Politics & Policy

Detoxing the Dorm

And please leave the lawyers at home.

Sometimes the most radical ideas are the most sensible (and vice versa). That’s certainly the case with the recent decision by John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., to phase out co-ed dorms and return to single-sex residence halls.

Garvey presented a fairly practical case for the move: As at many an American college, there is a drinking problem at Catholic University. Garvey cites Christopher Kaczor, a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who puts it this way:  

Co-ed living creates a “party” expectation that students fulfill. College males want to get females to drink more, to facilitate hookups. College men themselves drink more as “liquid courage” to approach women and as part of the process of encouraging female drinking (for instance, with drinking games). In order to demonstrate “equality” with male students and so as not to seem prudish, college females drink more than they otherwise would. Single-sex residences reduce this binge-drinking dynamic.

Single-sex dorms also, as you might expect, offer a corrective to the current campus hookup culture. A 2009 study in The Journal of American College Health found that students in co-ed dorms have more sex and more partners — and are “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.”

And, if you want to get even more practical, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, points out: “Needless to say, binge drinking and casual sex tend to distract students from their studies. For instance, young women who engage in such activities are more likely to be depressed, and tend to do poorly when they get distracted by drinking and sex.”

Absolutely sensible. And so, of course, given our litigious age, CUA may be taken to court for its decision. An unneighborly professor at nearby George Washington University says he plans to sue, complaining that the return to single-sex dorms would constitute sexual discrimination.

“I think there are probably plenty of well-meaning folks out there who want the goods — less hooking up, less drinking — but believe heartily that any goods like that ought to be entirely an act of will, completely volitional amid the options to choose otherwise,” says Mark Regnerus, co-author of the book Premarital Sex in America.

He is “not really surprised” by the lawsuit threat. “To some, anything like this is a signal of a ‘return’ of sorts to a past that its antagonists find stifling, constraining, etc. . . . They fail to realize that people are very much social creatures in their decision-making, and that putting up some reasonable barriers like this one can be helpful toward reaching the goals they claim to want.”

In New York City’s SoHo, young people have been gathering Tuesday nights this summer to discuss Pope John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility, using an almost workbook-like text. They are twentysomethings looking for an alternative to the culture of utilitarianism around them. They want neither to be used nor to use others — for sex or anything else. They see the inherent dignity of the human person and want to treat that, in themselves and others, with respect. They want to challenge themselves and expect more. The group meets in the courtyard of a closed Catholic school. But Old St. Patrick’s has become a new school for a culture wanting more.

And it’s not quite a turning back of the clock. The sessions, which break off into discussion groups, meet people where they are. Good-looking, talented, well-dressed, many of them probably cultural creators, this crowd tends to fit in well in the trendy neighborhood. But they want to pursue their success within the norms of eternity; they want their every action to have a greater purpose and love. They don’t just talk about love and feelings, and they don’t want to get drunk for courage. They want to know how to truly have integrity in a well-integrated life — successes and failures and all.

As for the lawsuit, in a memo prepared by the Alliance Defense Fund for the Cardinal Newman Society, attorney Dale Schowengerdt writes: “Catholic colleges should not feel compelled to maintain co-ed dorms simply because a lone attorney in D.C. is threatening to sue. No court has ever held that a college must maintain co-ed dorms. And based on well-established law, it is very unlikely that a court would do so.”

“The sexual revolution has lowered the price of sex,” notes Jennifer Roback Morse, author of Love and Economics, “so that it is harder for women to refuse, even good, well-brought-up young women who want to refuse. CUA’s move will create a less toxic environment for women, making it easier for them to resist the pressure for sexual activity. This in turn can create space for young adults to cultivate other, non-sexual aspects of relationship and friendship.” This is the topic of Regnerus’s book, and it’s what is driving the real experts, those young people in SoHo, to a pope who died when many of them were still teenagers.

It’s not “No sex, please, we’re Catholic.” And it’s certainly not an exercise in discrimination. It’s about human dignity. Repair work our culture needs. The Carrie Bradshaws of this generation don’t think their Manolos are made for walking from hookup to hookup. But they also need a little encouragement, the gals and guys alike. John Garvey answers that generational cry for help with good ol’ common sense. And it happens to be an appropriate conversation starter for a lesson in sexual integrity. CUA certainly has the name to be a leader there. And now it has made a practical move in that direction that’s worth a prayer and freedom from a nonsense lawsuit.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.


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