One of the central sociopolitical issues of my undergraduate career has been “gender-neutral housing” (GNH), the term commonly used in the U.S. for official university policies that permit undergraduates of different genders to share apartments, suites, or bedrooms (depending on the liberality of the policy). I was on the committee that brought the first GNH policy to Princeton’s on-campus apartments (in which all the bedrooms are single, so the Bedroom Problem didn’t loom as it would it most other housing configurations at Princeton), and since then I’ve remained involved in questions of gender and housing, such as how to get more public and dorm bathrooms available around campus that are non-gendered and hence safe and accessible for transpeople.
I think Princeton is much more rigid about gendering its student living spaces than many other American universities, or at least the ones that I visited when I was a high-school senior picking colleges. But the firestorms in the student press at other Ivy League universities, for example, suggests that it’s not just Princeton being exceptionally more conservative than everyone else. GNH is a very salient issue in American higher ed, and we who are in the habit of trying to present the utter reasonableness of the position that students should be allowed to make their own choices about whom they want to live with have been forced to recognize that others simply don’t see the logic of our position.
And so one of the most interesting things I’ve discovered in my time as a student in the UK is that GNH is an absolute non-issue here. Granted, at UK universities (or, at least, at the ones that can afford it; I think fewer that are not Oxbridge/London can these days), it is far less customary to share bedrooms than it is in the US, so that problem doesn’t tend to rear its head. But everyone I talked to at Oxford about this expressed surprise that people in America would think it extraordinary for men and women students to share university-owned living space. It’s not especially common for Oxford students of different genders to live together, but it’s certainly not unheard of, and in institutional memory (though assuredly at some point shortly after coeducation at the various colleges) there was no point at which a grown-up said they couldn’t.
While I’m doing research in London, I’m staying in a University of London dorm. It’s your very basic, run-of-the-mill student accommodation: 12-story cinderblock square divided into dozens and dozens of tiny little single rooms. I’m on the ninth floor, but I imagine every floor has the same bathroom layout: two single-occupancy WCs, and one big dorm bathroom with showers and sinks and toilets. The bathrooms aren’t gendered at all, and it’s my first experience being in a dorm setting where they aren’t. As someone with a lot of bathroom anxiety—as a teenager, I was with some regularity told I was in the wrong one—I always hesitated to push the envelope, and no one I lived near ever set a precedent for using the closest bathroom, regardless of gender, or voting as a group on how to gender the bathrooms. And so it actually quite surprised me when I realized this evening that I have been using a big bathroom with men and women in it for three days and it didn’t even register. I expected to feel some kind of discomfort or at least novelty at standing at a sink next to a guy, but I didn’t at all. I was brushing my teeth, he was brushing his, and who cares really?
Maybe it helps that in this bathroom the showers all lock on the inside like toilet stalls, instead of having a curtain. I understand why women might feel vulnerable in the Princeton showers; hell, I feel vulnerable in the Princeton showers, where I’ve been inadvertently walked in on a few times, because it’s just really hard to tell whether it’s okay to push aside the curtain. And that’s in bathrooms that are as rigidly gender-segregated as anything I’ve ever seen.
And so I suppose the moral of the story is, it might not hurt some American students to study abroad, to experience a much less politically fraught attitude to communal student living space. In general I think the less we treat student digs like a culture-war battleground, the better off we’ll be.