Culture at the Crossroads
College Sex, Drinking, and Friendship
I applaud the decision of President John Garvey of Catholic University of America to return to the use of single-sex residence halls. His reasoning is based on an Aristotelian approach to virtue: we become the people we are not exclusively by what we think about, but by the practices we engage in. Colleges must be more deliberate about what practices they cultivate, or fail to cultivate, and a primary example of what they ought to be cultivating is in the area of relationships and sexuality.
Current practices among college students include rampant binge drinking and misery-inducing cultures of hooking up. A number of studies (examples here, here, and here) have showed the damaging relationship between drinking and hooking up, and several others (examples here and here [opens a PDF]) have addressed the phenomenon of "pluralistic ignorance" in the hookup culture. Pluralistic ignorance is that nervous glancing around, that "everyone-is-having-more-fun-than-I-am" attitude that pervades a still-growing population. What we know with certainty is that student perception about the prevalence of drinking and sex are significantly higher than the reality of drinking and sex. But it is precisely that disconnect between perception and reality that acts as a catalyst toward more compulsive drinking and sex, and most young adults are at a developmental age when the desire to be like their peers is suffocating.
Cynics would argue that single-sex dorms cannot stop young adults from drinking and having sex. But that specious argument ignores the fact that no law or policy can prevent behavior, any more than laws against murder or theft. The issue is not about perfect efficacy; it's about formation of attitudes and influencing practices. In the case of college campuses, it's also about models worth imitating. The college years can be a period of remarkable growth and character formation, and without models to imitate, young people are likely to continue glancing nervously around them at what everyone else is doing.
Tim Muldoon holds a Ph.D. in Catholic systematic theology and is an award-winning author and Catholic theologian of the new evangelization.