One of the most consistent complaints I heard from undergraduates at Our Lady’s University concerned the poor gender relations on campus. Two major components were that men and women did not form real friendships often enough and dating did not take place between students. The two dominant ways men and women related to one another was (1) drunken hook-ups and (2) getting engaged to marry. Nothing in between.

Students often attributed this to OLU’s Catholic heritage, single-sex dorms, and policy of not allowing people in opposite sex dorms overnight (“parietals”). This led many of them to believe that if these pathologies were eliminated, gender relations would improve.

I always maintained that the state of gender relations was a generational issue, not attributable to the particular characteristics of OLU, So I defended single-sex dorms and (to a lesser extent) the parietal policy. Recently, one of my students here at Wake Forest offered some support for my position in an essay she wrote for class. The following is an excerpt:

An observation often made about seniors graduating from Wake Forest is that they are either engaged, almost engaged, or have never dated anyone in college. Why is this the pattern? Is it what students want? In the [campus newspaper] there was an article that expressed both a male and a female perspective on this issue. Both acknowledge that this was the common pattern at Wake Forest. As the girls put it, “people either don’t date at all, or are picking out rings.” . . . The other extreme found at Wake Forest is that people don’t date, but rather just hook-up on the weekends or after parties. The girl in the newspaper article asks, “Why is there pressure to randomly hook-up and not commit to one person?” This is definitely due partly to the pressure that is put on marriage. People don’t want to date someone if there is going to be a pressure for them to get married.

Wake Forest is not a Catholic university, it has co-ed dorms, and students are allowed in each others’ rooms overnight (provided that they are not actually sleeping — aside: this seems to be a self-defeating policy since I don’t think the kids are staying over to sleep). So, something more general is going on between men and women (or, perhaps more accurately, boys and girls) today. Even the commonalities in the language used on the different campuses — “ring by spring,” “hooking up,” “friend with benefits,” “walk of shame” — suggests that this is to some extent a generational issue.

But as I think about this further, I increasingly believe that saying it is a “generational issue” does not fully explain the situation. The student bodies at OLU and Wake Forest are very similar: predominantly white, upper-middle class, and suburban. So, social background may play a role. Also, both OLU and Wake Forest are largely residential campuses with no real “town-and-gown” relationship with the surrounding community and, hence, a limited social life for students. These characteristics — common to many private colleges/universities — may play a role. And the role of alcohol in the social lives of students surely has a profound effect on the way men and women relate to one another socially. I didn’t notice any major difference between the gender relations on-campus and those among students who lived off-campus; alcohol seemed to be a common denominator impeding improved relations.

One final observation, about OLU only since I don’t know what the case is at Wake Forest yet: as much as students complained about the poor gender relations on campus, no one seemed to do anything about it. I think it was easier for the students to point to the single-sex dorms and parietals than to change their behavior. Plus, if the milk is free, why buy the cow?

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