Let there be love

Investigations Editors 15 February 2008

Beautiful bridges, weeping willows, picnics and punting…..to the unsuspecting eye, Cambridge may seem like the perfect place to fall in love. But couple the quest to find that special someone with a nine week term jam-packed with lectures, supervisions, dissertations, formals, and those all-important extracurricular activities, and finding love can quickly become a very difficult mission.

On top of that, if you do find someone you quite like, you WILL be the subject of the corridor gossip (and even college gossip, if you’re at one of the smaller colleges like Peterhouse or Corpus). Pursuing romance in Cambridge is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Cambridge is held in the nation’s esteem as one of the most romantic cities in England, but does the idealistic vision match up to the reality? TCS decided to investigate what romantic relationships in Cambridge are really like.

So, how do you go about finding that special someone in Cambridge? Most would agree that Fresher’s Week fumbles and drunken Wednesday nights in Cindies are unlikely to spawn a serious relationship. RAG Blind Date has spawned a rare few long-term couples. “On my form, I requested a tall, dark-haired rower, preferably older than me,” says one female third-year student, “and while I knew that was unlikely, I ended up with a second-year mathematician with the personality of a rat on Viagra.”

Currently, a popular option for avoiding alcohol-induced hookups are the speed dating events which take place every term in the Union.

The last event was on the 5th of February, and resulted in an average of 3.88 matches per person. At each event, participants are given a glass of wine and some nibbles to ease their pre-speed-date nerves, and are then introduced to 30 potential dates. If you show an interest in someone, and they show interest back, you can choose to see each other again. Simple as that.

If you’re interested, the next speed dating event is on the 23rd of February, and even includes a warm-up salsa dancing lesson. “I did the speed-dating with low hopes of finding my soulmate,” commented one student. “And I didn’t; but the matches thing worked well as I kept in touch with some of them as friends.”

The speed dating scheme is run by Romance.ucam.org, a student-run chat and personal site set up specifically for the members of the university. It currently has 561 active members (members who sign in regularly), and has received an incredible 16,365 signups since it launched. Over 3,904,000 messages have been exchanged online so far, and it is by far the most popular student-run website in Cambridge, with 15,000 page views per day.

Romance.ucam is the brainchild of Cambridge undergrads Richard Neil (Trinity) and John Surcombe (St John’s). The site enables students to create a personal ad, giving as much or as little information as they like. According to co-founder Richard Neil, “it is amazing what people say about themselves. There are some interesting social dynamics of such a system in which almost all people are totally honest about at least some aspects of their character”.

Surprisingly, perhaps, more men than women have placed personal ads on the site so far, some more light heartedly than others. One male, who names himself ‘Sad Despearate Loser’, has advertised: ‘seeks woman with low self-esteem issues, preferably female since birth, for sympathy oriented relationship and potential post-breakup stalking. Supply own toothbrush. Must enjoy the sensation of harris tweed on naked skin.’

Other joke entries come from a ‘Musician looking for partner with big bongos’, ‘Midget seeks garden gnome for hosepipe loving’ and one male who describes himself as ‘Herpes free for 7 months and counting’. One ad requests: ‘No girls requiring two brown paper bags’, whilst another reads ‘If this appeals, give me a massage, errr, or a message (or both if you don´t mind!)…’. Jokes aside, the site gives students the opportunity to meet like-minded people in a safe way.

One student told TCS about his experiences of the site: “My friends signed me up as a joke. At first I thought it was a strange way to meet people, but there’s so many people listed on there, it’s really easy to find someone that catches your attention. You don’t even need to put a picture up, so you can remain totally anonymous. It’s free to use as well, which is great!”

A site with a similar premise is Snoglog. Set up by three Cambridge graduates in January this year, the site lets you register any snogs you have had with other members, provided they agree to acknowledge it, and create a network of snogging friends.

However its validity for adults has been questioned. “I would have maybe used it aged 13 – if any girls kissed me aged 13,” said one dismissive (and disappointed) student. “Shaglog would be better: “Your ex-girlfriend updated her shag-profile, she added ‘It seems I’ve probably had chlamydia for some time now’ to her venereal diseases” .. so at least you know when to get antibiotics.” Enough said.

The problem seems to vary according to subject. One engineering student bemoaned the lack of women on his course: “As far as meeting women through engineering goes, well.. it’s slim pickings. Also, there’s loads of work, so how much free time depends on how dedicated and efficient you are, so in my case, I don’t get out much. The other thing about doing lots of engineering is that I find it somehow stops you being able to interact with people, only with examples papers.” Arts students might be expected to meet with more success, however according to one frustrated female historian, “All the men in the faculty are gay.”

Of course, not everyone necessarily is, or even should be, looking for that special someone while here. CUSU Women’s Officer Elly Shepherd criticised the huge amount of pressure on students, male and female, to “complete the package” and find a lasting relationship while at Cambridge.

“Intellectual prowess isn’t enough by itself,” she said. “The claustrophobia of the college system and the shortness of Cambridge terms means everyone is in such a rush to ‘have it all’ in the nine weeks available, so often, even shorter relationships feel so much more intense than they would otherwise.”

So why do we feel the need to fall in love in the first place? MRI scans of the brains of people experiencing the first feelings of love for their new partners revealed much higher levels of dopamine, the ‘pleasure’ chemical, released from the ventral tegmental. This was followed by ‘thrill’ signals from the nucleus accum-bens.

The final stage – the one which creates a lasting desire to commit to the person – happens at the caudate nuclei, which store motor functions and are responsible for forming and remembering actions of habit, like driving a car. These nuclei are right next to a part of the brain associated with addiction. Love, even when it’s unrequited, can be addictive.

It can also be surprising. Smell is, apparently, a huge factor in our choice of partner. Major histocompatibility complex, or MHC, is found in the immune system and influences tissue rejection. Genetically, men and women must choose partners with smells containing safely different MHC compounds in order to guarantee that the foetus they create will not be rejected by the womb.

Research at Bern University in Switzerland asked women to pick men based on the smell of their t-shirts, and they repeatedly chose ones with different MHC to their own. Interestingly, women who are on the Pill, a daily dose of pregnancy hormone, are more likely to choose wrong in this test. Saliva also contains MHC, which may be a reason kissing is such an entrenched part of most cultures.

“Having a boyfriend or girlfriend is important for giving you emotional support and helping you to get through the tough times – and there can be a lot of tough times in a place as crazy as Cambridge’, one student told us, and another added, “things can be so much harder on your own!”

Yet not everyone in Cambridge is loved-up, or wants to be, and Valentine’s Day will probably prove irritating for as many people as it will prove romantic.

This may not be entirely due to the unattractiveness of the general student population. “Cambridge is crap for relationships,” was the consensus of several students asked for their opinion. “Firstly, it’s so hard to find one, and secondly, when I broke up with my partner of two years I tried to tell my tutor how upsetting it was, and got told to “grow up and write my essay.” If that’s the attitude they have to dealing with emotional issues it’s no wonder most of them are still single!”

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Hayley Edwards & Sarah Smith

Investigations Editors