Methods: Focus groups of 3-6 students were conducted at a Southwestern U.S. university using a semi-structured interview protocol. We used a peer facilitation model; groups were facilitated by trained undergraduate students. Peer facilitators also gave feedback on the interview protocol and participated in member checking activities. Facilitators were matched with groups aligning with their identities. The study sample included undergraduate students age 18 or older, with 51 participants across 12 focus groups (42 women, 7 men, 2 non-binary; 2 participants identified as transgender). Focus groups included four LGBTQ+ groups (n = 19), one women student athlete group (n = 3), one sorority group (n = 3), and six women-identifying groups (n = 26). Participants reported diverse sexual orientations (4 lesbian, 6 gay, 11 bisexual, 2 queer, 22 straight, 4 pansexual). Participants also completed a brief demographic survey. Qualitative thematic analyses were conducted through an iterative process of individual coders and research team consensus.
Results: Analyses found four predominant themes: 1) dating & relationship practices are individualized private experiences, 2) generational context shapes perception and experiences, 3) healthy relationships are grounded in egalitarian values, and finally, 4) information seeking and comparing between sources. Dating is a fluid, ambiguous, and ongoing communicative process between interested parties. Relationship configurations are not static or sequential. LGBTQ+ participants had more experience with dialogue about their individual sexual and relationship needs. Women who date men may not always be served by the fluid nature of dating configurations which create power dynamics in dating and sex. Participants are familiar with the “red flags” of abusive relationships, and healthy relationships are described in ideal terms but are broad to allow individual interpretation including an approach marked by egalitarian qualities and not fixed social roles. Technology has a significant influence on dating relationships.
Conclusions and Implications: Dating practices among college students are fluid and negotiable. HR education efforts should be process spaces or information synthesis, not information dumping, and should include experiences of women and LGBTQ+ as they are most at risk for the negative impacts of dating and sexual abuse. HR education content should be inclusive of a range of sexual and dating arrangements, and acknowledge that there are precursor stages to being in a dating relationship. Conversations about boundaries and consent and especially important, but students may be more eager for concrete suggestions surrounding emotional boundaries and confident ethical sex (not just avoiding rape).