Single-Sex Dorms Are No Sex Dorms?

Catholic University president John Garvey explains "Why We're Going Back to Single-Sex Dorms."

Catholic University president John Garvey explains “Why We’re Going Back to Single-Sex Dorms.”

The two most serious ethical challenges college students face are binge drinking and the culture of hooking up.

Alcohol-related accidents are the leading cause of death for young adults aged 17-24. Students who engage in binge drinking (about two in five) are 25 times more likely to do things like miss class, fall behind in school work, engage in unplanned sexual activity, and get in trouble with the law. They also cause trouble for other students, who are subjected to physical and sexual assault, suffer property damage and interrupted sleep, and end up babysitting problem drinkers.

Hooking up is getting to be as common as drinking. Sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, who heads the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says that in various studies, 40%-64% of college students report doing it.

The effects are not all fun. Rates of depression reach 20% for young women who have had two or more sexual partners in the last year, almost double the rate for women who have had none. Sexually active young men do more poorly than abstainers in their academic work. And as we have always admonished our own children, sex on these terms is destructive of love and marriage.

Here is one simple step colleges can take to reduce both binge drinking and hooking up: Go back to single-sex residences.

I know it’s countercultural. More than 90% of college housing is now co-ed. But Christopher Kaczor at Loyola Marymount points to a surprising number of studies showing that students in co-ed dorms (41.5%) report weekly binge drinking more than twice as often as students in single-sex housing (17.6%). Similarly, students in co-ed housing are more likely (55.7%) than students in single-sex dorms (36.8%) to have had a sexual partner in the last year—and more than twice as likely to have had three or more.

The point about sex is no surprise. The point about drinking is. I would have thought that young women would have a civilizing influence on young men. Yet the causal arrow seems to run the other way. Young women are trying to keep up—and young men are encouraging them (maybe because it facilitates hooking up).

Like Garvey, I’d have guessed the opposite result of single-sex dorms on drinking. But the explanation of peer pressure creating a race to the bottom is plausible.

Similarly, I’m not at all surprised that co-ed dorms makes hooking up easier and thus leads to more of it. And I’m actually quite sympathetic to arguments for same-sex dorms on the grounds of making spontaneous sex–especially of the drunken and otherwise less-than-fully-consensual varieties–less likely. Indeed, I actually find it hard to come up with good rationales for co-ed dormitories from a parental and academic standpoint. They’ve been around for 40-odd years, though, without the collapse of the Republic.

But Garvey’s actual argument is a strange one: We want to make it as difficult as possible for college students to have sex.  After all, he’s not making arguments about coercion, privacy, or any of the obvious rationales for single-sex dormitories. He’s instead citing statistics about the impact of sexual partners, period, on young adults.

Aside from the implications that, if being sexually active to the tune of two partners in a year is that dangerous, colleges probably ought do more than shuffle the living arrangements, I’m skeptical of the findings. The sources are Catholic schools and the National Marriage Project, for one thing, so there’s a bit of selection bias.

But is a 20-something away from home for the first time having sex twice in a year necessarily a promiscuous individual rather than one looking for love? Maybe they’re falling in love and getting heartbroken, thus explaining the academic lapses. Now, that explanation would be hard to apply to some with, say, a dozen partners. Then again, the causality of problem behavior might be spurious in those cases.

And are we separating the problem drinkers from the serial sexual partner cases? If not, it’s rather hard to pinpoint the behavior to sex if they’re passed out and hung over.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. This also seems to ignore that the culture, writ large, has changed quite a bit in the last 4 decades, and that co-ed dorms is more an effect than a cause.

    And even if one were to re-institute single sex dorms, I can’t imagine that the hook up culture will simply go away.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I would look at it differently. Coed dorms provide at least some attraction against moving to an off campus apartment where I assume many of the complained of problems would be worse.

  3. mantis says:

    There’s some serious selection bias going on there, yes. And a lot of correlation without evidence of causation.

