Generally academically driven, students
strive to make the most of their education and the financial burden the
tuition bill creates. The majority of students who choose St. Olaf
College as their destination comprise the highest quarter of their
graduating high school classes. With each subsequent year, the incoming
classes become brighter and more inquisitive.
For the class of 2005, the average ACT score was 27, along with an average GPA of 3.7.
Part of the mission statement of St. Olaf College
sums up the hopes and goals of St. Olaf College in its effort to foster
the whole of the individual with community in word and action.
St. Olaf is committed to the thoughtfulness of the liberal arts, and
faithfulness to religious traditions. The college is also committed to
the cultivation of community. We are mindful of the ways that the
extracurricular life of students complements the life of the classroom,
and vice versa. The campus culture, therefore, is an essential part of
a St. Olaf education, since the values that govern campus life are
interwoven with the values that imbue our liberal artistry and
religious character. At its best, campus life is thoughtful. At its
best, it is spirited as well as spiritual. By living in close proximity
with 2500 other young adults, our students take part in a form of
experiential education where they are the primary teachers. St. Olaf's
campus life is guided by the college, but ultimately it is determined
by the students, who each year teach each other--in hundreds of
different ways--how to be Oles and responsible adults. This coming of
age in community is an essential aim of St. Olaf College. (St. Olaf
Mission Statement, website).
Therefore, understanding all of the physical, spiritual, and mental
aspects of the different communities on the St. Olaf College campus
helps place the numerous dating experiences into context. His or
her environment heavily influences each person, whether or not they
choose to acknowledge it directly or indirectly. The social
community of St. Olaf serves as a model of how an environment can have
influential control over one’s overall experience, specifically
The prospect of dating enters every new college
student’s mind as he or she sets foot on his or her respective
campuses, whether a person finds oneself at a large university or a
small liberal arts college. Through the media, specifically Hollywood,
college is portrayed as the time where freedoms of every nature and
flavor run rampant. Free from parental control, students
encounter life on their own for generally the first time. Scenes
of wild fraternity and sorority parties litter the movie theatres as
directors target the large purchasing power of generation X. Movies
such as “American Pie II” and “Animal House” instill high and wild
standards of the scene that must be experienced for the ultimate
satisfaction of college life. Dating is portrayed as a game,
where the ultimate goal is to get the other person in bed, or in a
current slang term, to “score”. Furthermore, many large
universities offer somewhat of the experience witnessed in
movies. For example, students at James Madison University refer
to dating on their campus as ‘the game.’ Student editor Courtney
Crowley of the student newspaper, The Breeze states that within the
four levels of dating (hanging out, hooking up, seeing each other,
dating and going out), various games are played within the levels.
Usually the games revolve around social scenes, such as fraternity or
sorority parties or in the classroom. (Crowley). Similarly, the
University of Virginia refers to their dating scene as a game, with
most of the dating turned into a process of ‘hooking up’ and hanging
out for a couple of days (C. Avery, online).
Yet, when stepping on to the campus of St. Olaf for
the first time, a whole new world that seems separate from other
realities comes into existence. There seems to be a different type of
paradigm at St. Olaf that differs from the greater college and
university campus. Over the past three years on this campus, I have
encountered a wide array of personal opinions of the frequency and
quality of dating experience from friends and acquaintances
alike. Almost daily, I hear someone I know complain about how
dating does not occur on this campus. And if someone does go out
on a date, so much stigma is placed on the potential for something to
happen that those involved get frustrated and often give up.
Consequently, my own perspective has served as the
impetus for pursuing the constant complaints and voiced frustrations of
the dating scene on campus. My first year on campus, I came out as a
gay male in the spring. Soon after, I found myself in my first
dating relationship with a male. During the entire beginning
stages of the relationship, when we were spending time getting to know
each other, friends and acquaintances bombarded me about the status of
our relationship. Not quite sure if it was because it was a
homosexual relationship, I did not pay much attention to the energy
other people were investing into my own private relationship.
After I broke off our dating because of my feelings for a woman, I
became much more aware of the attention people were placing on my
private life. Rumors were circulating, and people I did not know
very well were coming up to me with ridiculous stories they heard about
my personal life. As a result, I grew extremely hesitant to date
on campus again.
Since that relationship, my confusion regarding my
sexuality has subsided and I know now that I was too quick in putting a
label on myself. Over the past year, I have wanted to pursue
possible dating scenarios with numerous women, but hesitated because of
the reaction I thought I would receive from the gay community and the
community at large. Currently, I am in involved with a woman for
whom I care deeply. But the process of trying to date this past
year and trying to avoid labels while living in the context of the St.
Olaf community has been a frustrating process. Often, I have
questioned my idea of casual dating, which to me is getting to know
people through off-campus endeavors.
Furthermore, I found I was not the only frustrated
Ole on campus. The issue of dating became a problem when I
started to listen to all the frustration and personal observations of
friends and peers on campus. I would constantly hear comments
“Oh, people don’t date here at all!”
“People are too busy to date- my boyfriend broke up with me because we weren’t
“Guys are wimps: they’re too afraid to ask girls out.”
“We don’t have frats (fraternities) or sororities, so there’s no where for people to
The trends and statistics of relationships at St. Olaf are also
apparent and scream for attention. For instance, a common
archival statistic states that 60% of St. Olaf graduates find their
spouse during their four years at St. Olaf. Another alarming
trend that is called into question is the prevalence of long-term
relationships in the midst of a myriad of single people.
