Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Coed Dorms Increase Risky Behavior? Maybe.

A new survey of 510 students at five geographically-diverse campuses reported in The Journal of American College Health says coed dorms dramatically increase the likelihood of collegiate binge-drinking and sex. As reported in USA Today, pupils in coed housing are 2 1/2 times as likely to binge-drink weekly, and nearly a third more likely to admit having at least one sexual partner in the last year.

As I read the story, I mumbled the statistician's mantra, "but correlation does not imply causation." Certainly those less inclined toward partying would choose the single-sex living situation, right? Apparently not; the study authors, Brian Willoughby, and his former professor Jason Carroll, both currently at Brigham Young University, say their findings "really caught us off-guard."  Plus, they say their "analysis controlled for potential selection effects," and that the colleges, not the students, made the housing assignments.

Maybe the result is an artifact.  After all, of the 510 students surveyed, only 68 lived in single-sex dorms.  But that's still enough for a potent statistical analysis.

Willoughby and Carroll's earlier work found that more than 90% of college housing is coed; their new study assumed that single-sex housing is the booby prize offered only after all the coed slots are filled.

Apparently, there's no getting around the fact that coed college living is deleterious.  Weekly alcohol binging (reported by 42% of coed dorm residents versus 18% of single-sex dorm residents) was most startling, but they found co-ed housing also correlated significantly with admissions of multiple sexual partners and use of porn. Even after controlling for the effects of age, gender, religiosity, personality and relationship status, "there was still something unique about living in a coed dorm that was associated with risk-taking," said study author Willoughby.

Then again...I have a daughter who lived in a single-sex dorm, and a second daughter who lives in a sorority. My sorority girl's house has rules about men's presence; definitely a chaste environment.  But you can't say that her type of single-sex environment deters or decreases drinking.  That daughter's currently writing a sociology paper on the phenomenon called "Thirsty Thursdays."

Still, I believe that many--probably most--women thrive in environments without the complications that sexual electricity can bring.  A government study of women-only colleges describes how such environments foster leadership and allow women to achieve in traditionally male-dominated subject areas more easily.

But the bottom-line truth is that women have a civilizing effect on men.  George Gilder said it years ago in his insightful Men and MarriageThe most disturbed and destructive segment of the population is single men. When they each commit to a woman and gain the responsibility of family, they move from selfish, sexual carpe-diem behemoths to dutiful, long-term-focused adults.  It makes sense that colleges would want women and men in the same dorms--usually on separate floors--to civilize the men there.

I'd postulate that if Willoughby and Carroll had looked at the differences in drinking, sexual promiscuity and porn use by gender, they'd find some not-so-surprising differences.  One comment on a report of the present study said colleges installed co-ed dorms to minimize damage to their facilities.  That makes sense. Just as guys together can create Animal House, guys tempered by women probably won't.

I don't think it's necessarily a good thing for women to have to share the same floor with men.  Proximity breeds familiarity, goes the maxim.  And it often takes more strength of character to hold to one's principles than to succumb to the lowest common denominator.  I mourn the loss of so many women's colleges, and wish that more than just 13% of college dorms were single-sex, to allow more freedom of choice.  But on the other hand, I don't know that this study is worthy of panic.  Much more troublesome is the nonchalance with which collegians accept alcohol use and abuse, whether in co-ed dorms or in the taverns of University Avenues across the land.

(The photo's from a Time article on the evolution of college dorms.)


  1. It was extremely interesting for me to read the blog. Thanks for it. I like such topics and anything connected to them. I definitely want to read more soon.

  2. It is extremely interesting for me to read that article. Thanks for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more on that blog soon.

  3. Why are women in college given the additional burden of 'civilizing the dorms' while imperiling them and their personal reputations or safety? There needs to be a haven for both genders. Dr. Laura refers to this co-ed dorm trend as a college's 'Get Laid Policy.' A real hard-core feminist would calculate the unequal burden that women in co-ed dorms bear over men and make an argument to give them a financial break on tuition or room fees. Oh, that's right. Second wave feminists are 'pro-sex' feminists.

  4. To the study I say "Well....duh." I understand the statistician's mantra, but the situation just seems obvious. Proximity breeds familiarity, as you state, and availibility creates that "hotbed" of temptation. We all have our senses dulled by over-exposure. The drinking, promiscuity, availibility of all things formerly outside of the student's zone become their new norm.

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