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It's a touchy subject on campus: 'sexiled' students

It's what happens when the dorm room gets steamy. One roomie gets a signal to stay away so the other can have a romp. One university's 'no-sexile' rule has some students shaking their heads.

October 03, 2009|Robin Abcarian and Kate Linthicum

When Leslie Lobel was a student at Tufts University in the late 1970s, her dormitory roommates learned a simple code when they wanted to be left alone for a sexual romp:

"There was a dry-erase board, and you would write, 'Come back in 20 minutes.' Sometimes you were locked out, and sometimes you were fortunate enough to be the one locking someone else out."

Students did not rely on rules or handbooks to understand that they needed to figure out how to navigate one simple equation of freshman life: Randy students minus pesky parents equals sexual freedom.

But things are different now at Tufts.

This year's dorm dwellers have a new rule to live by: "You may not engage in sexual activity while your roommate is present in the room," says the book on residential life. "Any sexual activity within your assigned room should not ever deprive your roommate(s) of privacy, study or sleep time."

One is tempted to ask: This needed to be put in writing? If a put-upon roommate is unable to take a stand, does it really help to be able to point to a rule and say (essentially), "I'm telling"?

That, of course, remains to be seen.

Tufts, a liberal arts college near Boston founded in 1852, is believed to be the first university to explicitly forbid sex in the presence of roommates (unless, presumably, the other person is the roommate).

The university amended its handbook in response to about a dozen complaints last year from students who found themselves in situations "that were making them uncomfortable," said Tufts spokeswoman Kim Thurler. "The policy is designed to encourage students to communicate better."

But Ellen Kan, a Tufts sophomore who broke the story about the new policy in the campus newspaper, the Tufts Daily, said: "My general sense is that people here don't think it's necessary. And people don't really think it can be enforced."

Lobel, a 50-year-old Santa Monica mother of two teens, thinks the rule is ridiculous. "Life is about getting along with other people. I feel sorry for the kids for whom this rule is necessary. They communicate by text on everything. Why can't they communicate that?"

Indeed, while the dry-erase board worked in the 1970s, texting has become an indispensable tool for the dorm sex warning systems of today. (Other standbys signifying "go away": ties, scarves, socks or rubber bands draped on doorknobs.)

UCLA sophomore Matt Ishibashi said his friends text code words -- say, "panda" -- and "everybody will know to avoid the room."

It took UCLA freshman Eduardo Rios and his two roommates little time to engineer a warning system after one roommate walked in on another -- how to put this delicately? -- enjoying himself with a young lady.

"We talked about it and decided if you've got company, all you have to do is put a Post-it note on the door that says, 'Busy,' " said Rios, 18. "You don't need a policy for that."

Ishibashi said that, like many other students, he has been "sexiled" -- a neologism of "sex" and "exiled" -- to accommodate a roommate. It was no big deal. "My roommate comes back from a frat party or something with a girl and says, 'Can you guys just leave for awhile?' At college, it's hard to find alone time."

That is especially true at a huge institution like UCLA, which houses nearly 10,000 students in dorms. Most of the 5,000 freshman live in triples that were designed as doubles, said Rob Kadota, assistant director for the Office of Residential Life. (For those keeping score: That means two students may be forced into temporary sexile, not just one.)

Kadota said that his first reaction to the Tufts policy was "a little bit of chagrin. Shouldn't a student be empowered to say, 'Hey, I am uncomfortable with you doing this in the room -- please don't'? Do we need a policy for that?"

At the beginning of the year, UCLA asks dorm roommates to create their own contracts addressing issues such as whether music will be played while students are studying, how late guests can visit and so on. "It gives them permission to talk about points of potential conflict," said Kadota.

When UCLA sophomore Megan Barker, 19, created her contract with roommates, for instance, they agreed that boys would be allowed to sleep over. Her boyfriend, Chris Koo, 19, did the same at his place.

"I was just like, 'Don't do anything nasty when I'm in the room,' " said Koo, who defined "nasty" as any bed-based activity with a "lack of clothes."

UCLA senior Daniel Wang, however, said he didn't think the Tufts rule was such a bad thing. One of his friends had to deal with her roommate having sex while she was trying to sleep.

"She was too scared to do anything about it," said Wang. "I mean, what do you say?"

Sex is not an easy subject to talk about at this age (or any other), said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist who teaches courses on sexuality. The fact that Tufts officials thought that a seemingly simple matter of etiquette had to be spelled out in black and white, she said, is "a sign of the times."

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