Should men and women room together at college? Last week the Los Angeles Times reported that close to 50 campuses across the U.S. permit those of the opposite sex to room together in what's being called "gender-neutral housing." According to the article, "the movement began mainly as a way to accommodate gay, bisexual and transgender students who may feel more comfortable living with a member of the opposite sex. Most schools say they discourage couples from participating, citing emotional and logistical problems of breakups." The majority of heterosexuals participating in the gender-neutral housing programs say they are not romantically involved. Although few students participate in these programs, colleges that do offer gender-neutral housing programs contend that their students should have the option of rooming with whomever they feel most comfortable.
It's almost certain that this housing trend will not be showing up on distinctly Christian college and university campuses anytime soon. (Nor should it.) However, the Los Angeles Times article highlights something I've been pondering lately: What more can Christian universities do to foster wholesome friendships between the sexes while keeping healthy boundaries?
This semester at Cedarville University, the Ohio Baptist school where I'm a resident director, I've noticed panic among many of the single women who are approaching graduation. Part of their panic is fueled by a fear (whether real or imagined) that the odds of meeting a godly man will dwindle once they graduate. Just a few weeks ago, I spoke with female nursing majors who lamented that, during their college experience, they'd had very few opportunities to interact with the men on campus. "It's so bad, we don't even know how to relate to a guy. We can barely carry on a natural conversation," they told me. They wished for more opportunities to hang out with guys. After my conversation with these women, I starting thinking of additional ways our dorm could foster opportunities for healthy, meaningful interactions between men and women.
At Cedarville, men and women are housed in either separate dorms or separate wings of a dorm that are separated by a coed lounge. Two to three times a semester, we have open dorm nights, during which students can visit the dorm rooms of the opposite sex during a three-hour window. Doors must remain open and lights on. Resident assistants and resident directors make their rounds during open dorms to ensure that students abide by the rules. Students also have a curfew: 12 a.m. on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends.
So we have rules to keep students safe and to (hopefully) curb sexual immorality. And we talk constantly about sexual purity and modesty and men's roles and women's roles and dating relationships. Yet with all of these rules and all of this talk on our campus and on evangelical campuses throughout the nation, we demonstrate our obsession with sex—mimicking the broader culture's sexual obsession. There is more to male-female relationships than sexual attraction and acts, or the lack thereof. And that is what I want my girls and other students on campus to learn. I want them to have the opportunity and skills to develop Christlike friendships with the men on campus and those they meet outside of Cedarville. And for that to happen, the Christian community desperately needs to re-imagine and prayerfully and deeply reflect on how Christian men and women relate to each other. We need people in the church creatively thinking about and presenting new holistic paradigms for life together—for friendships between the sexes.
This summer, I will be thinking of holistic ways to help male-female friendships flourish. It is not something I can do alone; I'll have to draw on the wisdom of the Christian community. Unlike some of my peers at secular institutions, I don't think coed dorms and bathrooms or gender-neutral housing programs are the way to go. But what might be some fruitful ways to foster friendship between the sexes?
Marlena Graves (M.Div., Northeastern Seminary) is a resident director at Cedarville University. She blogs at His Path Through the Wilderness, and has written for Her.meneutics about the sin of self-promotion, and students who experience same-sex attraction.