In dorms, men and women now room together

Some 20 colleges allow coed rooms. Friendships – not sexual intimacy – tend to motivate students to sign up.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Janet Dewar and Matt Danzig met as college freshmen and hit it off so well they now are roommates. They share two on-campus rooms with only one doorway into the hall. That they don't share a gender doesn't give them a second thought.

"At first when I told [my parents] they said, 'We're going to have to talk to you about this,' " says Ms. Dewar, a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "I told them that there were two rooms, that there's nothing sexual going on between us, and that it wasn't really a big deal."

Some 20 universities and colleges have decided to allow undergraduates of the opposite sex to share an on-campus room. Most quietly made the move in the past five years, with Clark University in Worcester, Mass., deciding this month. It's the final frontier in the decades-long march away from gender separation in college dorms, hallways, and even bathrooms.

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While sharing a room comes unnervingly close in the minds of many parents to sharing a bed, advocates for the new arrangements say sexual intimacy rarely plays a role with those who sign up. Instead, for a younger generation it is increasingly common for men and women to just be friends. And some gay and transgendered students welcome the chance to avoid same-sex roommates whom they may not be comfortable around, or who may not accept them.

"Men and women are becoming just as good friends as if they were with their same-sex friends. The dynamics have changed. I think the opposite sex is no longer really such a mystery as it was before," says Jeffrey Chang, a sophomore at Clark University, a school of about 2,800 students.

Mr. Chang led the effort to lift Clark's ban on opposite gender roommates for upperclassmen housing after he and his close friend Allison were barred from living together. As freshmen, the two did their homework together and ate together. So when it came time to choose sophomore housing, why shouldn't they live together?

Why schools change rooming policies

After close to a year of research and discussions, Clark administrators decided to allow it, primarily to accommodate gay and transgendered students, says Denise Darrigrand, dean of students. The school already had single-occupancy bathrooms, making it easier to change policy without paying for renovations.

Many schools changed their policies partly to better accommodate gay and transgendered students, and most schools make it a choice available only to upperclassmen.

The schools report few problems and little reaction to the policy. One parent of a perspective Clark student did call to express outrage over the decision, calling it immoral, according to Ms. Darrigrand.

But most parents contacted for the article didn't know their children's schools had such an option, and few students – no more than several dozen at most schools – actually avail themselves of it.

"I think it's just asking for trouble," says Collette Janson-Sand, whose son goes to the University of Southern Maine, and who was unaware that the school now allows opposite gender roommates. "Even if he said it was platonic, I know what young people are like ... [and] I would also worry how much it would take away from his studies."

Not all parents oppose students cohabitating on campus.

"At first, it did shock me a little, but it doesn't bother me now," says Leslie Duffy, in an e-mail. Her daughter attends Bennington, a college in Vermont that allows upperclassmen of opposite genders to room together.

She hears that most of the male-female roommates are strictly platonic. Those in romantic relationships, she suspects, probably want their space and wouldn't risk being stuck in a tiny room after a breakup. "If not, it's a lesson to learn."

"College-age people make their own decisions about sexual behavior, and living arrangements have never done much to enable or prevent that," Ms. Duffy adds.

Administrators at the University of Southern Maine say some parents actually requested the arrangement so that siblings and relatives could share a room.

Research finds cross-gender friendships are more common among young people. A 2002 survey by American Demographics and Synovate found that 18-to-24-year-olds are almost four times as likely as those age 55 and over to have a best friend of the opposite sex. More than 10 percent of those ages 25 to 34 reported their closest friend to be of the opposite sex.

In a study published in 2000 by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, more than a quarter of participants reported having sex with a friend of the opposite gender. Most continued to be friends.

Concerns about sex outside marriage

Few colleges have been willing to take gender integration to the room level. Harvard University has been only considering the move off and on for years, a spokesman said.

Meghan Grizzle, a Harvard student, is concerned that sexual abuse or rape may rise in these living arrangements. She also writes for Modestly Yours, a blog that argues for a return to sexual modesty. "If women aren't respecting themselves in the way they dress and the way they act, then men aren't going to necessarily feel the need to do it either," she says.

For Christian colleges, concerns about sex outside marriage have kept most from going as far as secular schools in mixing genders in dorms. While it's not unheard of for Christian colleges to have opposite genders on different floors of the same dorm, most opt for separation by wing or even building, says Greg Leeper, associate dean of students at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill.

"We need to provide for solid parameters and accountability, and that expresses itself through separate living spaces, while encouraging positive interaction as well," says Mr. Leeper, who cites room visitation hours and 24-hour common areas as opportunities for Trinity students to build relationships.

Most of the schools allowing men and women to room together have liberal reputations, including Swarthmore in Pennsylvania, Hampshire College in Massachusetts, and Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

In the past year, some state schools like the University of California at Riverside have joined them.

When asked if living together has brought sexual tension into their friendship, Mr. Danzig said "no" flatly, and Dewar said the same, emphatically. Neither report any awkward or indelicate moments, but when both genders use the same bathroom on the floor not much remains secret. Dating neighbors – known as "hallcest" or "dormcest" – is courting disaster given such close quarters, says Danzig.

"I have a variety of female friends – many are entirely platonic, some of them I am attracted to," says Danzig, who sees Wesleyan's rooming policy as an extension of the school's rejection of traditionally defined notions of gender. "There's less pressure to behave the way that stereotypically males and females are supposed to behave."

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