A Stepp in the Wrong Direction

by Christopher Kaczor

This Wall Street Journal op-ed by President John Garvey of the Catholic University of America, explaining why the school is reinstituting single-sex dorms, has provoked quite a reaction. Laura Sessions Stepp responded with a CNN opinion piece titled: “Single-sex dorms won’t stop drinking or ‘hooking up’.” Of course, no one claimed that single sex dorms eliminate or stop all drinking or casual sex, so this is an example of the straw-man fallacy.

Stepp also writes: “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.” Garvey said nothing in the essay about women being at greater risk than men in terms of binge drinking and hook-up culture. However, if he had, he would have been correct. Contrary to conventional student wisdom, contemporary campus culture puts young women at greater risk than young men. An equal amount of alcohol affects females more than males, and there are also asymmetrical effects in terms of sexually transmitted infections, such as HPV and pelvic inflammatory disease. And then there is the fact of pregnancy.

According to Stepp, “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. … He cites unnamed studies showing that students in co-ed dorms report having more sexual partners and consuming excessive amounts of alcohol more often.” But these “unnamed studies” do indeed justify Garvey’s view. To take a few examples, in the journal Environment and Behavior, Jennifer E. Cross and co-authors write:

Women living on single-sex floors are about half as likely to consume as much [alcohol] as their peers living on coed floors. … Women living on a single-sex floor are significantly less likely to consume as frequently as their peers on coed floors.

Thomas C. Harford and colleauges in the Journal of Alcohol Studies note:

Students living in coed dormitories, when compared with students in single-gender dorms, incurred more problem consequences related to drinking … The reported differences in problem consequences extend previous studies of underage alcohol use in the CAS (Wechsler et al., 2000a), which found that college students residing in coed dormitories and fraternity/sorority house, when compared with students residing in single-gender dormitories, were more likely to report heavy episodic drinking.

Wechsler et al. in American Journal of Preventative Medicine find:

Underage students who live in coed dormitories and fraternity or sorority houses are more likely to binge drink (OR51.7 and 6.2, respectively) than are students who live in single-sex dormitories.

Finally, a 2009 study on binge drinking and hook-up culture by B.J. Willoughby and J.S. Carroll, “The impact of co-ed housing on risk-taking among college students,” appeared in the Journal of American College Health:

Students in co-ed halls were more than twice as likely as students living in gender-specific halls (56.4 percent versus 26.5 percent) to indicate that they consume alcohol at least weekly. … Students in co-ed halls (41.5 percent) were nearly two and a half times more likely than students in gender-specific housing (17.6 percent) to report binge drinking on a weekly basis.

Against this mountain of unmentioned evidence, Stepp cites a single example:

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.’

This is what is called anecdotal evidence.

Stepp notes, quite correctly, that other factors are relevant in terms of college drinking: “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.” Of course, Garvey never said that the only factor involved in binge drinking is living environment. As a university president, many of these factors are beyond his control to change. But even if these other conditions are of greater importance, which may be right, it hardly follows that efforts should not be made to control the factors which can be controlled at the college level.

Stepp’s critique continues: “Garvey believes that if women and men once again lived in segregated housing, they wouldn’t hook up as much.” But this is not a matter merely of belief, but of evidence. #more#Willoughby and Carroll found that

students living in co-ed housing were also more likely than those in single sex residences: to have more sexual partners in the last 12 months, to have more recent sexual partners, were more than twice as likely as students in gender-specific housing to indicate that they had had 3 or more sexual partners in the last year. After controlling for age, gender, race, education, family background, and religiosity, living in a co-ed dorm was associated with more sexual partners two thirds (63.2 percent) of students in gender-specific housing indicated that they had no sexual partners in the last year, whereas less than half of (44.3 percent) of students in co-ed housing indicated zero sexual partners in the last year.

Does self-selection explain away these differences? Stepp argues that it does, but in fact, self-selection cannot explain the differences in drinking and hooking up because, in almost all cases, students did not select to live in single-sex dorms but were put into these dorms by university officials. If there is no selection, there can be no selection effect. Researchers also found no differences in depression, impulsivity, extroversion, body image, or pro-social behavior tendencies between the two groups — all differences relevant to students’ likelihood to take risks.

The selection effect may begin to play a role now at CUA and other schools with single-sex dorms, insofar as students who want to party hard in college will choose not to go to those schools. I certainly hope that this is the case — then these universities will have fewer students who contribute to an animal-house atmosphere. The fewer of these students who enroll at a particular college, the better for that college.

At the end of her criticism, Stepp praises “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.”

Having single-sex dormitories hardly prohibits or deters young men and women from relating to each others as friends or from understanding the opposite sex, but it does put an obstacle in the way of taking someone back to the dorm room for hooking up. This impediment may actually aid, rather than undermine, the fostering of meaningful intimate relationships both now and in the future. Indeed, as the 2011 Oxford University Press book Premarital Sex in America How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker suggests, a man and woman who delay their sexual relationship likely contribute to making their relationships last longer. They also note that young people who are veterans of many sexual relationships have a higher rate of divorce. Of course, students can learn from bad decisions, but the university should not make it easier to make bad decisions, especially bad decisions that can undermine the likelihood of satisfying marriages in the future. The very consideration to which Stepp points — the desirability of sustaining intimate partnerships in the future (let’s call them “marriages”) — suggests that President Garvey made the right decision.

Christopher Kaczor is a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and author of How to Stay Catholic in College and The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice.

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