Next month a film will be opening in select theatres across the United States that documents the difficulties today’s singles face in finding genuine romance – and revisits the script of an earlier generation who fell in love and married without nearly so much trouble.

The Dating Project follows five single people of varying ages and backgrounds who are looking for love, and also offers practical advice from Boston College professor Kerry Cronin, known as the “Date Doctor” even beyond Boston.

In a world of hook-ups, “rape culture” and screens – and now #MeToo — dating has become a lost art. And, despite appearances, sex itself is falling into disuse.

A couple of weeks ago sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Samuel  Sturgeon alerted America to the fact that the nation collectively is having less sex, and, surprisingly, that “this revolution in sexual behaviour is being led by the young” – that is, 18- to 30-year-olds.

Considering that most of this age group is not married, their (relative) abstinence seems like a good thing. In particular, we can only be happy that the share of high school students who report they have ever had sex fell from 47 percent in 2005 to 41 percent in 2015.

The scholars suggest a number of reasons for this, but one of them is that teenagers are not dating as much as they were. In the past 10 years the share of high school seniors who reported ever going out on dates fell from about 70 percent  to approximately 55 percent.

To be clear: we don’t want teenagers having sex on their dates, or as result of dating. Definitely not. But the decline of dating among older teens may not be altogether healthy – especially when you consider some likely alternatives: girls torturing themselves — and each other — on their smartphones and boys watching online porn.

Even among college students dating is down – so much so that on Valentine’s Day this year the Love and Fidelity Network (a US movement promoting the institution of marriage and sexual integrity among college students) issued a dating challenge to their peers as an alternative to the usual hook-up.

Dr Cronin was onto the dating issue a decade ago. When she found out that her graduating students were not dating and had no idea how to, she told the Catholic News Agency, she introduced an extra credit assignment on dating with a set of rules students had to follow:

[A]sk a legitimate romantic interest out on a date. In person. Keep the date 60-90 minutes. Go out to ice cream or coffee – something without drugs or alcohol. You ask, you pay – but a first date should only cost about $10 anyway. The only physical contact should be an A-frame hug.

The idea caught on and the Date Doctor began to get invitations to talk to students around the country.

One day she was approached by a young woman named Megan Harrington who was working on a film about dating. She and a dozen other women had got together over dinner one night and to discuss the dating drought and found that many of them were experiencing it personally. Dr Cronin came on board and now The Dating Project, already received enthusiastically and three festivals last year, may be coming to a theatre near you.

With the tag #DateDifferently, the 70-minute film is part documentary, part dating how-to. It brings to the screen  two college students, Matt and Shanzi; Cecilia, a 20-something living in Chicago; Rasheeda, a 30-something living in New York; and Chris, a 40-something from Los Angeles. CNA quotes a couple of them:

“Dating, at least here at (Boston College) has kind of a broad, uncertain, ambiguous definition,” Matt says in the film.

“Definitely hooking up is more common on a college campus,” Shanzi adds.

The uncertainty and ambiguity is a constant thread in every storyline. Cecilia wishes her Tinder date would tell her what he wants, Rasheeda can’t remember the last time she was on a real date, or what that even means. Chris is so overwhelmed by online dating he’s not sure where to begin.

Writer/producer Megan Harrington told CNA

she was “shocked” at the amount of pressure on college kids to be very physical in relationships, “and I think that carries over when you get out of college, this pressure to fit in.” “I knew it was there and it’s not a new thing, and technology has just made it easier,” she added.

Cronin said that while the hook-up culture is prevalent, she’s found that most students are unhappy with that status quo and are looking for a way out. “They want the way out but nobody’s offering it to them,” she said.

Two of the three production companies involved in The Dating Project are Christian companies  and most of the single people featured in the film end up talking about their faith and values at some point.

Harrington, herself a Catholic, told CNA that faith wasn’t necessarily meant to be a central theme of the film, but faith and values are a topic that inevitably come up during the dating process, and each person in the film talked about it to the extent they felt natural.

What the film does show, Harrington said, is that Christians are not really any better at dating in the modern world than anyone else is.

“I think that the change has to come individually, we have to change ways in which we’re seeing people as experiences instead of as human beings,” she said. “You have to make a decision of changing a behaviour that isn’t bringing out the dignity of the human person.”

* The Dating Project will show on April 17 in select theaters throughout the country. More information can be found at: 

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet