Must the Colleges Police Sex?

A graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, JOHN T. RULE was Dean of Students at M.I.T. from 1956 to 1961. He is now engaged in a study of the nature of the interactions between students and universities, and for twelve years has been educational consultant to the Committee on the College Student of the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry.

A GROWING number of college students do not consider premarital sexual intercourse immoral. On the contrary, they view it, or claim to, not only as a quite natural expression of affection but as a valuable experience in personal growth. An examination of the source and the character of this belief is central to an understanding of the current controversy over visiting regulations in college dormitories. The arguments for and against greater permissiveness take many forms — a discussion of the right to freedom and privacy on the part of students, and of the duty to prevent immorality, limit temptation, and protect the college’s reputation on the part of administrators. Nevertheless, the psychic, moral, and physical consequences of intercourse are the real issue.

The sources of student belief lie in the altered structure of our society and, more deeply, in a shift of society’s mode of judgment away from moral codes based in religion toward those based in individual psychological consequences. Inevitably this attention to consequences has been transmitted to students long before they are of college age. For many young people it has brought decisions about sex into the area of what seems right to them. This deepest of all emotional experiences has too often become a matter of intellectual analysis by the immature, to be examined and experimented with in order that they may form their own conclusions. Some of the results are individually disastrous, but some may be good. We are far from being wise enough to assess the ultimate gains and losses.

The forces leading to current student beliefs must be examined before the college problem can be understood. They cannot be brushed aside with panaceas, and no easy answers are available.

As everyone knows, our society has reacted to the rigidity of the Puritan ethics. The disparity between the expressed beliefs and the observed actions of many parents has not passed unnoticed by their children of college age. Unless action is consonant with belief, the result is hypocrisy in the eyes of young people. They learn by example, not by being told. In spite of all condemnation of modern college youth, one of its strongest characteristics is its endeavor to make its beliefs consistent with its actions. Although in emotional areas such as sex the effort to rationalize may seem only to justify gratification, unless youth can be made to see the fallacy in the rationalization, nothing will be gained.

The availability and the increased efficiency of birth control methods have generally removed from intercourse the traditional fear of pregnancy. It is very difficult to convince the sexually eager that an act is immoral when the damaging results are limited to the psychological impact on the willing participants. Nor is it persuasive to point out to them the large number of illegitimate pregnancies which occur, for these can be ascribed to carelessness, which each couple is certain it can avoid.

Sketch, Colonnade of Main Portico, by Birch Burdette Long, courtesy of the University Press, Cambridge.

In addition, it has been generally recognized that women have sexual impulses and needs akin to those of men; and, more important, women need conceal the fact far less than previously. They may approach the subject of sex more nearly on an equal footing with men. Also, though men may talk in terms of conquest, premarital sex relations often occur by mutual consent, without the subtle loss of respect that formerly befell the woman who yielded.

Relative equality has brought with it more open discussion between the sexes. Shocking as it may seem to elders — the shock is a source of amusement to many of the young — college girls today know the vocabulary of sex and are almost as likely as men are to discuss sex among themselves.

This approach to a single standard for young people has struck at the roots of the belief that premarital relations damage or degrade the woman, that once she stoops to folly all is lost. It can almost be said that with many college students, sex relations have become an aesthetic matter, offensive or not offensive on the sole basis of the particular relationship between the two individuals involved. The general rationalization, if that is what it is, is that sexual relations are aesthetically acceptable if the two involved are “in love.” The definition of that much abused phrase can quite sincerely be stretched to cover the most casual of attractions.

Another oblique way of viewing sex relations, rationalistic in nature but insidiously appealing to the tempted but frightened, is that sex is “loads of fun but not very important.” Such a viewpoint allows indulgence at the holding-hands level of conscious emotional involvement; the deeper disturbances are relegated to the unconscious.

All this is not to say that the question of maintenance of virginity is not one of intense importance to most young women, for it is. Its emotional content, its deep moral roots, make it a major problem in the midst of the concurrent search for personal identity. The difficulties of clear and objective evaluation under the pressure of growing desires and male insistence, coupled with the normal fear of inability to cope with oneself once desire has overcome conscience, make facing the question for many young women a crisis they long to escape. When any inherent instability is present, irreparable personality disturbances frequently result through sheer inability to resolve the problem. On the other hand, many yield their virginity with few observable ill effects and, in retrospect, believe the decision to have been a good one. Sadly, a decision not to yield must be made again and again, while to yield is irretrievable.

Society traditionally has sought to solve the problem through moral taboo until young women have reached the sanctioned port of marriage. The reason most frequently given by colleges for not allowing a member of one sex to visit in the room of a member of the other is that many young people are incapable of handling the emotional stress such visiting may entail or of resisting the temptations that may arise. It is wiser and safer to avoid the risks. This is still the refuge and the comfort of those women who wish to bring their virginity to the marriage bed.

