Paulist Productions, Mpower Pictures and Family Theater Productions have released The Dating Project, a new documentary film available online or on DVD. [Editor’s note: See CWR’s April 19, 2018 review.] The film follows five single people as they navigate the changing dating scene in America, including two college students, two career women, one just beginning in her career and the other in her 30s, and a man in his 40s. The film is directed by Jonathan Cipiti (visual effects supervisor for The Drop Box and Irreplaceable), and attempts to show a wide spectrum of ages and experiences single people have today in the dating world.
Playing a central role in the production is Professor Kerry Cronin, who has taught philosophy and theology for 22 years at Boston College, a Jesuit institution serving 9,500 undergraduate students. Cronin describes herself as both a “devout, traditional Catholic” and an advocate of traditional dating. Her participation in the film began, she explained, when about a dozen years ago “I realized that students weren’t dating and I sort of was finding out things about hook-up culture. And I thought, ‘Well, this is crazy.’ So, I started asking students to go on what I refer to as ‘traditional dates.’”
The filmmakers learned of her dating assignment at Boston College, and invited her to play a prominent role in the film. She recently spoke to CWR.
CWR: How did the idea for The Dating Project film came about?
Kerry Cronin: About dozen years ago, I went out for ice cream with eight seniors after an on-campus event. Their graduation was approaching, we were celebrating the success they’d had, and I started talking to them. I’m a direct person, and I asked them about who they were dating and if they’d keep dating the person after graduation. They looked at me as if I were speaking Greek. Of the eight seniors, only one had dated while at Boston College.
I asked a lot of questions and learned they weren’t dating, but instead had stepped in and out of the “hook-up” culture. I had heard about it, but I didn’t realize it was so predominant.
I was teaching what we call Boston College’s Capstone seminars, where we talk about life issues. I had 15 students, so my assignment to them was that they each go out on a date. We kept talking about it week after week, but by the end of the seminar, only one had gone out on a date. Most didn’t know what to do. They’d ask, “Who do I ask out?” “Do I need to be in love with them?” “What do you talk about on a date?” It was all so strange.
So, the following semester I gave the same assignment to the same group, but this time with instructions. The instructions were such things as: you have to ask out the person in person, you have to pay, dates are to last only 60 to 90 minutes and you have to have a definite plan. You need to do something simple in the next three days, such as go out for ice cream or coffee. No alcohol. You end the date with only an A-frame hug. You’re courteous, and thank the person for going out with you. The instructions proved very helpful.
One of the great things about the project was the many on-campus discussions to which it led. Our students live in apartment-style dorms, so they’d bring back the assignment to the dorm and talk about it with their roommates. People were staying up until 2 a.m. talking; it was the most beautiful thing about it.
I’ve been doing the assignment for the past 12 years, and about three years ago I was getting calls from documentary filmmakers wanting to shoot a movie about it. I ignored their requests at first, but when I got on the phone with one, I was talked into it.
CWR: What has this process taught you about dating?
Cronin: I’ve learned a ton. I’ve read some great books, but I learn the most from the students themselves. They are happy and desirous of telling their stories. They want to talk about dating. Previous generations of young people may have wanted to keep their dating lives to themselves, but today’s young people crave older mentors. They’ve grown up in the “hook-up” culture, and welcome the outside help.
CWR: Were there any surprises?
Cronin: Yes. I had previously assumed the men had wanted the “hook-up” culture, for example, and were resistant to dating. It was the women, I thought, who were looking for relationships.
But I discovered quite the opposite was true. Young adult men are looking for relationships, but it was the women who didn’t want them, and prefer the “hook-up” culture. Women control the “hook-up” culture and are perpetuating it.
CWR: Why do you think this is true?
Cronin: Women hear messages from the culture, warning them about getting sidetracked by a relationship. They’re told to get their careers straight first. They take on a lot of debt in college, feel guilty about all the money their parents are spending on their education, and want to go out and become titans of industry. They figure they’ll get to dating at some point in their 20s, but they discover that they don’t know how to do romantic relationships. They have an underlying fear in this area; they feel they’re not competent when it comes to dating.
