February 15, 2005

Together in the Loo

By: Chris Van Nostrand

Filthy! The crudeness, the grossness, the vulgarity — above all the fact there was a boy or a man in here … egesting … no more than three or few cubicles down the row from her! “S—-a-brick!” said a deep male voice only slightly farther away. “What the f— you been eating, Winnie month-old sushi?” He made a mocking vomiting sound. “You’re f—— … morbid, dude. I need a gas mask.”

-Tom Wolfe, I am Charlotte Simmons

The sexual revolution wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Part legend, part nightmare, the dormitory coed bathroom gets a lot of play in Tom Wolfe’s pseudo-sociological descent into the bowels of American college life. It’s hard to imagine what educational goal shared bathrooms serve, but one keeps hearing about this unique custom of the college campus.

Yet little is known about them. For starters, do coed bathrooms really exist? That’s an easy one. Yes, they do. Well, then, are they common enough to be emblematic of campus living arrangements? Or are we still more conventional than Wolfe’s bathroom scene suggests?

To be sure, Wolfe’s aim in Charlotte Simmons was broad social satire, not documentary journalism. But Wolfe researched his book extensively, and so we can expect to find what Wolfe portrays in the novel to be true on campuses. And like any good satire, I Am Charlotte Simmons stimulates inquiry about its subject matter, raising many questions. So, in the absence of a taxpayer-funded Congressional investigation demanding answers, I looked for them myself.

No one keeps much track of coed bathrooms, at least not by the numbers. There are several national residential life organizations, but none have looked at the issue extensively. Yet, it’s pretty clear they are mostly the domain of elite private liberal-arts colleges and a few select universities on the East and West coasts.

It’s hard to say whether a raw tally could even be made. That’s because bathroom policies on American campuses tend to vary widely within schools, and in many cases the power to decide is delegated to the residents and their upper-class minders, residential advisers. Which is to say, it is the policy at a number of elite schools to not have much of a policy on single-sex versus coed bathrooms. In such cases, rule-making often occurs within a single dormitory floor or wing with little or no oversight.

So divergent and decentralized are practices that even at a school with administration-sanctioned coed bathrooms, a student may encounter them only rarely. And in the opposite extreme, in some cases a student could end up using coed bathrooms until graduation without much recourse to the old-fashioned kind.

At the University of Chicago, it’s not really clear how many coed bathrooms there are. Dave Munson, a 21-year old History of Medicine major, says only one dorm, Max Polesgie, has them. There, each floor decides at the beginning of the year on rules for usage. For example, bathrooms may be restricted to a single sex except during certain high-traffic periods like morning or late evening.

But “Issues and Texts” major Rada Yovovich says there’s at least one more, Snell-Hitchcock–and she lived in it. The facilities, she says, were fully integrated, and they functioned all the time as coed bathrooms. Sinks, stalls and even showers–thus going far beyond most other examples I encountered–were shared at all times by male and female hallmates. Yovovich has found the practice a positive part of her college experience. “They represent the comfort level that should exist in the dorm,” she says.

The process for determining whether the bathrooms should be coed was, she says, democratic. Two separate votes took place, one during orientation, at which time a lone student objected and caused a single-sex bathroom to result, and a later vote, after the dissenter overcame her initial reservations and accepted the coed arrangement. Democracy triumphed, apparently, by assimilating the dissenters.

The matter is also put to a vote at Williams College, though without the aid of a dorm official, since Williams doesn’t have these. There, coed bathrooms are an option in the 26 upper-class dormitories and students within each hall must reach a consensus on how to designate restrooms at the beginning of the term.

In some cases, coed bathrooms are a moot point. At Amherst College, where 21-year-old Hilary Levinson majors in English, private bathrooms–not the open, single-sex ones familiar in state schools or large universities–are actually very common. But the school has multi-user facilities as well, including coed ones. During her freshman year, coed bathrooms existed on the floors above and below her. In her experience, coed bathrooms provided a mild source of humor during orientation but quickly became an accepted, normal part of the dorm scene.

