Do Co-Ed Dorms Lead To More Drinking and At-Risk Behaviors?

On the whole, today’s teenagers are really, really great kids. Studies continue to show that, in general, they’re engaging in fewer risky behaviors than previous generations. Campuses are rife with high achieving, morally grounded young people, whose academic pursuits clearly leave little time for nefarious behaviors like keg parties and late night hook ups.

However, when researchers at the University of Minnesota looked at drinking and other at-risk behaviors that college students were engaging in, and then analyzed those numbers taking a special interest in where the students lived, they found a trend that is hard to ignore. More specifically researchers were “investigating if patterns of risk behavior differ based on the type of college housing environment students reside in.”

When researchers looked at drinking and other at-risk behaviors that college students were engaging in, they found a trend that is hard to ignore. (View Apart/ Shutterstock)

Their research, which was published in the Journal of American College Health, found that students living in co-ed housing were “2.5 times more likely than those in all-male or all-female dorms to admit to binge-drinking on a weekly basis. They were also more than twice as likely to say they’d had at least three sexual partners in the past year.”

Lead researcher Dr. Brian J. Willoughby, who now teaches at Brigham Young is quick to note the obvious stating, “A lot of the reaction we’ve been getting from students is, ‘Well, we’ve known that.’” Dr. Willoughby further states that the transition away from single sex dorms was a move away from the vision of colleges as acting in loco parentis and was done without “an evaluation of its effects.” The unintended consequence of co-ed dorms say Willoughby and his co-researcher, Dr. Jason S. Carroll may be a proliferation of certain behaviors. More than 41 percent of students in co-ed housing said they binge drank on a weekly basis, versus fewer than 18 percent of those in single-sex dorms. Sixty-three percent of students in single-sex housing said they’d had no sexual partners in the past year, but that was true of only 44 percent of students in the co-ed dorms. Of students in co-ed housing, almost 13 percent said they had three or more sexual partners in the past year, compared with 5 percent of students in single-sex dorms.

These findings led to the assumption that students living in co-ed housing are under an environmental umbrella of different “social norms” than those living in single sex housing. What that means is that because students expect that co-ed dorms will have more drinking and sex they ultimately end up living up to their own expectations.

Another study on possible environmental factors that cause or increase the incidence of at-risk behaviors was recently conducted on the campus of Columbia University. Ehnographers there began studying students in their natural living habitats as part of the university’s  Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT), a complex and multi-pronged study of sexual violence and sexual health among Columbia University and Barnard College undergraduates. The stated goal of SHIFT is to “help us think more critically about how to create healthier communities on college campuses.”

Researchers wanted to see what was happening in living spaces that was leading to more at-risk sexual behaviors and non-consensual encounters. Their findings, which have yet to be fully released, will be coming out in a book titled “The Sexual Project,”  and seem to align somewhat with what Willoughby and Carroll concluded. Two of the study’s lead researchers-Jennifer Hirsch, a medical anthropologist, and Claude A. Mellins, a clinical psychologist told the Chronicle of Higher Education that when students were asked about when they believed sexual consent was effectively communicated they replied it was when they entered a room or sat on a bed in a dorm room of someone of the opposite sex.

In co-ed dorms, there are fewer spaces available to young men and women for hanging out so they are always hanging out in a bedroom, oftentimes in the bedroom of someone of the opposite sex, and the research contends that that increases the likelihood of a sexual encounter. So where the bed symbolizes “consent” and there is nowhere to sit but the bed, a problem is created by the co-ed environment itself.

In a 2011 letter to his college community, Catholic University president John H. Garvey wrote that the entire university was going back to single sex housing as an “old-fashioned remedy” to help reduce binge drinking and casual hookups of its students. He used the University of Minnesota study to support this move, and though he admitted that his decision was “countercultural,” he wrote that he believes “virtue and intellect are connected,” and that helping students make ethical decisions ultimately facilities a better learning and living environment, keeping them healthy and out of trouble.

It’s unlikely that higher education will return to offering only single sex living arrangements for their students. Factors such as gender fluidity issues, the need for more trans student support services among the student body, and an increase in the male/female disparity in college attendance (currently females make up 60% of college students) will further complicated housing issues. Hopefully, SHIFT and studies like it will help colleges create communities where all are safe and respected.


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About Melissa Fenton

Melissa Fenton is a freelance writer and adjunct librarian at Pasco-Hernando State College. Find her writing all over the internet, but her work mostly on the dinner table. Find her on Facebook 
and on twitter at @melissarunsaway

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