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The case for single-sex environments on campus

There are good reasons to separate the sexes, even if we’ve forgotten them

Harvard’s “Committee on the Unrecognized Single-Gender Social Organizations” sounds like something out of a modern Mark Twain short story, the kind of thing that sounds both pointless and probably destructive in some way. As it turns out, while the committee was initially resolved to “blacklist members of single-sex organizations from leadership roles and academic fellowship recommendations,” the members ended up deciding to “[punish] students who belong to all social organizations that are “private” and “exclusionary,” regardless of their gender makeup.”

Kudos to the committee for, at the very least, moving forward on the strength of its insane convictions. But the whole debacle indirectly touches on the critical argument that needs to be made: the case for single-sex institutions on campus, particularly single-sex housing.

There has been compelling evidence for years that single-sex education environments are beneficial to both sexes, particularly women. It would stand to reason that sex-segregated communal groups might offer beneficial social outcomes as well, not because the sexes are inherently incompatible (guess what: they’re precisely the opposite), but because single-sex fraternization creates a kind of unique environment in which a unique and agreeable type of camaraderie can flourish. Anyone who has ever been part of a fraternity or sorority—or even anyone who has taken part in a bachelor or bachelorette party, a guy’s poker game or a ladies’ night on the town—can attest to this.

The case for abolishing sex segregation in social groups rests in part on the assertion that men and women are fundamentally the same, subject to no divergent behaviors or interests, and thus do not need to—and moreover should not—be sequestered based on their sex. A quick observation of the differences between the average frat house and the average sorority house will surely lay to rest such absurdist convictions.

But the most necessary area in which sex segregation should be implemented is in student housing: the dormitories where entire halls and in some cases even individual dorm rooms are “gender-neutral.” Such arrangements are helping to abolish both the critical distinctions we once made between men and women and the necessary safety barriers we put in place to ensure proper conduct between the two. There is no point in being shy about it: separating men’s and women’s housing is a matter almost entirely related to sex. Colleges did not segregate sleeping arrangements because they were worried that men and women were going to have overly-heated conversations about the merits of Tchaikovsky vs. Taneyev or get into fistfights over the practical applications of quantum mechanics. Dorms were single-sex because colleges understood what tends to happen when men and women are put in close and intimate proximity to each other.

Progressive campus activists understood this, as well—which was kind of the point. And so in the wake of the deregulation of campus housing rules, we have been left with what Heather Mac Donald calls “a Pandora’s box of boorish, sluttish behavior that gets cruder each year.” Feminists—and opportunistic men—have surely celebrated such a development. The rest of us doubtlessly feel somewhat differently.

It is essentially anathema, on college campuses in particular, to suggest both that men and women are different and that there should possibly be some rules and customs when it comes to various types of interaction between them. As Harvard shows, this aggressively democratic approach to communal life can eventually be taken to even crazier limits. It will be worth seeing how it plays out on Harvard’s campus. In the meantime, we might consider the virtue of the college administrators of previous decades, who understood the basic male-female dichotomy in a way that the enlightened avant garde of today simple refuses to grasp.

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