Clouding the overall picture are issues like state law, city building codes, and other regulatory facts of life. Coed bathrooms are banned at all Mississippi colleges, for instance, owing to a state law on the matter. New York state building codes also prohibit them, but apparently go unenforced. Syracuse University strictly prohibits coed bathrooms out of deference to the law, yet they exist at both Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and Columbia University in New York City. It seems even college administrators aren’t very clear on how and whether the statutes apply. Charlene Larson, a residential life administrator at Vassar, told me in a phone interview that she hadn’t heard of such a building code, and that Vassar maintains coed bathrooms in all dorms except one female residence. It’s been that way since men were admitted in 1969, she says, and the policy is apparently popular among the students. The numbers would seem to confirm it: In a poll conducted five years ago by the college, most students showed a strong preference for keeping the arrangement.

At schools where formal voting determines whether bathrooms will be coed, college administrations usually provide safeguards such as silent voting or single-vote opposition to protect the interests of lone dissenters. Some administrators defend coed bathrooms for promoting the value of “learning to live with others.” But many others are hesitant to foist this gender-blind policy on impressionable young adults or to enlist in the controversies that could result from doing so.

It’s a replay of the classic in loco parentis debate in which colleges vie to find the happy medium between stand–in familial guardian on the one hand and institutional landlord on the other. There seems to be a desire to promote adolescent independence by withholding disapproval of what the kids cook up for themselves–even when disapproval might be called for–but with protective measures for the timid if collective decision-making fails to protect the interests of minorities.

Coed bathrooms do not encourage erotic behavior, according to sociologists and students.

Of course, it seems like there would be unbearable sexual tension among 19-year-olds of both sexes mixing in varying states of undress. Maybe performing one’s ablutions is not as sexy as, say, an afternoon of skinny-dipping, but at least for the uninitiated, wouldn’t sharing a bathroom with the chicks down the hall be kind of a turn-on? Experience apparently proves otherwise. If you believe the academics, that’s because students function in shared bathrooms according to the family dynamics they learned at home.

The University of Denver’s Peter Adler, a sociologist who studies public bathroom behavior, says family is clearly the relevant social model. “In my view, people see these situations more like the ones at home with other gender siblings. They no more (and probably less) want to see [hallmates] in states of undress. Even when siblings share bathrooms there is plenty of negotiation of personal space that goes on. I see this as more analogous to that situation than for what sociologists would call ‘anticipatory socialization’ for serious relationships.”

So, per Adler, when the beautiful girl down the hall is tiptoeing by in her towel, a guy sees her as he would his sister, not as he might that girl from the Victoria’s Secret catalogue were she to walk by in a towel. Charlene Larson, the Vassar administrator, adds that in her experience students with siblings are in fact the quickest to adapt. In fact, according to Yovovich, the one time that a male on her floor made a leering comment to a woman returning from a shower, he immediately received a swift rebuke from his hallmates.

Almost all of the students with experience of coed bathrooms that I spoke with believe that coed bathrooms promote greater maturity and respect. They take this aspect of shared bathrooms very seriously. The administration has left it to them to develop rules for conduct, and develop the rules they must. Yovovich brings this point to its logical end. “I can be trusted [by the administration] with that adult responsibility, which gives me the incentive to behave accordingly,” she says.

It’s a sacred trust. A toilet republic, if you can keep it.

To be sure, this system seems to ward off the worst abuses, or at least doesn’t suffer from them disproportionately. Sexual assault or harassment rarely arises in coed bathrooms. Despite the close quarters and the underlying tension, no students told me they ever felt threatened–nor did any say they had heard of a problem. Personal safety for women is one of the most explosive issues on college campuses, so presumably it would be on the minds of my respondents if it were a problem. But apparently it’s not.

