Universities grapple with dorm room libidos

Is it cool to have sex while your roommate is trying to sleep in the next bed? At Tufts University, not so much

By Anna Clark

Under a new ResLife policy, students are not allowed to engage in sexual activity while their roommates are in the room. (Photo: Kelsey Marie Bell/Tufts Daily. Image manipulation: True North Perspective.)
Under a new ResLife policy, students are not allowed to engage in sexual activity while their roommates are in the room. (Photo: Kelsey Marie Bell/Tufts Daily. Image manipulation: True North Perspective.)

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.

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."

6 January 2010 — Return to cover.