My younger daughter’s school recently announced that it will pilot a gender-neutral housing program. Next year, upperclassmen at Northwestern will no longer be limited to sharing a room with a person of the same sex.
The trend toward “gender-neutral” housing has been strengthening over the past few years, with about 50 colleges now offering some co-ed rooming arrangements.
Not surprisingly, some parents are outraged, especially since colleges are not necessarily obliged to tell them about their adult children’s housing possibilities. One irate mother of a Stanford student wrote that she and her husband “like many parents, do not consider a 'gender neutral' housing arrangement morally acceptable. We don’t consider such an arrangement consistent with common sense.”
But, for the students involved, living with a person of a different sex is often absolutely consistent with common sense. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times says of Pitzer College roommates Kayla Eland, female, and Lindon Pronto, male, “They weren't looking to make a political statement or to be pioneers of gender liberation. Each just wanted a familiar, decent roommate rather than a stranger after their original roommates left to study abroad.”
The push for gender-neutral housing started as a way to accommodate gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students who might feel uncomfortable sharing a room with someone of the same biological sex. Josh Andrix, a Haverford graduate who started the campaign for gender-neutral housing there, told The New York Times in 2002, “Straight men who live together often have a kind of locker-room mentality, with a lot of discussion about dating girls, having sex with girls, saying which girls are attractive. Introducing a homosexual into that environment is uncomfortable. When I looked for housing, all the people it made sense for me to live with were women.”
However, colleges that have begun offering the option have found that many of the people who opt for a mixed-gender room do so, not because of their sexual orientation or identification, but simply because the person they are most interested in rooming with happens to be of the opposite sex.
What might surprise many worried parents is how few of the heterosexual students who live in mixed-gender rooms are romantically involved. The L.A. Times reported that when Harvey Mudd College started its gender-neutral housing program recently, Guy Gerbick, dean of residential life, asked all the students who intended to participate if they were doing so to live with a boyfriend or girlfriend. They all said no. Rose DeLeon-Foote, a female UC Berkeley student, said of her relationship with her male roommate, “It's not sexual, it's just not.” She laughed at the idea that co-ed rooming could lead to promiscuity, observing that roommates are less likely to become involved romantically since they see one another “all gnarly in the morning.”
When I was a teenager, I read “The Harrad Experiment,” published in 1962. The movie, which featured Don Johnson and included Melanie Griffith as an extra, came out in 1973. The gist of the story was that if you put young men and women together in close quarters, sex (and maybe love) is sure to follow.
Often, proximity does lead to intimacy. Just ask the U.S. Navy, which has had issues with pregnancies aboard aircraft carriers and other large vessels with mixed-gender crews that spend months at sea.
College campuses are, of course, no exception. College students dated and had sex when there were no co-ed dorms and when there were co-ed halls and apartments, but no co-ed rooms. And they will continue to date and to have sex regardless of housing arrangements.
What today’s students have figured out is that the Harrad premise - that sex inevitably follows proximity - is wrong. Sometimes a roommate is just a roommate. And, if you have the good fortune to find someone who studies at the same hours you do, doesn’t leave dirty clothes everywhere, and at least occasionally takes all those empty beer bottles and pizza boxes to the trash, then it doesn’t necessarily matter what that person’s gender is.
I am not particularly worried about Northwestern’s new policy. My own daughter lives off-campus, so the decrees of the administration will have no effect on her living arrangements, but I am glad to know that her school has the good sense to provide students with as much flexibility as possible in choosing their roommates.
College is hard work. Students deserve to be able to end the day someplace where they feel comfortable.