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Single-sex dorms won't stop drinking or 'hooking up'

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Laura Stepp: Catholic University bringing back single-sex dorms to reduce drinking, hooking up
  • But this will not reduce frequency of binge drinking or causal sex, Stepp says
  • Women often drink without men, she says, and put off serious relationships for careers
  • Stepp: Benefit of co-ed dorms is the ease with which women and men become friends

Editor's note: Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both," and "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence."

(CNN) -- Catholic University is bringing back single-sex dorms starting with next year's freshman class. Why? To reduce binge drinking and hooking up, University President John Garvey said this week in The Wall Street Journal.

Garvey said studies show that students drink more, and have more sexual partners, when they live in co-ed dorms. His university's job is to train students in the virtuous life, and certain virtues are best learned and practiced living apart.

He has good intentions, I'm sure, and some 18- and 19-year-old students will be attracted to single-sex living. But I'm not convinced he'll achieve the results he seeks. Nothing in my 20 years of experience writing about young people suggests that reverting to the old days of male and female dorms will substantially reduce the frequency of drinking or casual sex.

Moreover, his explanation for the change has a let's-protect-the-women ring to it that is decidedly out of step with the gender roles and expectations of today's young women and young men.

First, the drinking. Certainly, bingeing is dangerous. The more that women and men drink, the more likely they are to have unprotected sex, be sexually assaulted, fall dangerously ill and be involved in an automobile accident.

Garvey seems most concerned about female guzzlers, saying they're trying to match the drinking level of men and that men encourage them in order to entice them into bed.

Women who binge drink do so for the same reasons men do: to get high, to look cool, to relieve depression.
--Laura Sessions Stepp

It may be that when young women started drinking at levels approaching those of men, it had something to do with being one of, even besting, the guys. But not anymore. Women who binge drink do so for the same reasons men do: to get high, to look cool, to relieve depression, to name three.

Here's something else: When women drink a lot, they do so with a group of women, at least as frequently, or more frequently, than with men.

Author Liz Funk, a New York resident in her 20s who was raised as a Roman Catholic, attended a co-ed college with co-ed dorms. She remembers, "Without the presence of guys, my friends and I had no problem throwing back three to eight drinks in a sitting. And on the occasions where accidents happened ... it was always in an all-female context."

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Where college students live -- or with whom -- has less to do with how much they drink than with other factors, including the level of alcohol they saw consumed at home; the cultural assumption, endorsed by older adults, that drinking is a rite of passage; the lack of instruction in how to drink responsibly; the drink promotions offered at clubs and bars near campus; and little or no enforcement, by local or campus authorities, of the legal drinking age.

Now, about hooking up. Garvey believes that if women and men once again lived in segregated housing, they wouldn't hook up as much. He cites unnamed studies showing that students in co-ed dorms report having more sexual partners and consuming excessive amounts of alcohol more often.

Yet before they ever step on campus, students who choose co-ed living may already drink more and engage in sex more frequently than students who choose to live in single-sex dorms. He doesn't address that.

"My bet is that self-selection plays a very big role in this," says sociologist Virginia Rutter, a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families.

Let's not forget, plenty of stuff went on in the 1960s and '70s before co-ed dorms became fashionable. Perhaps there wasn't as much random intercourse when a date had to sign in at the front desk. But lots of windows were left open at night; lots of resident advisers retired to their apartments early in the evening; and abortions, then illegal in most states, were not uncommon.

Hooking up, like drinking, flourishes for reasons other than sleeping arrangements. Women are more comfortable expressing their sexual desire openly, and feel right in doing so. Women also cite the goals of professional training and career as reasons they prefer casual sex. Relationships can be viewed as impediments.

"Women who have more professional ambitions find hooking up more compatible with focusing on careers," says Rutter. "It takes a lot of focus on a career to get ahead -- or keep up -- these days."

None of this is to say that Catholic University, like other schools, shouldn't be talking to students about drinking, sex and having fun in a way that is consistent with the school's values. Students flock to such discussions, depending on who leads them, and more schools -- non-religious as well as religious -- should offer them.

Garvey ignores what to me has been one contribution of co-ed dorms: the ease with which members of this generation relate to each other as friends, and the depth of their understanding of the opposite sex. I can't help but believe those qualities will help sustain their intimate partnerships in the future.

And what if they make poor choices of partners during the four years on campus, as undoubtedly many, if not most, will at least once? Then, they are in a supportive environment that will help them live through, and learn from, such a choice. When they graduate and are on their own, they'll have a clearer idea of who they are and are not, what kind of a partner they want and what kind they most assuredly do not.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laura Sessions Stepp.