All of these comments and cries of giving up made me inquire what it is
about St. Olaf that defines dating in such a different behavioral
framework than most other campuses. Students seem to be confident
in their academic abilities, but are they anxious when it comes to
dating? Evelyn Lesure-Lester conducted a study on the
relationship between social assertion and social anxiety in regards to
dating competence. In Los Angeles, Ms. Lesure-Lester surveyed 217 men
and women 18-22, from five ethnic backgrounds, and various
socio-economic statuses. She found a positive relationship
between dating competence and social assertion and social
anxiety. Individuals who were confident about dating tended to be
less socially anxious and more assertive in social situations
(319-320). This could point to the level of social anxiety on this
campus. People might be anxious when it comes to dating and
social situations with people they are attracted to.
Another possible explanation that could be part of the issue is the
workload of students at St. Olaf. College is an academically rigorous
time, and could also be part of the problem. Cynthia Schiege and
her colleagues guided a longitudinal quantitative study on the effects
of workload and perception of the work environment in exclusive dating
relationships. She observed that those that ended their
relationships during the study had different attitudes than those that
maintained their relationships. However, at St. Olaf College, the
workload is tremendously fuller than the average university student’s.
However, the question still remains of whether or not it plays an
influential role in determining dating patterns and behaviors at St.
Furthermore interesting is the prevalence of anorexia nervosa and
bulimia on the campus of St. Olaf, although highly ill reported and
discussed. I hypothesized in the beginning stages of formulating
the problem of the extent to which eating disorders effect dating
habits. Jeffrey Sobal and Mark Bursztyn were also interested in the
effects of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa on attitudes and
beliefs of dating. Through a quantitative study of 752 university
students, they concluded that people with eating disorders had a
difficult time dating. If they did date, it would generally
include conflict and an overall negative experience. Men offered that
they would rather date an anorexic or bulimic girl rather than an obese
one, but still recognized the difficulty in the experience. Could this
possibly be part of the problem of the supposed little casual dating
Another main facet of the problem
is discovering the patterns of people’s dating habits in the absence of
social structures at St. Olaf College that foster the presence of
casual dating. Other schools, such as the University of Michigan, have
online dating services provided for by the school. A student can
enter in personal information and then it will match the student up
with the gender of choice, and leaves the responsibility for the person
to make the move (U of M, website). In addition, structures such
as the fraternities and sororities of schools like James Madison
University provide an informal, yet personal atmosphere for students to
constantly meet new people (Crowley). What are the
social structures at St. Olaf that foster dating, if any exist, and how
do people’s perceptions reflect the community in which they live? What
is the role of the administrative institution of St. Olaf in aiding the
current issue of St. Olaf that is not discussed enough in public?
After having built a foundation of certain questions
I was seeking, it was at this point that I felt ready to delve into the
process of collecting the experiences of dating within the context of
St. Olaf College.
In this particular study, the main objective was to gather a fair
representation of the definitions, experiences, and perceptions of St.
Olaf college students. I focused on creating a cross-sectional
view of St. Olaf including age, gender, and sexual orientation.
In addition, I tried to locate individuals who came from different
subpopulations at St. Olaf, including various organizations and
majors. Since I was questioning whether casual dating occurred,
it only made sense to interview a few people in long-term relationships
to hear their stories. I came up with an initial list of twenty
total subjects, for I knew that due to lurking factors, it was better
to aim high and hope for a high response rate. For representation
of age, I narrowed my sample population to five each of first-years,
sophomores, juniors, and seniors. As far as gender goes, I based the
representation off of the male to female ratio. Currently for the
academic year of 2001-2002, the college campus male to female ratio is
close to 45% male, 55% female. My initial intentions were to
gather an equal number of experiences for both men and women.
Furthermore, the sample population of St. Olaf in this study could not
be close to complete without understanding the experiences of the gay,
lesbian, bisexual students as well. Locating gay men was fairly
easy for the researcher, as I am an upperclassman who knows a fair
number of gay men from the campus. However, looking for those who
identified as lesbian or bisexual proved to be difficult. I was
limited by the conservative nature of St. Olaf, where most people who
identify as bisexual or lesbian remain discreet and anonymous.
Therefore, it was imperative that I asked people I trusted to offer
possible names. Once I had some possible leads, I contacted the
twenty people I had in mind in person and explained the focus of my
research. Each person I approached agreed to be
interviewed. Next, I sent out emails to each person and set up
interview times with them. Over a period of four weeks in March
and April of 2002, I conducted fifteen interviews. My original
intention was to interview an equal mix of class year, gender, and
sexual orientation. I intended to interview at least one person
from each class year who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and
then two males and two females from each class. However, due to
time constraints, mixed schedules, and lack of leads I was not able to
fulfill my initial goals. Therefore, my final sample of
individuals whom I interviewed contained nine women and six men.
Of the women, seven of them identified as heterosexual and two
identified as bisexual. I ended up with six men who agreed to be
interviewed and followed through with their commitment. Of the
six, one identified as gay, one identified as bisexual, and four
identified as heterosexual. Regarding class year, two males (one gay,
one heterosexual) and two females (both heterosexual) agreed to answer
the questions. I had two sophomores, a heterosexual male and
heterosexual female. As for juniors, a disproportionate number of
women were interviewed: four females, one bisexual and three
heterosexual. Only one male, who identified as bisexual, decided
to be interviewed. Seniors were more equally represented, with
two males (both heterosexual) and two females (one bisexual and one
The majority of my interviews were conducted in the vicinity of the
Buntrock Commons. Ten of them were interviewed in the Cage, a
neutral space where the subjects felt comfortable enough to share their
complete thoughts. I also interviewed three individuals in the
booths of Stav Hall, which provide a sense of security and
confidentiality. Only one was conducted in the residence hall of
the interviewee, but it also was the same hall as the researcher.
