Out in the Cold

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November 20, 2009

2:24 AM

Sexile is a phenomenon known in college dorms everywhere. A student is displaced from his or her own room while his or her roommate enjoys some private time with a significant other.

Although sexile is not a new occurrence in college dorms, the issue has received renewed publicity in recent months. This September, Tufts University created an official rule: No sex when your roommate is in the room — or kicking hem out to have sex. This also includes roomates’ study hours, sleeping hours or privacy being disturbed. While most people would agree that common decency should prevent you from having to witness your roommate’s lovemaking, the rule has received mixed reactions.

“I think it’s really funny, and a little too much because how do you police that, to be honest?” McKinley Sims ’10, Head Resident for Reeves and Hunt Halls, said.

Residence Life at the College of William and Mary has a more hands-off approach than Tufts, and focuses on the more general issue of overnight guests. According to Director of Residence Life Deb Boykin, the sensitive nature of sexiling makes enforcement a problem.

“When students have that kind of conflict, they’re not often going to talk about it,” she said. “Or they are not going to talk about it outwardly. They might talk about it to each other.”

Occasionally, roommates have difficulty reconciling, but Boykin said that these conflicts escalate to the point of Residence Life’s involvement in the conflict only once or twice a year.

“We know that [Resident Assistants] have helped in some of those kinds of conversations, and I think it gets solved at a lower level with the RA kind of mediating,” she said.

The College will not be making a rule to parallel Tufts’ new regulation.

“We have no intent to entertain a clause like that,” Boykin said. “Mainly because we believe in self-determination and we’re always there to help students through something, and if somebody’s having their rights infringed upon.”

Sims agreed that the school should have minimal involvement.

“I don’t think it’s the school’s job to police that,” he said. “It’s the school’s job to help the two roommates to make the situation better. That’s shooting the calf that’s already dead.”

In Sims’ experience as an RA, students have resolved conflicts on their own, sometimes relying on hallmates for a place to sleep.

“My guys were always very respectful of each other, and that’s why it was so great as far as when situations pop up,” he said. “And it wasn’t really a big deal, because it wasn’t just me that had an open futon policy, it would be other people, too.”

However, some students at the College agree with Tufts’ decision to institute a ban on sexile.

“I think it is part of the school’s responsibility because I think that’s maintaining decency standards,” PJ Judge ’13 said.

As a freshman, Judge has yet to encounter an extreme case of sexile which would require school intervention.

“I haven’t experienced it too often, so I think that if it does get out of hand, you should be able to have the RA to stop it. But usually that’s not the case; usually it doesn’t get that far,” he said.

While ResLife may have no intention of banning sex in the presence of a roommate from dorm rooms, they have been discussing other rooming issues involving sex and gender-identification.

The Student Assembly and Lambda Alliance have pitched a rough draft to the Residence Hall Association to designate several apartments in the Ludwell Complex as gender-neutral housing.

“So if you have people that are transgender and may not feel comfortable living with a male or female, then they have the option to live in a space that’s gender-neutral,” Sims said. He heard of the proposal from meetings between the SA and RHA.

The new policy would not require applicants to check off a male or female box. The option would only be available for upperclassmen.

Because ResLife has yet to receive a formal proposal, they cannot make an official comment about gender-neutral housing; however, Boykin has seen a movement for such housing before.

“This is a trend that’s spreading across the nation,” she said. “It has not happened in Virginia, so no other Virginia school is doing it, especially a state school.

”A similar proposal was submitted to ResLife by the RHA in 2006, but was rejected. Since the College is a public school, housing is governed by state laws, and those laws are then interpreted by the College’s legal counsel.

Sociology professor Jennifer Bickham-Mendez who has taught Gender and Society for 10 years said that gender differences are institutionalized by gender specific spaces, such as dorm rooms. These gender-specific spaces also exclude people who do not fit gender stereotypes.

“It sends the message that males and females are more different from each other than, for example, a female from a female,” she said. “In the case of intersex people, it even muddies the water further because they are folks whose physicality doesn’t measure up with our complete ideas of what male physicality looks like and female physicality looks like, so they can in effect choose neither completely.”

ResLife’s perspective echoes this sentiment.

“I think the bigger question is, ‘How do we serve our transgender students?’” Boykin said. “A transgender student who is public about it is one thing, but a student who is struggling with their sexual identity and is so unsure that they don’t want to share that; how do we help those students?”

Typically, students uncomfortable with gender-assigned housing move off campus, although there have been students in the past who have worked privately with ResLife to create more comfortable housing options.

Other than legal obstacles, two primary problems surface with a proposal for gender neutral housing. Sims pointed out the potential for heterosexual couples to choose a room together, which could possibly result in messy breakups.

“I think in theory it’s a wonderful idea, and if it works the way it’s supposed to — to protect people who might have issues and who identify with LGBTQ — that’s great,” he said. “I think the only problem that you could run into is if you have people who say that they identify that way but are really maybe trying to live with their significant other.”

Having been an RA for two years, Sims is wary of the complications that come with romantic relationships in dorm situations.

“If they break up, from a ResLife head staff position, that takes roommate conflict to a whole new level,” he said. “Having to deal with breakup conflicts, that’s hell.”

Besides the problem of couples, the proposal faces potential opposition from policy makers and alumni. Both Judge and Sims said they have seen overwhelming support from the student body, but question how gender-neutral housing will appear to those outside the College.

“From my personal perspective, people seemed very positive about it, and if not positive, just positively indifferent,” Sims said. “I haven’t had anyone that’s out and out spoken against it.”

According to Judge, a member of the RHA, there may be negative responses from outside the College. As a public institution, the opinions of people outside the College can greatly affect policy making.

“I think that students should have basic adult freedoms in this area, but that has to be balanced by safety,” Bickham-Mendez said. “As a faculty member in the political context that we reside in as a public institution, I would be concerned about the message that it sends and how that gets interpreted. Externally, other stakeholders look in and they don’t like it. So it’s prudent to tread with care on these things.”

Perhaps Sims’ advice on sexiling is also applicable to gender-neutral housing, as both issues involve the intricacies of two people living together and respecting each other’s boundaries, especially pertaining to sexual issues.

“Have a little respect kids,” Sims said. “Give a little bit, take a little bit.”

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