MANY adolescents consciously seek critical life experiences that they believe will test out and confirm their adulthood. The college years are a period of reaching for sexual maturity, for a personal identity which includes sexuality. In general, this is a period of advance and retreat, of tentative testing forays and frightened escape. Some seek security by trying to establish a permanent relationship. Going steady appeals for this reason. Intercourse appeals because it seems to be an instrument for achieving the haven of permanence.

For some students, too much freedom leads to indulgence; for others who doubt their capacity for control, it can lead to complete retreat as the only means to protect themselves from unknown consequences. For still others, a prolonging of more juvenile outlooks serves as a protection against more intimate relations. Parity raids are a juvenile sex outlet.

Probably the most useful protective device which permits exploration but allows it to be cut off when it becomes too frightening is that of transforming the emotion into a subject of conversation — in effect, into an idea. Ideas can be talked about, and the process of talking out, of extended discussion of sex problems, serves as a vicarious mode of gaining a pseudoexperience without physical commitment.

The achievement of sexual maturity is an intensely individual problem. Colleges that approach the subject with understanding and a desire to help their students must consider the consequences of every action on the development of the individual. The behavioral sciences have already brought us many profound insights into the structure of personality. At present in colleges we are in an amorphous period in which new approaches to student problems based on these insights are beingtested and refined. Eventually, no doubt, a new equilibrium will be reached, a new ethic achieved.

Since the war, counseling services rooted in psychological training based on an understanding of the adolescent have become quite common in private secondary schools and public high schools. Generally, sexual transgressions are treated as educational problems in character development, and punishment is used more as an educational tool than as a deterrent. More and more, headmasters and high school principals are coming to agree with this point of view.

In colleges psychological counseling and psychiatric services have grown even faster than in high schools. Inevitably the focus of attention has turned to the dynamics of the individual. Quite naturally, this has led to the elimination of clearly defined restrictions. Though on the surface such changes may seem pure permissiveness, the underlying cause is an expansion on the part of college administrators of their educational functions.

Where it is believed that education begins and ends in the classroom, the easiest procedure in handling nonclassroom conduct on the residential campus is to institute strict regulations for dormitory and fraternity living which are purely preventive in nature and which protect the college from external criticism. Such regulations in their extreme form generally forbid the presence of one sex in any living unit of the other except “on the first floor” and in strictly controlled and chaperoned groups. Through the summary dismissal of transgressors, the institution can avoid external criticism. Such procedure also avoids the time-consuming treatment of individual psychological problems and the cost of employing trained personnel. Where dismissal is not resorted to, the university still can avoid criticism by dealing with individual cases off the record from the comfortable position of possibly showing leniency “in this instance.”

Almost all state universities operate this way. The pressures from alumni, legislators, and the vocal voting public to preserve an acceptable moral posture are far too great to be resisted. Counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists in these universities are constantly torn between their acute awareness of the emotional problems of specific students in trouble, who need help in their struggle to attain sexual maturity and sexual adulthood, and the necessity to meet administrative policy by expelling all transgressors on the naïve assumption that this will preserve a high standard of morality.

Hours at which women’s dormitories will be locked and unlocked, hours when students must be in the building, sign-in and sign-out rules, and elaborate and cumulative systems of punishment for lateness and every variety of violation are quite common in state universities. At one Southern college, dating is defined as being in the company of a boy (sic) for more than fifteen minutes. The number of permissible dates for co-eds and the times and places at which they may occur are also detailed. Dating in parked cars is not permitted.

At a Southwestern university on the outskirts of a city, a girl who wishes to visit the home of her parents in the city on weekends must have their consent on file with the dean, and must fill out a form postcard on each such weekend stating the hour of her departure from campus and, later, the hour of her return. Both she and the head resident sign the card, and the resident mails it to the parents. This university also requires women students to sign out for evening events on campus and stipulates that they must be in their dormitories fifteen minutes after the close of the events.

Such rules may be rigidly enforced, with punishment spelled out in advance; or a pro forma enforcement system may exist, with little effort made to detect violations. Administration of such rules may be in the hands of student government, which either is strictly under the control of the dean or has a reasonable degree of autonomy. The reality behind the rules in any given university can only be determined by a campus visit including interviews with students. The practices going on behind the public shell of published rules may differ radically from such rules.

A great majority of American universities and colleges fit this pattern. It is the norm. They officially exhibit the viewpoint that the problem of sex on the campus is simply one of control. Students are good or bad, moral or immoral, but all must be treated as too immature to have good judgment. A college first prevents by limiting opportunity, then weeds out the bad to protect the good. The facade of the rules and the apparatus of punishment make the university and its counselors of students authoritarian figures not to be confided in or, for that matter, trusted.