Interestingly, one of the interviews took place on the bus during an
organizational trip. All of the subjects were asked explicitly
where they would prefer being interviewed, and the majority of them
chose the Cage. All of the subjects were briefed at least three
or four hours in advance of their interviews as to what the focus of
this study was, so they all came at least knowledgeable of what I was
aiming towards. Another interesting point to mention is that
almost every time I mentioned the topic to a possible subject, the
response was always, “Or lack thereof of dating?” with a twinge of
sarcasm. These comments only served to raise questions regarding
Therefore, I focused mainly on gathering information through the
process of interviews. I chose to focus on this method due to its
open-ended nature at collecting information and experiences. Each
interview consisted of a base set of questions, but in each particular
case, the conversation would stem off certain responses the interviewee
gave. I tried to allow the participants to guide the interview
and not try and worry about where it was going unless it was irrelevant
to the focus of this study. Consequently, I ended up collecting a
wide array of perceptions and experiences, but had to sort through much
of the side notes of their experiences to pull out patterns and
behaviors. In addition, the focus of my research most likely
suffered because of the lack of control in the direction of the
interviews. However, acknowledging that people’s experiences and
stories do not fit inside boxes allows for a broader range of
perceptions and aids in a more qualitatively accurate and intriguing
After gathering all the information provided by the
participants, it became incredibly difficult to find an efficient way
to organize the stories. After careful review of my field notes, the
majority of responses seemed to fall within four distinct categories:
how people actually meet, what goes on with the dating scene on campus,
attitudes regarding casual dating and its existence, and factors of the
community that create the cultural norm of dating. Incorporating
the experience of all students is crucial to the accuracy of this
research. Therefore, as a researcher I tried to gather an equal
number of experiences from the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community on
What is Casual Dating?
In collecting stories and experiences, I promised
every person the privacy of their stories. Therefore, I am using
pseudonyms for every individual, regardless if they had issues with
their privacy or not. The first question I asked every single person in
their interview was for them to give me their own personal definition
of casual dating so I could recognize whether or not we were on the
same level of cultural understanding. Each person said almost the
exact thing as the next, only in his or her own words. Sarah said
it was going out on a date with a relative stranger for one time
somewhere on or off campus, but most likely it would have to be
off-campus to be recognized as a date. Brent, a first year, and
Bjorn, a senior, agreed with Sarah. They both said a casual date
is going out to dinner or a movie with someone for the sole purposes of
getting to know someone better. Lucy added that as a first-year
student, casual dating is limited to the St. Olaf College campus and
the town of Northfield. Rachel added that it is physically going
with someone for coffee, a movie, or just some fun and not worrying
about getting into a relationship with that person or about how things
will end up between the people involved in the date.
Michelle and Meredith had similar ideas about what
casual dating involved. Both likened casual dating to a
friendship where two people spend time together having fun and hanging
out. Michelle added that you can have one friend that you spend
the rest of your life with, but you need lots of friends to figure out
who you are in relationship to the world around you.
All the rest of the individuals expressed similar responses.
Also, all agreed that casual dating did not necessarily involve intense
levels of physical contact other than kissing and holding hands, if
These personal definitions seemed to agree with the
cultural norm of what constitutes casual dating. Like many of the
responses of students, Dr. Sheron Patterson offers a clear definition
of casual dating. “If you’re in a mode of life or in a social
situation where you seek to meet lots of different people and you’re
not attempting to be in a serious relationship, dating more than one
person at a time would be fine,” (Editorial 22). Dr. Tiy-E
Muhammad agrees. He adds, “Regular or casual dating is just that,
casual dating. In this form of dating, you don’t owe anything to
the other person more than common respect and courtesy.” (Ed.
23). He stresses that a person should date many people that will
allow a person to have a variety of experiences that are crucial in
teaching oneself about one’s needs and dislikes in relationships.
Both Dr. Patterson and Dr. Tiy-E Muhammad agree that dating many people
does not mean jumping in and out of many people’s beds. The dates
should be clean and fun, they offer. Therefore, the idea of
casual dating in a larger context is similar to the concept within the
community of St. Olaf College.
The Initial Swim: How Dating Partners Meet
According to a majority of the individuals I
interviewed, meeting potential people for dates or possible
relationships starts in the first-year residence halls.
Initially, students come to campus and are randomly thrown into a
residence hall where they will spend a majority of their hours.
Therefore, a person’s first encounter with dating starts in the
residence halls. This was true for many of the people I
interviewed. One sophomore that I interviewed, Josh, said he came to
college unattached. However, he began dating a girl he met in his hall
two weeks into the school year. After they decided things were
not working out for either one of them, Josh met someone else a few
weeks later walking out of Buntrock Commons. He caught up with
her, struck up a conversation, and then they began to spend more time
together. They dated for about two months before breaking things
off. Brent, another first year male was interested in two girls,
one of which was in his hall. They spent some time watching
movies and talking before he worked up the courage to ask her out on a
date. In addition, Lucy, a first-year, relayed a couple stories of her
dating experience. One guy that was interested in her threw a
surprise birthday party for her in her room. They spent some time
together before that, but did not have much of a bond.
In a similar manner, a junior student named Michelle
who identified as bisexual said she also met her first college-dating
partner in her hall. In fact, the girl she started dating was in
her own corridor. They spent a fair amount of time together
within their residence hall because of convenience and time. Similarly,
Jamie, a senior, offered her experience with her residence hall.
She met her first serious boyfriend in her hall on Hall council, and
the direction the relationship took was a direct result of their living
in the same hall together. Another one of the females I
interviewed had a similar dating experience. Until the beginning
of this year as a sophomore, Kate had been dating a guy from her
hometown. However, she met a guy when she was with her friends at
the Pause, and they struck up a connection. She wasn’t sure she
would see him much, but one day she ran into him in the stairway of her
hall, and found out that he lived there. He came to her room,
they talked for a long time, and have spent time with each other ever
since. Kate even admits that her relationship was very convenient
because they both lived in the same hall, because they do not waste
their time walking to other places to meet each other.
