Finding Room for Co-ed Living

Outside the Box

In the fall of 1969, a year before Harvard and Radcliffe dorms went co-ed, undergraduate Al Gore was caught out after ten with a female B.U. student. This was, of course, against Harvard’s parietal rules, which took their last breath before expiring later that semester. Professor Roger Rosenblatt, the story goes, was known for his leniency in student affairs. Seeing the fear in the eyes of Tipper Aitcheson and her boyfriend, he called out, “Good evening, boys,” and strode briskly past.

Parietal rules had existed at Harvard and Radcliffe since time immemorial. In fact, the first listing for “parietal” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the 1837 Harvard College handbook. Not only were Harvard administrators the instigators behind this kind of thing, they of course had to design a fancy name for it. Only 30-some years ago, members of the opposite sex often were not allowed to be alone together inside a closed room, and gendered curfew was imposed at night. Radcliffe was stricter than Harvard—some dorms enforced a three-feet-on-the-floor rule at all times, and women were limited to 25 hours of visiting time per week.

Many undergraduates flaunted the parietal system, as did Tipper and Al, especially in its fateful last years. But signs of resistance are evident in earlier decades as well. In 1952, Robert Marsh, Ed.D. ’51 wrote to the Alumni Bulletin of Harvard Magazine to offer an argument against Harvard’s parietal rules: “If a man is old enough to be an officer in the armed forces and die in Korea, he is old enough to be left alone with a girl after dark,” he maintained. But administrators continued to cling to the old ways. More than 10 years later, one dean wrote in to the Bulletin to defend the policy and condemn those corrupt students who did not follow it: “fornication must also be understood as an offense punishable by the University on the same grounds as thievery, cheating, and lying.” Sex was a crime.

Despite the College’s relatively lax rules about relations between genders, we still have a parietal system, of sorts, at Harvard today. Co-ed rooming is the final frontier. Except in pockets of New Quincy and Leverett towers, co-ed rooming is a very serious no-no. After one boy/girl pair were caught living together in my House last year, they found themselves in a private meeting with the dean, threatened with expulsion. Harvard doesn’t simply forbid co-ed rooming; penalties are harsh for those who choose to live alternatively.

Yet more and more, students are finding that this kind of rooming makes life at Harvard bearable. Co-ed blocking groups abound, queer students don’t necessarily want roommates of the same sex, and lovers move in together while tutors avert their eyes. (Of course, queer live-in relationships happily escape the College’s puritanical eye—double standard?).

This is an issue near and dear to my heart, because in my blocking group there is one of me, and seven boys. Some mothers made jokes about how I would have to teach their sons to do laundry, but I smiled and took it all in stride. It was all pretty fun for a while, except for the fact that I was never really a part of the group—my nun’s single kept me cloistered up the hall or a flight down. All I wanted was a space I could share with my blockmates. But thank goodness Harvard’s archaic system kept me from giving in to temptation: living together, in closer proximity to each others’ coffee breath, messy rooms, and unorthodox showering habits, it’s possible that my blockmates and I would have become wildly attracted to each other and engaged in large blocking group orgies—with me at the center.

A dream never to come to fruition, thanks to Harvard’s neo-parietal rules. As you may have guessed, it’s not the same at other schools. According to the Haverford College housing website, students there can apply for three-person and two bedroom co-ed apartments, as well as single-sex suites on a floor with co-ed bathrooms. One-third of Haverford students living on-campus live in these kinds of apartments. At Wesleyan, along with the naked dorm (where students are allowed to let it all hang out, literally), there are—you guessed it—plenty of co-ed suites and bathrooms. Don’t administrators know that some students would take advantage of co-ed living to shack up? In an October 2000 article in the Christian Science Monitor, Haverford educators allowed that some students who lived together were in relationships—but said that the goal is to furnish a kind of home-like atmosphere.

To the uninitiated, co-ed rooming seems sexy in a ’60s kind of way—students can live together regardless of gender, sharing free love, music, and dirty towels. But I think that students who want to room together today are much more aware of gender issues than in earlier eras. We’ve, many of us, learned that gender doesn’t mean everything that we thought it did, and that social norms come into being first by being practiced—and then accepted as truth. The culture fostered by parietal rules is a good example of this phenomenon. Today, the prospect of only seeing the opposite sex between the hours of 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., with the door open, seems dreadful to us. Yet even 30 years ago, it was considered the natural way that men and women should interact. Not too long from now, we’ll look back on our same-sex factions and shake our heads. So many orgy opportunities missed.

Beccah G. Watson ’04 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.