Under such a system the naïve and immature eighteen-year-old freshman desperately needing to talk out his problems about sex is limited to “consultation by appointment” or to student bull sessions, where he is restricted by the narrow horizons of his peers who arc struggling with the same problems. He generally comes to conform to the mores and beliels of the student body, existing in a vacuum of secrecy protected from any adult wisdom by the obvious disparity between the university’s public posture and the student’s awareness of the local reality. It is the failure of the college to carry on a constant, intelligent, constructive debate with students, the failure to listen with calmness rather than outrage to the young defenders of sexual privilege, that causes students to revolt.

SOME American colleges have developed the philosophy that their educational opportunities and responsibilities are not confined to the classroom: the college is a community whose every impact on the student is a component of his education. The classrooms furnish the specifics; other phases of campus life, the generalities. All integrate into the total experience which constitutes a college education. It is in the nonacademic phases of college life that character and personality, integrity and morality are strengthened or weakened.

The development of cultural programs, the growth of student unions, the ever-increasing attention to the building and administering of dormitories, the establishment of houses with housemasters and tutors, and especially the healthy growth of professional counseling services are all manifestations of the belief that the totality of the college community is involved in education.

This philosophy is being explored most vigorously in private institutions, especially those in the East, including the Ivy League. These are the colleges and universities that have liberalized their dormitory rules and permitted a couple to be alone in the room of either the boy or girl at specified times. In a survey conducted last winter of thirtyseven colleges and universities, either coeducational or men-only, seven of the nineteen private colleges, none of the eighteen public ones, gave such permission in varying degrees.

In the classroom a student is little more than a face and a name. Outside the classroom he is a complex, growing, unique human being, posing an infinite number of problems to those who would understand him. Once the college actively subscribes to the philosophy of total education, it must take into account, in addition to the overall intent of its rules and regulations, their effects on the development of each individual student.

In doing this the college creates for itself a dilemma from which it can never thereafter escape. Society must be restrictive, and the college is educating the student to be a member of society. But the young, sentient human being learns genuinely to accept social restrictions chiefly through revolt, personal experimentation, and the long, long process of talking it out through the controlled, mutually respectful, argumentative discourse that can and should occur between college authorities and their student bodies.

The recognition of individual uniqueness also leads the college to perceive that treating students as too immature to handle responsibility or to be trusted in adult emotional realms, especially that of sex, keeps the door of communication closed and denies the college any meaningful participation in the lives of its students.

To be truly effective, the college must make the assumption that its students are mature, and then deal with their lapses into immaturity in mature ways. It must grant its students the privileges that responsible adults enjoy and be willing to endure student protests when the offenders are punished.

A student should never be punished for what he might do but only for what he has done. Punishment in advance is unjust to the innocent and quite clearly states that he is not to be trusted. Subscription to this seemingly simple principle is the core of the controversy over parietal rules. To deny a student the “right” to have a girl in his room is to punish him for what he might do with her. To deny him the “right” to have a party in his room is to punish him in advance for fear that the party might get out of hand.

To punish all to prevent the transgressions of the few is, on the face of it, unjust. At most the college can, by legislation, limit opportunities for immorality. Such limitation is at heart police action, not educational action. Limiting immorality is not teaching morality. Though it is a much more difficult policy to follow, severity toward those who abuse a privilege is far better than denying everyone the privilege. The college that is willing to accept the headaches such a policy inevitably entails is then in a position to define by its specific disciplinary actions what it considers to be abuse.

Society is based on consensus. The members of a large and established society such as ours accept, through education, consensuses they did not help form. Social relations, sexual conduct, and communal courtesy are all matters of consensus. It is such consensuses of the larger society that the college must help the student accept. The college student is at the age of revolt. He is at the peak of his egocentricity and the arrogance of his youth. He should to some degree cross swords with social conventions, defy them, attempt to alter them, test their validity for himself in order that he may eventually subscribe to them willingly.

The area of disagreement about sex between the central position of responsible students and the college authorities is, underneath all the controversy, never very great. Incidents which require college disciplinary action in general involve violations of consensuses that most students would agree to. Each such incident as it is treated individually becomes an instrument for exchange of ideas and evaluation of standards. However acrimonious the debates may become, they will, if pursued with honesty and goodwill, promote understanding and respect between the college and its students.

More important, this is the only approach that encourages students to view adults as human beings, and it takes human beings to persuade students to expose their doubts about their own adult status to adult influence. The achievement of frank discourse between a college and its students is an essential prerequisite to the fulfillment of the college’s broader educational aims.