Convenience is not the reason they are together, but may have had a
hand in why they started dating in the first place, she confesses.
For the gay community, meeting people is much
harder. One first year gay male that I interviewed stated how
frustrated he was with the lack of structure for the gay community.
Adam had dated once back home whom he had met through a mutual friend,
but when he started to talk about dating on campus, he became very
flustered. “You spend a lot of time trying to figure out who’s
gay or not, and even if you did find out who was gay, approaching them
is a whole other story.” (Interview 2). If one was to find out
who was gay, asking that person out is setting oneself up for
rejection, humiliation if the person is not really gay or still not
comfortable with their sexuality, or possible gossip. He likes a
few guys at this point, and his mode of analysis and pursuance is
through mutual friends.
Rachel, a senior who identifies as bisexual, relayed
similar frustrations. She met her first girlfriend on campus her
sophomore year. The girl, who happened to be one of the leaders
of the gay community, approached Rachel and asked her out on a
date. However, with her second girlfriend, it was very hard
to approach her because she was not sure if the girl was attracted to
women. In addition, Rachel was not out to her roommate, so she
could not bring the girl back to her room to hang out. However,
to do something about her frustrations and the feelings of others, she
and a group of bisexual women started the Bisexual Women’s Group, which
met once a week to discuss issues regarding bisexuality and have a
place where women felt safe to explore their ideas and discuss with
others who shared the same feelings. The attendance was regular with
anywhere from five to fifteen women attending. In this manner, these
women were provided a way for connecting and meeting potential dating
partners, although that was not the original intent of the group.
Concept of Caf Dating
After interviewing all fifteen of the individuals in
this ethnography, I noticed that each one of them had mentioned the
student cafeteria, Stav Hall, and offered their own disgruntled
frustration with what occurs inside the walls of ‘the caf.”
People on the St. Olaf campus say they have dates
with others all the time- men with women, women with women, or larger
groups of people together, and even some men with men at times.
However, when people are actually meeting one-on-one, calling the
breakfast, lunch, or dinner with a certain person a date gives the
situation a different connotation. The issue of the cafeteria
brought on mixed reactions. One senior male mentioned his
frustration with the ‘caf’. Kyle thinks it has a lot of pressure
because everyone is watching you, whether it is direct or indirect. His
sophomore year, he was in a long-distance relationship with someone
from Nebraska. On campus, though, Kyle spent a lot of time in the
cafeteria with a close friend who happened to be female. He was
very worried about people’s reactions and the possibility of rumors to
get back to his girlfriend who lived in Nebraska. Kyle complained that
it is very hard to go to dinner with a friend of the opposite sex and
not have people question whether or not it constitutes a date.
Finally, he had to get to a point where he did what he wanted to do and
stopped worrying about what others thought.
Two of the other males expressed their own similar
perspectives of the cafeteria. Josh said that during his year of
not dating, he just wanted to get to know people on a ‘friends’
basis. Since everybody has to eat dinner, the cafeteria serves as
a convenient way to understand people in a familiar setting. He ate his
lunches with many girls over the course of the year, and friends would
tease him about what ‘the flavor of the week’ was, referring to what
girl he was getting to know. Josh agreed that the cafeteria
carries some connotations, but he also pointed out the importance of
forming one’s own perspective. In the same way, Bjorn expressed going
to the ‘caf’ many times with different girls, solely for the purpose of
getting to know them personally and because it was convenient.
Interestingly, the cafeteria is used for dating in
certain contexts. On one hand, it can be used for the initial
meeting time between two people. For example, Lucy relayed her
‘date’ in the cafeteria with someone she barely knew. Before the
date, she liked this guy and was interested in getting to know him
better. However, after their date occurred, things between them
became very awkward and have not returned to normal. He would pass her
in the Commons and not acknowledge her presence. Consequently,
she feels incredibly awkward whenever they see each other now.
Therefore, nothing substantial came out of their date.
On the other hand, it can be used to foster existing
relationships. In one particular case, Kate told of her
experience with her current boyfriend. Since they do not see each
other very much due to their busy schedules, the two of them often
choose to eat meals together in the cafeteria. As a result, they
both consider this part of their ‘alone time’ together.
Fortunately, they live in the same hall, but meals are times when they
can catch up on the day with each other. In addition, since Kate
and her boyfriend do not have much time to go off-campus during the
week or even on weekends, the cafeteria serves as their ‘dates’.
One Fish or No Fish?
Out of the fifteen people I interviewed, only five
of the individuals were in a relationship of varying definitions at the
time I conducted the interviews. Out of the five that were in some type
of relationship, four were women dating men and one was a man dating a
woman. The rest identified as single. For the purpose of
this study, it is interesting to understand the development of the
long-term relationships and their personal views on dating, and the
experiences of the single individuals I interviewed.
Sarah was the first person I interviewed. She
had dated five guys on the St. Olaf campus before her current
boyfriend. They have been dating since November of this school
year, but on and off since last spring. All of her dating
experiences started out as friends first and then progressed. She
would not pursue anything with anyone unless she saw potential for
something special. Her current boyfriend ‘enhances’ her being by
understanding her ‘anal-ness’ about doing homework on weekends and her
crazy schedule. Sarah does not think casual dating, as
termed previously by the researchers and the individual subjects,
occurs at St. Olaf because one must see the person they went out with
the next day. She thinks consequences exist for dating relative
strangers at St. Olaf because of the close proximity in which students
live on campus.
Another female perspective on dating at St. Olaf
comes from Jamie, a senior who has dated eleven different times with
eleven different people. She used to spend her time looking for a
long-term relationship but now she thinks it is about going with the
flow and seeing what happens with someone. Jamie has had a couple
of serious relationships, not including the one she is in
currently. According to her opinion, when two people go out,
other people and friends make an incredibly huge deal out of it.