    Also, there’s more drinking in co-ed dorms because the students don’t have to go out to find members of the opposite sex to drink with. Drinking with a bunch of dudes isn’t as fun as drinking with girls from your average male college student’s perspective, and the same is true for the female students, though possibly to a slighter smaller degree. If you make the dorms single-sex, the students will just seek members of the opposite sex to drink with elsewhere, which leads to more drunk driving accidents and all the other negatives that go along with that. I notice Garvey doesn’t consider that.

    Also implicit here is the attitude that sex is bad, and college kids shouldn’t be having it. That is ridiculous and unrealistic. Same-sex dorms, co-ed dorms. Doesn’t matter. College kids will have sex.

  4. mattt says:

    Yglesias has the best reply I’ve seen to Garvey thus far.

    Assuming the college students are adults, what’s wrong with hooking up? The assumption seems to be that sex is icky?

    25 years ago I lived in a single sex dorm and once climbed three stories up an exterior stone wall, clinging to ledges and ivy, in order to entertain a lady friend. Based on that experience, I’d say that same-sex dorms carry a greater risk of real physical harm.

  5. Franklin says:

    Didn’t that one guy just quit some organization a month or two ago because he wrote that semen reduces female depression? The study he was talking about seems to be in opposition to the one cited above. IIRC, the semen study looked at protected vs. unprotected sex. Unprotected makes women feel better (well, until they get an STD or pregnant, I suppose).

  6. Liberty60 says:

    My experience working with youths, middle school on up thru college, is that our fears of young people’s sexuality are wildly overblown.

    Do some young people go off the rails and engage in risky stupid behavior with tragic rsults?

    But more than their parents? I don’t think so.

    For example, look at swing clubs- every city has one or more, and who attends them? Horny 19 year olds, lost in the frenzy of hormones?
    Nope, they are mostly middle aged PTA parents.

    Notice the study quoted- “ Similarly, students in co-ed housing are more likely (55.7%) than students in single-sex dorms (36.8%) to have had a sexual partner in the last year

    Really? Having a single sex partner in the past year is evidence of a “hookup culture”?

    Man, Hugh Hefner would be ashamed of these prudish young people!

    My experience was, that most of the young people I worked with were sober, thoughtful, and well meaning- flawed like all of us, and in nee of correction from time to time, but not anything to panic about.

  7. Janis Gore says:

    Sex was less distracting than the fireplace at my co-ed dorm. I hadn’t been near one of those.

    But isn’t Mr. Garvey talking less about co-ed dorms than returning to a ’50’s era supervision of college students? Changing the sex balance of the dorms would be ineffective without curfews, demerits, yada, yada.

  8. Janis Gore says:

    And no, I can’t access the whole article.

  9. Drew says:

    “Single-Sex Dorms Are No Sex Dorms?”

    I confess, I just skimmed the essay and comments………..thinking “you gotta b e kidding me?”

    Not when I was in school. And last I heard, Hormones still rage……

  10. Megan says:

    I’ll just sum this article up for the tl;dr crowd:
    “Get off my lawn!”

    Just more lamenting the idea that young adults could want to party and have sex.

  11. Bleev K says:

    Instead of trying to protect people from sex they should protect people from their stupid religion. It cause way more harm. Maybe these people should have sex more often.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    One of the overlooked demographics is that colleges 40 years ago or even less had a much higher percentage of male students. The average university in 1970 was 2/3 male is it was a coed university.

    These days, unless the school is an engineering school or a top tier private, a university is closer to being 60% female. What is odd is how having more females around has caused more males to become jerks (See the NY Times article about the hook up culture at the University of North Carolina).

  13. Janis Gore says:

    What is that, supersdestroyer? Either my memory is dim after 35 years, or young men have changed. After the discussion about rape I looked into things. Is it true that 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted in college?

  14. John Burgess says:

    WTF? Did no one notice the name of the university? The Catholic University of America, people.

    The university says of its identity:

    Catholic faith is at the heart of The Catholic University of America. This part of CUA’s identity is reinforced through the many options for service and formation on campus, as well as by the integration of faith and reason in each of the university’s 12 schools. Many student organizations provide opportunities for fellowship while serving others. CUA’s Office of Campus Ministry helps students follow Christ and live the values of the Gospel within the context of the Catholic faith.

    What this means is that the university will do all it can–within the bounds of the 1st Amendment–to promote Catholic values. One Catholic value is that sex outside marriage is wrong, a sin.

