Catholic U is bucking the trend and dumping co-ed dorms. Apparently, they think students have a hard time controlling their urges when they are in close proximity to one another and they site some stats to back them up.

Catholic U President John Garvey writes in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

I know it’s countercultural. More than 90% of college housing is now co-ed. But Christopher Kaczor at Loyola Marymount points to a surprising number of studies showing that students in co-ed dorms (41.5%) report weekly binge drinking more than twice as often as students in single-sex housing (17.6%). Similarly, students in co-ed housing are more likely (55.7%) than students in single-sex dorms (36.8%) to have had a sexual partner in the last year-and more than twice as likely to have had three or more.

Could it be that most of the 10% that don’t have single sex dorms are on traditionally more conservative campuses like BYU, Thomas Aquinas College, or Bob Jones University? That would account for a rapid lowering of sexually active students on those campuses in general. Garvey’s point perhaps is that he’d like Catholic U to be more like those campuses and less like other Catholic schools who continue with co-ed dorms.

I was in a co-ed dorm (by floor, when we shared common bathrooms and same-sex roommates were only allowed) all four years of school at Fordham. Let me tell you, it wasn’t any easier or harder to have sex there or to get drunk. I would also point out that the students who came from high schools that really clamped down on students were more likely to be taking part in extremely risky behaviors once they were free from that kind of heavy handed helicopter mentoring.

The truth of the matter is that if a student wants to have sex with another consensual student, they’ll find a way to do it whether that’s in the same dorm or across the quad. Dr. Garvey wants parents to believe that their kids won’t have sex if they come to Catholic U and I think that’s a ruse and too many parents will fall for it and unfortunately they will use that to replace not talking to their sons and daughters about sex because they think they are protected from having sex because of the dorm culture that is being provided.

Here’s another thought. Single-sex dorms have one problem that is often overlooked: Gay men and women who are partnered can have sex all night long as roommates (and often do). One school I know well, found a group of gay men passed out in a cocaine induced haze stark naked with condoms all over the room.

So much for trying to prevent sex. Perhaps what they’re really trying to prevent is unwanted pregnancies amongst hetero couples. Why? That’s bad for retention and thus for the bottom line of the University. We can’t have pregnant women dropping out to have their children now, can we?

The bottom line is that some students will hook up and some will choose not to. Others will hook up (even continuously and have deep regrets about how they are behaving. Donna Freitas’ fine book, Sex and the Soul, provides an accurate view of the huge problem on all campuses. It’s a lot simpler than one would think. The problem is that students are afraid of NOT hooking up because they think it’s social suicide. Simply put, the problem is staff members not talking about the elephant in the room with their students. Once Donna opened that door with her students a campus culture began to change. Students stopped hooking up and began to look for relationships, or at least they talked about how they hated hooking up and really wanted to have a relationship with each other. My colleague, Maggie Riggins, at DeSales, holds a dating seminar each year called Single and Ready to Mingle. Why? A female student told her that she really didn’t want to hook up but continued to do so anyway because she thought she had no choice.

Students want to have relationships, but they settle for cheap sex because they are too afraid of the vulnerability that is involved. My hypothesis is that too many people are afraid of taking that risk to be vulnerable, to truly get to know someone else and for them to see them in all their vulnerability as well. So they get naked and have sex and try to admit that it just doesn’t mean anything at all. They’ve grown up in a culture that values competence over vulnerability and thus, they have a harder time dropping the facade that they’ve always got it altogether.

If Dr. Garvey really wanted to clamp down on the hook up culture he might want to suggest that professors and RA’s begin to start an open and honest conversation about the culture of hooking up on campus. What they’ll discover there is that students long for deeper relationships but simply don’t know how to date. Some don’t even know how to have a conversation with someone of the same sex, never mind the opposite sex. A young female student once told me that she didn’t know how to talk to men and because of that she began to feel insecure about her looks, feeling rejected (the truth is that she was quite attractive and just too scared to talk to her male peers who were all too willing to engage in a relationship with her).

Single-sex dorms may indeed be good things, however I think the wrong reasons are identified here. The students at Notre Dame love them. Why? They keep the same group of people together in those dorms for four years. The men and women form strong bonds with each other. They become a close knit community who rely on one another and always have each other’s back. There’s a reason that their alumni love them so much–and that’s clearly one of them. They are also very identifiably Catholic and it’s embedded in the culture and their campus ministry staff works hard with the faculty to embed that kind of culture within the academic life of the University.

That said, I’m sure there are some Notre Dame students who have sex despite that their dorms are single sex. What happens there I believe is that they’ve created a culture around those dorms, with rectors to be available for the students. That invites further conversation. Jesuit Bill O’Malley (who lived with us in the dorms) used to hold candid “Sex in (Fill in dorm name here)” at Fordham that really challenged people to think about how they were treating the object of their affections. Object being the main word in the sentence–many students simply treated others as objects and not as human beings. Fr. Bill just bothered to notice that.

The bottom line is that single sex dorms are more for parents than the students. Don’t fall for it parents. Ask about the campus culture with regards to hooking up. Do people talk about it? Have students discussed it? Are their discussions on fairness, safety, equality and how women don’t need to be subservient to males? That’s important. One school I heard about from several sources talked about the “right” that male athletes had once a year to enter a female dorm and if they found a door unlocked they were free to force the woman to have sex. And it was widely known and accepted by the campus and the administration.

That’s not OK. That’s what we need to avoid–and their dorms were single sex.

Did you live in a co-ed or single sex dorm? What did you think of that culture? Did it make it easier to have sex? Less easy? Were there pressures to have sex? Was sex a taboo topic, never to be discussed or was there less openness about that? Are fraternity and sorority houses, which are exclusively single sex another avenue that we haven’t explored? What was that experience like?

Students all secretly want to “date each other.” But if we continue to make sex the elephant in the room we will also continue to cheapen the conversation, missing the forest for the trees. It’s time to mentor students about having relationships, about how to date and how to journey in discovery with someone that they are interested in.

In the end, it’s all about respecting each other and less about sex.

And you can bet your tuition that almost nobody will talk about it.

0 thoughts on “Are Single Sex Dorms the Answer to the Hook Up Culture?”
  1. For what it’s worth, same-sex dorms may not be more LGBT-friendly. I lived in one when I was at college and, like you said, it tended to attract more conservative students. There was one openly gay student on my floor, and they made her life miserable, even though she was the polar opposite of the people you cite in your post. She was bullied so badly that she was forced to leave school. Have no idea how easy/hard it was to have sex, but people managed it. (I was too busy trying to get through. Music programs are absolutely brutal in their intensity for undergrads.)

    If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve lived in a co-ed dorm, namely because the atmosphere was better and friendlier.

    Granted my grad school was a performing arts school, but I lived in co-ed student housing there, and it was a blast. I’m still friends with the people I lived with, and I can’t say that about anyone I lived with during my undergrad years. (Namely because I was one of their targets, as well.)

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