For instance, her co-workers in her office are always in each other’s
businesses, and if something happens to one of them, everyone else
knows in ten seconds.
A couple of the females I interviewed offered
perspectives on their friends or roommates. Kate talked about her
roommate’s relationship. Her roommate met a guy who was a senior
on her interim abroad trip. Since then, they have spent almost
every waking hour with each other. As a testimony to the
seriousness of their relationship, they bought a dog together, which
lives in her boyfriend’s room. Kate thinks they are practically
engaged. Similarly, Lucy discussed her corridor that she lives
in. A majority of the girls in her corridor are dating, and those
who are happen to be dating men off-campus. She said even some of
her male friends are dating girls off-campus, mostly from home.
Lucy’s roommate also serves as another example of a typical dating
experience on St. Olaf College. Her roommate and her boyfriend
have been together for three years, since their sophomore year of high
school. They both chose St. Olaf, not because of each other, but
other circumstances. Their relationship has definitely changed
since they arrived here in the fall, but the nature of their
relationship is as serious as ever, if not more so now.
Out of the men, only one was in a serious
relationship. As a first-year, Josh had dated twice in the first
three months he was on campus. Then, he vowed to stop dating for
one year to figure out what he was really looking for, and what dating
really meant to him. He says his hiatus was the best possible
thing for him to do. Josh learned a great deal about himself and his
needs in the time alone, and reflected on why he wants to be with
someone and how to make relationships work. Also, he now strives
to say only what he absolutely means and to be clear and direct in his
actions and intent.
After his year was finished, Josh was in the process
of figuring out what to do with a woman for whom he cared. They
were getting to know each other better and he wanted to be sure he was
doing the right thing. Central to his being is his faith, and he
knows that he and his girlfriend need to be able to click spiritually
and be at the same level, as well as in larger social settings.
When he did decide to pursue a relationship with this particular girl,
he asked himself many questions, like “Could I see myself spending the
rest of my life with this girl?” If it isn’t going to lead anywhere,
Josh maintains, it is not worth pursuing.
One of the junior females I talked with voiced her
frustration about the dating scene on campus. Kirstin came to
school here originally as a first-year, and spent a year and a half at
St. Olaf College before transferring to a large university. Then,
she came back because she missed her friends and the atmosphere at St.
Olaf. Unfortunately, Kirstin recognizes it did not come without
any consequences. At the large university, she had joined a
sorority and found the dating scene to be fun and exciting.
Kirstin had dates almost every single weekend she was living
there. However, when she came back to St. Olaf, her looking for a
date was interpreted on this campus as being boy-crazy, even though she
is trying to recreate the experience of a large university. Kirstin has
since gone on a few dates, but with little success of fun. She
found the men weird and did not know what to expect with them.
Kirstin worries that people think badly of her because she makes dating
a priority as part of her college experience. She thinks people
constantly pry each other for personal information, and therefore any
sense of privacy or anonymity is not an option on this campus.
Fish of Other Tails, Colors-The GLBT Dating Experience
Out of the fifteen interviews, four of the people
identified as gay or bisexual. I interviewed two bisexual women,
one bisexual male and one gay male. Each of their experiences
adds a rich qualitative layer to the context of this research, and it
is with their representation that my research attains a greater sense
of reliability and accuracy.
The dating experience among the gay community on
campus varies with the comfort level of each individual. As
Andrew described, he had to go back in the closet because he was afraid
of what some of his friends might think. He would like to date,
but does not want to play the ‘guessing game’ of trying to figure out
who is gay or not, because even if he figured out who was gay, he still
would not want to date them because they were not comfortable with
themselves. Andrew also voiced his frustration with the lack of
structure for any support or people to talk to. He feels GLOW,
the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender advocacy group on campus is
not very visible and he cannot really talk to his straight friends
about some of his thoughts. Andrew doesn’t care if people
question his sexuality because he knows everyone does, but he tries not
to pay attention or act as if he cares, which deep down inside he does
One of the most fascinating experiences I
encountered was that of Michelle, a junior female. She started to
date a girl in her first-year corridor, and they dated for around a
year. But it was very difficult to date in her first-year hall,
or on this campus in general because no personal space exists for
anyone. Michelle stressed that everyone is in everyone else’s
business. For instance, the entire hall knew about her
relationship with her girlfriend before she had a chance to say
anything. She also has encountered several conservative questions
on this campus, like “What’s it like to be gay?” She answers
them, “It’s just like being you,” meaning that no difference
exists. Michelle also has encountered people’s thoughts that
since she is a lesbian, that she must have all this ‘gay sex’ all the
time. She thinks people want to put her in a box here on campus,
and since she thinks no one fits in a box, it is very difficult for her
to live with. She is currently dating a guy right now, which has
created some questions from friends and acquaintances regarding her
sexuality. The general response was surprise from everyone, even her
parents. Her mom asked her, “So what are you?” as if she needed to
defend her reasons for dating a person who happened to be male.
People want her to give an answer on who she is more attracted to, men
or women, as in a ratio or something of that sort. Michelle feels
no one fits inside an invisible social box and sexuality is something
to be celebrated privately with someone we love.
Michelle thinks the dating scene on campus is hard
to handle because everyone is in each other’s business. Since
people question her dating a man, they exude certain expectations of a
gay person and how one is supposed to act, who they are supposed to
date and how physical one is supposed to be with others. She
senses that it is very hard to meet others who are gay because there is
nowhere to meet and hang out. Similarly to the first-year male,
she agrees that GLOW is not a comfortable group to be a part of.
She feels like GLOW is a false support network, where people sit around
talking about gay men who have crushes on other gay men on campus, and
the same for women. She sees the need for something more
inclusive and a more active voice on campus.
