Probably it was inevitable. Sooner or later it was bound to happen, and this fall it finally did. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Haverford College has decided to allow its students to share coed rooms [William Lamb, “Haverford College to let women, men share rooms,” 3/31/00, A1]. Male and female undergraduates who live in the Haverford College Apartments, which are home to one-third of the student body, are now able to share a bedroom without breaking the rules.
The administration at Haverford gave two reasons for the change. One was to allow students to share a bedroom with their “significant others.” The other was to enable homosexual students to room with someone they felt comfortable with. Prior to this year, gay and lesbian activists had charged college housing officials with “heterosexism.”
Apparently, Haverford is the first institution of higher education in the Philadelphia area to adopt such a liberal housing policy. But it is unlikely to be the last. The trend has been for universities to have coed dorms, then coed floors, coed suites, and finally even coed bathrooms. That probably explains why news of the change did not cause much of a stir on Haverford’s campus. Most students were already used to sharing bathrooms and other communal living areas with members of the opposite sex.
Coed cohabitation shows how difficult it is for postmodern Americans to establish clear boundaries for anything. The effect of the policy is to create widespread confusion about what constitutes appropriate intimacy between unmarried men and women. One woman from Haverford explained that, “In this situation we have now, where you’re exposed to sharing a bathroom with guys, it’s very normal after a year of doing it.” Which is exactly the problem. With a little bit of practice, a living situation that ought to be considered highly abnormal becomes an ordinary part of daily life, especially when it is reinforced by television programs like Real World and Friends.
In the current climate, even Christian students can become confused about moral propriety in male-female relationships. From time to time I encounter college students or recent graduates who are genuinely surprised when I explain my view that it is inappropriate for single men and women to live together, even in groups, and even if they are not involved with one another romantically.
The obvious reason that coed living arrangements are inappropriate is the danger of sexual sin. Haverford’s assumption seems to be that young men and women are so desensitized that they can sleep in close quarters without ever violating appropriate boundaries. Apparently the college takes the view that sin either doesn’t happen, or doesn’t matter. Yet physical proximity often plays a significant role in sexual temptation. Haverford’s director of student housing is aware of this, but claims that most “students are smart enough to know that [living together] is not a good idea.” If it’s not a good idea, then one wonders why the college allows it! It would be safer to assume that students are not smart enough to avoid temptation, and to set campus housing policy accordingly.
What Haverford should have done was to follow the example of Joseph, who ran for his life when he was invited to sleep with his master’s wife. Or the advice of the apostle Paul, who warned Timothy to “flee the evil desires of youth” (2 Tim. 2:22), and who told the Thessalonians to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22; KJV).
Ironically, a lax attitude towards human sexuality makes for bad sex because it inhibits romance, and therefore hinders marriage. If sexual freedom outside of marriage was good for male-female relationships, then one would expect romance to flourish on today’s campuses. Quite the opposite is the case. Dating is down, while sexually transmitted diseases, internet pornography, and eating disorders are all up. In the absence of clear boundaries, college students lack the proper context for their sexuality. Rather than promoting the joys of true intimacy, the prevailing culture of immodesty prevents intimacy by making public what should be kept private.
In a recent essay Daniel P. Moloney argued that the constant barrage of sexual messages on a college campus
forces the students to detach themselves from their natural inclinations… . they tune out the sexual dimension to their surroundings… . This survival reflex, though, confuses them when they try to begin a romantic relationship. They… engage in oddly disengaged relationships, usually with a significant sexual component. Instead of going on dates, for example, students hang out in each other’s rooms; a bit of alcohol in that setting and you have the beginning of the typical relationship. When the new couple fight, they stop sleeping together; when they break up, they still hang out in each other’s rooms [“Eroticism Unbound,” First Things (February, 1999), p. 15].
What they cannot do is establish committed, satisfying, long-term, romantically exciting relationships. The problem is not the absence of sexual opportunity, but its overabundance.
One way for a Christian student to thrive in a culture of sexual confusion is to cultivate the virtue of modesty. Modesty is decency or decorum, especially with regard to sexuality. A modest person is careful to think, speak, act, and live in ways that preserve both one’s own purity, and the purity of others. Although it is a virtue that both men and women should cultivate, modesty seems especially valuable to women. In a culture that confuses sex for love, women have a particular interest in preserving sexual intimacy for marriage.
Modesty is a Christian virtue because it recognizes the totality of human depravity. One result of the first sin was that Adam and Eve were no longer able to be naked with one another. In fact, the first thing they did after they ate the forbidden fruit was to cover themselves with fig leaves (Gen. 3:7). To this day, the reason we cannot be naked with one another is because we are sinners. Allowing coed dorm rooms is a way of pretending that we can go back to paradise, when in fact we are living east of Eden.
The Bible teaches that “to the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15). I suppose that could even include coed dorm rooms. The trouble is that we are not pure. Instead of pretending that we are, we should cover our impurity with the virtue of modesty.
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