Much has changed for me since this time last year. Friendships, experiences, beliefs – all have undergone considerable extension and renovation during my first year at Oxford. This is by no means a bad thing, but coming back after the end of term to the quiet, comfortable existence of home has made me realise just how significantly my outlook has been altered. I no longer blindly agree with my parents and siblings and find myself getting frustrated at their often narrow views, on anything and everything from immigration to the definition of art, to the general public’s favourite type of cake. Maybe Oxford has diminished my patience. Anyway, we digress.
Since coming home for the summer I have been in contact with old school friends, arranging some long-overdue catch-ups. Trying to find a time when both parties are free has been somewhat difficult, particularly since lots of them now have a “significant other” with whom they understandably have prior engagements. I’d heard about the geneses of a few of these relationships over the course of the year, with friends often unsure whether to be frustrated, relieved or just confused about the gradual and at times uncertain transition between ‘just friends’ and ‘boyfriend-girlfriend’.
The news that many of them had now reached and breached the moment when they can say with certainty that they are no longer single caused me to pause and reflect. This year at Oxford has changed my view of relationships. As the youngest by quite a margin in a family of five siblings, I grew up with various boy- and girlfriends entering and exiting the family frame. The notion was very well-defined; my brothers and sister were either single or in a relationship. There was no half-way house; the matter of romantic and sexual relationships was very black and white.
At university however, my eyes were opened to the plethora of shades of grey (ahem) that existed between the statuses of ‘single’ and ‘in a relationship’. I came across (or indeed was a participant in) friends getting with each other, sleeping together and behaving in a way that I had previously only associated with people in a relationship, or people completely unknown to each other. This was an indication of my naivety more than anything else, and I must say it was rather wonderful to discover such freedom of behaviour. Those involved could laugh about it the next day, friends would still be friends, and no one would form judgements about single people doing things at which my parents would definitely raise an eyebrow.
I was also introduced to the world of non- and semi-exclusivity. Many of my friends were sleeping regularly with their now-partners long before they were official. It was a big deal when friends from the same social group who have already spent countless hours together went on their first date, despite the fact that they – and all the rest of us – already knew they liked each other very much. The interpretation of these (proto-)relationships owed so much to what terminology those involved chose to apply to them, what labels were affixed by the participants themselves. If friends said they were friends, then they were friends. Their word was enough.
Such friendships may have had a sexual dimension, but this year has made me realise that friends and sex are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This discovery was so refreshing, not even on a personal level but for the university experience as a whole. People can dictate the terms by which they are seen to be single or in a relationship, and others will follow their lead.
My first year at university has taught me a lot, even if most of what I have learned is unrelated to my degree. My discovery of the continuous scale of relationships, as opposed to the discrete “single” or “taken” view to which I had been blinkered previously, was particularly illuminating and important. It is reassuring that casual sexual activity is not condemned, even when with friends. This acceptance relieves individuals of pressure and ultimately enables people to have fun without judgement and for relationships to emerge organically.
Gone are the days of familial and community considerations and courtship, and now the focus is on personal choice and freedom. Individuals and couples should feel comfortable with their sexual life without the constraints of categories. Thank you, Oxford, for showing me how and that this is possible.