Celia Gomez, 20, a double major in psychology and African-American studies at Yale University, believes the realities of undergraduate life prevent misbehavior. Since most students stay in the same “college” within the university for all four years–and therefore eat, live, and take classes together–there is a camaraderie that reinforces community norms.

“We don’t always need the state or some other outside entity to police us,” says Professor Adler. “The situation of coed bathrooms proves that people can work out informal normative rules.”

Lisa Finkral of Elmhurst College in Illinois tells me that coed bathrooms have come about in her hall even though they are formally prohibited. Finkral says she likes the new bonding opportunities they’ve created. “I was on an all-female floor last year,” says the 20-year-old music business major. “We’d see each other in the bathroom and say ‘hey, how ya doin’, what are you doin’ this weekend?’ It’s the same bonding you get with the guys.”

Campus politics have surely played a role in the rise of coed bathrooms. It can’t be a coincidence, for instance, that they exist at schools known to be very liberal– Vassar, Wesleyan, Amherst, Oberlin, Columbia, Middlebury, Williams, Yale, Grinnell, Reed, Berkeley, and Brown.

That said, it does not seem to be the case that coed bathrooms exist because leftist firebrands in positions of authority are pushing the issue. In fact, it seems that most college administrators are rather passive on the subject, allowing coed bathrooms to arise spontaneously or as a means of allowing students to form their own regulations. At Williams, for example, Coordinator of House Services Linda Brown says that administrators prefer single-sex bathrooms, but don’t force the issue.

Such a liberal legacy comes into sharper focus when one considers the students of faith who occasionally object to the policy. Unsurprisingly, the elite American campus is on average a starkly secular place. For some, religious observance conflicts with the standard living arrangements. Both Charlene Larson at Vassar and Linda Brown at Williams note that despite the low incidence of student complaint, they have had at times to accommodate religious students. Brown recalled two Muslim undergrads at Williams who requested permission to move off campus.

A more explosive situation occurred at Yale in 1997, when a group of Orthodox Jewish students sued the school for prohibiting them from moving off-campus. Administrators refused to bend the policy that requires all students to live in campus housing for the first two years at university. One male student in particular stated to CNN that he simply could not live with the possibility of women entering the coed bathroom in various states of undress. Yale College dean Richard Brodhead, in an infamous statement concerning the value of teaching students how to function in diverse settings, told CNN at the time: “Just as I understand students who feel they have convictions that can scarcely be compromised, it would seem to me strange if the university didn’t have its own convictions about what it is here for.” Up against the wall, then, at least one administrator is willing to come out swinging in favor of his co-ed water closets.

The anthropologist Michael Moffatt is regarded as the preeminent scholar on American college life in many circles. He points out that “until recently in American culture, friendships usually formed between men and men or between women and women; they did not ordinarily occur between the sexes.” At the typical elite institution, feminism and changing gender roles have been absorbed into everyday dealings for college students. Seen in the context of the leftward drift of colleges, the egalitarianism practiced by students makes single-sex bathrooms look something like a last frontier. They are the final place–what else is there to integrate?–where the sexes practice a complicated dance of platonic friendship with sexual tension not far in the background.

Moffatt’s observation on friendship comes from his 1989 book, Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture. Collecting data from students at Rutgers University between 1977 and 1987, including time he spent living in dorms with his subjects, Moffatt discovered that in a number of ways, students of the 1980s were heirs of a “sea change that swept over American youth culture in the late 1960s.” The traditional archetype of collegiality–archaically known as the “college man,” today known as the preppy–faded in favor not only of egalitarian sex relations but a general diversity and classlessness, a sort of shared anti-elitism. Such wholesale changes in social dynamics required an entirely new code of conduct that covered everything from musical style to subtle mannerisms between men and women that distinguished between romantic and friendly status.

It is easy to see, of course, that such upheaval brought with it a fair amount of political extremism. One only need to stumble across a Women’s Studies course description to discover that the new movement involves fighting any and all fixed notions of gender. In the new war of the sexes, incidentally, transgendered students are the advance guard. At several schools, a transgendered campaign is underway to change the signage of all bathrooms to read “gender-neutral.”