Similarly, another female, Rachel, has expressed
experiences that parallel those of Jenelle. As a sophomore, she started
dating a senior female who was a very active member of the gay
community at St. Olaf. They would spend a majority of their time
together off-campus because Rachel did not feel comfortable being in an
open relationship with another woman on campus. Her roommate
never knew that she was bisexual, so she never brought her girlfriend
back to her room. She also worried about acquaintances’ reactions to
her situation with a girl. Rachel did however, feel safe in her
girlfriend’s pod in Ytterboe because all the girls living there either
identified as lesbian, bisexual, or had no issues with sexuality.
She also dated another female her junior year, and the situation with
taking their relationship off-campus was also true.
Her senior year, Rachel met an older man at a club,
and they started dating. Her friends were okay with it and did not
question, but others had their doubts and concerns. Some
expressed to her that they thought she was just in a phase, or she was
denying who she really was, and some were just shocked. Rachel also
expressed her frustrations with the difference in the
relationships. She would never bring her girlfriend to hang out
with her friends because she did not want it to be awkward. However,
when she was dating a
guy, they spent time with both her and his friends for a majority of the time.
With the gay community, Rachel expressed, people are much more
discreet. Dating occurs behind closed doors or off-campus. She
shared that it is rare for a same-sex relationship to be open on the
St. Olaf campus, especially for women. Rachel also said that it
is relatively easier for gay men because men are generally more out
than women. However, there are more gay people on this campus
than most people visibly see, she offered. For instance, last year, she
started a bisexual women’s group with some other friends that met once
a week to discuss issues related to ideas and thoughts they were
processing. It served as a way to bounce ideas off of each other, and
created open dialogue about a topic that is not talked about very much.
Dating did not result from the group, but if it did happen, it was
According to Peter, a junior who identifies as
bisexual, the gay community is not inclusive and supportive at
all. Rather, he says, lots of backstabbing, talking behind each
other’s backs, and forcing people to make crucial decisions about
themselves are just a few of the horrific activities that have occurred
in his experience. He has had a few experiences with both men and
women on campus, but with the men, he would not label it
‘dating’. Agreeing with the rest of the individuals I spoke with,
Peter says that everyone has to know each other’s personal lives, many
times at the expense of integrity and dignity. In his own
experience on campus, Peter was cornered in his own room by two members
of the gay community in order for him to share an encounter he had with
another person. They tried to force him to say that he was
gay. Therefore, Peter remains extremely frustrated, and tries
very hard now to live a private life.
A Fish’s Perspective of the Swimming Conditions
When asked about the factors of the community that
hinder casual dating, every single person I interviewed responded with
varying degrees of emotion, ranging from passion to frustration to even
hopelessness. I always received the feeling that the topic of
dating and relationships was an issue that carried a sense of
negativity and was discussed frequently by everyone. First, the
majority of the interviewees would adamantly declare that casual dating
did not occur at St. Olaf. Then, they would always offer their
perspective of what kinds of dating do occur at St. Olaf.
Consequently, all of the responses seemed to fit a general pattern.
Those that thought casual dating did not occur on campus would
automatically give the answer that it was due to the fact that St. Olaf
is a small college and if one goes out on a date with someone, they
have to see them the next day. Sarah said that as a result, there
is no sense of closure or moving on after a date because you must deal
with that person after the actual date if things do not work out.
Almost everyone discussed the kind of dating they did witness at St.
Olaf. Kate, Kirstin, Holly, Jamie, Kyle, and Meredith all agree that
two types of relationships are dominant at St. Olaf. Kate
puts it best for all those who agree. On one hand, there are
those relationships that are taken for granted and no time is spent
nurturing the growth with the other person. On the other hand, there
are those relationships where the two involved see nothing but the
other person. Both are extremely unhealthy, but are definitely dominant
at St. Olaf. Another type of dating that occurs, which Jamie and
Holly both see, are the relationships where it is purely based on
physical attraction and physical contact with no mental or emotional
The academic focus of the college plays a large part
in the lack of casual dating on this campus, and even in existing
relationships. Kyle has had other priorities his entire time at
St. Olaf, and they have focused mainly around his schoolwork and
earning the grades to get him into graduate school. The work ethic and
rigorous class loads are main influences in the dating scene on campus,
according to Kate. Even though she has a boyfriend, they hardly
see each other. They often spend the little time they have
together doing homework. She says her situation is not a rare
occurrence among her friends. Furthermore, Lucy adds that the
time people spend doing homework, going to classes, volunteering, and
participating in extra-curricular activities leaves little time to do
anything else, let alone date someone.
Since St. Olaf College is a religiously affiliated, Josh and Lucy
suggested that this factor of the community might hinder the prevalence
of casual dating. Lucy put it best when she discussed the
implications of attending a school rooted in religion. St. Olaf College
offers numerous Christian activities for students to participate
in. A rough estimate by a Fellowship of Christian Athletes
coordinator set the number of participants in some type of activity at
1,000, or approximately a third of the student body population.
If that is the case, then the focus of dating as searching for a life
mate is something shared by many people on this campus. From his own
experience, Josh personifies this particular attitude on dating.
After his hiatus, he realized the importance of dating as seeking
someone that one could possibly spend the rest of one’s life with,
built on the foundation of their faith lives and sharing a life and
Another huge factor for influence was the
community’s focus on building strong life-lasting friendships.
