Although the two reporters are each in a long-lasting, heterosexual relationship, the students were quite a bit more diverse. Joost (21), a History student, had a relationship for three years but is single now and identifies as bisexual but without the actual experience to back it up. Anne, 21 years old as well and a Psychology student, has been happily single for two years and is also looking to men and women as possible dates or friends with benefits. The 28-year old Psychology student Stefano hasn’t been around on the dating scene much, but is exploring it now. He identifies as heterosexual but did take a look on the other side. And finally, 19-year-old Erasmus University College student Em identifies as non-binary and has been in an open relationship with a girl for four months now.
Elmer: Em, could you tell us a little more about your relationship?
Em: “I’m in a relationship with a girl I met at Erasmus Pride. It’s probably the most fast-paced relationship I’ve ever been in. She moved in with me even before we started dating. She just came to my house and never left.”
Elmer: Wait, you didn’t even know her yet?
Em: “Barely. We met quite a few times before. It was complicated, I was in a different relationship at the time. That was an open relationship as well. I met her at the time I was thinking about breaking up, and we bonded over her ex and my soon to be ex. Trauma bonding is how a lot of gay relationships start, to be fair. It was during her Eurekaweek, so we had a lot of time to go out together. I broke up with my girlfriend and we just started spending all our time together.”
Anne laughs: “That is kind of how relationships between women go, very fast. It’s kind of a stereotype to be honest.”
‘If you put two women together, and put love and sexual tension in there, it just kind of explodes’
Feba: Why is this, you think?
Anne: “I find it hard to acknowledge differences between men and women because of, you know, feminism, but I did notice a lot of women are more open about their emotions and ways of thinking. If you put two women together, and put love and sexual tension in there, it just kind of explodes. That’s my theory.”
Elmer: Joost, you said you were bisexual but your long-lasting relationship was with a woman. Did you also have relationships with a man?
Joost: “I never had a relationship with a man, most of the time I like women. But occasionally I think: that’s an interesting man. But I never did anything with it.”
Elmer: Why not?
Joost: “I’ve never felt comfortable with being straight. Kids always called me gay, and that annoyed me because I didn’t know what I wanted yet. And I remember other boys saying: ‘I could never have sex with a man, or love a man’, and then I started thinking about it. I never had the aversion that some men have. So from that point on I knew I was bisexual.”
‘We talk about everything, like: I’ve had sex with this person or that person gave me an STD’
Feba: How does it work nowadays, if you’re in a relationship, when you get to know each other? Are there different stages and what do you call them?
Joost: “We have a name for everything in Dutch. If you start off with dating, you’re called a scharrel, then you move to a kwarrel (quality scharrel), then a prela (pre-relationship) and then rela (relationship).”
Stefano: Do you guys actually discuss this with each other, like ‘I’m totally in a prela now’?
Joost: “No, not literally. But I’m part of a student association, SSR-Rotterdam, so it’s normal for us to talk very openly about this kind of stuff. We talk about everything, like: ‘I’ve had sex with this person’ or ‘that person gave me an STD’.”
Elmer: SSR has a magazine with a kissing ranking in it. How did you score?
Joost: “Haha, not so high last time, but last year I scored a lot higher!”
Stefano (laughs): “I regret not being part of an association right now. I’m very competitive so that would’ve worked for me! To be more serious, dating has been difficult for me. I’m quite reliant on dating apps, because in real life I have to figure out if another person is interested. I’ve got autism, so situations occur in which I’m blissfully ignorant about whether a person might be interested or not. In apps, if you have a match, the other person is probably interested. You don’t have to take so much risk making somebody feel uncomfortable. It sounds much easier to be in an environment where dating is talked about in such an open manner as at SSR-R, which gives you the opportunity to discover what you really like in people.”
(The conversation continues below the frame)
It is notable how none of the students in this conversation are necessarily aiming for the ‘traditional’ heterosexual, monogamous, long-term relationship. According to Daphne van de Bogardt, founder and project lead of the Erasmus Love Lab, this is not all new. “Many young people nowadays question existing social norms about gender, intimate relationships, and sexuality. That is not new in and of itself, just think about the prior ‘sexual revolution’ in the sixties and seventies, but different periods have different specifics. As a sociologist, I am not surprised that after decades of increasing divorce numbers, the current generation of young people questions the meaning and desirability of long-term monogamous relationships or marriage. Combine this with the increasing fluidity of gender identification, and the prolonged stage of emerging adulthood (in other words, young people reach economic independence, stable housing, monogamous relationships, parenthood at increasingly later ages, if at all), and it makes sense that social norms about partnership, family formation and also sex are being deconstructed and reconstructed.
Van de Bogardt sees this mostly as a positive development, but not without its challenges. “It may even have its advantages, because having to adhere to traditional, strict rules regarding love and sex can of course also be very difficult for individuals, and can be really risky for people’s wellbeing. But it does create new challenges for today’s youth. As a pedagogical scientist I also see in the stories of these students how important different social contexts are in this regard: parents, siblings, peers (such as student organizations but also partners themselves), popular media and digital technologies are tremendously important locations where they encounter different values and opinions about love and sex. What young people need, perhaps now more than ever, are the tools to navigate these exciting times for the deconstruction and reconstruction of gender and relationship norms, so that they can find their way toward healthy and happy intimacy and sexuality.”
Feba: How about you, Em, how is dating handled in Erasmus Pride?
Em: “It’s true that associations offer more opportunities, since it’s probably easier to count the members that I didn’t kiss in my association than the ones I did. When everyone is sort of gay, a lot of tension is going in all different directions. There’s also a lot of drama because of that. Everyone is someone’s ex-girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend. But everyone is open and kind to each other.”
Feba: How do you navigate dating within a student association if you’re gay?