No less emphatic have been the shots from the right. In 1995, Wendy Shalit, then a sophomore at Williams College, published a much-read essay in Commentary called “A Ladies’ Room of One’s Own.” The article scorned coed bathrooms as a defining symbol of the “New Canon,” which in its absolute relativism codified radical racial, ethnic, and gender politics. Core campus orthodoxies stemming from this philosophy, said Shalit, made outlandish propositions seem reasonable, including sharing bathrooms with complete strangers of the opposite sex. Coed bathrooms, she wrote, are “an allegory of the present intellectual atmosphere in our universities, where everything is relative, nothing is ‘essentially’ different from anything else–and in the name of this very open-mindedness students are daily invited to accommodate the most monstrous propositions, philosophical no less than sexual.”

According to Shalit, the life of the mind had been undermined by easy proclamations that everything about everyone–their gender, religion, politics–was socially constructed. Such ways of thinking were not merely the fashionable chatter of professors, but they had come to define the views and lives of students as well. In the process, modesty became quaint, victim to both the theoretical implications of gender as a meaningless construct and the practice of sharing intimate spaces with members of the opposite sex.

Shalit filled out her critique in her book A Return to Modesty by arguing that the decline of modesty and virtue lay behind the major issues facing women today, including eating disorders and sexual harassment.

Clearly Shalit and Moffatt differ on how sexualized coed living and bathroom arrangements in fact are. Each author provides a distinct answer on whether administrations violate natural limits by allowing coed bathrooms.

In Moffatt’s work, students say that true friendship, not erotic quests, defined their interaction with the opposite sex. As Moffat discovered, “the sexual ambience of coed dorm floors–the conventions of the mixed-sex friendship group in the lounges–was in curious ways more like older American erotic sensibilities than one had any reason to expect.” He goes on to observe censure and disapproval for frank sex talk in mixed company, as well as the infrequency of nudity in dorms.

Such collective modesty suggests that while Shalit’s criticism of the left is salient, she misreads the sensibilities of most college students. That is, the politics she rails against indeed defy common sense, but they rarely bruise the average student. Few find themselves personally caught in the center of such questions as whether gender identity is fluid.

In fact, students rarely talk about the issue in ideological terms. If a person isn’t comfortable with co-ed bathrooms, students say, they’ll eventually get over it. “It’s something you learn to deal with, you learn to get by with,” says Eric Fraser. “It’s probably a benefit in the long-run with the respect issue, but neither a terribly negative nor positive aspect of the college experience.” Co-ed bathrooms can be a source of humor, a source of bonding, even a source of overcompensating politeness. Almost never are they a source of reflection on the theories of Catherine MacKinnon.

Instead coed bathrooms become an occasion for students to create their own boundaries in the absence of formal administrative policy. They learn to practice maturity and common courtesy, which they think of as their peculiar duty, rather than engage coed bathrooms on ideological terms.

So maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about Tom Wolfe’s bathroom scenes. Wolfe shares Shalit’s disgust, and his conception is roughly the same: that the vulgarity of student life extends from the social to the intellectual, taking stops in between to exhibit itself in the fashion and the music of the times. He is right to point out that vulgarity and degraded sexuality on campus are a problem, and are at schools like the ones on which he based his fictional Dupont University–but he may have missed how students actually operate within them. Like Shalit, Wolfe vastly underestimates the sensibility of students. Rather than share bowel stories, residents might dream up more ingenious jokes.

Rada Yovovich tells how her hall invented a game called “shower Connect Four.” In it, members of the hall dress up in bathing suits and the board game is placed between the shower stalls. The heads are then turned on. The game is played according to the regular rules, except that there is a standing reward of $20 for the first person to get naked. No one seems to want to step forward and Yovovich doesn’t think anyone will. After all, they’re all just friends.

Chris Van Nostrand is a freelance writer living in Chicago.