No Longer Sexiled: Universities Grapple with Sex in Dorms

Anna Clark

When Tufts University officially banned students from having sex in residence hall room when a roommate is present, it met with two especially strong reactions. Colleges across the country are watching to see how it plays out.

When Tufts University
officially banned students from having sex in residence hall room when a
roommate is present, it met with two especially strong reactions. Many are glad
the administration finally spoke up about an especially awkward occurrence and
pleased for the added bit of leverage in managing it. Others are skeptical,
doubting that any official policy will deter those who are already prone to
shrugging off the norms of social etiquette.

Tufts
University’s Office of Residential Life indicated to The
Tufts Daily
, the campus newspaper, that the new policy was the result
of a large increase in the number of complaints about sexual activity in shared
rooms. The new stipulation to the campus guest policy not only prohibits sex
when a roommate is present, but sex that interferes with the roommate’s
sleeping, studying, and privacy — an addition that, presumably, is intended to
address "sexiling," or compelling someone to leave a shared room.

As Tufts takes this broad
step in balancing students’ right to sexual activity with their right to
private space, colleges across the country are watching to see how it plays out.

"There’s no doubt that
people working in students services across the country will be paying attention
to what happens (given this new policy) at Tufts and asking questions about it
at conferences over the next year," said Melanie McClellan, dean of students at
the University of West Georgia.

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McClellan is interested
in how this policy unfolds at Tufts even though-or, perhaps, especially
because-UWG does not have a counterpart ban on intimacy in residence hall rooms
when a roommate is present.

"Conflict about sex in a
room is not nearly as common a conflict as those that have been around forever,
like housekeeping and different sleep schedules," McClellan said of the UWG
campus in Carrollton, Georgia, where about 3,000 students live in various
housing arrangements.

She added that, "If that
particular complaint is an issue (between roommates), then it’s certainly not
the only issue."

In lieu of a standard
policy, UWG student services staff is trained to support campus residents as
they learn how to communicate about sometimes uncomfortable and personal
subjects. Freshmen students participate in a seminar over the fall semester
that helps them adjust to the sort of negotiations that are peculiar to the
college experience. Peer education occurs in residence halls through sexual
health organizations, designed to develop the judgment skills of students.

Tufts’ Office of
Residential Life has told The Tufts Daily
that the new policy isn’t intended to be a proscription that eliminates the
need for building healthy communication between roommates; rather, it is
intended to facilitate the communication.

"We want to make
perfectly clear that we do not want to hinder someone from engaging in any
personal or private activity," said Carrie Ales-Rich, the office’s
assistant director for community and judicial affairs, to the campus newspaper.
"But when it becomes uncomfortable for the roommate, we want to have
something in place that empowers the residents to have a good conversation with
the roommate."

That’s a point that resonates
with J. Bruce Daley.

Daley, a writer from
Denver who attended Tufts between 1976 and 1980, is someone who had sex in a
dorm room while his roommate was present. 
Coming from a military academy background, Daley believes that strong
policies prohibiting sexual activity in shared rooms would have deterred him
from doing something he regrets.

"I will never forget
the look on my roommate’s face the next morning," Daley said. "I
could see that he felt his privacy had been violated … He transferred schools
after our freshmen year and has spent the rest of his life living in Asia. I am
not saying this experience is what caused him to do this. Just saying.

"It’s not something I am
proud of now, but … policies like this need to be enforced to protect students
from their own bad judgment," he added.

Because young people are
prone to making mistakes, Daley said that he believes Tufts is right in
maintaining a ban on dorm room sex when a roommate is present.

"I think (the new
policy is) necessary," Daley said. "Medical research is showing that
at 18, the human mind is not fully developed. Guidelines like these are not
going to prevent college students from having sex, but they may help prevent
some students from making careless, thoughtless mistakes."

But across town at
Harvard University, senior Lena Chen wonders about the motivations behind the
Tufts policy.