Bjorn thinks that people spend most of the little free time they do
have on hanging out with friends and having random fun, rather than
spending time working on serious relationships. Most people,
consequently, choose to spend those few nights with friends instead of
pursuing something else. Interestingly for Lucy, her male and
female friends do not hang out in the same group of friends, so she is
torn between the two groups on the weekends. Rachel agrees with
both Bjorn and Lucy. She says that when someone makes the
decision to date at St. Olaf, they are making the decision to spend
less time with friends. “But it is all about how you look at your time
and what’s important to the individual”, Bjorn says. Also, Rachel
mentioned that among her friends, they become jealous of friends that
are dating people. Therefore, their behavior discourages them
from even considering dating. People’s circles of friends serve
as suppressors for any possible casual dating experience by commanding
the majority of the time of those who wish to otherwise date.
Bjorn added two very interesting possible factors that contribute to
the lack of casual dating. First, he mentioned that he thinks St.
Olaf College, both the student body and the education, creates a deeper
sense of respect and integrity in how to handle relationships and
women, specifically. Among his closest friends, derogatory
comments directed towards women are not thrown around in everyday
conversation. If one of his male friends wants to talk about a
girl, they tend to talk one on one with respect for the girl and the
situation. This is true among younger men on campus, such as
Brent and his friends. They have started a group called the
Forlorn club that serves as a transitional group for men who are
getting out of relationships or looking to start one. They talk
on an informal basis about the frustrations of dating, and discuss
women with respect.
The other factor that Bjorn discussed was the level of independence
women attain at St. Olaf College. Most of the girls he knows have the
mindset that they have to be single for the first year or so after
graduation. They also maintain a sense of independence on campus,
and demand much more than women in relationships, according to
Bjorn. He says that men do not understand why women want to wait
until their late twenties or early thirties to get married. Men
on campus are much more ready and open for long-term relationships than
women, he thinks.
The IDEAL Fish-Conclusions
Within the findings, several patterns of interesting data appear.
First, students tend to agree passionately that casual dating does not
occur as it does on large universities with social structures to foster
that particular type of dating. ‘Dating’ in the sense of going
out to movies, dinner, getting off-campus and going somewhere, tends to
happen more frequently in the context of an existing
relationship. People can casually date, but it must be an active
participation on the part of both individuals involved. Actions
must be clear and direct with both parties in order to realize what
they are doing. In addition, the majority of students participate
in passive-aggressive behavior in regards to dating. On one hand, the
discourse and time spent thinking and discussing dating and
relationships are incredible. However, little effort is taken to
do something about the discourse.
Furthermore, a variety of factors stemming from the community at St.
Olaf College play their distinctive roles in forming the overall
cultural definition of dating and the social and cultural norms.
The physical space of the campus, with most of the student body living
on campus and spending a majority of their time in the central location
of Buntrock, aids in forming a community where everyone sees each other
on a frequent basis. As a result, people must deal with the
consequences of seeing someone they go out on a date with because 99%
of the student body lives on campus all four years.
The focus of friends within St. Olaf is also a major contributor to the
lack of dating in a casual sense. Since much of the time students
have is spent on academics and extra-curricular activities, little free
time exists. The campus focuses on trying to build strong,
life-long friendships to take beyond college. Therefore, if
someone were to start dating outside the friend group, they might be
looked down upon because the energy and time that would normally have
been spent on the friends is shifted now to the significant other.
Therefore, time and all its consequences are the major factors of the
type of dating at St. Olaf College. Students are drawn to St. Olaf
because of its rigorous academic life and its challenges to the
individual to think for him or herself. Classes and labs are
quite demanding not to mention all the outside lectures, conferences,
and speakers, groups and organizations sponsor to supplement the
overall educational experience. As a result, people treat their
academics as a full time job on top of their other outside
activities. In turn, the more time is used on educational
activities, the less it can be used for social purposes. In addition,
the time spent with friends is accumulated until no energy and time
exists to pursue possible relationships.
Conclusively, I found that no actual social structures are in place at
St. Olaf College to foster casual dating. The structures that are
in place, such as music and athletic organizations instead give room
for long-term relationships to prosper because the commitment of time
and energy to a certain extra-curricular activity together allows for
two individuals to spend more time together and bond. Both of these
structures are featured by shared interests and environments, which
only serve to create stronger ties between people. Residential
living also serves as a tool for building relationships and not dating
casually due mainly to the fact that one most likely has to see the
other individual on a regular basis and can have no closure.
Furthermore, sexual orientation does have an effect on the dating
experience at St. Olaf. Those who identify as gay, lesbian, or
bisexual have a harder time meeting possible individuals to date and
are more prone to gossip and rumors than heterosexuals. However,
the casual dating scene for both is almost completely
nonexistent. For bisexual women, it was much easier for them to
date men than women on campus, but in exclusive manners rather than
casual dating. As for bisexual and gay men, dating does not come
easy. The relative size of the gay community is so small that it only
serves as a deterrent to date on campus, which makes dating casually
Possible Theoretical Explanations
Michel Foucault’s discussion on commentary and
discourse offer a framework in which to carry the entirety of the
dating experiences at St. Olaf. In his famous book, Archeology of
Knowledge, he discusses the formation of discourse. Foucault
begins by saying that everything with the same label is not the same
thing and that the difference between differently labeled things may be
a habit of thought. The problem with the habit of thought in
place is that within our own language community, we fail to see the way
in which we have allowed ourselves to talk about things in arbitrary
language practices. Therefore, they have become second nature to
us. Without suspecting anything, Foucault argues, humans group
distinguishable objects into unities and therefore create our objects.
The unity of discourse that is created is “the interplay of rules that
define the transformation of these objects” into somewhat of a set of
rules (Foucault 33), which ultimately is the discourse in practice. In
his thoughts on commentary, he believes that it is discourse that
paraphrases and explicates the surface meaning of a text.
Comments that are based on our suspicions that are given to us from a
source other than the author, such as dating scenarios, are weak and
very dependent on the meaning available to the one composing the
commentary (Archeology of Knowledge).