    The university doesn’t make everyone become a Catholic to attend, but it’s not going to go out of its way to facilitate behavior it considers sinful, if it can at all find a reason. Here, it found two. I suspect that CUA and its new president think it took a wrong turn when it made dorms co-ed. He is now rectifying the situation.

    Whether other Catholic or other parochial universities follow suit is going to be up to their presidents/rectors and boards of directors. It seems to me that this is not an all-bad thing and offers something between completely mixed dorms–some now featuring mixed-sex roommates, not just dorm-mates–and single-sex schools. If this makes the school unattractive so some, it’ll make it more attractive to others.

  15. Yet another disillusioned pawn says:

    “But is a 20-something away from home for the first time having sex twice in a year necessarily a promiscuous individual rather than one looking for love?”

    You had sex with your sexual partners only once each? Wow! Talk about hit and run.

  16. @Doc Taylor: “hook up culture”? Man, you are old Doc. I don’t even know what this means.

  17. superdestroyer says:

    Stories like this one demonstrate the difference between middle American and the elites. First, what percentage of 18-21 y/o people in the U.S. are full time college students. Out of that group, how many attend a school where most students live on campus? Out of that group, how many are attending a school that is 50/50 male/female.

    When one looks at the results, the college experience of the elites of the U.S. is far different from the mainstream.

  18. Xenos says:

    What this means is that the university will do all it can–within the bounds of the 1st Amendment–to promote Catholic values. One Catholic value is that sex outside marriage is wrong, a sin.

    Using psuedoscience to assert secular arguments for a policy you are undertaking for moral reasons is a Catholic value, apparently. As for non-coed housing, are they really going to enforce rules that keep boyfriends and girlfriends from spending the night? Are they going the full in loco parentis path of hiring front desk security guards for the adult students to keep them from having sex? If not, what is the point?

    This is all reactionary political correctness. Which is Garvey’s forte.

  19. superdestroyer says:


    This is all about trying to move up the US News rankings. Catholic University only has 80% of their freshmen come back for their sophomore year. Maybe paying $50K a year so that your daughter can be sexiled to sleep in the student lounge does appeal to parents who would fund their children’s education at Catholic university. As graduate schools, professional schools, medical schools demand perfect transcripts, maybe parents are not as willing to fund thier children’s binge drinking and unlivable dorm room.

  20. Janis Gore says:

    A good many parents were buying houses for their students and flipping them after graduation, bypassing dorms altogether. What has the housing bubble done to that practice?

  21. mattb says:

    Two quick comments….

    First if we follow this line of thinking to the extreme, why stop at same sex dorms? Shouldn’t we go back to same sex schools?

    We want to make it as difficult as possible for college students to have sex.

    Because that worked so well with alcohol and prohibition…

  22. FH Stowe says:

    Having spent a number of years both teaching and as an assistant dean in a small college I share the concerns Mr. Garvey has. Without the aid of studies and statistics it has been clear to me on a daily basis that binge drinking and hooking up (which is not the same as having a sexual relationship with someone you love, or even think you love) are serious problems among students. At best they exacerbate some of the serious problems students already have, and at worst lead to assaults (sexual and non-sexual). Almost as devastating are the situations in which someone feels that he or she has been assaulted sexually, though the situation does not fit the technical definition of such assault. And then there are fatal accidents and suicides.

    That said, Mr. Joyner exposes serious flaws in Mr. Garvey’s argument. It should be added that the correlations Mr. Garvey cites do not allow us to draw conclusions about causation: depressed women, for example, may be more likely to have sex with multiple partners. Mr. Joyner, however, should note that Mr. Garvey is speaking about having two sexual partners, not about having sex two times, in a year.

    While I am not optimistic about the results of the plan at Catholic University, it could be that a return to single sex dormitories will have the value of making it clear to students that people at CU care about their well being, and that would have some value. Colleges and universities do have a responsibility to make thinking about how to live ethically and morally a serious part of college life, both in and out of the classroom. Mr. Garvey’s article should be appreciated for emphasizing this responsibility and for bringing attention to a very serious problem.