Gender trouble

Graphic by Julia Hedges

It’s your first day at Yale. Your roommate Alex arrived just half an hour ago from FOOT and hasn’t showered in a week, but you hit it off right away. Your suitemates Sam and Skyler both seem cool. In fact, you invite the whole floor to dinner (you’re feeling outgoing)! After an engaging meal with seven interesting new Yalies, you know you’ve found some long-term friends. The suites on the floor above yours and the floor below yours are similar. First year suitemates are likely to become fast friends. Over time, we get close to people outside of the suite we’re placed in; nonetheless, our inner circles are often populated by those we were lucky enough to room with.

So what’s the problem with this arrangement? First-year suites are always composed of all men or all women. The effect of this fact on a college-wide scale is that intragender friendships precede, and often supersede, intergender friendships. The Yale community is harmed by the gender-segregated housing policy for incoming freshmen. The policy should be gender-blind with a choice to opt out. It would unify Yale and demonstrate the school’s commitment to moving beyond sex discrimination in every form.

Apart from the way in which single-sex housing limits friend groups, there are more specific problems with the current system. It may place an undue burden on queer students, who may not fit into the neat binary on which first-year housing is predicated. And arguments about sexual orientation are unconvincing: as it stands, gay first years are housed with the gender to which they are sexually attracted, and it has not been a catastrophe. I roomed with a gay man my senior year at boarding school, and it was a wonderful experience; we are great friends.

Men and women are not essentially different, but housing the two sexes separately makes it seem that way. Once men and women use the same bathrooms and return to the same rooms at night, the appearance of difference will come away like a cicada’s skin.  

There are two worthwhile objections: first, that gender-integrated housing may lead to an increased risk or fear of sexual assault; second, that conservative students—religiously or politically—may view gender-integrated housing as an affront or obstacle to propriety.

In fact, housing people of different sexes and genders together could lead to a decrease in sexual assault. The culture that would be built by mixed-gender housing would be less coercive and violent than that of the status quo. It is single-gender housing, such as that in fraternity life, that cultivates the misogynistic attitudes that lead to sexual misconduct. The ideology behind male-only housing blends easily into negative views of  women, as men think of reasons to justify their exclusion. When people of different genders are treated as equals and housed together, it will be a severe blow to the underlying structures that leads people to commit assaults on campus. Nonetheless, students should still have the option to opt out of mixed-gender housing, so that those who would experience anxiety in an integrated setting can avoid it.

With regard to the objection about conservative students, consider the case of Muslim undergraduates who wear hijabs and prefer not to remove them in front of men. Many religious traditions have similar requirements. Such students should not be forced to choose between Yale and their faith. In addition to housing first-year students without regard to gender, then, Yale should help make sure conservative students are welcome by allowing them to indicate, on a housing form, that they prefer to live in a single-gender suite. Some Muslims, Catholics, and other religious students may opt for such a living arrangement, as may sexual assault survivors. We can accommodate these preferences without making single-gender housing the default. And if some students are justified in requesting single-gender housing, other students are equally justified in favoring mixed-gender housing.

However, the fact that some students may want to make that choice should not constrain the rest of the community, or require that it follow illiberal policies. If a few students want to drink Mr. Pibb at every meal, that does not mean Yale must serve it to every student. However, Yale also ought not interfere with those students’ insatiable desire for the Pibb. (That being said, we might ask those students to reconsider the consequences of high Pibb-intake.)

This brings us to the question of responsibility. The burden for building a good community should rest on each of us, not on the Yale administration. Although students should have the option to avoid mixed-gender housing, we may still try to persuade them not to do so. In the soda metaphor, we may still implore our Mr. Pibb-obsessed compadres to give the bottle a rest. Rather than encourage problematic gender binaries, Yale should step back and allow its students to build a more amicable and equitable living space. We become more accepting when we are able to be vulnerable in the company of those who differ from us.

One Response

  1. thegayroommate says:

    We’re not friends.

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