Understanding dating at St. Olaf means comprehending the process in
which the community enters to create the discourse in practice.
Casual dating does not carry the same labels for every person within
the community, along with the numerous other levels of dating on
campus. The habit of thought at St. Olaf is one of negativity and
frustration with the lack of casual dating and seemingly high
prevalence of serious relationships. Yet the student body and the
institution as a whole has failed to publicly and collectively
acknowledge the way in which dating is discussed and approached.
The set of rules that apply to dating are extremely relative to each
individual on the campus of St. Olaf College. Therefore, the
entire institution, including the administrative sector, does not focus
on the discourse of dating. In turn, the set of rules remains in
the hands of students, who flounder in thought and action because the
practice of dating has not set of rules or criteria in which to
follow. The way people discuss dating and comment on it is the
way in which it is practiced. Therefore, if discussion focuses on
how dating never happens, then it will not occur on a general
whole. Other schools, such as James Madison University and the
University of Virginia, have talked about it openly and with the
administrations of the respective universities. Even the college
of Bob Jones University that banned interracial dating on its campus up
until 1999 and now requires permission slips from parents whose
children want to date other races, has talked about the issue and
discussed its stance (Piatt, online). Even though the position is
highly controversial, the set of rules within the discourse is clear
and at least offers a chance for change in the future.
As food for discussion, I envision this study to be used as a tool for
putting legitimacy to a large cultural issue at St. Olaf College.
Furthermore, I would love to form a panel for discussion on the topic
of dating at St. Olaf, and encourage people of all ages, races and
ethnicities, and sexual orientations to come and express their
frustration and hopelessness or happiness with the dating scene on
campus. I would greatly enjoy hearing more opinions on what
happens at St. Olaf, and to hear about all the stories and experiences
I did not represent in this particular study. In addition, it
would be encouraging if people read this ethnography and walked away
thinking about their own experiences and questioning whether I am close
to being accurate or not. This is a study of people’s perceptions
and experiences, and therefore I know that I am not covering everyone I
ought to. However, if I could present my findings to a greater
population of St. Olaf or maybe another small, liberal arts college in
the Midwest to see if my findings hold true for other colleges besides
St. Olaf, then I would be able to determine whether or not this is a
particular phenomenon or a growing pattern.
I would suggest that further research be conducted on the attitudes of
seniors as they graduate from college, and how their views of dating
and relationships are affected short and long-term. I would also
suggest, even for myself, to conduct more research with this particular
study on the nature of sexual intimacy within the context of a
relationship here at St. Olaf. Speaking from experience and the
findings I have, I would venture to hypothesize that the prevalence of
premarital sex is much lower than that of a larger university setting.
These questions served as a base for conducting each
interview. Not all of the questions were asked during each of the
fifteen interviews. However, I used these as reference points if
the conversation needed some help going somewhere.
Have you ever dated on campus?
If so, what do you consider a date?
How many times have you dated?
What are you looking for when you go out?
Do your motives change? If so, how and why?
What is it like to ask someone out on a date?
If it is (easy/hard), why do you think that is?
Who’s responsible for asking someone out, the guy or the girl?
What do you look for in a prospective date?
What motivates you to ask in the first place?
Is there peer pressure to ask someone out?
Did you date your first year?
If so, for how long?
Do you feel more open toward each other or closed off?
Do you tend to date strangers or friends? Why?
Where do you go to meet people?
Can you tell me a general scenario at the bar and how people pick each other up?
Is it generally the man’s responsibility or the woman’s?
Give an example of how you would ask someone out on a date.
Do you think dates happen very often on this campus? Why or why not?
Specifically for gay/lesbian/bisexuals
Have you ever dated on campus?
If so, was it hard to be open to the St. Olaf community in your relationship?
Did people treat you differently while you dated?
Is it more common to date off-campus relationships?
Where do you go to meet people?
How do you find support for dating on campus?
Do you receive support through the gay community on campus?
If you have never dated on campus, can you explain your reasons why?
Do people question your sexuality or motives?
Do you care if people question?
Is it difficult to pursue love interests on campus? Why or why not?
Specifically for Bisexuals
Have you dated both men and women on campus?
Was it difficult for your partner when you told him/her that you are bisexual?
What do you think people’s misconceptions of bisexuality are?
Do you think that the misconceptions feed into the difficulty of dating on campus?
The following paragraph is the release consent form
for the information gathered during the interview process. Each
individual filled in their name and penned their signature, symbolizing
their release of information for the purpose of this particular study.
I, ___________________, am participating in the research of the dating
experience on St. Olaf College. I understand that anything I say might
be used for the purpose of this particular study. In addition, I
understand that everything I say is completely confidential and my name
will not be published in the final form of the research. For the
betterment of St. Olaf College and the overall experience, I promise to
give honest and accurate information to the researcher.
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Garbarino, R. (2002 April 13). Interviewed by Jacob Barclay. Field notes taken and
Madson, T. (2002 April 18). Interviewed by J. Barclay. Field notes taken and
Patrignani, J. (2002 April 22). Interviewed by J. Barclay. Field notes taken and
Klawiter, J. (2002 April 25). Interviewed by J. Barclay. Field notes taken and transcribed.
Wright, G. (2002 April 25). Interviewed by J. Barclay. Field notes taken and transcribed.
Hoffman, L. (2002 April 25). Interviewed by J. Barclay. Field notes taken and
Gagner, D. (2002 April 26). Interviewed by J. Barclay. Field notes taken and transcribed.
Nickel, E. (2002 Feb-April). Interviewed by J. Barclay over a series of discussions over
A period of three months. Field notes taken sporadically and transcribed.
Petros, R. (2002 April 26). Interviewed by J. Barclay. Field notes taken and transcribed.
St. Olaf College Mission Statement
Friend Finder Service