Colleges Are Speaking Up to Protect Shy 'Sexiles'

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

In an era of coed dorms and slackening rules about "overnight guests," a new constituency has emerged on college campuses: the roommate inconvenienced by sex.

Shielding a cohabitant from moments of intimacy is a part of collegiate etiquette as old as the sexual revolution. In the previous generation, a tie or sock hung from a doorknob served as a do-not-disturb sign. Today, the warning is more commonly delivered by text message. At some point, students displaced from their rooms came to be known as "sexiles."

Schools across Washington have mostly tiptoed around the issue of roommate sex, reminding students in general terms of the need for common civility. No student at St. John's College in Annapolis may "knowingly interfere with the sleep or study" of another. Students at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., are told to mind the "rights and sensibilities of others." Students at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg sign a roommate agreement that covers overnight guests along with cleanliness and borrowed food.

Tufts University, near Boston, raised eyebrows this fall by going where its peers would not. The school has banned sexual activity in dorm rooms when a roommate is present.

"It happens, not often, but it happens enough," said Ben Gittleson of Gaithersburg, a 20-year-old Tufts junior. "I think it's ridiculous that people can't talk it out with their roommates. But people aren't always considerate, and roommates aren't always assertive enough."

Tufts might be the first college in the nation to make explicit what other schools have only hinted at: It is not cool to have sex in front of your roommate.

The action also is notable as a baby-step backward in the decades-long march toward fully coeducational living. Colleges have steadily loosened rules about romantic guests as they have brought the sexes closer together, first in coed dorms, then coed floors and finally coed rooms. Couples can now share a dorm room at a growing number of schools, including Wesleyan University and Oberlin College. (Oberlin also hosts an annual Safer Sex Night.) Students can share an apartment at American University and at the University of Maryland. School officials note that the trend toward mixed-sex housing is intended to promote neutrality, not romantic cohabitation.

The policy at Tufts, a private research university with 9,500 students, has reaped heavy publicity on college campuses, providing fodder for Conan and Leno and reducing the school to something of a national punch line. Tufts is not regarded as a particularly socially liberal school, apart from an eccentric annual winter ritual known as the Naked Quad Run.

Tufts officials said the change was prompted by persistent complaints from students, numbering perhaps a dozen over the past two to three years.

In response, administrators helpfully added a new item to a list of host responsibilities for students with overnight guests: "You may not engage in sexual activity while your roommate is present in the room." Dorm sex should never "deprive your roommate(s) of privacy, study, or sleep time."

Tufts officials hope the new policy will "empower roommates to initiate conversations about what may be uncomfortable subjects," said Kim Thurler, a spokeswoman. "When students share a room, they must have good, clear communication about how the room will be utilized."

Tufts officials said they know of no other school that has recognized a student's right to be spared roommate sex. It's too early to tell whether their new rules might set a trend.

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