Should College Roommates Face Penalties for Sexiling?


Published: October 22, 2009

Since the end of September, a seemingly minor news story has penetrated the college world’s consciousness, prompting a range of responses—from outrage to approval to outright bewilderment. Starting with the 2009-2010 academic year, Tufts University is instituting a new policy for its dormers that outlaws sexual activity while a roommate is present. This prohibition extends to “sexiling”—the act of banishing a roommate from the room in order to pursue a sexual encounter, an all-too-familiar problem/practice for many college students. Though most of us can agree that it’s more than a little creepy to get busy while your roommate is only a few feet away, not all students see a problem with keeping their doors locked while they get it on. Good thing Fordham doesn’t have rules against that, right?

Surprise, surprise! Though Tufts made the news for its crackdown on the notoriously questionable sexual etiquette of college students, Fordham has been keeping its dorms celibate (or trying, at least) for years. For proof, one need only look to the conspicuous, ambiguously titled section in the student handbook, “Moral Growth and Responsibility.” Naturally, these words designate Fordham’s wish that “sexual intercourse is to be reserved for marriage. Cohabitation is therefore prohibited in the residence halls.” Furthermore, students are not to “request or cajole a roommate to leave his or her room… in order to facilitate sexual activities.” Students found in violation of these regulations are subject to probation or dismissal from the residence hall.

So what’s going on here? Fordham (along with numerous other religiously affiliated colleges) has touted a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual activity, presumably since its foundation. It’s not even that we’re not allowed to sexile; we’re not supposed to have sex at all! What’s the big deal about a school taking action against roommate rudeness?

The offending difference is that, unlike Fordham and its abstinence-affirming cohorts, Tufts has put forth a policy which it actually intends to enforce. Aside from those facetious one-liners about how “Fordham students don’t have sex,” most McMahon residents don’t complain about the anti-intercourse regulations in the dorms because no one has ever really been punished for breaking them. If nobody’s going to get written up for their risky business, who cares if Fordham believes that McMahon functions as a co-ed convent?

Therein lie the outrage and bewilderment toward the Tufts rules. Although we’ve all supposedly been living under strict sexual regimentation as long as we’ve been in college, it is still jarring to think that a university could prevent its students from indulging in their inherent rights to hook up. It’s not that any of us supports sexiling or roommate exhibitionism; it’s that many people can’t get behind the idea of academia interfering with students’ most private moments.

Of course, there are those who find some comfort in the news that, if only they’d gone to Tufts, their shameless roommates would have been punished all those times they’d mistakenly assumed the person in the other bed was both asleep and deaf. This is certainly a valid sentiment. But how likely is it that, if these unwilling voyeurs reported their experiences to Residential Life (at any school), their complaints would go ignored? Regardless of whether or not there is an explicit rule preventing such behavior, some action would have to be taken. It’s a matter of common courtesy, not of adherence to the rules. If a roommate is inconsiderate enough to have sex while another person is present, there is a problem that needs to be addressed, and it is hard to imagine any Residential Life staff at any school that wouldn’t agree—even without a rule telling them to. An overt prohibition of such a clearly unacceptable act is superfluous, if not laughable.

The fact is that most sexually active college students are consenting adults. Out of these adults, most would not give consent if a third party were in the room. Aside from Jesuit Fordham’s obligatory and unenforced emphasis on abstinence, any further action against sexual activity is overkill. For the unfortunate roommates of those occasional students who are not as responsible as their sexual maturities might suggest, there are already resources—Residential Life confronts and manages roommate conflicts on a regular basis.

All in all, Tufts probably had good intentions. No one wants to be forced to hear a roommate having sex or to be banished from a room on a regular basis, but these circumstances are not typical for most college students. Making a rule against them will do little to prevent these cases or make them more deplorable; sex-crazed college students will find ways around any obstacle (e.g. Fordham’s no-opposite-sex overnight guest policy). The key is to let students know that they have resources if they feel slighted, then deal with problems as they arise rather than issuing blanket regulations that aren’t necessary for most of the student population.

Prying into the sexual lives of students is bound to be a messy endeavor for any university, no matter how noble the motive. The number of students resentful of their degenerating privacy will likely outweigh the number of reckless roommates brought to justice. Fordham has always known this; hence the blind-eye mentality. When it comes to students’ sex lives, perhaps other universities could benefit from a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned, Catholic denial.