"I don’t know if the Tufts rule was prompted by students’
unwillingness to talk directly with their roommates about this, but I think
it’s important to encourage young people to have frank discussions of
potentially awkward topics like dorm sex," said Chen, who blogs at SexAndTheIvy.com and lived on campus for
three years.

"College is a good time
to practice how to negotiate your personal space and interpersonal needs," Chen
added. "It’s easy to let a lot of things slide in hopes of avoiding conflict,
but being passive aggressive only leads to built-up resentments and poor
communication skills in the long run. I hope an official policy doesn’t
dissuade Tufts students from learning how to address touchy issues like this on
their own."

This is a point that
resonates with Sean Cook, who worked in residential life for about 15 years. He
left his position at Penn State this fall to work professionally as a life
coach specializing in the college experience for parents and students. From his
perspective, he has seen an upward trend in college students’ reluctance to
communicate honestly and fairly with roommates-especially on issues as personal
as sex.

"Many people deal with [an]
awkward situation by not discussing it at all," Cook said, noting that many
more young people today have never shared a room in their lives, and so aren’t
accustomed to negotiating shared space.

Indeed, Cook has seen sex used as a weapon between roommates.

"Basically (having sex
when a roommate is present) is sometimes a passive aggressive way to get rid of
the roommate, not just that night but for good," Cook said. "This is inappropriate
behavior that some use as a trump card because it’s not easily mediated (by a
resident advisor)."

On Penn State’s campus,
freshmen simply don’t have single rooms and while there is no official ban on
sexual activity when a roommate is present, the campus requires students to
have the permission of their roommate when they want to bring a guest over.
Cook said the tactic of having sex when the roommate is present can push
student services staff into separating roommates-and so, in effect, offering private
space as a reward.

He noted that some
schools view this issue as sexual harassment; that is, it creates a persistent
and hostile environment for the roommate. Students have threatened to bring
lawsuits about this, Cook said, when a school seems to be "failing to address
the issue." Legally, then, these schools feel compelled to respond in a prompt
and decisive way.

Often, the first time
Cook would hear about conflict between roommates was when a parent called him.

"When a parent is calling
and the student isn’t, that’s the wrong person," Cook said. "It seems like
there’s more and more of a customer service mentality (when it comes to the
college experience); parents want their kids to go to school and not be
bothered by anyone. But a good education is not just about grades."

An emphasis on learning
positive communication is also important to Erin Elias, who was a resident
advisor at Syracuse University and has since worked as a sexual health educator
in Massachusetts. In her first years as a college student living on campus, she
said that she and her roommates were respectful about guests and privacy … but
as an RA, she became more aware of the challenges other roommates face.

"A few (students) would come to me, frustrated with a
roommate who monopolized the room," said Elias. "But this
‘monopolizing’ could be their roommate having sex in the dorm room, or
even just having a roommate who was up all night, talking on the phone. 

"This is why the root of
this ban should focus on roommate communication rather than just banning the
activities that cause problems between roommates," Elias said.

"Roommates should understand and discuss how their
sexual relationships with others affect their living situation with their
roommate; there should be more talking, more middle ground, and more mutual
understanding," Elias added.

For many students,
that’s easier said than done, perhaps. But many others — even most others-do
find a balance with their roommates.

Colleen is a sophomore at
the University of Wisconsin in Madison who asked that her real name not be
used. She said that she communicates about bringing guests over through texts
during a night out; living this year with her best friend, she feels that their
communication is open and understanding.

"To be honest, it’s
normal when roommates are "sexiled" and no one thinks anything weird
or abnormal about it," Colleen said.

She added that campus
environment that is supportive of healthy sexuality contributes to a positive
environment for students living in residence halls.

"At UW – Madison we have a
pretty active campus that’s open with sex and if you are going to do it, do it
safely," Colleen said. "We openly embrace our gay and lesbian community and
there are constant talks about how to make sex safe so I think there’s a pretty
positive atmosphere here about a healthy atmosphere in residence halls."

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