Currently at Williams, students of different sexes cannot officially opt to occupy the same room. Two students of different sexes cannot officially opt to occupy separate rooms joined by the same bathroom. These policies obviously restrict the freedom of students, but while certain restrictions, like gender caps, are generally beneficial and well reasoned, these restrictions reflect ignorance about aspects of the Williams culture as well as unreflective heterosexism on the part of the powers that be. Given the inappropriateness of using either ignorance or heterosexism to govern the policies of a high-caliber, cosmopolitan college like ours, Williams ought to adopt a stance that is more sympathetic toward students wishing to room with someone of a different sex.
To my knowledge, there is no publicly available, reasoned account for the current policy of compulsory same-sex rooming. This policy is of the category that should seem fairly self-evident, but by exploring possible rationales for it we will see that it develops the air of an unquestioned dogma.
According to the many people to whom I have spoken about this topic, the policy is in place to discourage or prevent couples from living together. In clearer language, the policy is supposed to prevent the following from occurring: if heterosexual couples live together, some undoubtedly will separate, and this separation will cause social commotion and create the need for new living arrangements – hassles that the College would like to avoid if possible. This worry, if well-founded, could easily justify the current policy. Consideration of a few facts, however, might convince us otherwise. Many couples unofficially live together, and the social fallout caused by the dissolution of such relationships is not considerable for the College as a whole. Secondly, roommates, of the voluntary and involuntary varieties, get along to varying degrees, but again, the cost to the College of occasionally finding someone a new room is fairly minimal. Finally, we should consider the very significant fact that most couples on this campus, heterosexual and otherwise, do not choose to live together, either in the form of unofficially sharing the same room or even by having the same “pick group” to select nearby rooms. What does this mean? One fairly credible interpretation is that Williams is populated by fairly independent people and as a result, if the policy were to change, it seems as if the problem that the policy is supposed to prevent would rarely, if ever, arise in practice.
Another major point worth noting about the “couples defense” is the inherent heterosexism. It is assumed to some degree that there are only heterosexuals here at Williams. It is assumed that when a male and female share a room the possibility of them forming a couple exists and then that the “couples defense” is applicable. But such is not always so. Secondly, this rationale ignores the reality that same-sex couples can already live together, again due to the marginalizing effects of heterosexism. As a result of forgetting that non-heterosexuals exist, the College is discriminating against heterosexuals (for once), even if unwittingly.
Another reason for the policy might be that the College has an interest in preserving (an image of) a certain type of morality. Some snarl and gasp at the notion of Williams College regulating morality, but there is a proper space and time for Williams to come down on certain moral questions, even as they relate to sexuality. For example, the Health Center should have condoms, even if it tacitly condones premarital sex, as some social conservatives allege. The College should hire chaplains that are open to people of different sexual “walks of life,” despite the objections of certain fundamentalists. We can grant that the College should have some moral opinions, but we ought to question: if this reason does partially buttress the housing policy, why does the College think it ought to have any say, morally speaking, in the realm of consensual sexual or conjugal arrangements? Upon reflection, we will see that any justification for this policy on moral grounds would be completely at odds with what happens here on Friday and Saturday nights and, more importantly, with the College’s more deeply held values.
It is not specified just why upper-class students cannot share the same room or occupy rooms joined by the same bathroom, but looking at two possible justifications, the “couples defense” and a moral consideration, we have seen that these are tainted by blatant heterosexism and an impressive ignorance about aspects of Williams’ culture . We, as a community, ought to develop a policy that allows upper-class students to choose to live with someone of whatever sex they wish; otherwise we are left with a policy that closely resembles a mandate supported by foolish dogma and imposed by unsympathetic superiors who are unaffected by the results.
Raff Donelson ’09 is a philosophy and political science major from McKeesport, Penn.