I had a conversation with one young woman who was graduating our college. She said she loved her time at the school, and had grown in every area of her life, with the exception of romance. When it came to love relationships, she believed, she was worse off than when she graduated high school. That’s a heartache for me. I hate it that a student would be graduating from our university without growing in this important area of her life.
CWR: Do the clergy at your campus ever discuss the issues of sexual morality with students? Do they talk about the need for chastity before marriage and fidelity within?
Cronin: We talk about being men and women for others, caring for others as well as ourselves. We have a robust social justice agenda, and dating is certainly a justice issue: what it means to be a good person and to care about yourselves and others.
… But we don’t want to tell them how to make their decisions relating to their sexual morality. We’re walking a fine line, inviting them into good conversations about things that matter.
I will also say that I’ve spoken on this topic on secular campuses, and I get some pushback. I never get pushback on Catholic college campuses.
CWR: What do you think the message of this movie is?
Cronin: There are two basic messages. First, it is hard for single people to navigate the dating landscape in contemporary culture. People are nervous, awkward and scared. The contemporary culture is not helpful to people who want to date. That’s the central message.
Second, we all need family and friends to understand that it is not easy and to help us out. It’s not helpful to get together at a large family event, such as Thanksgiving, and have someone say to us, “What’s wrong with you? I didn’t have any trouble when I wanted to get married.”
CWR: What progress did you observe in your students when they started going on traditional dates?
Cronin: One of the greatest things about this project is that dating has become an active conversation topic among students now. And, when I make the assignment to go out on a date, students have heard about it. They can even laugh about it.
I want people to know that dating can be fun, and it can be low stakes. Asking someone to coffee doesn’t mean you want to marry them. Most dates will not lead to a relationship or marriage, but they will lead to more social courage.
CWR: How has The Dating Project been received so far?
Cronin: I’ve had hundreds of wonderful emails and letters from young and older people alike. Most are supportive, but a few are critical. One female academic, for example, told me that the whole assignment was preposterous, that I was advocating “marital mania.” I had never heard of such a thing, but apparently she wrote about it on a Psychology Today blog.
Another academic told me that getting involved with dating was not the business of a university, but of a finishing school. One young man in college told me he considered himself “a-romantic.” We had a nice email exchange. I’m not bothered by these criticisms; in fact, I welcome them. That’s what we’re supposed to do at a university, think about pros and cons and have a good, healthy argument.
CWR: What do you think the future holds? Will traditional dating and courtship make a comeback?
Cronin: Yes. This is the “iGeneration.” Students I’m teaching now have had cell phones since they were in the 5th grade. They’ve lived their lives behind screens, and it’s going to impact them in ways we can’t know now. Several years ago, students were not using dating apps. Now they almost all do.
This demonstrates that people want connections. They have a real desire to be seen and recognized as valuable to other people. They are longing for something when they use these apps, more than that they liked a picture or want to have sex.
Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College. She wrote a book on the “hook-up” culture. I heard her on a podcast, relating a story she heard from a female student. She said when you “hook-up” you feel “crappy,” that someone has used you. But, it is worse to feel like nobody wants to use you.
That’s a tragic place for a young person to land. It can be a lonely journey. We need to remember that loneliness and feeling you don’t matter is a real feeling. We need to be good to one another.
CWR: You’re a single person. Do you have any thoughts on dating from personal experience you’d like to share?
Cronin: One thing I say to people is that the best form of courtship is to be set up by people who know you both. It is true that I’ve been fixed up, and I’ve gone back to the person who set me up and have said, “What were you thinking?” But in other instances, it has led to the best relationships.
I would also say that there are instances where I’ve gone out with someone three or four times, and although I’ve enjoyed my time with him, I can see that things are not moving forward. So, I would say that you can stop seeing someone, and it doesn’t have to be a terrible breakup. Dating can be overwrought and over-thought, but it can be fun and make sense. It depends on how you approach it.