"Coed roommates" sounds like an Internet sex site, but it's actually the official housing policy at places like Antioch College, the University of Massachusetts, Tufts University, Swarthmore and other colleges in the Northeast.
To which I say: What an absolute nightmare. Not just for the masochistic university official who volunteered to supervise this can of poisonous Mesopotamian sand-worms, but for the poor deluded souls who actually sign up for cohabitation and then try to have inter-gender discussions about pressing issues like the volume of the stereo, the relative importance of misplaced toothpaste caps, and the appropriateness of a black-light Jenna Jameson poster on the walls. If your opponent is a girl, you can't even have a fistfight or a beer-chugging contest to decide the outcome.
Tamar Lewin, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote a basically approving "trend" story about this phenomenon, in which various enlightened students and school officials talk about fighting against the "heterosexist" housing policies of the past. That would be the ones that put boys with boys and girls with girls.
The problem, it seems, is that the definition of "boy" and "girl" is now hopelessly out of date. What about a gay boy with a straight boy? The article implies that this creates too much pressure on the gay guy, who is forced to listen to conversations about hot babes on campus. There's virtually no sympathy expressed, however, for the straight guy. Why wouldn't it be equally horrific to be forced to listen to Judy Garland records, overhear phone conversations about his paper on Edith Piaf, or accidentally sample the new Jeff Stryker video?
Then there's all your other various combinations -- gay women who want to room with gay women, gay women who want to room with gay men, "transgender students" who want ... actually I'm not sure what they would want, and, yes, straight men and straight women living in the same room but swearing to the university housing official that they won't have sex -- except at Antioch, where they specifically want to have sex.
Obviously these new enlightened student housing policies have forgotten the first rule of dorm life: You'll always end up hating your roommate anyway. My college roommates included:
-- a neurotic Jewish guy who always thought I secretly hated him, long before I started really hating him for constantly reminding me that I secretly hated him, resulting in a shouting match in which I said "I never even thought about Jews before I met you."
-- a preppie from New Hampshire who woke up the whole dorm one night, standing in the middle of the quad in his underwear, playing his alto saxophone. No one was alarmed at first, and then we discovered that he was not drunk.
-- a marijuana-loving comedian from Alabama who built a stack of records and books in one corner of our room that looked like the revolutionary barricades in "Les Miserables."
-- a millionaire's son who liked to wake up in the middle of the night and say "Hey, are you awake?" so he could talk about how we could bribe state officials to find out where the new exits on the interstate were going to be and thereby become rich through land speculation.
-- a guy who sold fake Norman Rockwell paintings out of our room. Fortunately he flunked out after one semester.
-- a proud redneck from Arkansas who once drank two cases of beer in one weekend (OK, I helped) and then smuggled three hookers into the room and passed out, leaving me to pay them and get rid of them.
-- a gay guy. The gay guy was a journalist full of excruciating moral dilemmas that had nothing to do with being gay. Actually, I would have appreciated a little homosexual angst -- THAT would have been interesting. He was more interested in whether there should be a permanent World Court at The Hague. I never even knew he was gay until two years after we roomed together.
Anyway, my point is that I like all these guys -- NOW. I even occasionally liked them while we were living together. The millionaire kid had a personal valet who came by and picked up our laundry, so that was a plus. But nine times out of 10, any college roommate situation is playing Russian Roulette with a fully loaded pistol. You've got that 19-year-old energy building up in the room like Freddy Krueger's furnace and sooner or later somebody is going to end up with shaving cream on their sheets.
Now you're going to add into that equation female energy with the male energy? Are you saving up story ideas for Edward Albee or something?
The colleges say they have this under control because they do such careful pre-screening. They make sure that the roommates are not interested in each other sexually, for one thing. Obviously the bureaucrat who wrote this policy has never witnessed an office romance. The girl may look like your idea of warmed-over corned beef hash, but when you spend EVERY DAY with her, there's going to be that moment when the bare shoulder, the funny laugh, or the overheard conversation with her girlfriend when she talks about getting naked at the bachelorette party, suddenly ZAPS you, and you start wondering what's under there.
It works the same way in reverse, too. "I used to think he was a loser, but then I saw the way he took care of his Chihuahua, and I don't know, he's just so SWEET." Pretty soon you've got full-bore heterosexuality flailing around on your modular dorm couch, followed by the morning-after session of "What did we just do?," followed by the decision to either do it again or to break it off, followed by the strained silence because one person wants to continue the sex and one person wants to quit.
Plus there's the universal rule of human sexuality: As soon as you make a formal agreement not to have sex with someone, YOU WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH THEM. I would think that at a college, of all places, they would tend to understand these things.
What flusters me, though, is the sheer variety of sexual-orientation combos in these new dorms. Some lesbians want to room with other lesbians. Some lesbians don't want the sexual tension of another lesbian but they don't like heterosexual guys either, and homosexual men rarely mix well with homosexual women. (OK, don't shoot me, it's just something I've noticed. I could be wrong.)
And then you have the category of . . . "the curious and questioning." I'm not making this up. Instead of checking the "straight" box, the gay box, or the "transgender" box, you can put down "I don't know WHAT I am." And they'll put you in the special dorm with a roommate who could turn out to be nine kinds of sexual surprises.
Think about it, though. If the guy doesn't know whether he's gay, straight or bisexual, that could mean two things. Either he's such a wimpy chameleon that he'll take on the sexual identity of whoever's standing next to him (PLEASE pick that roommate carefully), OR he's so David Lynch-level kinky that he'll be sneaking out in the middle of the night to torture his pet rats. Either way, I don't think the answer is to say, "Here, meet Hans, your cross-dressing German exchange student roommate. He has a cool Swastika tattoo."
My advice would be to follow the policy of Oxford and Cambridge. "Here's your apartment. We don't want to know who comes in and goes out of it. Just show up for class." Then fifty years later you read about the freaky stuff in a cabinet minister's memoirs. By then the statute of limitations has run out. Believe me, it's easier on everybody.
(John Bloom writes a number of columns for UPI and may be contacted at email@example.com or through his Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, Texas, 75221.)
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