Joost: “In an association, you’re almost like brothers and sisters, so it becomes weird sometimes. There were always gay people around in traditional associations and that was fine. But in my dispuut we have eight men, and the majority of them is actually gay. Which I think is new.”
Anne: “In my jaarclub half of the members are gay in some form, so we have our own community. I know which women I can kiss, heterosexual women as well, that’s kind of how it goes.”
‘I got cold feet before I met up, and for me that’s when I knew I wasn’t attracted to guys’
Feba: Stefano, how would you describe your sexual orientation?
Stefano: “I’ve tried to figure out where my sexuality lies, I think the easiest answer is straight. I’ve tried to figure out whether I was gay. So I set up a date for myself with a man. But then I got cold feet before I met up, and for me that’s when I knew I wasn’t attracted to guys. So I’m mostly straight, but I did have moments with people who are non-binary. I don’t know how to define it, it’s a bit fluid.”
Anne: Em, I had a question about your open relationship, what are your rules?
Em: “As long as I’m your most important person, and you don’t sacrifice your time and energy on someone else, it’s fine. I’m not really a jealous person, as long as my own needs are met. Then there are some people on the no-no-list, like exes or enemies.”
Anne: Is it a poly relationship or open?
Em: “I think a poly relationship would be less hierarchical, with multiple equal girlfriends. In mine, we really come first. It’s not like we need to be with someone else, but it’s nice to have the option. We’re both very flirty people. I remember the Halloween party of Erasmus Pride, and I think I kissed thirty people in one night. She was there and just said: you go girl!”
Stefano (laughs): That’s a lot of points for the ranking.
‘I remember the Halloween party of Erasmus Pride, and I think I kissed thirty people in one night’
Elmer: Do you tell each other everything that happens?
Em: “Yes, whenever we see someone cute, we tell each other about it when we come home. We both know who we find attractive. We did have a situation where I was at a party and I was talking to this girl, and it came across as if I was flirting with her. I did not realise that was going to hurt her, but it did. And we immediately sat down, because I wanted to talk so I wouldn’t do it again. Boundaries are going to be different for every person you meet. That’s why communication is very important, we talk all the time.”
Feba: Did you have to come out to your parents?
Anne: “I was raised pretty open-minded. They always said: you can always bring your boyfriend or your girlfriend! And I was wondering, what do they know that I don’t? But they were kind of right in the end. I do think they have a slight preference for me marrying a man and getting two children, which is the exact opposite of how I see my future. I sometimes feel like I’m letting them down. However, I have a sister who is very much looking forward to the future that they want, at least they can be grandparents, and I can be the aunt.”
Joost: I know they’d be okay with it, I haven’t told them yet because I haven’t had a relationship with a man. If that happens, I’ll tell them and everything will be fine.
Stefano: “I don’t talk to my parents about relationships at all, especially not regarding my sexuality. They’re not homophobic, but they make comments that make me feel like I don’t want to poke the bear. Once I made a TikTok video, in the trend where you can decide which of two celebrities you think is the best looking. You have a male and a female version. So I did both, because well… I wanted to do it! I just thought it was funny. And then, my nephew and niece both went to my little sister, and asked, is Stefano gay? My sister knows me exactly, she said: that’s just how he is.”
Elmer: Who did you think was the most handsome male celeb?
Stefano: “First it was Chris Hemsworth, then James Franco showed up and he beat everybody. Some friends were disappointed I chose him over Andrew Garfield.”
Elmer: Does your sister know more about your sexuality, like you trying to date a man?
Stefano: “I’m not sure what she knows exactly, but I think she does. She’s quite religious, so she doesn’t quite approve of gay relationships. However, we have a strong bond, so if I was, I know she would accept it.”
‘I did get some comments that I can become a pain in the ass if I don’t have sex for a while’
Feba: How important is dating life for you guys?
Joost: “I have the dating apps, but I mostly use them for mindless scrolling. It’s always something you have in your mind though, when you go out for example. But looking for ‘the one’ is not something I believe in.”
Anne: “I’m very happy on my own, and I’ve been learning the past year how to be single. I did get some comments that I can become a pain in the ass if I don’t have sex for a while (laughs out loud). I’ve had a time I wasn’t very active by choice, but people started to notice. But I like the intimacy, the tension, and that’s not always what other people are looking for. I can go without sex, but I prefer to be in a situation where I’m able to date.”
Elmer: Are you looking for sex or also for companionship?
Anne: “I prefer not to have one-night stands, companionship sounds a bit too much but I prefer someone I could see more often, to build up that intimacy and have a little bit of connection. To watch a series, cook together or play a game. But not actually be together.”
Joost: “Honestly, after I’ve had sex with someone and I’m sleeping there, then at 4 am I sometimes think: I could still go home now. Sometimes it feels very uncomfortable to wake up and hear someone say: good morning! Would you like some breakfast? No thanks! Otherwise it can so quickly turn into this whole thing.”
‘When I’ve had sex with someone and I’m sleeping there, then at 4 am I sometimes think: I could still go home now’
Feba: Fast forward fifteen years from now, how do you see yourself? Are you still exploring or living in a house with two kids?
Em: “I feel already kind of settled down. Maybe weird to say if you’re in a non-monogamous relationship. But it’s relatively stable. For me, the line between platonic and romantic is blurred, so I don’t think I’ll ever have just one connection with one person. I have different people for different purposes. Oh, that sounds horrible but it’s not like that. I have very good friends I’ll discuss everything with, and then I have people that are just for sex, and others are for both.”
Anne: “I don’t see myself in a closed relationship, but you never know. I also don’t need to be in a relationship. I aspire to be that rich aunt that’s always on holiday, no one knows what she does in life but she comes back with the best conversations for her nieces. We’ll see.”